Built like a toy and with a focusing ring that turns like a limp pepper grinder, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II is the cheapest of the cheap. The auto focusing is slow and jittery, and there are horror stories in the wild of this lens completely falling apart altogether.
But you know what? I love it.
And I’m not alone. The ‘nifty fifty’ and ‘plastic fantastic’ are just a couple of the nicknames given to this lens – and for good reason. Bang for buck, this 50mm packs an almighty wallop. No, it’s not perfect, but if you accept it for what it is then you could learn to love it as well.
So what is it?
It is, put simply, a very inexpensive 50mm fixed focal length ‘prime’ lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8. Most people looking at this lens today will be mounting it on a crop sensor DSLR which gives the lens an equivalent focal length of 80mm. And therein lies its first caveat – this is a little long for indoor use, particularly for group shots. On the flip side however, it makes a good focal length choice for portrait-type shots and combined with the fast aperture you can get some pretty impressive images if you work to its strengths.
And speaking of strengths, the outstanding feature of this lens is the sharpness. If you’ve been using kit zooms and this is your first foray in the world of primes, then you’re in for a very pleasant surprise. In today’s digital workflow it’s hard not to pixel peep, especially when you’re starting out, so you’ll be forgiven for wearing that grin whilst looking at your images from this lens on your monitor. Sharpness is not something you should obsess over, but it’s okay to admire it from time to time.
Another thing you might find yourself admiring is the bokeh, or out of focus blur, you can get out of this lens. The nifty fifty isn’t renowned for the quality of its bokeh, but there’s no doubting the quantity that’s on offer when used at its wider apertures. Again, if you’re used to kit lenses with maximum apertures of f/3.5, f/4.0 and f/5.6, then shooting at f/2.8, f/2.0 or f/1.8 will open the door to creative options that are simply not achievable with slower lenses. If you’re worried about the quality of the bokeh then you’re looking in the wrong price bracket.
The lens has an optional (read: not included) lens hood available – the ES-62. I personally don’t think it’s worth buying since I’ve never had a problem with flare on this lens. For me, the small size of the 50mm 1.8 is one of the great things about it, so adding bulk for little or no benefit is a non-starter. If you’re concerned about the other reason to use a lens hood – protection – then consider using a filter. With a thread size of 52mm a decent UV filter can be picked up quite cheaply. I use a filter on mine, but the front element on this lens is recessed to such a degree you’d be extremely unlucky to damage it. At this price point, and for such a small lens that weighs only 130g, think carefully before buying and adding accessories.
The verdict? This 50mm probably gets my most unreserved recommendation out of all the lenses I own. The autofocus, if a little bit slow, is at least accurate. And the build quality… well, it might be almost completely plastic but that also means it weighs very little. No, they don’t zoom, but that’s the whole point – a fixed lens can change your whole approach to getting that shot. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
This lens does the important things well, and if you’re new to fast primes then I can’t think of a better introduction.