Canon EF 50mm f/1.8: First Impressions

October 24th, 2010

This is a quick review of the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens that I purchased this past week. I’m by no means a pro photographer, but would like to share my impressions.  This is the first lens I’ve ever bought that wasn’t permanently fixed to a camera.

I’ve been slowly easing my way into the world of digital SLR after purchasing a used Digital Rebel XT a couple years ago now from a photographer who was graduating to something snazzier. I used it a little, but I kept coming back to my old Canon S3 IS because I was used to its controls, it was a fair bit smaller, and pretty capable for a non-SLR. I was also never happy with the throw-off lens that came bundled with it; it was an older 35-105mm lens that just never got me excited.

an unstylish bathroom self portrait with my new lens

So I was looking to find a lens that would finally get me using my not so new second hand investment. I heard many recommendations for this particular canon lens: from classmates at school, glowing reviews on the intarwubs, even a guy calling into my call center because his cable was broken.  The main selling point of this lens is the cost. $130 CAD for a Canon lens is extremely low. And what I heard is that there’s not a huge sacrifice in quality to go along with the low price. I’m a bang for my buck sort of guy (aren’t we all?) so this was appealing. I finally picked it up this past Wednesday at Futureshop, where it was on sale for 119.99 (else I would have probably gone to Henry’s just on principle, since I like a little box store)

Because it’s just 50mm, this lens is not going to zoom anywhere. It is what it is. It’s got some zoom built in, too, so its angle is not very wide. Which means strict limits on stunning landscape vistas or close-ups of fruit bats at 550 paces. It’s a portrait lens and that’s what it does best. It chooses its target carefully, caresses it with clarity, and swaths it in layers of bootiful bokeh.  And it gets me excited.

Red leaf green ground

The huge aperture allows a very narrow depth of field (meaning potential for control over blurred background/foreground you lose with the tiny sensors on cell phone and point+shoot cameras). This is huge for me. To me, the ability to control focus with a high level of precision is the primary reason I was interested in getting an SLR. It lets you frame subjects meaningfully against the background, and gives them an edge in dynamics. That’s one of the reasons I became attached to macro mode on my S3 IS (the other being a preoccupation with creating a breathing world out of the miniature). This alone makes the lens worthwhile.

The image clarity and detail on it is very good as well, but I don’t know how obvious that is to the untrained eye (which, as far as those things go, is a category mine probably belong to, though they strain against it).  The other thing that really struck me about the lens was the speed. With an aperture at 1.8 it doesn’t need a whole lot of exposure time to get a good image. Our apartment is basementy and dim, so it can be frustrating to document photographically. Using just the dim compact fluorescent area lights of our living room, though, I was able to get a pretty good shot sans tripod at 1/6 of a second frame-rate . With a nudge up to 400 ISO or a steadier hand I might be able to improve on that.

owl get you

If you couldn’t tell, I’m real satisfied with this here purchase. I’m excited to get out and use it more (so far it hasn’t left my property), and I’m pleased that it didn’t set me back too much financially. While it oftentimes requires more distance between you and your subject than is convenient, it suits the type of photography I prefer specatcularly, and will serve me well in my quest. Surely. Now at some point I’ll have to figure out what lens is next, but that may be a ways down my road. In the meantime I’ll gladly take this beauty on my arm and show it around town.

leaf on step