Canon 50mm f/1.8 vs. f/1.4

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by equilibrium17, Mar 14, 2012.

  1. equilibrium17 macrumors member

    Aug 20, 2007
    I’ve read the reviews, but I would love some opinions:

    Amongst other interests, I produce Off-Off-Broadway theater in New York City. For important publicity shots, I usually bring in a pro, or at least a semi-pro photographer. But I can't afford to pay someone to shoot every rehearsal and staged reading, so I've decided to invest in the equipment to take at least passable photos on my own.

    I presently have a T3i/600D with just the 18-135mm kit lens. I have shot a few rehearsals and performances with this lens, and this has confirmed my prior guesses that (a) I will need brighter lens(es) to shoot what I want to shoot, and (b) a 50mm prime is probably a good focal length for me to start with -- the stuff I produce generally performs on small, intimate stages, so the distances I need to shoot at are usually not very long and actors look good when shot at this length.

    I was going to just get the 50mm f/1.8. It's cheap, and I'm sure it will serve my needs well enough. I can presently get one of these for $115 new, or as cheap as $75, gently used. However, I've also noticed that B&H is also selling the Canon 50mm f/1.4, very good condition used, for about $290, which seems like a very good price.

    So… I’m wondering if I should consider upgrading my purchase to the f/1.4. From the reviews I have read, the technical differences in image quality are not likely to be significant to me for the kind of shooting I want to do (I’ll probably be shooting mostly in the f2.0 – 2.8 range; it is unlikely I will actually want to shoot wider than this). But the somewhat quieter, faster focus of the f/1.4 would definitely be useful, and a lot of reviewers consider the manual focus ring and FTM focus of the f/1.4 to be substantially superior (I do find myself focusing manually at times). While not a must-have, smoother bokeh might be useful too, as I may want to use wider aperture to blur out a distracting background, especially when shooting rehearsals.

    $290 is definitely within my budget; spending more money on the 50mm just means I won’t be able to afford another lens, like a 28mm or an 85mm prime as a complement, quite as soon (or whatever other gizmo ends up next on my “list”).

    So… you know what they say about opinions. Love to hear yours!
  2. Edge100 macrumors 68000

    May 14, 2002
    Where am I???
    The 1.4 is absolutely worth the price premium over the 1.8.

    That's not to say the 1.8 is a bad lens; it's not. It will produce very good images, especially when stopped down to f/2.8 or smaller. That said, the bokeh is terrible (pentagonal highlights, FTW!), and the build quality is, well, crap.

    Having said all of that, whether it's worth it for you to buy the 1.4 is another matter. The bokeh will be better, and you'll get FTM focusing, for what that's worth. The 2/3 stop difference isn't huge, but it might help if you're dealing with very low light. And as you say, you could use the extra cash for something else.

    The 1.8 is certainly a good bang for the buck, but only because it's cheap.

    I'd go for the 1.4.
  3. DSPalpatine macrumors member

    Nov 9, 2009
    I've had both- first the 1.8, and now the 1.4. There are a few differences. First, the 1.4 is significantly quieter while focusing than the 1.8. The USM motor in the 1.4 is whisper quiet, whereas you can hear the 1.8, an important difference if silence is important to you. Second, The 1.4 handles low-light focusing better than the 1.8. Third, At wider apertures (think f/2.2 and bigger), the 1.4 is noticeably sharper than the 1.8. The 1.8 is a great budget lens, but the 1.4 is pretty affordable, and provides great quality.

    For what it's worth, has reviews on both lenses that are very thorough.
  4. TheDrift- macrumors 6502a


    Mar 8, 2010
    The sigma 50mm 1.4 is also very good, & worth a look at. Similar in price to canons 1.4
  5. equilibrium17 thread starter macrumors member

    Aug 20, 2007
    Some of the reviews I have read do rate the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 slightly ahead of the Canon in some areas, but it also lists for about $100 more new and is generally harder to find used, so I don't think that one is an option for my budget unless an especially good used deal falls into my lap.

    Thanks for the opinions, all -- very useful. Someone else got to the f/1.4 up for sale at B&H for $290 before I could, but I have a line on another one for a similar price that will hopefully come through...
  6. powerslave12r macrumors 6502a

    Sep 19, 2010
    The only reason I've stayed away from the 50 1/.4 is the really high failure rate of the AF motor within a year or two.

    The Sigma 50 f/1.4 is a much better choice.
  7. fitshaced macrumors 68000


    Jul 2, 2011
    If its low light that you're struggling with, I don't think simply a faster lens is going to do the job, although will help. Higher ISO's (using post processing to get rid of noise) and perhaps a flash gun might be more help to you.

    But, hard to say without seeing your current results.
  8. equilibrium17 thread starter macrumors member

    Aug 20, 2007
    Part of the issue I'm dealing with is that with my current lens (where I am limited to f4 at 50mm), I'm often having to shoot at ISO 3200, and shutter speed is still marginal -- I'm usually having to shoot at around 1/20 - 1/30 sec., which means many shots are ruined due to motion blur, even if the actors are posing and trying to stand still (hard to keep the eyes completely still..). At this ISO, I'm also getting more noise than I'd like. Granted, I'm no post-processing expert, but I'm not able to reduce the noise to a level I'm happy with without otherwise compromising the image.

    Flash is out of the question for shooting live performance or rehearsals most of the time.

    One of the advantages I have is that I have the files for photos pro photographers have taken for me in the past, including the .exif data. So I can see what ISO, aperture etc. they've used, and they're definitely often shooting at a wider aperture than I am capable of with my current equipment.
  9. macjonny1 macrumors 6502a


    Jan 10, 2006
    Your photography will be so much improved if you ditch the zoom and go for some fast primes. I'd go for the f/1.4 for sure.
  10. fitshaced macrumors 68000


    Jul 2, 2011
    Makes sense, then i would go with the 1.8. Its obviously much sharper than your current 18-135mm and is very affordable. In fact, try it and bring it back if it doesnt do the job.
  11. macrumors 6502

    Aug 29, 2011
    I've used both the 1.8 and 1.4 (which I currently use) and shoot mostly live bands. Definitely go with the 1.4. The auto-focus alone is worth every penny. When I'd have guys moving around the stage the 1.8's focus was practically useless because it was so slow. Remember that good glass is a long term investment. Once you get the good stuff you may continue to upgrade the body, but you'll probably never need to upgrade the lens again.
  12. LumbermanSVO macrumors 65816

    Mar 15, 2007
    Denton, TX
    I have the 1.4 and for me, my favorite feature is the FTM. I had already moved the focus off the shutter button to the * button on the back of the camera and that combined with the FTM is brilliant. On the few instances where the camera cann't get focus, or it focuses on the wrong thing, I just have to lift my thumb off the focus button and start turning the focus ring. No switches or anything to fiddle with, just focus it myself and be done with it. I won't buy a lens with FTM now.
  13. equilibrium17, Mar 15, 2012
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2012

    equilibrium17 thread starter macrumors member

    Aug 20, 2007
    Thanks again for the input, all.

    Although I suspect I will eventually end up getting a 50mm f/1.4 lens (either Canon or Sigma), I got the f/1.8 for now because I discovered that a friend of a friend had one she was no longer using, and she was willing to give it up for a little barter exchange so it really didn't make sense to say no. Even if I only use it for a few months and then upgrade, it was a good trade.

    So I'll learn how to shoot with a bright prime lens with the f/1.8, and consider my options for next purchase... probably a wider angle prime for getting full-stage shots or something like that.

    I tried it out by doing some low-light portraits of the dogs last night (the dogs are always happy to be my photo stand ins), and I must say it's a blast playing with a wide aperture prime lens. Very educational.

    I can definitely see how the better manual focus ring and FTM of the f/1.4 would be a desirable feature, though -- even in my test shots, I was using manual focus a lot to get the focal plane right where I wanted it, and having to flip the switch back and forth between AF and MF in order to adjust is kind of a PITA. I finally gave up on the AF and just focused manually. The tiny focal ring at the very front of the lens barrel on the f/1.8 isn't exactly ergonomic, either.

    But you get what you pay for, and for what I did pay, the lens is definitely worth it.
  14. thekev macrumors 604


    Aug 5, 2010
    My issue with the 1.8 (and keep in mind this was a much older version of it) was that the build quality was much flimsier than some of their other lenses. Nothing was really that solid, and parts had a bit of jiggle to them. That's enough to keep me away from cheap lenses. Unless they've drastically improved it, the price of the upgrade covered more than just a slightly faster lens.
  15. The Mad Kiwi macrumors 6502

    Mar 15, 2006
    In Hell

    Even with 1.4 you're still going to be in the marginal area. the 1.4 will get you to ISO 1600 which is still marginal and 1/120 which is still marginal for shooting moving people.

    Since you're going to be shooting in a theatre all the time you'd be better served buying a couple of cheap studio strobes and mounting them above the stage with a cheap wireless trigger. You should be able to get 1/200 ISO 400 using your current lens with this kind of setup right down to f10 and get a much better white balance as you can just set the camera white balance to the strobes output as they'll over power the stage lighting. Obviously you can only use this setup for rehersals and not actual performances.
  16. equilibrium17, Mar 15, 2012
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2012

    equilibrium17 thread starter macrumors member

    Aug 20, 2007
    As previously mentioned, using a strobe or other additional lighting is not a practical possibility in most cases for what I am doing. You generally want to capture the mood of the actual theatrical lighting when shooting a stage production, not overpower it. So strobes will not get me what I'm after. Besides, washing out the theatrical light cue with a strobe would be a great way to piss off my lighting designer...

    Heck, If I am going to use strobes, I might as well just have a pro shoot the actors in a photo studio (which I have actually done for certain productions where I wanted a particular image for the poster or program cover or whatever).

    None of the pros I call in to do major publicity shots use strobes or any other kind of additional lighting for on-stage production shots. I've seen a couple use very small amount of fill flash for a specific shot, but that's it.

    In any event, I just got back from a costume tech where I took a few shots and the new lens is giving me what I need -- f/2, ISO 1600 and 1/60 sec. is yielding dramatically better results than what I was getting at ISO 3200 & 1/30 sec. I've even been able to get some shots at ISO 800 with the actors posing that look very good.

    Now mind you, I'm sure my shots wouldn't pass muster if I was planning to reproduce them in a large size, like for a poster, but as mentioned I'd hire a pro for that. I'm just looking for decent shots I can use for "advance buzz" on Facebook, blogs, etc., as well as for my own archival purposes.
  17. The Mad Kiwi macrumors 6502

    Mar 15, 2006
    In Hell
    If you're happy with f/2, ISO 1600 and 1/60 then go for it. I was only suggesting a way to get you ISO 400 1/200 which would stop the action and destroy the noise.
  18. equilibrium17 thread starter macrumors member

    Aug 20, 2007
    Happiness is relative... I may not be able to get Filet Mignon, but if I can improve things from mystery meat to ground chuck, I'll take it.

    Of course I would love to get ISO 400 and 1/200. But, as mentioned, for a whole host of reasons I simply can't use strobes or any other kind of additional lighting for most of the shooting I'm doing. If I could, I would.
  19. Prodo123 macrumors 68020


    Nov 18, 2010
    I'd go with the f/1.8 just because the f/1.4 has a plethora of build quality issues.
    Until Canon releases a Mk II of the f/1.4, sadly I think I'll stay away from it.

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