Equipment

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 Lensrentals.com. 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

 Conclusion

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 Lensrentals.com. I’m also an editorial and portrait photographer in Los Angeles, CA, and offer educational workshops on photography and lighting all over North America.

Posted in Equipment
  • NSU67
  • NSU67
  • NSU67
  • NSU67

    I find high ISO works for scenes, not for faces. At least that’s with my Canon 6D. I’m playing with it now (very early stages) with the Sony A7R III. I do want a very __limited__ focal area.. I don’t mind if most of the image is a blur. It’s NOT a resolution monster.. but that’s respectable enough and does what I want it to. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/84706c34c7951da898b7ea717534652627777a72407283f3facd46ff16443434.jpg Here’s a quick test sample.

  • Rob Crenshaw

    Ah I see, the car shot you just stepped back a bit. I’d be interested to see what you think of the lens after using it on a much higher-res camera like I do, you may see it differently. My approach is different: I can blur detail easily, but cannot create detail that isn’t there, and I’m not fussy about grain, so I can also shoot anytime, anywhere, I just bump the ISO.

  • NSU67

    I use my 50 1.0 to shoot portraits anywhere, anytime and in any available light. Done in under 30 minutes.

  • NSU67

    I have an A7R III rented for this weekend.. will report back

  • NSU67

    I have an A7R III rented for htis weekend

  • NSU67

    Thanks Rob. That is at F1.0 I never stop it down. It’s just at a longer focal distance so has a bit more depth of field. I also add sharpening to my my car shots which might be throwing you off. I have a Sony A7R III rented for this weekend and will be using all my canon primes on it. I can’t explain how excited I am. Personally, I’m not so fussy about resolution.. it’s the overall image I’m more interested in. The 1.0 gives me the ability to shoot anywhere, anytime, with available light. That’s worth it’s weight in gold right there. I do most of my photo shoots in 30 minutes on my drive home from work. I just find some shade and bang off portraits.

  • Rob Crenshaw

    Nice shot!! Nice car, I want one. But that’s not at f/1.0, and shows the same nervous bokeh mine does. Look at the gridded window above the car. Point is, if this isn’t at f/1.0-1.2, the 1.8 will take a better picture.

    Your other shots are really nice as well, you use this lens within its capabilities. The moody shots are undemanding for resolution, not like the 6D is very high-res anyway. The camera may be part of the reason you do not find the lens lacking, it isn’t high resolution enough. I did not know the Nikon 24-120 was resolution limited until I bought the 850, on the 810 it was superb. Your moody shots do not have many areas of fine detail, or high contrast, they are also in diffuse light. The CA problem is MUCH worse in better lighting. That said, your shots are great, and your work suits this lens very well, I can see why you like it.

  • Alan

    I am happy to lend my personal one to Memphis if Roger wants to test it. It is not sharp like my 200/1.8 (or my TEC 110FL telescope) but it is surprisingly good on my 5ds (again at short focus not infinity)

  • Except for when you just need that wee bit more.

  • Was a great lens in it’s time but there’s much better ones available now. Don’t know why some are saying it was slow to focus, I always found it to be quick enough to shoot runners.

  • NSU67

    I’ve made 2 posts with pictures in the main feed and 1 post with a picture in the comment. I’m using it with a Sony A7R III this weekend CAN’T WAIT. Since you said cars, here’s a car shot. Vignette is added/enhanced in all of my pictures post. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3e2fb8e4f26a9feeef36cf0d0ca05da24e99667f524fbe3d69632de95ed5f35c.jpg

  • Arthur Meursault

    Yes it would be. Or as a paperweight. Ashtray or paperweight. As simple as that.

  • brett turnage

    I agree with you. Unless it’s a really beat up lens, it should not be super out of spec.

    The aperture that I choose really depends on the type of photography that I’m doing in the article and whether or not it is my solo article or if it is an article directed by one of the editors. If it is the former I have more leeway to determine the artistic direction, but if it is for the Senior technical editor, then I have to shoot it the way that he likes it. For technical articles everything is usually small apertures f/16-f/32 because they want everything in frame completely clear, and they don’t care about diffraction. However, if I’m shooting a scored cylinder wall, then I will put on the 50mm f/2.5 macro and shove it right down the cylinder and shoot at f/8 so that they can zoom into the picture to show the tiny knicks and other damage. Most of my technical shots I shoot are done with my 70-200 f/2.8 and the exposures can be pretty long, but with the wifi adapter installed, I’m across the room planning the next shot, so I’m not waiting for the exposure to finish or worrying about camera shake. For panning shots its all 70-200 f/2.8, usually set at f/11 because they want the car perfectly clear.

    For my own articles I will play around with f/1.2 for some shots. I might be 15-20 feet back to elongate the DOF, but I find that the subject isolation of the larger aperatures adds a feeling to an image that would not exists if most or everything was clear in the shot. For instance, a shot I took last weekend of a technician spray painting a flex plate to check for lateral runout. I took two versions of the same shot, one at 1.2 and another at 5.6. The 5.6 image looked average, but nothing jumped out at you because everything clear it was not apparent what you are supposed to focus on. The same picture at 1.2 was drastically different, your eyes were immediately drawn to the hand, the paint can, and the spray going on to the flex plate, and it was clear not relying on a caption to explain what was happening (although it would still have a cation because it’s a tech article).

    I had 3 shoots last week, and I used it to test out the 85mm. I primary shot the first car at 1.2 and like before I used the distance between me and the car to expand the DOF. I think I was back about 30-40 ft, which for a car still filled the frame. I loved the pictures that I got at that aperture, but as I’m sure you know if you are shooting cars that are not yours, you have to assume that you will never have the opportunity to reshoot. So getting duplicate shots that are at different apertures is key. I don’t want to only have 1.2 because blown up there might be something annoying that might bug the editor in chief who is the main decider of all content. So better safe than sorry.

  • Rob Crenshaw

    Where did you post pix? I’d like to see them! Since I do actually have this lens within easy reach, I’d like to see what I’m missing, and whether your results work for me. And in case I miswrote, I did not buy the lens to stop down, but mainly for low light night shots of cars.

  • Wilson Laidlaw

    In a way it is similar to the even more expensive at the time, Leica 50mm f1 Noctilux (not the current f0.95 version, which is more of an all rounder). Great at what you can achieve with it but ultimately a bit of a “one trick pony” for shallow DoF shots with dreamy, aberration generated OOF. The contemporary 50mm/f1.4 Summilux Version III (my favourite Leica 50mm lens) was a far more useful all round performer.

  • NSU67

    I posted some examples of my use of it. It’s my favourite lens. After carefully reading your review, I think maybe I like it for many of the reasons you don’t. If you bought it to stop down, you didn’t buy the right lens, that’s for sure. You do mention indoors in poor light, that’s one of my favourite uses of it. I shoot cars with it at 1.0 btw. Have no trouble with being outdoors too.

  • Rob Crenshaw

    I’ve been pretty lucky following Ken’s advice, but lensrentals has the advantage of sota testing eqpt and multiple samples. I was willing to pop on the 1.0 bc I got it for slightly under market with a lucky low bid, so I figured if I didn’t find a use I could sell it again in a few years, maybe Ken’s right and it’ll even increase in value.

    It’s true that there is no baseline for these old lenses, but barring massive damage which would shift all the elements and cause all sorts of optical problems, if the lens exhibits normal fixed lens behavior (vignetting and a drop in resolution as you move towards the corners, worst wide open and gradually disappearing a few stops down), and doesn’t show any anomalies in focus, it’s OK. It may not be the sharpest example, but usually there are obvious signs that something is wrong. I’ve returned brand new lenses bc of decentering, where one whole big corner area never comes in focus!

    I’m curious what aperture(s) you use the most for professional work. Mine is all amateur, and I find myself using f/2.8-4. Wider apertures have too little DOF, and smaller ones start to render the background. This is assuming a walkaround normal zoom, if I’m using the 100-400 then all bets are off, I’ll use a longer focal length to isolate just the right background, and generally the aperture doesn’t matter much.

    And if I could choose a legendary lens, absolutely it would be the 200/1.8. No need to worry above unsharp pictures, the MTF charts are uh, off the chart. 😀

  • brett turnage

    Yah, Ken’s review was an incredibly glowing. I use his reviews to inform my buying decisions, but I weigh it versus other reviewers, and I’ve seen other reviews where the pictures were unusable because almost everything was blurry or as Kai W said. “the 1.0 was softer at all apertures than your nan’s dinner.” I mentioned it as a perhaps you can learn to use the lens like you tilt shift lens, so it’s not a wash.

    When I look at the pictures of the lemon above the details lost in both the 50 1.0 and the 50 1.2 are stark compared to the dirt in the lemon’s skin that is visible in the 85.

    Like you said, if it’s not in focus or if the car is not in focus across it’s length, then it is going to hurt your shots. The mag that I shoot for, Hot Rod, they like some shots to be very artsy with bokeh, but it still has to be within reason. I have a shoot at a transmission manufacturer in a few weeks and for it, I will use 1.2 for some shots, but I have to stop it down to larger apertures or the shoot would be a wash. I think with my lens the 1.2 is great for some shots but other situations like needing to shoot a person under a car on a lift, or an entire transmission being assembled might call for a larger DOF.

  • Rob Crenshaw

    That’s deep.

  • Rob Crenshaw

    It was actually Ken’s piece that pushed me to buy it. He was very enthusiastic, but I think in this case it may have been a bit of pandering. The lens has so much CA wide open – wait, I’ll just post my notes. I apologize if it seems repetitive to what I wrote above!

    This old school lens will take some time to explore. It is big, heavy, slow to AF, and suffers from heavy color fringing at wider apertures. By normal testing standards the resolution and vignetting are abysmal until f/4, and never really come into focus at all. The 50mm f/1.8 STM will take much clearer, sharper pictures at wider apertures. The f/1.0 L has great contrast compared to the f/1.8, but in this era of digital that’s not relevant. At smaller apertures it is consistently good, the equal of the f/1.8, and even f/16 diffraction is not that obtrusive, but at f/8 corner blur and color fringing is still noticeable. Buying this lens to shoot at f/8 is not it’s purpose, and such usage would be better addressed with the $100 STM. So what good is it then? I don’t know yet, but between f/1.0 and f/2 are three intermediate settings, and low light pictures should be possible at handhold-able speeds. Real world pictures are contrasty, but difficult to get in focus at f/1.0. Using Live View apparently helps, but testing at infinity did not suggest any increase in focusing accuracy. It’s a one-trick pony, which is that there isn’t another AF lens that goes to f/1.0. So can it take pictures no other lens can take?

    Outdoors under sunlight, no. The lens doesn’t become cohesive until f/2, so there’s no reason to not use the STM, there’s no “magic look” from f/1-1.8, it just looks crappy vintage, blurry with fringing. For this kind of look a Lensbaby is hugely more pleasing, and the vintage look achievable with much less expensive albeit slower lenses. So it’s down to shooting under extremely dim conditions, or at its closest focus, where the background blur is so creamy. Is it worth the weight, cost, and slow AF?

    Indoors under dim light? Maybe? It’s only one stop difference from the (better) Sigma ART and 1.5 stops from the STM. Will the bump in ISO to achieve the same shutter speed be noticeable? And if so, bothersome? It seems this is a film era product, and there’s not much reason to choose this over an f/1.8–f/2.

  • NSU67

    Nope

  • NSU67

    I disagree

  • NSU67
  • NSU67

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bd139e5b49fed88abae9c27bfc7ad89c1d780d198fe4aa170a329568a6a0e6e5.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c3959152a98be7d40700046cfff11c7071f5502fcb573d3b7aaff1edade80d34.jpg Mirrorless eye focus is where it’s going to really shine. No back or front focus issues at all. But in general, people just don’t get that YOU DON’T USE IT FOR THE SHARPNESS. When it’s super sharp it’s amazing and really cool.. but I also don’t mind the mild missfires.

  • brett turnage

    That’s one way of dealing low light. As we all know we have to have tools in our bag to answer every situation that we face. Check out Ken Rockwell’s review on the 1.0 if you haven’t already. Hopefully you can figure out how to make it work for your shoots. If not, you have a serious collector piece that will only gain in value if you don’t sell it.

  • Alan

    I have the EdMika modified FL 55 non-asphericals (two actually). My 1.0 is sharper. I may have gotten lucky!

  • Alan

    I definitely understand. Canon AF is not good enough for per pixel sharpness unless you use single point back button af and even though it is floating element, it is pretty lousy at infinity focus (which is where most lenses are tested).

    Using Reikan Focal, I actually get better performance when a UV filter is on the lens as opposed to noUV filter.

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