There are a bevy of 50mm lenses available on the market now, and historically it’s been the most popular focal length for 35mm cameras (and the dSLRs they spawned). A comparison of all the options can be daunting, but following is a summary of some the best-selling (and cost-effective) lenses for Canon cameras. You don’t have to spend a lot to get excellent performance.
A Good Portrait Lens?
On an APS-C (crop) body, definitely. The full-frame equivalent angle of view of 50mm lenses on crop bodies is approximately 75mm for Nikon bodies and 80mm on Canon bodies. Around 80mm (or the equivalent on crop bodies) is a great short portrait focal length, and is often used for torso-and-up portraits. You can get enough distance from your subject to create separation from the background and generate that good background blur, but it’s still short enough to easily hand-hold without studio lighting.
On full-frame bodies, 50mm is a little short for portraits, but can be used in pinch. The reason it’s not an ideal focal length for portraits on a full-frame body is that in order to get a tight shot of the subject’s head and shoulders, the camera must be much closer the subject. Getting closer in to a subject can cause certain facial features to be exaggerated, and generally is not as flattering. It’s worth a shot (pun intended) however, and may work just fine in certain situations.
Why So Cheap?
It’s not because 50mm is an unpopular focal length. The short answer is: Because for a variety of reasons, it simply costs less to manufacture the 50mm focal length for 35mm frame/sensor size. A longer, more technical explanation is available here, if you care to dig a little deeper.
And, they can be even cheaper if you buy used! Here’s an ebay link to buy-it-now used 50mm autofocus lenses.
Good, Fast, Cheap: You Can Have All Three
The old saying goes “Good, Fast, Cheap: pick any two”. But in this case, you really can get all three in one lens. For the budget-minded photographer, 50mm is where value meets quality. There are a variety of lenses in this value sweet-spot that deliver high image quality and have very wide apertures. Following is a list of bang-for-buck 50mm lenses that are easy to find on major online retail and auction sites, as well as local camera stores and even pawn shops.
Although Canon has replaced the 50mm f/1.8 II with a newer version, you can still find these new-in-box all over ebay and Amazon for about $100. And used, they can be had for around $55 (sometimes less).
Even wide open, this lens is quite sharp in the center of the frame, and most people think the bokeh (background and foreground blur) is pleasing to the eye. It sharpens up really nice at f/2.8 and still has a really pronounced out-of-focus background. At f/4 and above, edge sharpness really starts to pick up. I find that keeping this lens at around f/5.6 makes it a total beast for urban / street photography, especially on a full-frame sensor: it’s razor sharp and still has a respectably narrow depth of field. On a crop body, f/4 is the all-around sweet spot, in my opinion. However, you don’t buy a fast lens to just use it stopped down 2 or 3 full stops; you buy it to run it wide open, at least a good portion of the time. And this lens is one that performs quite admirably wide open.
However, build quality on the 50mm II is a little flimsy. The body is entirely plastic, including the lens mount. Because the mount flange repeatedly gets a lot of torsion from mounting and unmounting the lens, this is a common area of failure on this lens model. It’s a very light lens, and it just feels less substantial than many of its peers. Additionally, the front element moves in and out as the camera changes focus, which does change the distance to the subject. This is more important for close-up work, but it is a factor to consider. Also, the whole front element turns as it focuses, meaning you will have to focus and then readjust a circular polarizer filter.
If you’re really broke, consider the Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 (available in Canon and Nikon mounts), which retails *new* for $50. It is a detail-for-detail clone of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II described just above, and it performs almost identical in just about every way. It uses the same plastic construction, has the same 5-blade aperture, and utilizes the same type of low-tech focus motor.
The main difference between these lenses is that the Yonguo tends to be a little sharper wide open. If you need to shoot fine detail and do 100% crops (i.e. – pixel peeping), the Yonguo will likely perform better.
This is the latest/greatest budget 50mm prime lens from Canon. Current street price is ~ $125, used is under $100. The STM designation means the focusing motor is a STepper Motor, rather than Canon’s storied USM (UltraSonic Motor) focusing motors. The STM line of lenses is targeted at amateur photographers and budding-to-advanced videographers, as the STMs focus even quieter than the USM lenses (which can easily be heard focusing in video). In addition to being quieter, the focusing is also slightly slower and noticeably smoother (visually). For video, this is much more aesthetically pleasing than the high-speed herky-jerky focusing of USM. But for sports or other high-speed subjects, USM is the clear winner. And for general use applications, most people won’t notice much difference between USM and STM focusing motors.
Is the 50mm STM better than its predecessor (described just above)? I think so. Overall sharpness is comparable in the center of the frame, and in my tests is better near the edges. This is more pronounced on a crop body, since the edges are cropped out quite a bit. Also, the STM has 7 aperture blades vs 5 blades on the 50mm II, meaning that the bokeh on the STM is more natural looking (i.e. – you won’t see pentagonal bokeh when stopped down to F/2.8 and higher). Focusing is very accurate and surprising fast, and, as mentioned above, just about silent (which matters when focus tracking during video capture).
In terms of build quality, the STM blows away the 50mm II in just about every way. The mount is metal (vs plastic), the whole assembly is smaller, and overall it just feels more substantial. My only gripe is that the filter thread diameter is 49mm, which seems unnecessarily small and is not a historically common size for Canon lenses (meaning you will likely need to buy a new circular polarizer and other filters just for this lens, instead of being able to swap between other budget lenses with the more common sizes of 52mm or 55mm). Also, the focus ring is a little small (narrow), but much better than the 50mm II.
This is a great lens to have in your bag, even if you don’t shoot it often. It’s cheap, well-built, takes surprisingly sharp photos, and is a very fast option in sub-optimal lighting conditions.
Stepping up in price a bit is the 50mm f/1.4 USM. At $329 retail, it’s quite a bit more expensive than its focal length peers above, but still cheap enough to be in the “budget” category.It sports a respectable build quality, respectable autofocus performance, overall great image quality, and is an extremely “fast” lens. The difference between f/1.8 and f/1.4 may not sound like much, but the Canon 50mm f/1.4 captures 3/4 of a stop more light (almost double the light!) than the less expensive f/1.8 lenses. In certain situations, this could be the difference between a sharp photo and a soft, blurry mess. Full review is here.
This is something of an outlier, but it’s a fun and inexpensive option (~$50) for the photographer who delights in oddball lenses on the cheap.
The Zenitar 50mm f/2 comes in M42 screw mount, but can be used with almost any mounting system through the use of an adapter. The bokeh is quite smooth and to me very pleasing to the eye. Full review is here.
This is not at all a budget lens, but I’m including it here for reference. The build quality on the 50mm L far exceeds the other lenses mentioned in this post (weather sealing, all metal construction, etc). And it should be, considering the high price tag: $1899 for a USA warranty model; $1349 for international warranty (grey market). You can buy used grey market copies for under $1000. Image quality is very good, but not significantly better than the the 50mm f/1.4. And at f/2.8 and wider, the cheaper options are often sharper. Bokeh is very smooth, but again, not 5x or 10x as smooth as less expensive 50mm lenses. This lens is definitely a case of diminishing returns as price escalates. It’s very nice, but not what I would consider a good value. But if you just have to have “L glass”, this one is it. Also, it looks totally badass, and that simply cannot be disregarded.