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Review – Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM

Today, I bring you another review of a top-of-the-line prime lens from Canon, the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. Like the previously reviewed (and well-loved) EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM offers extremely large aperture opening that allows maximum depth-of-field control for low-light, portrait, and creative effects for Canon EOS cameras.

ef_5012_1250.JPG

Let’s look at the specs:

Overview

The EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is a peerless new standard lens featuring an ultra-large aperture for a narrow depth of field and soft background blur so loved by photographers everywhere. The EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is suitable for any shooting situation; its lens coating and construction are optimized to minimize the ghosting and flare that frequently occurs when lenses are used with digital cameras. This high-performance, weather-resistant lens delivers all the superb image resolution and contrast you expect in a Canon L Series Lens.

Focal Length & Maximum Aperture 50mm f/1.2
Lens Construction 8 elements in 6 groups
Diagonal Angle of View 46° (with full-frame cameras)
Focus Adjustment AF with full-time manual
Closest Focusing Distance 1.48 ft. / 0.45m
Filter Size 72mm
Max. Diameter x Length, Weight 3.4 in. x 2.6 in./85.4mm x 65.5mm
19.2 oz./545g (lens only)

As you can see from the specifications, this is a rather large lens for the focal length it offers, largely due to the large aperture opening, auto-focus mechanism, and to ensure the lens can withstand real-world abuse through its weather sealing and metal construction.

The lens feel like a mini EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM in your hands, it’s about 20% smaller than the 85, and lighter as well. If you’re familiar with one, you’d be familiar with the other.

ef_5012_1249.JPG

The barrel sandwiches the manual focus ring, distance scale, and auto-focus switch. Unlike the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, manual focusing with the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is direct, not focus-by-wire like the 85mm.

While the lens is designed to be weathersealed, you’ll need a filter to complete that sealing process as the front element of the lens retracts during focusing (front-focusing mechanism). The exterior is sturdy and hefty, you’ll definitely see and feel the quality involved with the lens. The build quality and the glass construction are just excellent with really tight gap tolerances and no wobbles and loose feel when knobs and rings are manipulated. As with all Canon professional prime lenses, it comes with a round hood.

Starting off with the build and exterior aspect of the lens, it’s a substantial chunk of a lens for a 50mm, given that I’ve seen manual focus 50mm f/1.2 from old film cameras before, it’s quite amazing to see how much size and heft goes through a modern AF pro-grade lens.

Looking through the lens, you’ll see a large glass in the front that really improves your viewfinder brightness, especially on smaller cropped sensor viewfinders.

The EF 50mm f/1.2L USM costs a whopping 12x more than the entry level EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II and almost four times more than the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM! Is the price difference worth the extra wide aperture and build? We shall see.

Let’s get one thing straight first. This copy of the lens exhibits the infamous 50L focus-shift quite a bit. The focusing error is apparent even at f/4 so it affected my review by somewhat as this is an expensive lens and a niche lens as well. However, after scrutinizing the shots that are manually focused or correctly focused, the conclusion would be rather the same.

Auto-focus is silent and fast compared to the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM and the EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II, but the EF 50mm f/1.4 feels a little snappier to lock focus. Like the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, the large aperture means that the depth-of-field is very thin especially at closer distances so auto-focus accuracy is more challenging on a non-professional camera body.

The copy that I reviewed back-focuses and shift-focuses and it’s very noticeable from minimum focusing distance to about 10ft distance. This occurs on two different bodies so I can rule out the body issue. Needless to say, is quite disappointing for a lens of this price-point and caliber. The back-focusing can be fixed by calibration, the focus shift doesn’t unless you only stick to one aperture setting.

The image above locked focus at the lion’s head, however, the focus shifted towards the splash-guard about 3 inches behind the subject. Using auto-focus versus manual focus, you can see the focusing difference with the following photos. The target is the first crayon shot near the lens’ minimum focusing distance. When you stop down the lens, the focus will shift ever so slightly.

Auto-focus

Auto-focus

Manual Focus

Manual Focus

Fortunately, manually focusing the lens is a snap with the tactile manual focus ring. Using Live View and manual focus makes precise focusing a snap even at wide open apertures.

On a crop sensor, the 50mm focal length equates to roughly an 85mm crop view, which is quite good for head/shoulder portraits and half-body portraits. It’d be great if it was used on a 1.3x crop or full-frame camera, though as I feel that 50mm on 1.6x crop is neither here nor there in terms of the usual composition for portraits.

Bokeh quality of this lens is almost legendary, and at a rather short focal length compared to an 85mm or longer lens, you can include more specular orbs in your night shots that’ll look really great as accents to your photos.

The rounded 8 aperture blade design gives you great out-of-focus blur even when stopped down to f/5.6 or so.

Round orbs galore

Round orbs galore

Magnification of 1:6.7 is decent at minimum focusing distance but not stellar, it certainly is good enough to shoot a close-up headshot portrait, though.

Vignetting is slightly apparent at wide apertures even on a crop sensor, but disappears when you reach f/1.8 or so on a crop sensor camera, but not very offensive, so to speak. I’d say about 1/3 to 1/2 of a stop at the very edges of the frame.

Lateral chromatic aberration isn’t as bad as the 85, but it’s still pretty bad for a lens of this caliber. The 85 gives you purple fringing, but the 50mm 1.2L gives you a magenta cast. I find the purple fringe less intrusive. Then again, all super large aperture lenses suffer from this.

Sharpness is good but not stellar as the 85mm (even if we’re comparing the in-focus section of the image). At f/2 all the way to f/3.2 or so, the sharpness isn’t that much of a difference from the cheap EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II, and even harder to compare when stacked up against the EF 50mm f/1.4. The EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is tack sharp even at f/1.2, and if you consider that depth-of-field is even harder to control precisely with longer focal length, the 85 is a lot more fun to use than the 50mm.

@f/1.2

@f/1.2

@f/4

Compare the same photo using the EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II versus the EF 50mm f/1.2L. Granted that this is a small image and image quality differences are easier to judge on print, you can see that the entry level f/1.8 is softer than the EF 50mm f/1.2L stopped down to f/1.8. At f/3.5, sharpness differences are more minute but color and contrast are still superior with the EF 50mm f/1.2L.

EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II @ f/1.8

EF 50mm f/1.2L @ f/1.8

EF 50mm f/1.2L @ f/1.8

EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II @ f/3.5

EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II @ f/3.5

EF 50mm f/1.2L @ f/3.5

EF 50mm f/1.2L @ f/3.5

The 50mm f/1.2L however provides much superior contrast, colors, and flare control than its consumer-level siblings.

Like the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, the whole purpose of owning an f/1.2 is the extreme ability to control depth-of-field. Such large apertures allow you to squeeze out the most of your creative skills.

Is the EF 50mm f/1.2L worth the money over the 1.8 and 1.4 consumer variants? My conclusion would be “it depends”.

Clearly, the EF 50mm f/1.2L is designed for the available-light portrait artist in mind. The ability to control foreground/background blur is paramount and the flare control of the lens is exceptional, which is important when you shoot towards a bright, back-lit scene, for example.

The large aperture also allows you to use the lens in incredibly low ambient light environment, and when coupled with a flashgun, the large aperture taxes your flashgun less and allows a much nicer blend of ambient with flash exposures even in high-contrast scenes.

The lens is decently sharp and won’t really disappoint in image quality, but you just feel that you want to be “wow’ed out-of-your-seat” when you have a lens that cost so much. Unlike it’s longer focal length cousin, the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, the EF 50mm f/1.2L is a little less satisfying to use and enjoy when you consider the image output. Again, they’re not bad at all, but you’d want something more from it.

The lens is still a staple for many wedding and portrait professionals and I think it’s still superior than pro-grade zoom lenses in terms of delivering high-clarity images right out of the camera. I’d recommend it if you really know what you’re shooting and you’re making money from it, otherwise, the EF 50mm f/1.4 has a much, much better value-to-performance grade than the EF 50mm f/1.2L. Is the EF 50mm f/1.2L a great lens? Without a doubt, yes, but it’s not 12x or 4x better than its cheaper siblings in the Canon EF line-up and also if you consider the rather frequent focus issues about this lens from other sources.

See the sample images

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