Battle for Bokeh: The Best 50mm Lens for a Canon DSLR

Fifty milimeter prime lenes are the quintessential workhorses of the photography world. They’re fast, lightweight, super sharp, and reasonable priced (at least some of them). Along with fantastic images in low light situations you also get soft, mushy background blur. There is hardly a chance you can go wrong if you pick a decent one for your camera. In this video, photographer Christopher Frost makes an interesting comparison between 10 different 50mm primes:

Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8

Priced at about $50, this Chinese made nearly all plastic 50mm prime is a good value for your money. The price is low, but the quality isn’t razor sharp. If you have an APS-C camera this is not the 50mm prime that you should be looking to settle with. Auto-focus is acceptable but manual focusing is a bit dodgy.

best 50mm prime

Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8

Canon 50mm f/1.8 Mark II

Easily one of the biggest selling pieces of glass ever, the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II costs around the same as the Yongnuo mentioned above. Auto-focusing is noisy and archaic. Manual focusing is not good either. Overall build quality is less than acceptable as it has a generous amount of plastic. But it’s a lightweight design. Finally, the image quality is reasonably sharp but the contrast is not really that good wide open. Performance improves in leaps and bounds if you stop it down to f/4 or even f/5.6. The bokeh isn’t the best in the world. On a full-frame camera, vignetting can be really disturbing.

choosing the best 50mm prime

Canon 50mm f/1.8 I

Canon 50mm f/1.8 Mark I

Featuring the same optics as the Mark II lens above, this three decade old design amazingly demands more money now (resale) than it used to when it was first launched! Build quality is better than the Mark II lens, as it has a metal mount rather than a plastic one. Focusing, especially manual focusing, is much better than the Mark II lens.

canon 50mm prime lens

Canon 50mm f/1.8 I

Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM

Costing nearly double the 50mm lenses detailed above, this neat little lens features the latest STM (Stepping Motor) technology, which works superbly for video work. The new focusing technology is quieter than the older one. Seven blades instead of five theoretically should make better bokeh, but in practice the quality is no better than the older lenses. The lens has a metal mount instead of plastic. The overall build quality is better and it’s less bulky.

fast 50mm primes

Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM

Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM

What’s better than a 50mm f/1.8 lens? A 50mm f/1.4 lens. An f/1.4 lens is 66% faster than an f/1.8 lens. In other words, it lets in about 66% more light (a big advantage in low light situations) and increases background blur. The Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM is the cheapest f/1.4 lens in this list, costing just about $300. This is an old design. In real world situations the lens’ performance is not that great. You would be disappointed if you were looking for great bokeh quality and razor sharp images. In both departments the lens disappoints. The build quality is definitely better and the auto-focusing is also acceptable. Overall, it’s not a great value for the money.

bokeh with 50mm prime

Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM

Samyang 50mm f/1.4 AS UMC

This manual focusing lens costing around $400 is one of the better lenses when it comes down to bokeh quality. The most impressive thing is the large front element—something that guarantees a lot of light captured and less of vignetting. This is a really sharp lens—much better than any of the f/1.8 and the f/1.4 lenses thus far. It’s overall good quality build and smooth operation. The only downside is the absence of auto-focusing.

50mm prime lens

Samyang 50mm f/1.4 AS UMC

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

If you add auto-focusing to the Samyang 50mm f/1.4 you’ll probably get the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM. The build quality is great, out of focus effects are superb, and overall image quality is very sharp. Vignetting is controlled (the reviewer has only tested the lens on a crop DSLR) and the quality of bokeh is also splendid. However, the biggest drawback is the feature that separates it from the Samyang lens—auto-focusing. Auto-focusing is inaccurate and can leave you purple-faced after a day of hard work.

selecting a 50mm prime

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

Zeiss ZE 50mm f/1.4

Costing roundabout $550 this is an expensive manual focusing lens. The only thing that stands out apart from the expensive price tag is the good build quality and the poor optics. Zeiss lenses are known for their superior optics and this is where this lens is uncharacteristic of a Zeiss lens. Bokeh quality wide open is not at all exciting. Sharpness wide open is also unsatisfactory. Stopping down improves performance somewhat.

battle of the prime lens

Zeiss ZE 50mm f/1.4

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ‘Art’

One word that separates the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ‘Art’ from the rest of the group: sharp. This is a great lens to shoot with wide open and stopped down. The lens also has no discernible vignetting and distortion. Auto-focusing is good. Build quality is acceptable, too. The negative marks could be the quality of the bokeh which does not live up to the expectations from this lens, its bulk, and certainly its price, which is a whopping $900.

third-party 50mm prime lenses

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ‘Art’

Canon 50mm f/1.2 USM ‘L’

At $1,400 this isn’t the cheapest 50mm by any stretch of imagination. But at f/1.2 this is the brightest. Is it the sharpest? No! The corners at f/1.2 aren’t sharp at all. Some amount of vignetting can be seen as well as barrel distortion. The contrast and out of focus effects you can achieve with this lens are much better than the rest of the group. The build quality of the lens is excellent.

best canon 50mm prime

Canon 50mm f/1.2 USM ‘L’

So, the verdict is out…

I hope you had a wonderful time reading this fascinating match-up of the best 50mm prime lenses for Canon mounts.

Do you agree with these reviews? What’s your favorite 50mm lens?

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8 responses to “Battle for Bokeh: The Best 50mm Lens for a Canon DSLR”

  1. Ken says:

    Disappointed Nikon lenses were not reviewed in this otherwise informative review.

  2. Celeste says:

    I know that is review is for 50mm’s but I was very lucky to come across a Canon ef-s 60mm f2.8 macro lens. It has become my go to lense. The Bokeh is amazing and the photos are always perfect and makes me look like a professional photographer. My body is a Canon Rebel SL1.

  3. Amit says:

    Just bought samyang 50mm f1.4 but it is very similar to canon 50mm f1.8 and three time costly than canon dont buy samyang waste of money..

  4. Kun says:

    Neither Zeiss 50mm Milvus or Samyang 50 F1.2 is mentioned. I am not why.

  5. Gerald Collins says:

    To Kun,
    I’m relatively new to photography so don’t know for sure, but the article was 3 years old when you posted, so perhaps those lenses didn’t exist back then. It’s old enough, I wouldn’t mind seeing an update myself.

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