A Blast from the Past: Canon 50mm f/1.0 ‘L’ USM (1989-2002) Lens Review

About a month ago, photographer, Christopher Frost was able to review a very special lens made by Canon until 2002 – the Canon 50mm f/1.0 ‘L’ USM – the fastest AF lens ever made until this day.

The Canon 50mm f/1.0 ‘L’ USM is a very special lens. Canon made it back in 1989 to show just how far they could take their (then) new EF mount. The lens was hard to manufacture and very expensive compared to anything else in its class and even to this day getting a hand on a good copy of this lens can easily set you back around $5000.

The lens was eventually replaced by the “slower” 50mm f/1.2 but it is still very much coveted by collectors and photographers looking for the fastest lenses around for both stills and video. It is worth mentioning that this lens gets in twice as much light as your 50mm f/1.4 lens – that means that besides the more blurred backgrounds you will also be able to shoot in lower light situations or freeze the action when you need to without raising the ISO too much (this lens was a really needed in the early days of digital photography when even a little bit of ISO gain was very noticeable but it is still lots of fun to use today).

The build quality is similar to Canon’s 85mm f/1.2 – both are made from metal and are very heavy duty although Frost doesn’t recommend to put the lens on its lower part without a cap as the huge glass element might get scratched. The lens has no weather sealing and it weighs about 1kg or 2.2lbs.

Interestingly the AF motor is a fly-by-wire style one – similar to what most mirrorless lenses are using today but finding this type of mechanism in a 1989 high-end lens is very strange (we are not sure if this is the first mechanism of its kind in a lens but it could be). The AF does work very well but it is a little bit slow but for a lens designed over 30 years ago – it is still pretty impressive.

Interestingly, while the AF didn’t work too well through the viewfinder of a Canon DSLR (EOS 6D), but it worked really well on the new EOS R and even the eye AF worked well and was very useful to really nail the focus which is very hard to do manually at f/1.

The lens has a focus limiter with two modes (as well as an MF mode of course) and it does exhibit some noise when focusing as well as some focus breathing which is not a big surprise.

As for sharpness – at f/1 the lens is soft in the center and is not amazing at all in the corners. At f/2 the center is good at f/2 and very good at f/2.8. The corners at f/4 are decent and at f/5.6 are pretty sharp. This is not a razor-sharp lens wide open and it also has some barrel distortion as well as quite a bit of vignette at least until f/1.4 and you will even see a few dark corners at f/2.8 (do note that Canon does not publish any sort of lens correction data for this lens so you are on your own trying to fix these issues).

To get some good sharp close-ups you will need to stop down to at least f/2.8 and you are going to get a lot of flaring in the image (remember this lens has a huge front element in a time where coatings were nowhere near where they are now).

Bokeh, on the other hand, look amazing – this is really the biggest selling point of this lens for people who might be interested in it.

Bottom line – if you can live with the softness and want the fastest Bokeh machine on the planet (with AF) this might be a good option for you (if you can find/afford it). It can also be an interesting choice for video work – especially on new modern bodies and could provide a very unique look. For the rest of us, this lens will probably stay an interesting historical curiosity.

You can find many more previews and reviews on our Photography review section here on LensVid and you can find more of Frost’s videos here on LensVid.

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