The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II autofocus lens is affectionately referred to as the "nifty fifty". It's small, it's light, it does not cost much and it enables wonderful photos. The large f/1.8 maximum aperture is great for shooting in low light and achieving selective focus.
Image Quality & Performance
The EF 50mm f/1.8 II gets very good image quality, and when you take its price into account -- $99 -- it has astounding image quality for the price. One of the first things many people notice about this lens is its sharpness. Its results at f/1.8 are decent in terms of sharpness, but that's often magnified by the selective focus. Shooting at an f/1.8 aperture creates blurred out-of-focus backgrounds which can make the subject really pop out of the photo. This is often a very impressive result for photographers who have never used a lens such as this.
The quality of the blur in out-of-focus areas is not great. The shapes and highlights can often appear to be harsh. This is a side effect of the lens' internal construction, and you won't see improvement until you spend more money on expensive lenses.
The focusing capabilities of the 50mm f/1.8 II in extremely dim environments is not good. This lens does not have USM, which is short for Ultrasonic Motor, Canon's high performance auto focus system. It does auto focus, but tends to hunt around and have trouble finding your subject in low light. Switching to manual focusing helps, but the focusing ring is very small and EOS digital cameras make it difficult to accurately see focus at wide apertures through the viewfinder without a special focusing screen which is sold separately.
One slick way to deal with a lens that has trouble focusing in low light is to use a shoe-mount external flash. These flashes will shine an auto-focus assist light on your subject that the lens will pick up on and lock focus.
Large f/1.8 maximum aperture
The large f/1.8 maximum aperture means that you can make the opening through which light passes onto the camera sensor very large. One effect is the selective focus and background blur mentioned in the previous section. Another advantage of a large maximum aperture is that it opens the door to low light shooting.
The photo you see above was shot in a dark backyard at 9:30 PM with trees overhead and a single, dim light over the back door.
Having a lens with a large opening for light to enter means that more light gets to your camera sensor at once. Shooting "wide open" at f/1.8 lets you take advantage of faster shutter speeds in low light environments, which helps prevent blur from both shaking hands and moving subjects. Say hello to sharper, less blurry photos indoors, in gyms, bars, clubs, restaurants, theaters and such.
50mm Focal Length
Traditionally this is a "normal" lens which means that its field of view resembles what humans are accustomed to seeing with the naked eye. This is still true on a "full frame" digital camera such as the EOS 5D and 1Ds series. On a "cropped" camera, one with an APS-C sensor such as the Digital Rebel series, 30D/40D/50D and 7D the field of view changes to being slightly telephoto. On these cameras, the EF 50mm f/1.8 II will bring you a little closer to your subject. Indoors, you may sometimes end up with your back to the wall, and will sometimes struggle to fit more than one or two people in the frame. Head-and-shoulders portraits of single subjects are easier to get.
This is a prime lens. It does not zoom. If you want to get closer to or further from your subject, it is incumbent upon you to physically move yourself and the camera. I do not view this as a con, as I prefer prime lenses for a great deal of situations. They tend to be smaller, lighter, and capable of larger max apertures than zoom lenses. And in the case of lenses such as this, prime lenses can have great image quality at a lower price.
The EF 50mm f/1.8 II is built cheap. Then again, it is cheap. Everything except the glass, even the lens mount, is made from plastic. It is very easy to break; if I'm remembering my track record correctly, I've personally busted two of these.
This photo shows my first 50mm f/1.8 with a broken lens mount. I dropped it on a tile hotel room floor in the Caribbean and the lens mount cracked and separated from the barrel. I put it on the camera to take test shots without thinking, and it got stuck. I ended up forcefully snapping the lens off the camera, and was lucky enough to have my camera survive. I seem to have a talent for breaking camera lenses whilst abroad.
Aside from ruggedness, the 50mm f/1.8 has a very small manual focus ring that is difficult to use. Also, there is no window for distance markings.
The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II the best bang for the buck you'll find in Canon's lens lineup. Its costs a fraction of what other lenses go for, gets good image quality (excellent for the price), enables blurry out-of-focus backgrounds and opens the door to low light photography.
On the down side, its construction is very poor. If you want this lens to last, you need to take very good care of it. Autofocusing suffers in low light, and the background blur at wide apertures is not always pleasing.
The 50mm f/1.8 II is a gateway lens -- great for photographers who are looking to venture beyond their kit lens and experiment with new gear. It will introduce you to the concept of a special purpose lens designed to excel in very specific situations. Best of all, this experimentation does not cost much.
When considering that camera lenses sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars, many people conclude that the 50mm f/1.8 II is a "no brainer" purchase. In terms of dollar-for-dollar image quality, this lens is hard to beat. And for some, that value makes the cons of this lens easier to overlook.
Where to buy it
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II at B&H
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II at Adorama
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II at Amazon.com
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