Conclusion - Pros
- Excellent image quality when stopped down
- Essentially no lateral chromatic aberration
- Extremely cheap
Conclusion - Cons
- Extremely cheaply built
- Harsh and distracting bokeh due to pentagonal aperture
- Vignetting at wide apertures on full frame (which only disappears at F3.5)
- Inconsistent autofocus in low light (most problematic when using large apertures)
The Canon EF 50mm F1.8 II may be one of the cheapest lenses currently on the market, but its optics belie its lowly price. As befits a classic standard prime lens, it's very sharp when stopped down (especially in the centre), shows minimal chromatic aberration, and has relatively low distortion; APS-C users will also benefit from extremely low vignetting. In most regards it comes very close indeed to its much more expensive bigger brother, the EF 50mm F1.4 USM, lagging marginally behind in corner sharpness at any specific aperture. The only real blight in imaging terms is the lens's bokeh, or rendition of out-of-focus backgrounds, which is anything but smooth with a distinct tendency to render bright highlights as obvious pentagons (it's a pity Canon didn't choose to use a diaphragm with 7 or 8 blades instead of 5).
Of course getting great optics for relatively little money means that corners have to be cut somewhere along the line, and in this case it's in the build quality. The 50mm F1.8 II may not be the most flimsily-constructed lens ever made, but I can't think of another currently on the market which can rival it for a sheer impression of plasticky-ness. This alone will put off some potential purchasers, who will likely gravitate towards the better-made F1.4 lens instead, but in truth it's just fine for everyday amateur use. Of course the flipside of this is that it's extremely light, and won't add much strain on your shoulder carrying it around all day, so it's a great option to throw in your bag for low-light shooting when travelling.
The other slight fly in the ointment is the autofocus; the micro-motor system is a little slow and therefore not an ideal choice for moving subjects. More problematically, focusing can be inconsistent and inaccurate in low light, something that will be most obvious when shooting at large apertures. There's also no full-time manual focus override for those users who don't like to trust their camera's AF system; again these issues are all reason to consider the F1.4 lens instead.
Given the price, it seems reasonable to assume that this lens will overwhelmingly be used on APS-C bodies, and in this context it's worth pointing out that it's sharper than any of the EF-S lenses we've tested so far (the 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 IS, 18-200mm F3.5-5.6 IS or even the 17-85mm F4-5.6 IS USM, which is at its best at 50mm). We suspect full-frame users will on the whole be buying more expensive optics, but to overlook this budget option completely would be a mistake, as it can demonstrably perform very well even on the 21Mp EOS-1Ds Mark III (and therefore also 5D Mark II) at its optimum apertures. That F1.8 maximum aperture lets in more than four times as much light as a typical kit zoom, and so allows shooting in low light while keeping shutter speeds relatively high; this therefore provides a useful alternative to IS when the aim is to keep moving subjects sharp. It also enables the user to experiment with selective focus techniques impossible with slow zooms.
So ultimately this is a lens which we'd encourage any Canon DSLR owner currently shooting with 'kit' zooms to try. The overall image quality when stopped down a bit is very impressive indeed, and the fast maximum aperture offers creative options which are well worth exploring (while sharpness, particularly in the corners, may not be the best wide open, the point is that you can get to F1.8 at all). It's a pity about the build quality and harsh bokeh, but ultimately this lens hits a price:performance ratio that's very difficult to beat.
Rating (out of 10)
|Ergonomics & handling||7|
Highly Recommended (just)
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Canon 50mm F1.8 II Review samples