Canon EF 50mm 1.8 II Lens Review

Posted by The A-Team on

Often referred to as the “nifty fifty”, the 50 1.8 is one of the most popular lenses in the Canon lineup. Many people are advised to start out with it when they enter the world of DSLRs. Indeed, it was the first lens I bought with my first DSLR, a Canon 30D, back in 2006. I’ve been using it regularly ever since, and here are my impressions…

50mm Reflection © Leon Rice-Whetton

Build Quality and Handling

The Canon 50 1.8 is the cheapest feeling lens I have ever handled, which makes sense because it is also the cheapest lens in the Canon lineup at about $100. It’s made of plastic, including the lens mount, but that doesn’t affect performance at all, and I don’t know why people complain/worry about it. It does rattles a bit inside the barrel, and is a far cry from L-build quality. On the plus side, it is the lightest lens that Canon offers. Because of this, it’s simply a pleasure to carry around. You’ll hardly notice it on your camera, making it that much easier to tote around all day.

Much smaller than any other lens in the Canon lineup © Stephen Mitchell

Despite it being Canon’s smallest lens, it’s still larger than many older 50mm lens, such as my old Olympus OM Zuiko 50 1.4. Why can’t they make small lenses like they used to? The focus ring is tiny, and although people decry it as useless, I was able to make use of it filming this video. Perhaps because of its cheap build quality, my lens literally broke in half after dropping it in a club several years ago. I thought it was dead, but took it to my local camera shop and they put it back together for about $8 (I live in China – thus so cheap). Two days later, it stopped focusing altogether, and I took it back for another round of (free) repairs. Since then, it has been focusing just fine.

Mine looked something like this after it was broken. But the glass was still in tact. © quimpg

Image Quality and Performance

Image quality is excellent.

-Shot wide open, it’s even sharper than the 50 1.4 on both full frame and crop cameras (see here) I’ve also noticed this from my own experience with both.

-Stopped down to f/5.6, it outperforms the 18-55IS, 17-85IS, and 18-200IS all by a mile. It also beats the new Sigma 50 1.4. Impressive.

If you want to shoot landscapes with this lens, it’ll be hard to find something sharper. But realistically, how many people buy this lens to shoot it stopped down? I suspect the primary use is and should be shooting wide open/portraits for shallow depth of field.

Chances are you won't need a hood with this lens - the front element is recessed - effectively a built in hood. © Matthias Lange

Ever since I dropped mine, its been a bit on the soft side.  Just browsing through my older images before the drop, they certainly look sharper. Focusing is generally quick, but it tends to hunt in low light. It’s also a bit noisy – among the noisiest I’ve ever heard, but certainly not louder than your shutter. There is no full time manual focusing, but how often do you really want to manual focus anyways? For most targeted users of this lens I think it’s a moot point. The worst part about focusing is that sometimes it misses, especially in low light. On a crop body, with an effective focal length of 80mm, it’s not the ideal lens for walk around usage, but functions very nicely as a portrait lens and I also enjoy it for street photography.

Canon EF 50mm II © Simone Paoli


Having shot with lens for nearly 5 years, I must say it has served me rather well. The big question many users might face is whether to get this or the EF 50mm 1.4. That one has full time manual focusing, a focus distance scale, and of course a faster aperture, gathering 2/3rds more light. Personally, I should have probably gone with the 1.4 version, considering my love of shallow depth of field and creamy smooth bokeh (of which the 1.4 outperforms the 1.8) but that doesn’t mean the 1.8 is not a good bargain.

50mm 1.8 Graham Russell

For many people, its the perfect lens to go beyond the kit lens and get more creative with their camera. But this also means they’ll be shooting at an effective 80mm, as most users are using crop cameras. This is where it gets more tricky. I’d actually recommend a “normal” prime that gives an effective focal length of 50mm. This could be the Sigma 30mm 1.4, Canon 28 1.8, or Canon 35 2.0 They certainly are more versatile for everyday shooting. However, at the end of the day, the “nifty fifty” is a fine piece of glass that is a joy to use, and you’ll certainly get many great shots out of it if you choose to get one.

Here are a few unedited sample shots at a variety of settings, but mostly wide open. Click to see full resolution.

Canon 50D - f/1.8 - 1/80s - ISO 100

Although not known for having the best bokeh, if you’re careful about your backgrounds it’s just fine.

Canon 30D - f/5.6 - 1/500s - ISO 200

You want sharp at f/5.6? Here you go…

Canon 50D - f/1.8 - 1/50s - ISO 1600

This lens handles portraits at night rather well, but focus tends to hunt in extremely low light.

Canon 40D - f/1.8 - 1/200s - ISO 1600

Shooting action at night is tricky focus-wise, but its certainly faster than any zoom.

Canon 40D - f/1.8 - 1/200 - ISO 400

As mentioned above, it doesn’t always lock focus – missing pretty badly here, actually several shots in a row.

Canon 40D - f/1.8 - 1/200s - ISO 1600

Indoor social settings bring out the best of this lens – although maybe a wider “normal” prime would be best.

Canon 40D - f/2.8 - 1/50s - ISO 800

While shooting food, you’ll often want to stop down, as f/1.8 can be TOO shallow when shooting closely.

Canon 30D - f/1.8 - 1/200s - ISO 1600

Once again, for all those who decry it’s bokeh, sometimes it is quite nice.

Canon 30D - f/5 - 1/320s - ISO 100

Stopping down, even to f/5 in this case, still yields decent bokeh and incredible sharpness.

Canon 30D - f/1.8 - 1/100s - ISO 3200

Even at ISO 3200 and wide open, it’s holding sharpness pretty well. Great for indoor candid snaps.

Canon 30D - f/4 - 1/250s - ISO 200

Although not the perfect street shooting lens, it has a niche for this use.

Here’s a collection of reviews from well reputed websites across the net:

DPReview – “So ultimately this is a lens which we’d encourage any Canon DSLR owner currently shooting with ‘kit’ zooms to try.”

The Digital Picture – “This lens is not for everyone, but I don’t know of a better lens available for twice this price.”

Photozone – “The weakest spot of the lens is probably the bokeh which can be rough at times.”

Fred Miranda – “At this price as long as it mounts on my camera it’s worth it. The fact that it works as well as it does….icing on the cake.”

Bob Atkins – “However even wide open it’s still not bad and in fact a little softness can sometimes be useful when the lens is used for portraits!”

Ken Rockwell – “The Canon 50mm f/1.8 II has fantastically good optics, better than Canon’s “L” series wide lenses like the 16-35mm f/2.8 L II.” – “Out of focus highlights produced by the 8 diaphragm blades of the f1.4 look more like a circle while those produced by the 5 diaphragm blades of the f1.8 take the shape of a pentagon. At f5.6, the pentagon shape becomes more apparent and looks unnatural.”

Jesse Warren is a 50mm loving photographer who lives in Shenzhen, China and works for Aputure.

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