Battle of The 50s: A Bokeh Comparison
This is a totally unscientific, just for fun bokeh comparison between three (four?) of Canon’s 50mm lenses.
What Makes Good Bokeh?
What’s attractive to you may not be the same for everyone else, but in general the more rounded the out of focus elements the more pleasing the bokeh. Good bokeh shows the background as a smooth, buttery, beautiful mess that really helps isolate your subject in the frame. Bad bokeh is harsh, pointed, and it tends to be very distracting when you’re trying to isolate a subject.
Canon 50mm f1.8 vs f1.2L vs f1.0L
Why these 50s? The 1.0L and the 1.2L are the last two iterations of Canon’s “flagship 50″s, and I thought it’d be fun to pit these expensive, top of the line lenses against one of the cheapest lenses available today, the 50mm f1.8.
There’s a fourth bonus lens in there too: The VERY old school 50 f1.8 FD lens. FD mounts didn’t have provisions for autofocus, and thus they were eventually abandoned in favor of the EF and EF-S mounts that are standard today. I had the lens mounted on a Canon AE-1 Program film SLR camera.
Bokeh Comparison at f1.8
Let’s start with the bonus lens: 50mm 1.8 FD at f1.8, shot on Kodak Portra 160 film
I included this shot so you can compare not just the lens, but also so you can see the stark differences between film and digital.
50mm 1.8 at f1.8
50mm 1.2L at f1.8
50mm 1.0L at f1.8
Other than the film picture, each of these were shot in aperture priority mode on my Canon 5D Mark III. I used evaluative metering and +1.7EV on all shots due to the backlit scene.
At f1.8, the 1.2L lens wins with its roundest and least defined bokeh. The 1.0L comes in a close second with ever so slightly polygonal bokeh. Each of the 1.8 lens’ bokeh is very defined compared to the other two. Bokeh is circular when lenses are shot wide open, only appearing polygonal when stopped down. How polygonal it looks when stopped down is determined by the shape of the lens’ aperture blades. Because the f1.8 lens is wide open at f1.8, the bokeh is oval shaped and not polygonal. This is usually a pleasing quality, but the bokeh is so well defined that the ovals have become slightly distracting.
Color and contrast is better with the 1.2L than with the other two EF mount lenses. The f1.8 lens comes in a close second here, with color that’s nearly as saturated and contrast that’s indistinguishable. The vignetting of the 1.8 lens is obvious and expected being that it was shot wide open. The vignette gives the image a darker look. Surprisingly, the 1.0L is worst of the three here with its faded, muddy color and low contrast.
Bokeh at f4
Let’s compare these lens’ bokeh when stopped down (I didn’t bother to shoot the film lens at f4.)
1.8 at f4:
1.2L at f4:
1.0L at f4:
The 1.0L and 1.2L lenses are extremely similar in bokeh quality with no clear winner. The 1.0L lens appears to have slightly more polygonal bokeh (bad), but it’s bokeh is slightly less distinguishable (good). This probably the result of the naturally lower contrast of the f1.0L lens, and if I were to increase the contrast I imagine the bokeh would become stronger and less pleasing.
The 1.8 lens hits you in the face with its polygonal, distracting bokeh.
Pushed to the limit
How do each of these lenses look when shot wide open?
1.8 at f1.8:
1.2L at f1.2
1.0L at f1.0
Here we see why people with more money than I pay $4000+ USD for the 1.0L lens, long after its production stopped. The winner is clear: the 1.0L lens easily wins with its ultra smooth, dreamlike bokeh. The background appears to swirl around, a buttery smooth mess of nothingness. This look is unique to this lens, and it’s why the lens remains popular today. You don’t buy a 1.0 lens to shoot stopped down at f4, you buy it to shoot at 1.0 and this thing is an absolute dream.
The 1.2L comes in second. The picture looks less like a dream and more like an actual picture, and in that respect it’s really quite pleasing to look at. Bokeh is good and so is color and contrast. The swirl effect is mostly gone, and objects are at least somewhat recognizable.
Predictably, the 1.8 lens comes in last. Its wide open aperture is worlds apart from the other two lenses.
Enough pictures of my index finger already.
It’s kind of like being at an electronics store with a bunch of TVs on display. You can compare each TV directly against the others, and it’s quickly obvious which one is best. But whatever TV you take home, it will sit all by itself in your living room and you’ll care far more about the content of your television programming than your TV’s technical performance.
All that is to say that it doesn’t matter which 50mm you buy because the pictures you take matter far more than the kind of glass hanging off the end of your camera.
I hate inconclusive articles though, so I’ll nut up and get a bit more specific:
- If money is no object and you want the best bokeh, find a used 50mm 1.0L for $4000 or more.
- If money matters and you want the best overall value, buy the 50mm f1.8 for $110.
- If you want the best travel 50mm lens, buy the 50mm f1.4.* $400
- For the best bokeh 50mm currently in production, and you expect it to REALLY take a beating on the road, AND you have money to spare, buy the 50mm f1.2L for $1600.
*I didn’t cover the 1.4 in this article because I didn’t have one on hand, but it falls somewhere in the middle between the 1.8 and the 1.2L both price ($400) and performance wise. Why isn’t the 1.8 lens best for travel? Because it’s made entirely of cheap plastic and therefore far too flimsy – I’ve gone through 2 of them already.