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 Thursday, September 29, 2016

A wide-aperture 50mm prime lens is a staple in the photographic world. It was often included in 35mm film DSLR kits because of its versatility and familiar angle of view (the focal length approximates how we see the world with our own eyes). With such deep roots, widespread availability, general lack of distortion and the ability to tackle a myriad of situations, it's no wonder why 50mm primes are so popular.

For the purposes of this comparison, we're only going to compare lenses featuring wider-than-f/2 apertures that are capable of autofocus. While there are certainly great manual focus 50mm primes out there (the Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 being one of them), the lack of AF makes them more of a special use tool rather than a versatile, general use prime. And since distortion is generally not very significant in 50mm primes, we won't be comparing that aspect of these lenses.

Let's start at the top and work our way down.

1. Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM

At the top of the list (in terms of maximum aperture and price) is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. This high quality L-series lens has been Canon's top tier 50mm prime for a decade now. Unfortunately, its age is starting to show.

If you need the widest aperture you can get in an EF-series lens, it's your only choice. However, the lens has a "dreamy" quality at its widest aperture. A more specific way to describe the lens is it's a little soft in the center and very soft in the corners wide open. With it, you'll see pretty heavy vignetting until f/2 and chromatic aberrations (CA) will be evident the lens' widest apertures. And on top of that, it's by far the most expensive option in this comparison.

So what are the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM's pros? Although it isn't Canon's fasted focusing USM lens, it is fast enough to be effectively employed for some sports uses. And unlike its longer focal length big brother featuring an identical aperture and all but one other lens in this comparison, the 50L is weather sealed (with a front filter in place).

2. Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art

While the naming convention Sigma uses for its Global Vision Lenses still confounds us, there's no doubt that Sigma's reputation has been bolstered by its Art and Sports series lenses. High quality construction, sleek styling, excellent optics and reasonable price have become hallmarks of the Sigma brand. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art seems to check all of those boxes.

The Sigma 50 Art is impressively sharp wide open and improves to tack sharp across the frame at f/2.8. Vignetting, flare and CA are all well-controlled. One more significant benefit of the 50 Art is Sigma's 4-year warranty (1 + 3 year extension in the US market) compared to Canon's 1-year warranty.

As is too-frequently typical with third-party lenses, you can expect the Sigma 50 Art to focus less consistently accurately than the typical Canon USM lens. While results in One Shot mode may leave you scratching your head from time to time, AI Servo performance is noticeably better. I [Sean] have used the Sigma 50 Art for a number of indoor basketball games and, while not perfect, it performs admirably at the task. That the AF can be customized via the USB Dock is a nice advantage.

If there's a shot you cannot afford to miss (like a bride & groom's kiss at the end of a wedding ceremony), I'd suggest using Live View shooting to minimize the risk of missing focus. As Live View uses data coming from the actual sensor to achieve focusing, phase-detect calibration issues can be avoided.

3. Tamron 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD

Yes, I know that the Tamron 45mm f/1.8 VC doesn't technically qualify to be included in this comparison, but I think it's close enough in focal length to deserve consideration. Along with the 35mm variant, the 45mm f/1.8 VC became Tamron's first in a new series of lenses competing directly against Sigma's Global Vision Lens line (see Sigma GVL hallmarks above). And just like Sigma's GVLs, the Tamron's AF can be customized via a similar USB device. Like the Canon, this lens features weather sealing.

While the Tamron's maximum aperture may have a 2/3 stop narrower aperture than the Sigma, its Vibration Control (a unique feature among its competitors) capable of up to 3-stops of assistance more than makes up for the difference in aperture while photographing static subjects.

The Tamron features nice, relatively even sharpness across the frame wide open and improves noticeably at f/2.8 where results are great with minimal vignetting. Flare performance is good at wider apertures but results are less visually pleasing once stopped down to its narrowest aperture. Chromatic aberrations are decently controlled. The Tamron features the highest maximum magnification (0.29x) among its 50mm prime competitors.

As is too-frequently typical in third party lenses, you can expect less consistent AF results while using the Tamron 45 f/1.8 VC. We found center AF performance quite good (probably the best we've seen from a Tamron), but outer AF point consistency will likely be a problem for many. Just as with the Sigma, use Live View focusing for your fleeting moments using the Tamron.

4. Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

Introduced in 1993, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is by far the oldest lens in this comparison and one of Canon's longest-produced (and still current) lenses. Its price point, wide f/1.4 aperture and better build quality than Canon's f/1.8 variants have made it an attractive investment for many photographers wanting explore the benefits of prime lenses. However, its performance compared to contemporarily designed 50mm primes may be considered lackluster.

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 is very soft wide open across the entire frame but improves greatly at f/2.8. Keep in mind that for those who are stepping up from a kit lens with an f/5.6 maximum aperture at 50mm, the results of the Canon 50mm f/1.4 prime at f/2.8 may be worthwhile considering the 2-stop wider aperture advantage. Vignetting is very heavy at f/1.4 but clears nicely at f/2.8. Flare is very well controlled through f/8 (with a small amount of contrast lost) and minimal at f/11.

With a mid-grade design that's now more than 20 years old, the 50mm f/1.4 USM is not the most durable or stylish 50mm lens. It should stand up well to typical use, though. It features a very attractive price tag compared to the other lenses listed above it in this comparison. However, as far as affordable pricing is concerned, there's another Canon 50mm variant that takes the cake.

5. Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM

Canon's 50mm f/1.8 lenses have been the budget-conscious photographer's introduction to prime lenses for many years. Their newest variant features Canon's STM focusing technology which was developed to produce smooth (and quieter) autofocus results during video capture. And while the AF is not silent, it's significantly quieter than its predecessor (the EF 50mm f/1.8 II).

And speaking of the 50mm f/1.8 II, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM features a long list of upgrades (more aperture blades, higher build quality, STM, higher maximum magnification, etc.) that make it a worthwhile replacement for Canon's most inexpensive lens. Unfortunately, a new optical formula was not one of the upgrades (though new coatings have been employed).

The 50mm f/1.8 STM's sharpness is very similar to the Canon 50mm f/1.4 when both lenses are compared wide open, though the f/1.8 STM is noticeably better in the center. Sharpness improves significantly by f/2.8, but it still lags behind its f/1.4 cousin at the same aperture. The 50 f/1.8 STM features impressive, not-terribly-noticeable-wide-open vignetting results for a lens at its price point. At wide apertures, flare is mild but reduces to virtually nonexistent at f/5.6. Expect minimal CA when using this lens.

Undoubtedly, one of the 50mm f/1.8 STM's most attractive features is its price point. To put it into perspective, you could buy 11 EF 50mm f/1.8 STMs and still have money left over compared to the investment required to add the Canon 50L (at US MSRP) to your kit. If you are a photographer who currently uses one of Canon's 18-55mm kit lenses and wants to experience the benefits that wide-aperture prime lenses have to offer, this lens is an easily justifiable investment.

Before we move on, there are a couple of differentiating factors I didn't address above – size and weight. There is definitely a significant difference between the biggest/heaviest and the smallest/lightest options. If size and weight are a differentiating factor for your photography (especially important when traveling), use the table below to aid in your decision making process.

Size and Weight

LensMeasured Size
(D x L)
Measured Weight
(w/o hood)
Canon 50mm f/1.2L USM3.39 x 2.9”20.8 oz
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art3.36 x 4.25”28.6 oz
Tamron 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD3.19 x 3.93”19.2 oz
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM*2.91 x 2.01”10.2 oz
Canon EF f/1.8 STM2.77 x 1.83”5.6 oz

* Manufacturer specs shown in absence of measured specs.


As you can see, the 50mm(ish), wide-aperture prime lens market is not short on options. The fact that Canon has three 50mm lenses featuring an f/1.8 or wider aperture is a testament to this prime focal length's appeal. And the fact that third party lens manufactures are devoting significant resources to producing high quality 50mm variants is unsurprising for the same reason.

For what it's worth, there isn't one right option when it comes to 50mm primes. The order of your own personal priority list – considering build quality, image quality, AF accuracy, size/weight and cost – will ultimately determine which prime lens deserves a place in your gear bag. I hope the comparison above has helped illuminate the right answer for you.

Post Date: 9/29/2016 11:13:44 AM ET   Posted By: Sean
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