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by Aditya

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I'm a newbie in the world of DSLR photography, having played around with my Canon 550d for few months. After posting my first question here and getting some superb advices I decided to buy Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens. My primary interest is a street fashion photography. Here you can find my initial results with this gear: my Flickr page.

My question is: is it worth to upgrade the above mentioned lens to Canon 50mm f/1.4? Will the out-of-focus (DoF) area be significantly larger? Also, how much better are photos taken in dark light conditions? For example using my current lens, I rarely can use ISO lower than 800. It would be great to be able to use values as low as 400 or 200.

I would really appreciate some real-world examples that compares those lenses:)

One more thing - if the answer is "no" - what would be your lens of choice that will nicely upgrade my setup.

Thanks.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 44 down vote accepted

Having used both lenses I'd say no it's not worth the upgrade.

The f/1.4 version is two thirds of a stop faster, which means where you'd use ISO 800 before you'd theoretically be able to use ISO 500. That sounds good, however that's only in the centre of the frame, the corners get significantly darker wide open. I rarely use mine wide open so for me there's no advantage.

The 50 f/1.4 is soft wide open. All high aperture lenses are but this one especially so. It also suffers from bloom and longitudinal CA, defects that make the images unacceptable to me. I had heard all this before buying the lens and bought three copies originally (from different retailers, different batches). All performed the same so I don't think there's anything wrong with my lens.

It improves stopped down to f/1.8 and is good at f/2. Conventional wisdom says that you'd be better using the 50 f/1.4 stopped down than the 50 f/1.8 wide open. This is incorrect. Whilst the 50 f/1.4 does improve stopped down, it starts off so soft that it is only equal to the 50 f/1.8 at f/1.8! dpreview's lens tests actually indicate the the 50 f/1.8 is in fact slightly sharper wide open than the other lens stopped down.

Another reason to upgrade is build quality. Whilst the 50 f/1.4 is built better, it's still not as solid as Canon's other mid range lenses. The fact is the 50 f/1.4 doesn't have proper ring type ultrasonic focus motor, it has a micro USM which is no better really than a standard focus motor (though it is a little quieter). Full time manual focus is achieved by a special mechanism designed for the 50 f/1.4 and doesn't feel nearly as nice as the focus rings on genuine USM lenses.

Don't get me wrong, the 50 f/1.4 isn't a bad lens, I've taken many excellent image with it, it's just a pretty small improvement on the 1.8, and given the quality that lens produces compared to it's price tag, it's a bit of a marvel. That's why I'd recommend any Canon shooter to buy that lens even if they rarely shoot in low light. If Canon produced 50mm lens that was 3x better to justify the 3x price it would be one of the best lenses ever made for 35mm!

When compensating for focal length (to get the same field of view) a full frame 35 gives you a depth of field that is about 1.3 stops shallower, much more than the difference between f/1.8 and f/1.4

  • In short, the 50 f/1.4 doesn't justify the price increase over the 1.8, the extra aperture range isn't that useful due to the softness, it's no better optically in the standard range (f/1.8 and up). Build is better but still not "solid".

So having said no I'll offer the following recommendation, get the Sigma 50 f/1.4. It's a more recent lens, built from the ground up to combat many of the problems with fast standard lenses.

  • It has a bigger front element to combat vignetting (dark corners).
  • It's sharper wide open
  • It has a proper ultrasonic focus motor

I can't comment on build quality as I've never handled one, but as a bigger lens all round I would expect it to be a bit more solid. I don't shoot at 50mm enough to buy this in addition to the Canon but if anything happened to that lens I'd get the Sigma in a heartbeat!


edit: if you want to go down the shallow DOF / extreme blur subject isolation route then a bigger sensor may be a better investment than a wider aperture. Used 5D mkI are going fairly cheap these days and they make excellent portrait cameras. Here's an example of the difference, 30D on the left, 5D on the right:

P.S. I looked at your flickr stream - I really like what you're doing with the 50mm f/1.8, esp the "sunset" one! I wouldn't say you needed to have a shallower DOF in any of those shots.

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Matt, fantastic answer, thank you! Going full-frame is not an option for me right now (I would like to explore most of my current camera), so I'll definitely check out the Sigma lens. –  Darius Jan 3 '11 at 14:04
    
I just got the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 the other day and its AMAZING. –  rfusca Jan 3 '11 at 14:09
    
@Darius Here's an example of the Sigma flickr.com/photos/55358132@N05/5314328781 –  rfusca Jan 3 '11 at 14:18
6  
You're out of Tobasco... how sad! –  ahockley Jan 3 '11 at 16:47
2  
@ahockley - Which leads to the followup question: "Is it worth it to upgrade from McIlhenny Tabasco 57 mL to McIlhenny Tabasco 148 mL?" –  anon Nov 12 '11 at 21:24

I think Matt has already done a very good analysis on the differences between the two lenses, so I won't do any gear analysis here.

However, I think you shouldn't be too concerned about using high ISOs. Digital sensors have come a long way and they aren't that bad with high ISOs any more. Sure, dynamic range goes down a bit, but if you have to use higher ISOs, you just have to use it. In fact, exposing to the right and then bringing down the highlights later will result in less noise than using a lower ISO and bringing up the shadows. Looking at your stream, you don't seem to have a problem with dynamic range, so you should try to just use higher ISOs and not worry too much about it.

As mentioned before, going from f1.8 to f1.4 is only 2/3 stops of light, and you can much better compensate that with better technique (e.g. exposing to the right) than getting better gear.

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There are two areas where the EF 50mm f/1.4 is worth the difference over the EF 50mm f/1.8 II.

  • Build quality and durability: The 1.4 is made of higher quality materials and will stand up to heavier use than the 1.8. If you only use a 50mm prime occasionally this is not an issue. If you use it heavily eventually the plastic mount will probably crack. I know more than one Canon shooter who has had that happen.

  • Focus performance/ease of use: While not a true USM ring focus motor, the motor on the 1.4 is noticeably faster than the motor on the 1.8. The 1.4 also has a usable rubber gripped manual focus ring in the barrel of the lens instead of the 1.8's ridges molded into the plastic on the rotating front element. Again, the 1.4 is not quite as smooth as other higher end lenses, but it is far superior to the 1.8 if you use manual focus with your 50mm lens. The 1.8 requires the AF/M switch to be in the M position in order to use manual focus. The 1.4 can be focused manually even when the selector is set to AF.

Whether it is worth it or not for you to upgrade from the EF 50mm f/1.8 II to the EF 50mm f/1.4 depends both on how you use your 50mm lens and on how often you use it. If you only use it every once in a while and rarely use manual focus, it is probably not worth the expense. If you use you 50mm lens a lot and frequently manually focus it, then it may be worth it for you. Having owned both, I'd say that it was worth it for me. Due to the much easier use of manual focus I find I use the 1.4 much more often than I used the 1.8 when it was in my bag.

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1  
what about auto focus? I can't imagine using manual focus unless I have plenty of time. MF just won't work with my kids. –  Max C Mar 10 '13 at 16:11
    
In the body of the answer... "While not a true USM ring focus motor, the motor on the 1.4 is noticeably faster than the motor on the 1.8." MF worked for everyone until the late 1980s because AF didn't exist. Like many skills, it needs to be practiced to be perfected. Viewfinders were larger and brighter in the film era, and the split prism focusing screens helped a lot. –  Michael Clark Mar 11 '13 at 0:29

Matt's analysis can't be beat, so I won't argue with the science. Having owned both lenses (shot with the 1.8 for 3 years, then moved to the 1.4 for the past 4) I have to say that the 1.8 is the best value for your money. However I did find the focussing speed and build quality of the 1.4 worth the move for me. I don't mind a bit of softness when shooting portraits (my main subject - kids) but I have to say it's pretty sharp otherwise. I've had it attached to extension tubes and the results are great (example). Either way you are going to have fun and get great results, I would not agonize too much over it.

Happy Shooting.

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I own the EF50mmF1.4, it is a good lens. However my Dad own the EF50mmF1.8 and there is very little between them when it comes to image quality. For build quality the f1.4 version just edges it.

As an alternative I would consider something like the EF85mmF1.8 in addition to your 50mm, it has the build quality of the EF50mmF1.4, but the image quality of the EF50mmF1.8 at a useful focal length for portraiture.

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Another option might be a different focal length, to expand your options in a different way. On the affordable side, look at Sigma AF 30mm f/1.4 EX HSM DC for a bit wider — I notice a lack of feet in your Flickr stream :) — or the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM for tighter shots.

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