Canon 50mm f/1.4 – Dreamy and Fast

Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM

At $329 new retail, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM is far from the cheapest option in the 50mm focal length options for Canon SLRs (see the full 50mm roundup post here), but it’s got a few standout features that make it a serious consideration. The main thing is that it’s fast as hell. f/1.4 is one of the fastest maximum apertures you can buy at any price, and this particular lens is pretty darn cheap. 

A second key differentiator of this lens is that wide open, it’s somewhat on the softer side and exhibits a noticeable amount of halation (which some people describe as a “dreamlike look”). This may sometimes be a good thing for portraits (or anywhere you might want to add a unique look), as it can soften harsh features and lend a dreamy feel without any post-processing. But if you prefer a more traditional look, stopping the lens down to f/2 or f/2.8 sharpens things up remarkably and gets rid of the halation artifacts.  There is a small amount of light fall-off at the edges of the frame with the aperture wide open (although it’s not noticeable on a crop body), but this is gone by f/2.8.

Tech Specs

Maximum aperture is, obviously, f/1.4, while the minimum is f/22. The glass is 7 elements in 6 groups. The aperture has 8 blades, and the resulting bokeh is very smooth regardless of f-stop. The thread filter diameter is 58mm, and the lens weighs in at 290 grams. The mount is metal, while the body is plastic. The mount type is EF, which fits all Canon EOS cameras (including film SLRs).

For comparison, here it is next to the Canon 35mm f/2 IS:

Sample Photo
Attack of the Drones!

This photo of my DJI Phantom 3 is a great example of the halation effect and the soft, dreamy quality you can get with the lens wide open at f/1.4. I happen to really like this look., as it is somewhat close to the Lensbaby Twist 60 lens (my review is here), which itself is an approximation of a Petzval lens (both of these lenses are designed to have swirly bokeh effects that look like a radial motion blur). But this Canon lens is more useful than either of those one-trick ponies.

The Verdict

This is one of the oldest lenses in Canon’s current lineup (first introduced in 1993), and its underlying technology is also older. It’s not the fastest nor the most accurate nor the quietest in terms of autofocusing, but it holds its own remarkably well for general photography. If you need the speed and like the softer look wide open, it’s hard to go wrong. On the other hand,  if you are looking for a fast lens for video use or just want fairly fast lens with a “straight” look to the finished photos, I would recommend the cheaper Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM instead, as it focuses nearly silently and performs better on autofocus tracking on the newer Canon SLR bodies.

Get it Used and Save some Dough

Here’s a handy link to ebay search results for the Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM. Used is the phrugal way to get gear.