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Review – Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II

The Cheapest Canon Prime Lens

When we speak of lenses of legendary status, we usually refer to rare and/or expensive lenses that has come and gone throughout the years. Rarely can we find a lens that’ll give us great images that we’re willing to buy without giving up a year’s worth of gas money. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II will not only give you great images, it also cost less than half a week’s worth of gas money! Now that’s legendary in my book.

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From Canon Specifications:

Features

* Diagonal Angle of View: 46°

* Lens Construction (elements/groups): 6/5

* No. of Diaphragm blades: 5

* Minimum Aperture: 22

* Closest Focusing Distance (m): 0.45

* Maximum Magnification (x): 0.15

* AF Actuator: MM

* Filter Diameter (mm): 52

Compact and high-performance, standard lens

This is the lightest EF lens of all at a mere 130g. Compact and high-performance, standard lens. Its Gaussian optics provide sharp delineation from near to far focusing distances. The color balance is excellent for a standard lens.

Before we begin, I have to remind you to be reasonable, be logical. There’s no reason to complain about the build quality, focus speed/noise, or comparing it to pro-grade lenses when you’re probably paying more for a UV filter than this lens. If you have the money to buy higher-end lenses, you shouldn’t even be looking at this lens in the first place.

But if you’re a budget conscious photographer or a light-packing traveler, the EF 50mm f/1.8 Mark II offers more than what the price tag suggests.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

Build Quality

The lens is made of plastic all-over, including most of the inner part of the lens. With only the glass, inner barrel and electrical contacts as main non-plastic parts, the lens is light, but doesn’t have the solidity that metal screw joined pieces. The seam between the focus ring and the barrel tends to be the first to give as it is merely pressure fitted. The lens mount is completely plastic, but with the lens’ light weight, it’s hardly an issue.

Image by RJ Evaristo

The manual focus ring is hardly usable, it’s so thin, you probably won’t even know there is a manual focus ring.

My copy has a tiny bubble within the glass as well (bright white spec in the photo below), nothing that affects the photographs, but annoying to look at as well. This is clearly a manufacturing defect when the glass itself is being made, it’s the first time I’ve seen such a defect from my lens experience (from old manual lenses to current AF ones).

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I could’ve asked Canon to replace it, but since it didn’t affect my images, I didn’t bother.

Color and Contrast

I’m not sure what sort of lens design dictates this, but when shot at wider apertures, the images EF 50mm f/1.8 II has noticeably less “popping” colors and contrast than more complex lenses. My guess is from less-optimized lens coatings, but I’m just guessing.

You’ll find yourself adding contrast a little more, whether in-cam or during post-process. Nothing serious though, with negative film it’s not as apparent, but with digital, it’s a little more obvious compared to other lenses from Canon.

Rough “[tag]Bokeh[/tag]” or Out-of-Focus Quality

With it’s 5-aperture blade design, out-of-focus elements are rendered as pentagonal shapes rather than round blobs. This isn’t really a big deal, but for large-aperture lenses, smooth bokeh is often considered a characteristic that a lens has to provide. With a simplistic 5-blade design, it may not provide pleasing OOF appeal for some users.

For me, that’s about it. The strengths of this lens far outweighs those three factors above.

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The lens’ optical strength is clearly about sharpness. This lens is incredibly sharp, sharper than some of the more popular professional L zoom lenses that Canon offers.

Optimally, the lens should be stopped down to f/2.8 or so for absolute sharpness, but even at f/1.8, it is more than acceptable. If there’s a price-to-sharpness table, no other auto-focus can beat this lens regardless of brand and era.

At f/1.8, it is a nice low-light photography. You’ll sacrifice depth-of-field by quite a bit since you’ll be using the lens’ widest aperture, but the ability to shoot without flash while utilizing a reasonably fast shutter speed is something most new photographers need to experience to appreciate fast lenses.

The lens is incredibly small and light, as mentioned previously. The lens is so light that it can barely be called as a 2nd lens. I usually just pocket this lens when I’m carrying another lens.

I don’t know if I’m just lucky, but I’ve never been a guy who handles things gingerly. I have little regard for preserving cosmetic conditions on my camera gears and the EF 50mm f/1.8 II never received any special treatment for its supposed poor build quality. In fact, this is the most frequent lens that my 4-year-old son and my 9-year-old niece use when they use my film or digital SLR.

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I’ve knocked this lens off the pavement and walls, stored it in plastic bags when I travel, use it in the rain, use it for macro photography etc. Oh, I don’t use a filter on this lens as well unless I’m shooting in the rain. My 50mm has been with me for almost two years now, it’s still fine. I guess lenses last longer when used than being stored in a dry cabinet.

The best purpose of this lens is for portraits. On a crop sensor camera, the effective focal length would be around 80mm, which is about perfect for head-and-shoulder portraits. The ability to throw the background out-of-focus while selectively focusing on the subject’s eye will make your subject’s portraits pop off the print. On a 35mm full-frame, this lens will provide you the classic “normal” field-of-view that is flexible enough for street photography and casual portraits alike.

Did I mention the lens is cheap? I got my copy for P3,500 (US$80, SG$110) from Canon Philippines two years ago. I’ve committed myself to use the lens exclusively for almost a year. The images I got in those 10+ months were not only priceless, but also made me appreciate photography so much more, as I’ve mentioned in my previous article. Those aspects alone are worth so much more than the lens itself. There’s virtually zero-guilt when you buy this lens, and as soon as you’ve taken your first decent photo with it, you’ve already recouped your purchase.

Why not buy one from Amazon now? They have a great deal going right now for this Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens.

Whether or not you need this lens, I still strongly suggest you buy one. Not only is it a wonderful value, it will also open your eyes to what prime lenses offer, how prime lenses can fast-track your skills in photography composition, and set a great benchmark of what kind of image a good lens should deliver when you have the chance to invest on more expensive lens. Take a look at the gallery.

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