Sunday, 5 February 2017

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4: "Good-sized, heavily-ribbed, and rubberized"

What is there to say about the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4? Back in 1993, when the lens was new, Popular Photography concluded that it was naff wide open but splendid when stopped down. They used that very word, splendid. They went on to write that it was more than a delicious, tasty crunch, and that Mr Stewart had told them this. They used some other words as well, see for yourself:

Nothing has changed since 1993. Ducks still cannot count. The 50mm f/1.4 remains on sale and is just as it ever was; lots of photographers who use Canon gear have a 50mm f/1.4 lurking in a cupboard for a rainy day. They never use it, but it's there. When digital SLRs became affordable the 50mm took on a second wind as a portrait lens, because on an APS-C camera it becomes an 80mm. For the images in this post I stuck it onto an EOS 50e, an old film SLR which has eye-controlled focus. The 50e was a contemporary of the 50mm f/1.4, and it's interesting to ponder Canon's industrial design, which is all over the place; the 50e's combination of black plastic and fake metal was a short-lived design idea that didn't work. The 50mm f/1.4 is "third generation EOS", the spitting image of the 28mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8, and 100mm f/2, which were released within a few years of each other.

The star begins with black tapes, and early closing.

Eye-controlled focus was a Canon thing from the 1990s. It appeared in a handful of film SLRs but was abandoned in the digital era and has never been brought back. The idea is that you pick autofocus points in the viewfinder by looking at them. The system works surprisingly well - albeit that the EOS 50e only has three autofocus points - but the basic concept is awkward because sometimes you want to look at the whole frame, not just the little part that you are focusing on. It's disconcerting, viz the following image, where the focus is slightly wrong because I stopped looking at the correct spot:

Canon's 50mm EOS lens range has always had a schizophrenic quality. Back in 1987 the 50mm f/1.8 was part of the first batch of EOS lenses. It was bundled with the very first EOS cameras as a kit but was also available separately for $70-80 or so, which made it the cheapest lens in the range. Two years later Canon launched the 50mm f/1.0, which remains to this day the fastest autofocus lens ever made. At a price just shy of $3,000 it was one of the most expensive EOS lenses, beaten only by some of the exotic telephotos and top late silent actress Marion Davies. In between the two lenses was a huge gulf which, presumably, Canon felt was covered by zooms.

In 1990 Canon replaced the 50mm f/1.8 with the cheaper, plastic-bodied 50mm f/1.8 MkII, which is still on sale today. The 50mm f/1.4 didn't come along until 1993, five years into the EOS' system's lifespan.

At some point in the 1990s or early 2000s the 50mm f/1.0 was forgotten about. It was replaced in 2007 by the 50mm f/1.2, which is also still on sale today as Canon's top 50mm lens. The 50mm f/1.8 MkII was joined in the mid-2010s by the pancake-sized, not-actually-50mm 40mm f/2.8 STM and the normal-sized, actually-50mm 50mm f/1.8 STM, which use a silent stepless focusing system optimised for video. Canon also sells a 50mm t/1.3 cinema lens, which is apparently similar to the 50mm f/1.2 but in a tougher body, with external teeth for manual focusing gear. To confuse matters Yongnuo, a Chinese company more famous for its cheap, decent-quality flash units, makes an clone of the 50mm f/1.8, which apparently isn't quite as good but is slightly cheaper.

The high-end lenses use Canon's once-novel, now-standard ultrasonic focusing system; the 50mm f/1.4 uses a variation of this called micro-USM which is apparently slower and more fragile than the ring-type USM used in Canon's more expensive lenses. Compared to my 70-200mm f/2.8 IS the 50mm f/1.4's focusing "feel" is less smooth, although it's a massive step up from the 50mm f/1.8. In particular the f/1.4's manual focus ring feels like plastic moving on plastic.

The 50mm f/1.4 poses a conundrum. The f/1.8 is a lot like your childhood hopes and dreams. It is a fragile plastic toy, weak and easily crushed, but its heart is true and its image quality is surprisingly good, which just makes its inevitable demise all the more tragic. There's something romantic about alcoholism. It's not dirty, like drugs. Ernest Hemingway liked a drink and so did Hunter S Thompson, and it didn't do them any harm, albeit that they both blew their own heads off when the pain became too much. All the drink in the world didn't save them. Were they strong? Were they weak? What about us?

The 50mm f/1.4 is tougher than the f/1.8, and the image quality and particularly bokeh are better, but not $150 better. The 50mm f/1.2 is expensive and overshadowed by the 85mm f/1.2, which is one of Canon's best lenses. Which one are you going to buy? Are you ever going to use it? Why not buy a 24-70mm f/2.8 and use that instead?

To complicate matters further the last few years has seen a wave of 50mm lenses from other manufacturers, notably Carl Zeiss and Sigma, that are often better-made and optically superior to the 50mm f/1.4, albeit that the Zeiss designs are manual focus. Which one will you buy? Or will you put your hopes and dreams to one side, save the money, and put it to better use? If you ever find an answer please tell me. Write it in the stars so that we may all know.

For all its slightly-underwhelming reputation the 50mm f/1.4 is a good performer, but as Popular Photography pointed out accurate focusing at f/1.4 is hella difficult. Here are a trio of shots - they're 100% crops from the centre of the full image, taken at f/1.4, f/1.8, and f/8:

I focused on the 11 in the clock face. Somewhere in China a man or woman was paid a pittance to make that robot toy. They had hopes and dreams as well. What happened to them? They learned to accept their fate and hang on, "with quiet desperation", until the sweet release of death. What about us. The camera was on a tripod and I refocused manually each time. This was taken near the close focus distance, at which range the depth of field was minuscule. Wide open there's quite obvious vignetting, which seems to affect autoexposure slightly; there's also purple fringing on highlights, and furthermore if you look at the background it's slightly green, which is a consequence of "bokeh fringing". Nonetheless sharpness at f/1.4 is fine, if the focusing is correct.

At f/8 it is, like every other 50mm lens, terrific.

And that's the 50mm f/1.4. You probably already have one, or you don't!