The Canon EF 50mm 1.2L USM would be my choice if you forced me to shoot a wedding with just a single lens.
It still surprises me saying this because I really didn’t like 50mm lenses initially, having tried the much cheaper Canon f1.4 and f1.8 lenses, but the results I can achieve with this one lens make it my overall favourite.
Read on to find out why that’s my view…
Popularity of 50mm lenses
It’s easy to see why. Shooting a 50 wide open brings a level of romanticism to the shot which you simply don’t get with other lenses, or at least that’s the case for the better quality 50’s out there.
Fast 50mm primes are popular with photographers. They are the closest to our own eyes, which makes photos produced “comfortable” to look at. I think Jasmine Star might have been the first particularly well known photographer to bring them to weddings, although there were photographers before her using them.
Overall, it’s the optics of this lens which really shine. Everything else is good, but Canon knocked it out of the park when creating the look this lens produces.
- The way the lens renders the scene is just beautiful.
- From f1.8 to f2.8 it’s very sharp.
- Focus accuracy is exceptional, especially considering the low DOF.
- It lets in a large amount of light, which lets you keep your ISO lower.
- It’s not cheap, although good value within it’s category.
- It’s prone to Chromatic Aberration, but Lightroom removes most of it.
- Sharpness tends to suffer wider then f1.8, so I very rarely shoot at f1.6 even.
- Focus speed is not particularly fast.
- It’s a known “problem lens” with people reporting focus shift issues.
- It’s not as sharp as other lenses from f2.8 to f5.6.
- It’s not the lightest or smallest lens in the world, but I don’t find it heavy like the 85mm 1.2.
The Canon 50mm 1.2L is built to work in the toughest conditions. Unlike the 50mm 1.4 which needs to be treated with kid-gloves, the 1.2 has never let me down in 5 years of ownership, even with a few knocks.
It’s weather sealed too, so you can use it when the wedding-weather-gods aren’t particularly shining on you.
The lens hood is easy to put on and take off, which is one of those things only photographers who work fast really care about!
Then there’s the way it deals with sunlight behind the subject and flare. If you shoot into a setting sun fairly wide open, the light just seems to flood a section of the frame and photographers have been using that to great effect.
This lens might have been partly responsible for the vintage low DOF photography which has been so popular recently. There’s something really old and beautiful when shooting wedding details and brides were really wow’ed by the effect from this lens. I was one of the early adopters in the UK and I booked a tons of wedding based purely on this!
What it is about the lens then? Well, photographer often talk about “creamy” when they’re describing the out of focus areas of the shot – the bokeh. I prefer to describe more technically it as lacking harsh edges. I really disliked the Canon 50mm f1.4 because of the the harsh bokeh. The Canon 50mm 1.2 just doesn’t suffer from that.
Lens flare with the canon 50mm 1.2L at f1.6
The Canon 50mm 1.2L is built to work in the toughest conditions.
It’s the overall photo which really shines. Everything else is good, but Canon knocked it out of the park when creating the look this lens produces. I’d even go so far as to say they’re going to struggle to improve on this aspect of the lens.
Where it struggles though is in the area of f1.2 to f1.6. It’s just not that sharp – at least compared with some of the more modern lenses. I’m happy with that personally and rarely shoot it wider than f1.8 as I find the depth of field is just what I need at f1.8 anyway.
It’s also not as sharp as the Canon 50mm 1.4 from f2.8 onwards. For me again, this is fine. I never shoot it at any other apertures than f1.8 and f2. It was designed as a lens to shoot from f1.6 to f2.8. It’s a very specialist lens.
It’s certainly not a great studio lens where you’d be shooting at f8 all day. For that I’d take the also exceptional Canon 24-70 f2.8 II instead.
Wedding details photographed with canon 50mm 1.2L
When I was new and working in studio, I thought the accuracy of auto focus was guaranteed. Then later I discovered it wasn’t quite as simple as that and in fact it’s more complicated with the different focus points playing a part. Then even later I discovered there were certain lenses which could be relied upon more than others.
As a professional wedding photographer, I now know which lenses I will rely on most for certain jobs, if I want tack-sharp images (and I’m very picky!).
How does the 50mm 1.2 fare then? Very well on the whole. It’s not my most accurate lens but the amount of keepers I receive from a day (and I’m very very picky) is extremely high.
Sharpness and focus accuracy of canon 50mm 1.2L
What is amazing though is I run couple sessions in AI Servo mode with them walking towards and away or moving their heads; even then focus is very accurate when using the correct focus point on a 5d3. This is a massive plus point for me!
Where the lens struggles a bit is in particularly low light (think 1/60th, f1.8, ISO4,000, tungsten light), where it may hunt more than some lenses or just not quite hit the target compared with other lenses. This is slightly exacerbated by the speed of AF, which is slower than the Canon 24-70 f2.8L II or 35L for example; you’ll try to focus on something and, by the time the lens has focused to infinity and back, you’ve missed it. That doesn’t happen often though.
For that reason I tend not to use it when I need to absolutely guarantee focus in very low light conditions. However, when there is a usable amount of light available, focus is accurate and quick enough most of the time.
For the reportage photographers out there, the lens is fast and accurate enough to capture fleeting moments of guests laughing and joking around, or kids running around.
Reportage with Canon 50mm 1.2L
You will read online though that there is a known focus-shift problem with the lens – this tends to be when shooting at mid apertures and doesn’t seem to happen with all copies of the lens. I’ve never experienced this problem but I believe it does exist. If you’re going to buy one, make sure you can return it if you get a turkey!
Compared with the competition
When I bought my copy 5 years ago, there really weren’t many particularly good 50’s on the market. Now, though, there is some competition:
- Canon 50mm f1.8. Cheap and cheerful and recently updated; I wouldn’t personally class this as a professional lens for a wedding photographer though.
- Canon 50mm f1.4. A lens I kind of hated; with harsh boken and a poor design which means it can (and did!) break at just the wrong time, I don’t recommend it. However, it’s a better lens if you wanted to use it in studio.
- Sigma 50mm f1.4. The first 50 Sigma produced; I would recommend it more than the Canon 50mm f1.4, but the new Sigma Art lens is way better than this 50mm 1.4.
- Sigma 50mm Art f1.4. The new kid on the block; I’ve not tried one yet, but people report it’s very sharp and I believe them. My view is that Sigma generally still have a way to go with AF and have some copy variation problems. In terms of the optics, it’s sharp but slightly clinical looking maybe and I prefer the dreamy look of the Canon 1.2 L. It’s a good choice, but I still prefer the Canon.
- Zeiss Otus f1.4. I just had to mention this; it’s about £4000 and doesn’t have AF… but it has the most incredible optics and is very much at medium format quality. Not likely to be found in many wedding photographers kits though.
It all comes down to this; should you shell out what is a very significant amount of money for this lens?
And the answer from me is a resounding “yes”.
I would take it over any other 50mm lens on the market, even though it’s not the sharpest. More than most, this lens has real fans and I’m not the only one. In fact, I’ve been known to quip;
The Canon 50mm 1.2? You’ll have to prise it out of my dying hands.
However, this lens is a little like marmite – some love it and some don’t, especially for the price. So like with all major equipment purchases, maybe the sensible business decision is to rent it and any alternatives (such as the Sigma) first and then buy it if you like it? Lens purchases are quite serious since you’re usually using them for 5-10 or more years.
It’ll be very interesting to see what Canon do with the version 2 of this lens, given the exceptional quality of their recent lenses (the 35L II, 24-70 f2.8L II and 16-35 f4 IS particularly).
Canon are producing exceptional optics and incredible AF and lenses remain the main reason I wouldn’t sell my Canon gear. However, when it’s replaced, I really hope they manage to retain the characteristics of this particular lens because it’s what people love.
Being really honest though, I’m not sure I see any reason to update. It already does everything I want.
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