The Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM ($399.99 direct) isn’t as sexy as the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM that many pros swear by due to its light-gathering capability and rendering that creates an amazingly shallow depth of field, but at a quarter of the price of its faster sibling it’s a relative bargain. The lens is sharp throughout its aperture range, and like all of Canon’s autofocus lenses, has an internal focus motor for fast, quiet operation. It isn’t quite as sharp as our Editors’ Choice for standard-angle lenses, the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, but the differences between the two lenses aren’t significant enough to make Canon shooters jump ship and invest in a Nikon camera system.
The lens is compact at 2 by 2.9 inches (HD) and fairly light at 10.2 ounces. Like the similar Nikon 50mm f/1.4, it uses 58mm filters and can focus as close as 1.5 feet. The fast aperture will let you create an impressively shallow depth of field, especially at the closest focus, but don’t expect to fill the frame with small objects as you can with a dedicated macro lens. A hood is not included, which is a shame as using one will help to improve contrast and reduce flaring—Canon’s recommended hood, the ES-71 II, adds $35 to the price of the lens. There’s no vibration reduction—the fast aperture should let you keep the shutter speed high. Canon does offer it in other prime lenses, even its wide-angle EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM, which calls its omission here into question.
We used Imatest to check the sharpness of the lens when paired with the full-frame Canon EOS 6D. The lens recorded 1,874 lines per picture height at f/1.4, a tad bit better than the 1,800 lines that mark a sharp photo. Resolution increased to 2,153 lines at f/2, steadily increasing until it peaked at 2,672 lines at f/5.6. There’s about 1.5 percent barrel distortion, which is typical for a 50mm f/1.4 lens—straight lines will curve very slightly outward, but this can be corrected in Lightroom. Canon’s 50mm f/1.2L USM lens shows about the same distortion, and isn’t quite as sharp at f/1.4—it scores 1,744 lines there, but catches up in sharpness by f/4, where it scores 2,600 lines.
Not counting third-party glass, Canon shooters have a trio of 50mm lenses available to choose from—the budget-friendly EF 50mm f/1.8 II ($126), the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, and the top-end EF 50mm f/1.2L USM ($1,619). Full-frame camera owners who appreciate the classic 50mm field of view will be quite happy with the f/1.4 version of the lens—it balances size, cost, speed, and performance. If you have the budget and really want a unique look that extremely shallow depth of field can provide, the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM may be worth the extra cost—but for most shooters, an f/1.4 lens captures ample light. If you’re an APS-C Canon shooter, you may want to consider the EF 28mm f/1.8 or EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens as a fast, standard-angle prime—the 50mm focal length is more suited for head-and-shoulder portraiture on cameras like the EOS Rebel T4i.
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