Introduction

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is one of four 50mm prime lenses that the company manufactures for the immensely popular EF mount. Released in mid 1993, the lens is not the fastest prime in Canon's arsenal (that title belongs to its 50mm f/1.4L USM and 85mm f/1.4L USM cousins), but at about US$300 (as of June 2007) it is quite affordable when compared to its more expensive L cousins.

The lens construction consists of 7 elements in 6 groups. The build quality of the lens is pretty decent - outer lens barrel is made of hardened plastic but looks and feels much more solid then the flimsy EF 50mm f/1.8 II. The lens sports a Micro USM AF system as well as full-time manual focus. Aperture control is electronic and has to be set from the camera. The focus ring is rubberized and rotates smoothly. The inner cam of the lens extends slightly when focusing towards closup, so unlike its L brethren, Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is not a true IF design (read - potentially more dust inside over time). The good news is that the inner cam does not wobble whatsoever.

The minimum focusing distance is 45cm (1.5ft) and the filter thread is 58mm (front element of the lens does not rotate, so you will be able to use polarizing filters). The lens is not as light or compact as its cheaper EF 50mm f/1.8 II variant, but certainly nowhere close to the bulky EF 50mm f/1.2L USM - measuring 73.8x50mm (2.9x2in) and weighing 290g (10.2oz).

 

Image

 

On APS-C type cameras with 1.6x crop factor the field of view of the lens resembles that of a 80mm lens on a full-frame camera. The lens accepts ES-71II lens hood and is compatible with EF 12 II and EF 25 II extension tubes. If you want to use gelatin filters, you will have to rely on an optional 58mm Gelatin Filter Holder III or IV. The factory box includes Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens, front and rear caps, manual and registration/warranty card.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 7 elements in 6 groups
Angular Field 46 degrees
Minimum Focus 45cm/1.5ft
Focusing Action AF/MF, USM
f-stop Scale f/1.4-f/22, camera-controlled
Filter Size 58mm
Lens Hood ES-71II (optional)
Weight 290g/10.2oz
Dimensions 73.8x50.5mm/2.9x2"
Lens Case LP1014 (optional)

 

Field Tests

The lens performed quite well in the field - images were somewhat soft at f/1.4 (both in the center and around borders), but the performance improved with stopped down aperture. From f/2.8 I could not see much difference between this 50mm lens and Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM which I used for visual comparison. As is common for most Canon lenses, colors were somewhat on the warmer side, but nothing alarming here. Bokeh was pretty smooth, thanks to that large maximum aperture.

 

Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs 1.6x crop
Vignetting @ f/1.4 - full frame vs 1.6x crop

 

On a slightly negative side, I noticed that AF hunts occasionally when trying to focus on objects at close distances. The lens was also somewhat prone to chromatic aberration with wide open aperture with both APS-C and FF cameras. Vignetting at wide apertures was non-existent on APS-C but more pronounced on a full-frame sensor. The lens showed no visible barrel distortion, which comes as a no surprise for a 50mm lens.

 

ISO 100, 1/3200, f/1.4, 50mm (100% crop)
ISO 100, 1/3200, f/1.4, 50mm (100% crop)
Sample images coming soon

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for both types of cameras.

 

Canon APS-C: The lens showed very solid performance in the lab - both center and borders were tack sharp from f/2.8 through the rest of the tested aperture range (with peak balanced performance from f/2.8 through f/8). Performance at f/1.8 was quite decent in the center, but rather average around borders, but f/1.4 was clearly the weakest link, with mediocre center and border performance. At its peak, the lens would produce outstanding 19in and decent 24in prints. Conclusion? Forgetting the (relatively) weak performance with wide open aperture, Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM is an amazingly solid performer that would easily give a run for its money to the more expensive (and slightly faster) Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM.

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 50mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 50mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm

 

The lens exhibited moderate to low levels of chromatic aberration on an APS-C type camera. Wide open at f/1.4, CA did not exceed 0.4px in the center and 0.6px around borders. Once stopped down to f/2.8, CA becomes even less pronounced.

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

 

Canon FF: On a full-frame body the lens did not fare well at wide apertures. Center performance at f/1.4 and f/1.8 was decent and once stopped down to f/2.8 outright exceptional. Unfortunately, border quality fell apart at f/1.4 and f/1.8. Only once stopped down to f/2.8 border quality improves and remains pretty solid from f/4 through the rest of the aperture range. Conclusion? There were no miracles here and the lens that did not perform quite well around borders with wide aperture settings on an APS-C camera showed even worse performance on a full-frame body. Nevertheless, the lens should not be dismissed just because of that - performance from f/2.8 is quite impressive.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 50mm

 

Chromatic aberration on a full-frame body was slightly more pronounced around borders at f/1.4 and f/1.8 (~2px on average), but once stopped down to f/2.8 becomes barely noticeable (~0.7px).

 

Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8
Image borders @ 50mm (100% crop): f/1.4 vs f/8

 

Alternatives

As mentioned earlier, Canon manufactures three other 50mm fixed focal lenses in the EF mount. If you require that extra speed, consider Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM (review), which sports superb build quality and excellent overall performance. Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (review) is undoubtfully the best value for your money, considering its extremely low price tag and excellent image quality (assuming that you're not bothered by the subpar build quality of this lens). And if you intend to do some macro work, consider Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro. Outside of the Canon camp, you might want to take a look at Sigma's MACRO 50mm f/2.8 EX DG, which probably should be considered as an alternative to Canon's 50mm compact macro rather then to EF 50mm f/1.4 USM.

 

Recommendation

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM should probably be considered the best alternative among Canon's four 50mm lenses (in terms of value for the money, overall performance and capabilities). While not as fast as its more expensive 50mm f/1.2L USM variant, this lens performs as well (if not better) pretty much throughout comparable aperture range. Considering that some of the negatives (such as the presence of CA at wide aperture settings and vignetting) are also plaguing its faster brethren, photographers should carefully consider whether paying 4x for a 'slightly' faster lens makes sense.