This weekend I broke my usual line of purchases by buying the Canon 50mm f/1.8 Mk 1 lens. What’s so different about this lens? A couple of things, actually.
For starters, the Canon 50mm is a prime lens. The battle has long raged over prime vs. zoom lenses, photogs going all out to prove that one is superior to the other. I’m not interested in that – to me it isn’t a matter of superiority, but rather a matter of one lens being better suited to a particular situation than the other.
The pros of a prime lens are simple: they tend to have wide, fast apertures (usually f/2.8 or better) with a very narrow depth of field (DOF), which is perfect for isolating the subject against a lovely out-of-focus background. And because of their physical construction, image quality is generally excellent.
As for cons, well… I’ve heard several photogs say that zoom lenses “make photographers lazy.” With a prime you have to physically move your location to alter the composition and perspective. That can be a challenge, but it’s not usually a con.
So after a hiatus of several years I’m returning prime lenses to my bag for a couple of reasons. In large part I’ve been inspired by the photographs I’m seeing on Style Me Pretty. The ultra-shallow DOF and blurred backgrounds appear to be one of the current trends in wedding photography, but more than that, they make for absolutely beautiful images. Combined that with their isolating power and low-light performance and I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner.
The other major difference in my Canon 50mm is its age. This lens is from the late 1980s – nearly as old as I am. Most of the time it’s the newest lenses that garner all the attention, so you may be wondering why I specifically bought a 20 year-old lens. Simple – because it really is that good.
Sometime in the 1990s, Canon came out with a new 50mm f/1.8 Mk 2 version of the this lens. This is the version you can still order up new from B&H for under $100. Why so cheap? Because it is, well, cheap. The Mk 2 version is built entirely of plastic, from the lens mount to the focus ring. And you get what you pay for - a good little lens that will fall apart after receiving the first good shock. (The net is full of stories about people who knocked their 50mm Mk 2 against a door or wall by accident, only to have it literally go to pieces in their hands – and we’re talking the kind of light knocks that other lenses shrug off without a second thought.)
The difference in quality, combined with a better focus ring, metal lens mount, and supposed higher performance have made the old Mk 1 version a sort of cult classic. Good luck finding one on eBay for less than $175 (which, granted, is still cheap for a lens).
In actual use I’m blown away by this lens. The images are good and sharp at f/1.8, but stop down to f/2.8 or f/4 and they get even sharper. The minimum focus distance is decently close, and the 50mm range (approx. 85mm on an APS-C sensor) is just right for portraits in smaller spaces. My only real complaint is the auto-focus, which is a bit noisy and tends to hunt a bit in low light. But given the lens’ age and performance, I’m more than happy to overlook that.
So here’s the final scoop: if you want to experiment with a prime, get a feel for working with shallow DOF, spring for the nearly-disposable Mk 2 version of this lens. But if you’ve used primes before and know you want a good one, hunt down a Mk 1 version online, and don’t be afraid to pay a little more just to get it. It’s worth it.
After further reflection: I keep eying the 50mm f/1.4 lens, but I never pull the trigger on it. There are too many reports of issues with it, and in all honestly, my old Mk I is still going strong. For as cheap as it is, it’s an incredible little lens. Is the f/1.4 version worth 4x as much? Is the L version worth 14x as much? Some folks seem to think so…but I really can’t see myself ever getting rid of this oldie goldie. If you can find a Mk I version in good shape, it’s worth buying it.