Canon EF 50mm F1.8 II Review

Thursday, 21 March 2013
The Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II is the lightest EF lens of all at a mere 4.6 oz. (130g), compact and high-performance, standard lens.

The Canon EF 50mm F1.8 II is the least expensive lens currently available for the Canon EOS line up, and has been in the system since late 1990. This lens is a simplified version of the original EF 50mm F1.8 of 1987 (often referred to as the 'Mark I') which was supplied as standard with some of Canon's earliest 35mm EOS SLRs; however it can trace its lineage back a lot further than that, as the company has been making 50mm F1.8 standard lenses since 1959. Like its predecessor, it uses simple symmetric Gaussian optics with six elements in five groups, in a well-proven formula which is known to offer excellent correction of aberrations.

At just 130g it is an ultra light-weight lens and with a dimension of 68x41mm it's also extremely compact. The build quality is sufficient to say it positive. The lens barrel is made of plastic down to the mount. All-in-all you feel the price tag here. That said there's little wobbling of the inner tube and unless you abuse it there're no reasons to believe that it'll not last.

The 50mm focal length delivers standard coverage on a full-frame body, or 80mm equivalent on a Canon APS-C body, which acts like a short telephoto. The f1.8 focal ratio can deliver a very shallow depth-of-field, allowing you to place a sharp subject against a blurred background, an effect desired by many portrait photographers. The f1.8 focal ratio also means the lens can gather four times more light than a lens at f3.5 or just over eight times more than one at f5.6. This is important as most kit zoom lenses have a focal ratio of f3.5-5.6, making the EF 50mm f1.8 II much better in low light.

The reason why, EF 50mm f1.8 II is a definite choice as a second lens after a standard kit zoom. It'll let you use faster shutter speeds or lower sensitivities than a kit zoom in low light, and deliver a much shallower depth-of-field for blurring effects. Mount it on a typical consumer Canon DSLR with an APS-C sensor and it'll also become a short telephoto that's ideal for portraits. Couple all of this with the low price and it's understandable why the EF 50mm f1.8 II is Canon's best-selling lens. The AF performance and build quality may be very basic, but the optical quality is surprisingly good for the money - indeed it outperforms many more expensive lenses. I intend to expand this test report into a full review in the future with build quality and focusing tests, sample images and an overall verdict, but for now wanted to share my optical results for this eternally popular lens.

Indeed, technology has made everything easier to reach, in today’s digital world with many devices working as more than one device, and universal remotes to control them, it’s all about convenience. And that is what happened with the advent of zoom lenses. With high zoom compacts flooding the market, and manufacturers making lenses that zoom in far enough to bring a bird sitting 50 feet away seem as if it is sitting in front of your lens, a lot of us are so used to zoom lenses that we simply cannot imagine having a lens without a zoom, however much it may be.

Why Canon EF 50mm F1.8 II

Advantages of Canon EF 50mm F1.8 II
  • Shooting in Low Light: The wide aperture lets in more light and allowing you to shoot without flash in low light. This lens is great for shooting indoors where a flash sort of ruins the feel. Of course the wide aperture also means that you’ll have a very shallow depth of field, and hence you need to compose your shot such that you get the subject completely in focus.

  • DOF: The large aperture offers extremely shallow depth of field which is another creativity stimulator. One can get some very nice looking photos with imaginative use of the shallow DOF.

  • The Wide Effect: If you don’t have a dedicated wide angle lens, don’t fret. You might not get as wide an angle as with a dedicated lens, but you can still get a wide angle look by moving farther from your subject, and using a smaller aperture (larger f number). This covers a wider area and gives a larger zone of sharpness, just like a wide angle lens.

  • The Telephoto Effect: Just like above, you can also simulate a telephoto effect by getting close to your subject and opening up the aperture. This gives a nicely blurred background which is a characteristic of telephotos.

  • The Reversed Macro: Not all of us can afford a dedicated macro lens. And the good news is that you can use this 50mm as a macro lens by reversing it. You’ll need a reversal ring for that. You lose autofocus, but that’s not all that bad when you’re getting a macro lens at this price. For more on reversing the 50mm for macro, check out this post on DPS.

  • Portraits and Streets: This lens is by far most used for portraiture and street photography and gives some great results in both fields.

  • Candid Camera: The fact that this lens offers a field of view just like that of the human eye* i.e. you get what you see, plus the lens’s small size make it a great lens for getting candid shots without getting noticed. In fact, since it sees what you see, you can even shoot without using the viewfinder. Simply point your camera in the direction you’re looking, and click!

The 50mm replicates the human eye field of view on 35mm film cameras or full frame dSLRs like the Canon 5D and Nikon D3. To get the same field of view on an APS-C camera like the Rebel XSi (450D) or Nikon D90, you’ll need to get a 35mm lens. But even then, the field of view of 50mm lenses on cropped sensors is very good to work with.

You must have heard that primes are made of cheap glass and are used only to take fancy pictures where half the objects in the frame are blurred. That is clearly the result of ignorance and lack of (correct) information. Agreed the 50 mm is affordable, but primes going up to 500 or even 600mm can be the most expensive lenses in your kit, if you can afford them!

Back in the old days, 50mm used to be the norm in lenses. Today, the zooms have gained mass popularity, and rightly too for the convenience offered. But even then, the 50mm remains a brilliant piece of optical engineering, and I recommend that you try it, especially if you’re a hobbyist or serious amateurs. It won’t cost you that much, and I guarantee that you’ll love it!

Canon EF 50mm F1.8 II Specifications:

Street price • £90 (UK)
• $90 (US)
Date introduced December 1990
Weight 130g (4.6 oz)
Dimensions 68.2mm diameter x 50.5mm length
(2.7 x 2.0 in)
Lens Mount Canon EF only
Maximum format size 35mm full frame
Focal length 50mm
35mm equivalent focal length (APS-C) 80mm
Diagonal Angle of view (FF) 47º
Diagonal Angle of view (APS-C) 31º
Maximum aperture F1.8
Minimum aperture F22
Lens Construction • 6 elements / 5 groups
Number of diaphragm blades 5
Minimum focus 0.45m (1.5 ft)
Maximum magnification 0.15x
AF motor type DC Micro Motor
Focus method Unit focus
Image stabilization • None
Filter thread • 52mm
• Does not rotate on focus
Supplied accessories Front and rear caps
Optional accessories ES-62 hood


At the beginning of this review I stated that the 50mm f/1.8 II is the cheapest lens in the Canon line where Cheap really refers to the price tag only because for a price below 100 EUR you get a light-weight, high performing lens. So most affordable may be a better wording here. Naturally you can't expect wonders regarding build quality for this price but the compromises work out better here than with the cheapo kit zooms.

The 50mm f/1.4 USM may be a tad better at large aperture settings and surely regarding build quality but at quite hefty extra costs. If you're on a budget the 50mm f/1.8 II is a good alternative here. It may also be interesting to check out the used market for a EF 50mm f/1.8 (I) which features the same good optical formula but combined with a better construction. It's not really surprising that the old lens tends to sell at higher prices on the used market than the "new" mk II though. The weakest spot of the lens is probably the bokeh which can be rough at times.