Canon’s Ultra Rare Lenses – Using the Canon 50mm f/1.0L

A month or so ago, I was able to get my hands on the Canon 200mm f/1.8L Lens and test it for a review on It was an experiment of an article, as often, we try to discuss gear that we can stock and rent out to our customers. With the Canon 200mm f/1.8L being wholly discontinued and unserviceable, it’s not something we could rent out. However, the readers seemed to enjoy reading about this relic of a lens, so we decided to find another ‘Holy Grail’ of lenses, and I got my hands on the Canon 50mm f/1.0L.

Canon 50mm f/1.0L Review

This lens was graciously loaned to me by Julian Chen out of Santa Monica, CA.

History of the Canon 50mm f/1.0L

The Canon 50mm f/1.0L was introduced in 1989 and is the fastest AF lens available in EF mount, and one of the fastest lenses in the world. At 1018 grams, the Canon 50mm f/1.0L is also an incredibly well-constructed metal-bodied lens, and considered to be one of the best built Canon 50mm’s in the world. Sadly, however, because of its razor-thin depth of field and slow focusing (by today’s standards), the Canon 50mm f/1.0L was discontinued in 2000 and has been hard to find ever since.

The Canon 50mm f/1.0L works on all EF mount camera systems, and uses the Focus-by-Wire system found on the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II, meaning while accurate, the focus is slower when comparing it to more modern designs. Priced at ~$2,500 during the majority of its production run, the Canon 50mm f/1.0L was considered way too expensive for the average photographer, leading to its inevitable production end. However, if you have to have one, many can still be found on eBay for $3,800 – $4,500.

Canon 50mm f/1L Example Photo

Canon 50mm f/1L at f/1.2

Comparing the Canon 50mm f/1.0

When it came down to comparing this lens, I figured the most obvious comparison to make would be against the Canon 50mm f/1.2L, right? Well, wrong. In fact, the Canon 50mm f/1.2 and f/1.0 versions are entirely different by design, and the Canon 50mm f/1.0 is based more on the Canon 85mm f/1.2L I than anything else. So while I do not have a version 1 of the Canon 85mm f/1.2L, being that it was discontinued in 2006 and replaced with the Mark II lens of the same name – a lens I do in fact, have.

Canon 50mm f/1.0L Review

Comparing the Canon 50mm f/1.2L to the Canon 50mm f/1.0L

Canon 50mm f/1.0L Review

From a visual standpoint, the Canon 50mm f/1.0L looks nearly identical to the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II, with its front-heavy design, leaving you with a large front element, and asymmetrical design from front to back (as seen below). The images are very much similar from one to the next as well. I’ve put together a small table of these three lenses below to give you an idea of how it compares to the competition.

Canon 85mm f/1.2 Canon 50mm Comparison

LensPriceMin Focusing DistanceAperture RangeWeight
Canon 50mm f/1.2L$1,300.45mf/1.2 - f/16590g
Canon 50mm f/1.0$4,000 (Used).6mf/1.0 - f/161,017g
Canon 85mm f/1.2L II$1,850.95mf/1.2 - f/161315g

Build Quality

The Canon 50mm f/1.0L has a lot to it that makes it quite a bit different than the other options in the same focal length. As mentioned above, the Canon 50mm f/1.0L is based more on the Canon 85mm f/1.2L design than it is of it’s younger brother, the Canon 50mm f/1.2L. Because of it’s larger dense body, the Canon 50mm f/1.0L no doubt feels premium to the touch. If you’ve ever held the Canon 85mm f/1.2L, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But it’s dense body is well balanced, and feels good on the camera. The added cuff at the base of the body makes it easy to hold when mounting, and just further mimics the feeling of the Canon 85mm f/1.2L.

But with the larger body, also comes a few little-added things that many people might not know about the Canon 50mm f/1.0L. For one, people will often assume that the f/1.0 version has a 1/3rd stop over the Canon 50mm f/1.2L, but that’s actually false. In fact, it has 2/3rds of a stop, being able to implement both f/1.1 and the f/1.0 f-stops.

Canon 50mm f/1 Test Photo

Canon 50mm f/1L at f/1.0

A second surprise is the focusing system on the Canon 50mm f/1.0. Using the same focus-by-wire system as the Canon 85mm f/1.2L, the focusing system is slow by comparison. To help counteract this, Canon has added two focus distances on the focusing switch, to help speed along the process. giving you the option of focusing in two different ranges (0.6m – infinity and 1m – infinity), this option should both speed up the focusing of the lens, as well as provide better accuracy. That said, for the interest of my testing, I kept it in the 0.6m – infinity mode for the entire duration of my testing.

Canon 50mm f/1L Test Photo

Canon 50mm f/1L at f/1.0

Image Quality

I took plenty of photos with the Canon 50mm f/1.0L during my week with it, but I figured it was best to give a more scientific approach to its image quality. In short, it’s pretty mediocre. It vignettes a lot at f/1.0, and its sharpness is pretty lackluster, especially when compared to the competition. Below are some test photos, comparing the Canon 50mm f/1.0L to the Canon 50mm f/1.2L and Canon 85mm f/1.2L II. All of these were shot on a tripod, 55 inches from the stem of the lemon (conveniently pulled from my lemon tree), with the focus point being where the stem meets the body of the lemon.

Canon 50mm f/1L at f/1

Canon 50mm f/1L at f/1.1

Canon 50mm f/1L at f/1.2

Canon 50mm f/1.2L at f/1.2

Canon 85mm f/1.2L II at f/1.2

In addition to the vignetting, I also had a number of sharpness issues with the lens. First, this certainly has to do with it being a lens I was pretty actively shooting at f/1.0, giving you a razor-thin focus plane. But after showing some photos to Roger, he was also able to assess that the copy of the Canon 50mm f/1.0L I had, looked to be decentered. Not exactly a surprise, given the copy I had was 25+ years old and hadn’t been serviced in 20 years. At f/1.0, the depth of field is less than .8 of a centimeter, and when shooting handheld, it’s easier to just say that the Canon 50mm f/1.0 doesn’t really have a focus plane wide open, and many of the photos I took were slightly out of focus.

Canon 50mm f/1L Test Photo

Canon 50mm f/1L at f/1.4

When shooting at the widest apertures (f/1.0, f/1.1, and f/1.2) there seemed to be quite a bit more bokeh cutoff from the mirrorbox than I’ve seen before in lenses. This most often happens at lenses with wider apertures and transforms your circular bokeh into trapezoidal or semicircular bokeh balls. I believe this has to do with and is more apparent with the extremely wide aperture capabilities of f/1.0, but I don’t know the science behind it enough.

Canon 50mm f/1.0L Example Photo

Canon 50mm f/1L at f/1.4


So is the Canon 50mm f/1.0L worth seeking out and owning? Well, probably not. It’s sharpness and usability pales in comparison to the Canon 50mm f/1.2L, and is priced more for rich lens collectors than working photographers. However, leading up to this review, people have asked me what I thought of the Canon 50mm f/1.0, and I’ve been calling it ‘The best worst lens I’ve ever used”, because, well that is what it is. Are you going to get gloriously sharp images from it? No. Are you going to get a nonflaring workhorse? No. But are you going to get a giddy, excited feeling when spinning that dial and seeing f/1.1 and then f/1.0 on that top digital screen? Yeah, probably. So in short, the Canon 50mm f/1.0L is flawed, and it shows its age. But it still has elegance in its imperfections, and it still has a certain charm that sways people into paying $4,000 just to experience it.


Author: Zach Sutton

I’m Zach and I’m the editor and a frequent writer here at I’m also a commercial beauty photographer in Los Angeles, CA, and offer educational workshops on photography and lighting all over North America.

Posted in Equipment
  • NSU67

    Ditto, I love mine. Can’t understand why people say it’s useless

  • NSU67

    I’m dying to try mine on one. I love the lens.

  • NSU67 Couldn’t disagree more. Pretty much the only lens I use. And I have: 24 1.4 II, 35 1.4 II, 50 1.2 (Sold), 85 1.2 II, 85 1.4 IS, 70-200 2.8 II (stopped using because 200), 200 2.0

    I _did_ buy the 85 1.4 to carry around with me, not because I don’t like the 85 1.2 II, because I do, but I like the 50 1.0 more and simply stopped using it.

  • Rob Crenshaw

    Yes, I usually have a polarizer, it seems de rigeur for outdoor car photography so I can play with reflections, or take 2-3 shots and composite the best aspects of each.

    Tbph, the way I got around the high ISO limitation of the 5DSR is to buy Nikon as well. 😀
    I got a D850 for its sensor, and just a few lenses for lower light shots. They needn’t be the ultrafasts bc the files are so pushable, and their 85mm f/1.8 is superb.

    So I guess (ironically), my low light specialist is Nikon. LOL!!!

  • brett turnage

    I bought the 85mm f/1.2 II as my low light specialist. I did an entire shoot at an engine shop a few weeks ago, and the low light forced me to shoot at 3200 iso, which isn’t great especially for the magazine. I live with that iso, but wasn’t happy with the results and also had a hard time capturing fast action movement of subjects. You can’t really tell a guy on a boring or honing machine to stay still, and you also don’t want to distract him with flash, so I knew that I need something that could operate in low light situations, capture fast moving motion, and do it while allowing me to keep my iso as low as possible. The 85mm which I got last week is a dream, but nailing focus on it is something you have to practice. I practice with it everyday and so far for 3 shoots. For me it’s getting comfortable with the lens and figuring out when I need to stop it down to enlarge the DOF, and when it’s okay to play at 1.2 aperture. It’s kinda a tricky lens because the picture on the back LCD will look great, but on the computer you can see that you might want a larger depth a field in a particular situation, so it’s really left up to knowing the lens and remembering presets so that I can get the best from a shot. I honestly love this lens, I never thought I would say that since my 70-200 f/2.8 was my absolute favorite, but the pictures that I get from the 85mm are just magical. It has the x-factor that I have never experienced before.

    I almost bought a tilt shift lens a few months ago when I needed a wide angle for engine shots, interior photos, and for tight places in shops, but decided to go with the 16-35 f4 IS, which is a great lens, but I almost bought the tilt shift for its ability to correct for distortion (no alien headed people).

    With our 5dsr’s having iso similar to a crop sensor because of pixel density and in the fine detail setting with the automatic max being 3200 iso, this lens has been the answer. I can now handhold in dark situations while capturing motion and have iso range between 50-1000 max depending on the ambient lighting.

    I imagine with your 1.0 you have to use a nd filter or polarizer if you shoot in daylight because on my 1.2 I’m maxed out on the shutter speed if I shoot wide open on a bright day.

  • Rob Crenshaw

    I’d rather have the 85mm you have than the 50 I have, but I went a slightly different route in pursuit of a fresh perspective: I bought the 90mm f/2.8 TS-E. The problem with the f/1.0, sharpness aside, is that DOF is so shallow, what do you focus on? The headlights? The A-pillar? You can’t have both, so pick one. A point inbetween? Then nothing is in focus! A car needs to have some focus point for the eyes to rest on and lock on to, and some DOF from that point. Generally I pick the headlights, but at f/1.0 the rear of the car is indistinct and thus I lose the car’s form. So I bought the TS-E in hopes that I could have it all: subject isolation, exact focus at a point of my choosing, and control over DOF beyond stopping down. That conclusion will have to wait though, the TS is a complicated lens to learn to use effectively, and I suspect it’ll take 6-12 months of use to understand it.

  • Stanislaw Zolczynski

    There is another thing to F:1. One is F-stop another T-stop. I heard that old Noctilux F:1 has better transmission then Canon. Any general thought on it?

  • brett turnage

    Great analysis. I too shoot cars for a few major car publications, and I just added an 85mm f/1.2 II to my bag and it’s amazing for my work, but the curiosity of the legendary 50mm 1.0 has always intrigued me until this review. It’s nice to see another car photographers perspective of this lens on the same camera that I use (5DSR).

  • tko

    yeah the rear lens element is cut in order to fit the electrical contacts. that’s why the image looks clipped when you have light sources in the background.

  • David B

    It would be very interested to try this lens on a latest Sony like a9 or a7r3 which has eye af.

  • David Bateman

    Thanks for the reply. Those numbers maybe correct, but are they actually? Would be good to know the real values when you have a chance to look at the exif data.

  • Alan

    I have a good copy of the f1.0. It shines close to mfd and short focus as opposed to infinity focus. On a 5ds, eyelashes are individually resolved and it will hold its own against a GFX if you put it in a scenario of f2.8 iso 12800 vs 1.0 1600

  • Ian Goss

    Please proof read to avoid typing “it’s” when you mean “its”! They have utterly different meaning and usage.

  • Claudia Muster

    Store them on an external server and include a link?

  • Rob Crenshaw

    True true, but you know what’s more useful? My mini spy camera with a built-in light that will make short work of copying those documents. It doesn’t look like a huge camera, and nobody would suspect I was a spy because this camera is so ubiquitous and cleverly disguised. It’s called an iPhone.

  • In order to get MTFs of these kinds of lenses, we’d need to have them shipped to Memphis (I’m based in LA, where it’s MUCH easier to find these types of lenses). With them not being serviceable, it’s really rolling the dice having them shipped out to Memphis to run it through the Olaf machine.

  • Hey there,

    Thank you for the kind words. You can click the images to get a higher resolution, which will make them a little bit larger. Unfortunately, we’re not able to really post full res photos on here most of the time because it would slow down the site considerably, and the backend of this website doesn’t allow images larger than ~2MB. It’s something I’ll brainstorm going forward though, there has to be a way to better show the images on this blog.

  • GuyWith

    Your photos are always magnificent, but they’re too small for us to get the full impact. Would it be possible to get the sysop to post higher-res versions of your art works?

    (And before you ask, yes I’m old, old, old, and I see about as well as a toy poodle with a cloudy eye, so there’s that…)

  • GuyWith

    What a great analysis. People under 50 have no idea how much of a life-or-death issue larger f/stops used to be. And actually, I bet f/1 is still useful if you’re an international spy trying to photograph secret nuclear missile plans in the dark recesses of a facility carved out of a mountainside.

  • Lawrence Dunn

    This is the lens you seek.

    I bought a Sony mirrorless so I could use this lens. You can’t mount it on an Eos EF Mount Camera because the Canon 7 Mount flange-sensor distance is less than the Eos EF. I picked up the 50mm f0.95 earlier in 2017 with a longer term plan on getting a camera to use it on.

  • Turniphead

    Interesting post; thank you Zach! Question, the lemon shots taken with the 50mm look rather back focussed, might that explain the lack of sharpness in those shots? To my eye it looks like the back of the lemon is coming into focus in the 50mm shots. Now I know there’s some field curvature, but a quick look at the ruler clearly shows the 85mm focussed at ~9″, but the 50mm is focussed at ~12″…

  • Uneternal

    Yes, it’s a rangefinder lens, and fans call it “the dream lens” cause of its characteristics.

  • Imagina Brazil

    I used to collect fast F/1.2 Canon mount lenses. I had the EF 50mm F/1.0L and compared it to a Canon FL 55mm F/1.2 (with the EdMika conversion to EF). Shooting both at F/1.2 the FL 55mm blew away the 50mm F/1.0.

    Surprisingly, a (later serial number – perhaps above 60,000) Canon FL 55mm F/1.2 Lens is the sharpest wide open of all the fast lenses I used to own and the image looks great. Very inexpensive also.

  • Don B

    Clearly, one issue with the lens is it’s reluctance to be photographed. Seriously, while all the other photos are fine on my screen, the images of the lenses are so dark that most of the lens is practically invisible. Perhaps stealth photography is its real forte?

  • Zach, vs the Noctilux?

  • Arthur Meursault

    “it’s a great lens to own, but not to use”

    Using as an ashtray is use.

  • Rob Crenshaw

    This review is spot-on. I bought one earlier this year on eBay and it’s an anachronism for collectors. Forget about the fact I spent money, let’s pretend it was free and not valuable. For actual use, my friend’s Sigma Art lens is much sharper wide open, as is the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM, at a loss of 1 and 2 stops respectively, which is not much in the real world considering high ISO performance (I’m using a 5DSR), and the tradeoff of this lens’ sharpness at anything less than f/1.8, in which case you might as well use the STM, which I do.

    The other problem is how SLOW the AF is. It’s not slow, it’s abysmal. And because it is focus by wire, you can’t rush it like you could if it were mechanical manual focus. So where this lens would shine, when it’s dark and absolute sharpness is not needed but a mood and moment is, it cannot focus fast enough to capture anything live and unfurling before you, like a show in a dark club.

    Since it requires patient and methodical focusing, work pace crawls, so you have to invent shots it’s good at. Portraits? Meh, I’d rather use a longer focal length. Car photography? (That’s what I bought it for) Meh, I’d still rather use an 85mm, but is the bokeh of the 50mm f/1.0 enough to justify it’s own look and kind of shot? For me, no, the sharpness is unusable for cars at f/1.0, so I’m stopping down to f/1.8-2.8 anyway, I’ll use the $100 featherweight and 1000x faster focusing STM thanks.

    But let’s say I do want a dreamy creamy look at 50mm. Then I pull out the Holga and run film thru it. Seriously, I do this and it looks great. Scan the film on a flatbed and voila.

    This lens was designed and manufactured to do two things: provide a working photographer a usable 2/3 stop over a 1.4 back when FILM was slow and that extra speed meant a usable shot vs a throwaway, and to embarrass Nikon. The lens was announced with the original EOS system way back when and, together with the 85mm f/1.2L, Canon wanted statement lenses to woo photographers to this new system, in hopes of taking the pro market. The rest is history, and in that context it’s a great lens to own, but not to use.

  • RagnarDanneskjöld

    ( ;

  • Refurb7

    It does look pretty, however.

  • Alan

    You’re quite correct. The f0.95 lens was fitted (if I remember correctly without looking it up) to the Canon 7 or 7s (Dream?) camera. I don’t believe it was ever fitted to a SLR type camera. Last time I saw one I was in Olongapo in the Philippines (around 1999) and a roadside trader offered it to me (with the camera) for next to nothing – I just didn’t have enough cash with me. I asked him to keep it for me but when I went back next day with the cash he’d already sold it elsewhere. Moral of the story – carry plenty of cash but beware of pickpockets!

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