Review: Canon 50mm f1.0L. Yeah, 1.0!
A Big Old Heaping Pile of Glass…
The first thing you notice about this lens is the glass. This lens is all glass with a little bit of that nice “L” series black plastic wrapped around it.
This thing weighs 2lbs – it’s even heavier than the 5D Mark III camera it was attached to for the majority of this review, far heavier than my 60D, and it’s ridiculously heavier than the feather weight Canon Rebel K2 I used for my film photos with this lens (coming soon).
I don’t particularly like reviews that talk about lenses and cameras being “well balanced” and “feels good in the hands”. I mean, who cares – I’m not gonna fondle the thing, all I want to do is take pictures with it. That said, this lens is going to be unbalanced on nearly any camera. The lens is big and robust. It’s heavier than almost all Canon cameras, and whether that feels good to you or not is entirely personal preference. In my opinion, it’s comfortable enough.
The “WOW” Factor
Primes usually have far higher image quality than their zoom lens counterparts. They also tend to be faster with wider maximum apertures, and they are generally lighter. The Canon 50mm f1.0L is unique among prime lenses in that the image quality is lower and it weighs more than many equivalent zooms. Pixel peepers will be disappointed with it’s softness. So if this lens is heavier and provides lower image quality than many zooms, why bother?
Because of the “WOW” factor:
This lens absolutely shines in the ever-so-hard-to-quantify category of “WOW”. Subjects boldly pop out of the frame, backgrounds blur into a buttery smooth mess of bokeh beauty, and the lens imparts a definitive dreamlike quality that’s very attractive to portraits and landscape photos alike. This is the WOW factor, and few lenses have it like the f1.0L.
The bokeh produced by this lens is dreamy and unique, and certain angles and backgrounds can produce the sort of spinning effect you see here, shot at f1.0:
The bokeh is smooth and beautiful, and it’s one of the most attractive qualities of this lens.
It goes without saying that the faster the lens, the easier it is to take quality night photos. This is the fastest EF mount lens Canon’s ever produced. Today, the fastest EF lenses in production are the 50mm f1.2L and the 85mm f1.2L. That’s 2/3rds of a stop slower.
This lens’ maximum aperture of f1.0 lets in an insane amount of light. Flash is never needed with a lens this fast; it’s possible to take hand held photos in near candlelight.
There’s one specification that’s worth mentioning on the 50mm f1.0L, and that’s the unique “fly by wire” autofocus system.
Fly by wire means there’s no mechanical connection between the autofocus ring and the focusing mechanism. Instead focusing is electrically driven. This means manual focus only works when the lens is attached to your camera and your camera is ON. In addition, there is no FTM (full time manual) focusing. If you want to manually fine tune the focus, you need to select MANUAL on the focus selection switch and only then can you make your own adjustments.
I don’t like the focusing quirks of this lens. Fly by wire focusing seems like an unnecessary complication to what should be a simple system. I imagine it could be a point of failure, and I’d much prefer to be able to manually focus the lens without being dependent on a power source. I rarely use FTM on autofocus cameras, but it’s a good feature to have.
Call it another quirk, but the 50mm f1.0L flares. A lot. It comes down to personal taste, but this is usually considered a bad thing in lenses. The elongated and flowing appearance of the flare is very specific to this lens, to the point that you can call it a signature of sorts. I personally didn’t find the flare characteristics of this lens to be particularly attractive.
No Weather Sealing
The 50mm f1.0L is not weather sealed. This would have been a nice addition to this lens.
Usability for Travel
So how does it fare as a travel lens? In my opinion, this is a poor travel lens. It weighs far too much, it’s too big, it’s too expensive, and there are too many other good choices out there to make this lens a necessary part of anyone’s travel photography kit.
Here’s the 50mm f1.0L on the Canon Rebel K2. This is a large lens regardless of what camera you use, but it positively dwarfs this old film camera.
Price and Value
Price sets this lens apart just as much as any of this lens’ other quirks. It retailed for around $4200 new, and it went out of production more than a decade ago in 2000. It’s a rare find on the used market today, and it tends to sell for much higher than it’s formerly new price. Whether it’s a value purchase or not depends on you and your needs. This lens provides insanely smooth bokeh and comes with some endearing personality quirks, but there are plenty of other good 50mm options at far lower prices including Canon’s weather sealed 50mm f1.2L and Sigma’s 50mm f1.4 lens which also produces excellent bokeh.
This is a unique, special lens that is very useful in specific situations where a dream-like scene is desired. As a travel and daily use lens, though, it’s is too expensive and too heavy to be of much practical value in spite of how fun it is to use. The best option may be to do what I did and simply rent the lens for a few days.