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When I bought my Sony Alpha 7ii in the summer of 2019 I knew I would have a kit lens with it, but to enable me to use my existing Canon and Sigma lenses I also bought an MC-11 Canon-to-Sony adaptor. Despite the initial, pretty expensive, outlay for the MC-11, it has repaid itself by opening up a wider range of lenses to me, without the Sony premium prices.
Whilst I am now looking at upgrading my two old zoom lenses eighteen months later, there is one lens I knew I would be setting out to get right from the start of using my new Sony, and have remained really in love with since I got it.
I had initially planned to get the Canon STM f/1.8 ‘nifty fifty’ due to wanting a 50mm fixed prime, and the nifty fifty has a great price for what you get; but I happened to get lucky because the shop I was in had a decent range of second-hand lenses, and by chance had a Canon USM f/1.4 50mm in stock, in great condition, for less money than the STM. I bought it and it hasn’t done wrong by me yet.
For context, my range of lenses include my Sony 28-70mm zoom which came with the camera, and my old Sigma/Canon 70-300mm zooms from the days of my Canon EOS 600d (I happen to have ended up with two second hand versions of the same lens). However, I also carry, shoot choice dependent, a Sigma HSM f/2.8 105mm macro prime, Tamron SP USM f/5-6.3 150-600mm super telephoto zoom and my 50mm friend. I have a weakness for nice lenses, and as a generalist photographer I like to have choices.
For anyone new to photography, prime lenses have a fixed focal distance; you ‘zoom’ in or out by literally moving yourself and the camera closer to, or further away from, your subject. Despite the convenience of a zoom lens, meaning you can go in close or further away without moving and are able to shoot at a wide choice of angles on a day out, prime lenses tend to produce sharper, better quality photos with a wide aperture range, providing photos sharp in the back ground or foreground, as well as those with background soft and out of focus bokeh (those lovely fuzzy shapes) with equal ease.
As the focal length of a lens becomes shorter you can take in a wider view making these lenses perfect for landscapes, whilst longer focal lengths give you the details on distant objects as shown below with a view from my two kit lenses.
I was told however, that 50mm approximates the field of view of the human eye, so a 50mm lens is great for learning skills with as it teaches you to visualise your scene and find creative ways to achieve the look you want. I’ve found the Canon USM f/1.4 50mm an absolutely amazing little lens, and if it isn’t on my camera when I am out it can often be found in my bag.
So, first up the cons however, as I may as well get them out of the way; the USM f/1.4 version of the Canon 50mm lens is well over twice the price of the STM 1.8, and it’s also got an extra 100g in weight over the f/1.8. Since I have no experience using the STM f/1.8 though, my comparisons are going to end here, as I can only focus on the lens I have experience with.
The Canon USM f/1.4 50mm (afterwards just referred to as the 50mm) is a compact, stubby style of lens, with a bit of a fat boy bulge to it; despite it’s slightly hefty feel for a lens of it’s size it is still shorter than a lot of kit lenses, and light enough to not feel heavy or bulky on your camera. I find that, aside from the fact that the MC-11 adaptor gives it extra length on my Sony, it is still quite small when being taken out without any other kit, especially on a mirrorless camera, which allows it to be quite subtle and unobtrusive for the street photography genre – something I have used it for.
Until I can spring for a small 35mm or a pancake lens it remains the most unobtrusive lens in my arsenal. A reminder for anyone not using full frame, that the 1.4x crop factor means you have an 80mm lens in real terms on a APS-C sensor, for any camera that isn’t full frame. I personally have it on my full frame Sony, utilising it’s 50mm length, but for anyone on a crop sensor the 80mm length and soft bokeh would make it perfect for portraiture.
The lens doesn’t have in body stabilisation, but I don’t really find this an issue the way I would on a longer focal length or heavier lens like my Sigma 105mm macro, owing to the relatively small size and weight of the 50mm. The extra weight difference between the Canon USM 50mm and the STM 50mm comes from it’s additional glass element that isn’t found on the STM, which is designed to reduce distortion and astigmatism, but brings the added bonus of a proper focusing ring with a distance scale. I have found this really handy during night photography, allowing me to be sure I am properly focused to infinity, and that the focus ring has not been knocked or shifted between shots.
My kit lens by contrast, despite its wide angle focus which would make it a usual choice for night photos, has a significantly narrower minimum aperture and has I don’t find it’s focus capability particularly special. On the few occasions I’ve used it I have come home with a screen full of soft yellow blobs in the sky. The 50mm might take in less sky but it picks up simply beautiful detail of the stars.
But what of the other main photography genres? Well, the focusing is quiet and rapid due to the ultrasonic motor, and I have used it for panning shots of birds or capturing them in mid-flight, landing, or taking off at the local lake with quite a measure of success. The sharpness is generally just insane ay most of the apertures, which makes the feather detail beautiful and with minimal, if any, chromatic aberration.
However, unless I am standing on the bank capturing nearby water-birds, it would not be a choice to capture wildlife, and for these days I either switch to my other workhorse, my 70-300mm or, for ‘proper’ birding, I would take my behemoth 150-600mm out on a tripod.
But for capturing nearby birds in flight, that fast focus ability and wide aperture on the 50mm means you can shoot at higher speeds, and I can capture shots on the 50mm that would leave my bigger lenses still hunting for the focus spot. I have included a few images below of water drops on a swan’s beak as well as some water splashes from my dog and kids playing.
I can also capture landscape views with a high measure of success, and have taken some beautiful sunrise and sunset shots with it at Hackpen Hill and Avebury respectively, where I was able to capture the rolling hills around Hackpen, and the gorgeous leading lines of the Ridgeway just beautifully, as well as picking out the individual standing stones of Avebury against the background, either at a lovely, sharp, mid range aperture, or with that magnificent bokeh with the blades wide open.
Although I possibly would switch to my kit lens for full landscapes owing to it’s wider field of view, the 50mm is no slouch and has given me some lovely views of local beauty spots in my area. Used at ground level the effect on the depth of field is amazing and reinforces the fact that the 50mm really gives you the opportunity to frame your shots more creatively.
For close up shots however, despite it’s short minimum focus distance of 45cm, I find the 50mm falls down here on any capture of minibeasts and similar. There are pretty good workarounds to this however with macro attatchments, and I often carry a Raynox macro adaptor in my bag if I want to do general photography, but also be prepared for macro opportunities without the hassle of changing lenses. The Raynox is a bugger to get used to, and will probably get it’s own review later; but once you hit that sweet focus spot, if you can get your lighting right the combination of the Canon USM f/1.4 50mm and the Raynox actually nails it, as you can see from some of these pictures. The lens has 8 aperture blades are arranged in a circular shape which gives the most superb bokeh effects like the photo below. I do find that at the wide open apertures like f/1.4 the focus becomes a bit on the soft side, but that can be ideal dependent on the image you want. The image of the rose, taken with the 50mm alone really benefits from that look, as do the macro shots of the icy spider web with the background blur.
I’ve already mentioned the possibilities of the lens for street photography owing to it’s unobtrusive size and pin sharp images, but even without the crop sensor length of 80mm the 50 stands up really nicely for portraiture, and I often just practice at home with it taking photos of my kids or my dog. Again you can see that very wide open aperture running on the soft side, but even accounting for that it gives lovely detail to the subject, balanced out with that sublime bokeh.
Lastly, although there are many more genres I could discuss, I find it a mixed bag when it comes to indoor photography. It is just too long a focus length for decent photos of the inside of buildings and you would want a wider angle capability, which is a real shame because that wide open aperture capability could be a real boon in low light situations. I would probably still take it with me when looking at architecture, since it has it’s possibilities depending on the dimensions of what you are shooting.
For still life or food photography, the sharpness of the images is why I often have it sat by my tripod and light box at home, to pull out for practice whenever I am of a mind to do some of these sessions. It does often force me to have to stand at strange angles to get the image framed right however, where my kit lens’ zoom abilities would stand me in good stead, but I will often take the trade off for the 50mm’s impressive capabilities, that my kit lens simply cant match.
In short (after an actually very long review), I wouldn’t be without this lens in my arsenal. It goes with me on most shoots as there are just so many options I can use it for. With it’s great build quality you are getting what you pay for as well, so if you get the chance to spring for a nifty fifty but can afford the extra dollar its a no brainer to pick up the Canon USM f/1.4 50mm.
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