Ever wonder what Canon’s best budget lens is? I did too, so I did some research and discovered that at $125 (as of this writing), the EF Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM prime lens is Canon’s most affordable lens. I won’t say “cheapest” lens, because despite the low price point, this lens isn’t “cheap” (as in “low quality”) at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! This lens has had several nicknames over the years, like “The Plastic Fantastic”, and “The Nifty Fifty”. Ok–so it’s the least expensive Canon lens. Big deal. The more important question is, how can it improve your photography?
Some people believe that in order to create amazing photographs, they absolutely must have some new camera body. (I know, because I was one of them). But I’m here to tell you it’s the lenses that make the real difference. However, the lenses are also the things that cost the most. Do you want to create more professional looking photos without breaking the bank? Have you ever wondered, “What lens should I buy?” I can’t imagine not having my Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM lens in my camera bag. I daresay, there aren’t many photographers out there who don’t have one. In this article, I’ll go over the features of the lens, as well as break down some useful ways this lens can help you.
Why Would You Want This 50mm Lens?
Have you ever seen photos with that super creamy, blurry background, and wondered, “How can I take photos that look like that?” If you’ve ever researched lenses, you’ll inevitably end up asking this question: “What lens should I buy?” Now, technically, I know that the answer to that question is, “It depends…” I get it. Knowing what lens to buy depends on a number of things. Usually the first question I have when someone asks “what lens should I buy?” is, “What subject material are you going to shoot?” Landscapes? Portraits? Wildlife? It’s true–certain lenses are better for certain photography niches. But generally speaking, if you own a Canon DSLR, and want to start creating beautiful photos with amazing blurry bokeh backgrounds without spending many hundreds of dollars, then the 50mm “Nifty Fifty” might be the perfect lens for you.
First, A Confession…
Let me start by admitting that I don’t own a fancy, expensive camera body. I just have a Canon 80D. It’s not a “pro-level” camera, but it’s extremely capable by itself. The reason I’m sharing that with you, is because people sometimes say, “It isn’t the camera, it’s the photographer.” I didn’t used to believe that. I used to think, “In order for me to be a really good photographer, I NEED a 5D Mark IV.” As cool as it would be to have one, I don’t have piles of cash laying around to buy “pro-level” camera systems like the 5D Mark IV. In fact, I was lucky I got my 80D.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that with the right techniques and lenses, I can create some pretty cool stuff–even with my “prosumer” level camera. Honestly, with the right lenses, I bet I could even create some amazing stuff with a T3i, T6i, or any other EF-S mount Rebel system. Canon’s most affordable lens, the 50mm f/1.8 was my first “new lens” purchase for my Canon 80D. I just want you to know that you can achieve great results when you use good quality glass like the 50mm f/1.8 STM–no matter which camera body you have–and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.
50mm f/1.8 STM Overview
Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 STM (released in May, 2015) is in fact, Canon’s most affordable lens (as of this writing) around $125 brand new. That’s not too shabby at all! And, if you look on reputable used-camera-gear websites like KEH and MPB, I bet you can find a “previously owned” copy in really good condition, for even more savings. The 50mm is usually the first lens people buy when upgrading from their 18-55mm or 18-135mm “kit” lenses. With its f/1.8 aperture, the 50mm prime provides solid low light performance, and produces images with a very shallow depth of field, resulting in beautiful background bokeh blur. It’s great for portraits, as well as general-use photography.
The excellent price point does come with some tradeoffs however. First, there’s no image stabilization. In addition, there’s no “zoom” function. As with all prime lenses, you’ll need to “zoom with your feet” to properly frame your subjects.
Some Canon lenses feel “better made” than others, depending on which materials are used. The 50mm feels somewhere in between. Remember one of its nicknames is the “Plastic Fantastic”. Although it’s mostly plastic, it definitely doesn’t feel flimsy or “cheap”. At the same time, since it doesn’t have a magnesium body, it doesn’t feel indestructible either. Although it’s relatively light weight, it does have a metal lens mount, which reassures us of its build quality and durability. (Most kit lenses have plastic mounts–and they’re not as durable.) The 159g (5.6 oz) lens looks right at home on the Canon 80D.
Accessories for the 50mm f/1.8 STM
While you can capture beautiful photos with just your camera and lens, there are some optional accessories you can attach to your lens to improve your photography a smidge. None of these are “required” per se, but I wanted to mention them, as I personally find them immensely useful in certain situations, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned with you.
The optional Canon ES-68 lens hood (not included with the lens for some reason) connects snugly around the end of the lens, and protects against unwanted light flare in photos. The lens hood is worth purchasing, not only to reduce lens flare, but also because it also protects the main lens element, which extends slightly during focusing.
Canon’s most affordable lens features an oddly sized 49mm filter thread size for you to connect a circular polarizer (CPL) or Neutral Density (ND) filter. If you’re new to lens filters, here’s a quick primer:
- ND filters are like sunglasses for your lens. The ones I mention below get darker as you rotate them–meaning they have multiple “stops” of light reduction. They’re super helpful when you’re outside shooting video with your DSLR on bright sunny days.
- CPL filters are like polarizing sunglasses for your lens. They remove (or significantly reduce) glint, reflections, and glare from cars, glass, water, and other shiny, reflective things. So if you plan on taking car photos, be sure to have a CPL on your lens.
For your convenience, here’s some Amazon links for the lens hood, as well as some ND and CPL filters. These aren’t the most expensive filters out there, but they’re not the cheapest either. I personally use both Hoya and Gobe filters, and can vouch for their quality. And no, they didn’t pay me to say any of that. I just want to share what I personally use, in case you’re curious.
49mm CPL and ND Filters
Since it’s a “prime” lens, there’s no zoom ring, but it features a manual focus ring. In addition, it has a switch to toggle between AF/MF (auto focus, and manual focus). The focus ring doesn’t stop at a left or right end point—it spins freely, 360 degrees. The lens also features full-time manual (FTM) focus. That means you can adjust the focus ring while the lens is in auto focus mode without breaking anything. You just need to half press the shutter button, then make your manual focus adjustments. There’s no focus distance window on this lens. Minimum focusing range is 1.1 feet or 0.35 meters, which isn’t bad, but doesn’t get us into “macro” territory either. Since there’s no hard stop for “infinity” focus, the autofocus system takes care of infinity for you.
Tech Mumbo Jumbo
The lens contains 6 optical elements in 5 groups which are multi-coated with what Canon calls, “Super Spectra Coating”. The lens features 7 rounded aperture blades, allowing this lens to open up to f/1.8 at its widest point, stopping down to f/22 at its smallest.
Bokeh and f/1.8 Aperture
Reviews always have lots of specs, and technical gobbledygook. While the specs are important, the best part about a lens isn’t the specs, it’s the awesome photos you’ll create with it. This little 50mm lens will help you create photos with amazing blurred backgrounds. That’s right. That cool blur effect is called “bokeh”. I like that effect so much, I dedicated an entire post to the subject, linked here.
So how do lenses achieve those cool blurred bokeh backgrounds? A general rule is, the lower the aperture f/value is, the more bokeh you can get. Aperture is the iris thing inside your lens that opens up to let in more light. How wide that aperture opens is measured with f/numbers. The lower the f/number, the wider the iris opens. A standard 18-55mm kit lens can open up as wide as f/3.5 (at 18mm), and f/5.6 (at 55mm). Now, f/3.5 and f/5.6 aren’t horrible numbers, but when you’re after bokeh, they’re not all that great either. This 50mm f/1.8 can open up to… well… f/1.8. Which is massively wide compared to your kit lens!
I know, I know–Aperture isn’t the “only” way to bokeh
While this is mainly a Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM lens review, (not a “bokeh how-to), I know there’s experts out there who will say you can achieve decent bokeh with a kit lens by using other techniques. For example, moving your subject away from the background, so there’s a fair amount distance between them, and the backdrop. Also, you can zoom your lens all the way in, and back away from your subject to frame them. Finally, with your lens zoomed–and your subject standing away from the backdrop, you can get an OK bokeh effect with a kit lens. But seriously, with a 50mm f/1.8, your mind will be blown. The wider aperture really delivers!
Head to Head: 50mm vs 18-135mm kit lens
Below are two images–the first taken with the 50mm f/1.8 STM lens, the second taken with the 18-135mm kit lens, zoomed in to 50mm. Notice how much creamier the background blur is from the 50mm f/1.8 STM lens!
Image quality from the 50mm lens is pretty good at f/1.8. However if you look close, you’ll notice chromatic aberration around light and dark contrasting portions of your photos. Chromatic aberration is that green and purple color fringing at the edges of dark objects with light in the background. That fringing can be easily cleaned up using post production tools like Adobe Lightroom. Also at f/1.8, you may notice some faint vignetting in the corners, and softer details on the edges as well. If you stop down to f/2.8 you’ll notice an improvement in sharpness at the edges. Additionally, you’ll see even more improvement at f/4. Bokeh at f/1.8 is nice, and background light elements (bokeh balls) appear generally round—not hexagonal like previous versions of this lens.
Who is this 50mm Lens For?
Who is this lens for? You’ve got your Canon DSLR and the kit lens it came with, but you want more. You want to create nicer looking images, but don’t want to spend too much on a lens you might not like. Sound familiar? Take the plunge, and get yourself a 50mm f/1.8 STM. You’ll open up a whole new world of possibilities, and your camera will feel new again! Some people I’ve talked to have joked that the 50mm is like a ‘gateway lens’—meaning once you begin to fully understand what your camera is capable of, you’ll start wanting nicer (and much more expensive) lenses to achieve those results. With this 50mm lens attached, you’ll see that your “entry level” camera can actually produce very high quality images. And it all starts with Canon’s most affordable lens: the 50mm f/1.8 STM.
Even if you only own a Canon SL2 or T7, (which are good cameras, but nowhere near “pro” levels), you can still produce high-quality images with the right lens. Lenses truly are the largest part of the equation. As Jared Polin says, “GLASS GLASS GLASS GLASS GLASS!”
So do you have an “entry-level” Canon SL2? Maybe a T6? Think your camera isn’t capable of producing amazing images? Want to take professional looking photos you’ll be proud to print and hang on a wall? If you pick up one of these little Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM lenses, you won’t be disappointed. Furthermore, it’s Canon’s most affordable lens, and conveniently available all over the place—online, and in stores like Walmart and Best Buy—so no excuses! Finally, you can take your photos up to a new level! You can do it!
Now get out there and shoot! And remember to have fun!!!
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