Probably the Best 50mm Lens Ever Made: Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L Versus Sigma Art 50mm f/1.4 Versus EF 50mm f/1.2L

For many of us, a 50mm lens is the first "proper" lens that we ever bought. The kit lens can be great but there's nothing quite like a good wide aperture prime lens. Thanks to a rental company in the UK called Hire A Camera, I was able to test and compare what I think might be the best 50mm lens ever made. 

In this article and in the video linked above I compare three relatively popular 50mm prime lenses. For a long time, my personal favorite has been the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens. This is a lens I bought, own, and have used frequently. For the price, it offers incredible value for money due to its super sharp optics and quality bokeh. The trade-off with this lens is that it is rather large and heavy. This is especially true when you compare it to the older Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L. This lens is incredibly small and light compared to the sigma even with that wider aperture. I personally value having smaller and lighter equipment and for that reason, I really enjoyed shooting with this EF lens. Finally, there is the new Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L. This is the heaviest and largest of the three and with the most number of glass elements. The RF mount version is almost double the size and weight of the older EF lens which is quite a jump. Lining the lenses up next to each other clearly shows just how much of a difference there is between the three. 

Image Quality

Bokeh is the first thing I wanted to compare between these lenses. If you're shooting with a super wide aperture lens chances are you probably want to shoot wide open. In the gallery below, you'll be able to see three images from each lens. In all fairness the differences are minor, however, still noticeable. The Sigma art lens produced the most circular bokeh at the edges of the frame. Some people prefer images that don't produce a lot of that cat-eye type bokeh and if that's valuable to you then Sigma may be the best option. Both Canon lenses produce bokeh that is very similar in look and shape. The older EF mount lens was praised for having beautiful smooth looking bokeh and it's great to see that Canon has not sacrificed this feature in the updated RF mount lens. What's important to note is that although both Canon lenses have a wider aperture, in real-world use you won't notice a significant difference between f/1.2 and f/1.4 lenses

In the second comparison below I shot all three lenses wide open in a controlled environment. The EF mount lens wasn't known for being the sharpest lens at f/1.2 and it is considerably softer than the other two. Details are extremely muddy and have an almost out of focus look to them. The Sigma lens is a brilliant performer when it comes to detail and sharpness and even wide open it's able to produce beautiful sharp results. This is one of the reasons why the Art lens from Sigma gained so much popularity. It was one of the first few 50mm lenses at a relatively affordable price point that offered super sharp results. Then there is the new RF mount 50mm lens from Canon and this lens is simply incredible. Even at f/1.2, it produces some of the sharpest results I've ever seen. The detail and clarity it manages to retain is something that not many if any other f/1.2 lens can produce. Canon has really outdone themselves when it comes to how good this lens is for detail. Previously you would have had to stop all the way down to around f/5.6 just to get sharp results. This new RF lens is definitely one you can properly use wide open and produce detailed results.  

Finally, I wanted to see how these lenses performed in heavy backlit scenarios. In these situations, many lenses tend to lose a lot of contrast and heavy flaring can be distracting. The EF mount lens was the worst of the three and produced the most amount of flares and had some very visible loss in contrast. This can be a problem for some photographers, however, in my experience, many portrait photographers actually use these "flaws" in a creative way. The Sigma lens actually performed really well in this environment and not only did it retain contrast quite well but the flaring was better contained than the EF lens. The RF lens was once again the better of the three and produced the most detailed results with relatively minimal flaring. The RF lens also retained contrast better than the other two lenses. 

Autofocus

This is an area that I found a little tricky to compare for a couple of reasons. The main reason was the fact that I was comparing all three lenses on native mount cameras. The Sigma and the EF 50mm lenses were both only used on the Canon 5D Mark IV. To my knowledge lenses tend to work best on native mounts and for that reasons I opted not to adapt these lenses on to the Canon EOS R. Through the viewfinder the 5D Mark IV did struggle quite a bit when it came to low light scenarios. This was true regardless of which lens I tried. This is obviously more to do with the camera than the actual lenses. Having said that the Sigma did perform much better than the EF 50mm did through the viewfinder and this could be because the EF mount lens is much older. The RF lens never seemed to have any problems when it came to shooting in low light situations I rarely missed focus even when shooting wide open. On the Mark IV, both lenses did miss focus more frequently, however, once I switched to live view all three lenses performed in a very similar way. Both cameras use a very similar (if not the same) focusing system from the sensor and in live view, the shooting experience was pretty much identical with all three lenses. 

Real World Shooting Scenarios

Testing all three lenses with Anete who was modeling for us, I struggled to pick an overall winner. The reason is that each lens has its own respective advantages. The Canon EF 50mm was the worst when it came to sheer technical performance, however, I really enjoyed the small compact size. As mentioned above I personally value weight and size and for me, this was a great feature. The lens also produced images with tonnes of character. Yes, it is very soft wide open but for many portrait photographers, this may actually be useful. 

5D Mark IV and EF 50mm f/1.2L

The Sigma sat comfortably in-between both the Canon lenses both in terms of size and performance. Sure it's not an f/1.2 lens but honestly, the difference between apertures in real-world situations is minimal at best. Yes, the Canon lenses do produce slightly blurrier backgrounds but unless you have two images side by side, I doubt anyone will really be able to tell what it was shot on. The price point of this lens is what makes the biggest difference and I think the Sigma lens is the best value for money. It's still the cheapest of the three and it offers fantastic image quality. 

5D Mark IV and Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art

Then there's the RF mount 50mm lens and this is without a doubt the best of the three. The details it's able to produce are simply incredible. I will go as far as to say that there is no lens like this on the market. More than likely it's probably better than any medium format lens on the market too around a similar focal length. Even wide open the clarity is simply stunning and this is something Canon continues to do really well. They may not produce the best cameras on the market but they produce some of the absolute best lenses. 

The main reason as to why I struggled to call this the overall winner was due to the price tag. From a technical standpoint, yes this is absolutely the best, however, it's not the best when it comes to value for money. With a price tag of over $2000, it's difficult to recommend when you have options like the Sigma art lens. If money isn't an issue for you and you demand the absolute best in quality then sure, this is without a doubt the best option on the market. As much as I love the kind of images this lens can produce, it;s not a lens I'll be buying anytime soon. I literally have no place for it in my workflow. I would however quite happily rent this lens and if you're based in the UK, I highly recommend Hire A Camera

Final Thoughts

Ultimately it comes down to what you value the most. If you're looking for the best 50mm lens on the market then the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L is more than likely the one for you. There are no other lenses that can produce the kind of results that this lens can. Having said that, I still think the Canon EF mount lens has a place on the market for many portrait photographers. Its price point is much easier to swallow and it produces beautiful results with lots of character. Personally, I think I'll stick with the Sigma art lens for now because it's the most affordable of the three and still continues to offer fantastic image quality.

Please check out the full video and let me know what you think. 

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37 Comments

The only thing that stays with me after each and every article like this is that the classic formula stating that the quality of equipment is in reciprocal relationship with the quality of photography. I don’t need, but I will, recall the modest equipment used by the photography greats like Adams or Weston, the fact that the most powerful street photography was made by Cartier Bresson with an antiquitated Leica with equally old lens... Even the more modern classics like Avedon, burdened with hi-tech requirements of the Harpers Bazaar, the Vogue and the likes, used regular Rolleiflex, Hasselblad or standard plate cameras. I bet the cumulative pixel count of the first 3 best photographs this year is lower than the count in one of the cameras we’re salivating about!
Looking at these photos: the guy on the night shot looks equally irrelevant and uninteresting as the “bokeh “ behind him on each of three photos. The young girl on a close-up shot has her nose grotesquely deformed, that I wonder if she was ever shown that photo and released it. No more luck wit the other photos of otherwise beautiful models. Why? BECAUSE we are focusing on the irrelevant issues rather than on finding joy in photography and sharing that joy around!
My five cents...

Usman Dawood's picture

Cartier Bresson used the best quality Leica camera and Noctilux lens. When he used them they were not old and antiquated they were some of the most expensive and best equipment on the market. What are you even on about? A little research before you start spouting off nonsense would be useful.

People like knowing which cameras and lenses are capable. Many photographers want to know how gear performs because they can make informed decisions about what they can or should buy. They also like gear reviews because people actually enjoy technology and enjoy how things progress.

People find joy in technology. You don't get to tell people what they should or shouldn't like. Stop acting pretentious or as if you know better.

Also, I just want to add that the young girl in the photos is another writer for Fstoppers and yes she has seen all the photos. Her name is Anete. Her nose is not deformed, and that's the perspective you will get when you're that close to someone. Maybe perspective eludes you. Finally, why don't you share your work, it's easy to hide behind a keyboard and act all holy.

Felt more like two cents.

> Cartier Bresson used the best quality Leica camera and Noctilux lens. When he used them they were not old and antiquated they were some of the most expensive and best equipment on the market.

This was true, to an extent, but that was never really his concern.

https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/cartier-bresson-there-are-no-m...

"I am completely and have always been uninterested in the photographic process. I like the smallest camera possible, not those huge reflex cameras with all sorts of gadgets. When I am working, I have an M3 because it’s quicker when I’m concentrating."

"If you have little equipment, people don’t notice you. You don’t come like a show-off. It seems like an embarrassment, someone who comes with big equipment."

This was, after all, the man who said "Sharpness is a bourgeois concept." (He was joking, but like many jokes there was a kernel of truth in the center). People may find joy in technology, but - and this is Pera's point, I think (however poorly phrased) - technology doesn't necessarily produce better pictures, in and of itself. Take, for example, the famous picture of the boy with the wine bottles. Imagine if it were taken today, with the latest mirrorless body, laser-fast autofocus and this magical RF lens. It might be sharper - you might even be able to read the labels on the bottles - but would it better capture the pure and unselfconscious moment of human joy? Probably not - HCB might even argue that it would be worse, a bigger, noisier, more conspicuous camera that would draw the boy's attention and bring him back to Earth. Would his portraits of Albert Camus be better if you could zoom in and find out what brand of cigarettes he preferred? Would they better express the weight of the world on the philosopher's shoulders?

Even if that equipment were the best and most brilliant of the day, those days were sixty-five or seventy-five years ago, and any decent modern lens as sharp today (plus you get autofocus, unless you're an Otus devotee).

I can't speak for Pera, but I'm not saying you can't find joy in your technology - it's a wonderful thing! And I think complaining about articles for people who do enjoy looking at the latest gadgets is gauche. Some things aren't for everyone, for one reason or another, and we should remember that as we try to get along. But her (I think Pera is a her) basic premise - that you don't ~need~ the latest, greatest, sharpest lens to take great photos, that companies encourage this gear-lust to sell us newer and increasingly expensive things that may or may not actually give us what we really want - is true. And your assertions that great photographers naturally seek out the 'best and most expensive equipment on the market', that she's 'spouting nonsense' - seem at the very least rude. You could have left it at "This was a review for people considering buying one of the lenses involved, so they could see where their strengths and weaknesses stack up and make informed decisions, and I'm happy if you're satisfied with the equipment you already have," without getting so personal.

( Pera's comments about Anete's nose don't read to me that she's discussing her physical attributes, but the effects of the forced tight perspective, just as you said. You're in vicious agreement there. She's suggesting taking a step back for something a little more flattering. )

Usman Dawood's picture

If someone is spouting nonsense I will call it that. Calling someone's point stupid or nonsense isn't the same as getting personal. I'm not discussing the individual I'm discussing the point. They're very different things.

The fundamental points that you're making don't scan here. I never discussed how you need to have the latest and greatest equipment to make great images. Pera brought that point up out of nowhere. I never talked about that at all. You're continuing this complete and utter nonsense strawman argument against my article.

"As much as I love the kind of images this lens can produce, it's not a lens I'll be buying anytime soon. I literally have no place for it in my workflow."

I talk about how the Sigma lens is the best value for money and describe how I don't need the absolute best in image quality.

> I never discussed how you need to have the latest and greatest equipment to make great images. Pera brought that point up out of nowhere. I never talked about that at all.

. . . except when you talked about Cartier-Bresson, his Leicas, and how "they were some of the most expensive and best equipment on the market."?

> You're continuing this complete and utter nonsense strawman argument against my article.

I'm not arguing against your article at all, and I'm sorry if you got that impression. I think it's a rather nice one, actually, and as I said I agree that some people find joy in technology for its own sake, and more power to them. I'm responding entirely to your comments, on where I think Pera is coming from and what I think about your reaction to her.

Usman Dawood's picture

You’ve missed the point I made when I discussed Bresson and that’s why I decided not to reply to you about that point in the previous comment. My point was specifically against what Pera said about old and antiquated.

Chrissa Callahan's picture

Ansel Adams used top quality high end gear. If you scanned one of his 4x5 negatives, you would have way more pixels than these images. If you scanned his 8x10's, you would have an insane megapixel count. I wish to say this kindly: you don't what you are talking about. Also, her nose isn't deformed, learn about perspective... but, even if it were, why would that matter to you? Don't be nasty. Don't contend concerning that which you know not of.

"Probably the Best 50mm Lens Ever Made..."

The world is very small for you if you only have these three to choose from. There are countless older and recent 50s to choose from, including Nikon's latest offerings, the Otus, the f/0.95s and all those psychedelic swirly bokeh lenses from decades ago. Who's to say what is best, especially if price is a criterion?

Although I have no doubt the 50RF has outstanding MTFs, very likely the best of the 3, the test bench (your camera) and your test criteria must be consistent and predetermined to arrive at trustworthy and comparable results.

Usman Dawood's picture

Because there is no other 50mm lens that performs at this level with an aperture this wide with AF.

I'm also playing with the idea of "best" too because I talk about how the Sigma might be the best option due to the price point and the EF 50mm might be the best option because of how tiny it is even with that wide aperture. I also said that I struggled to call the RF lens the overall winner because of the price tag. Based on that logic the Nikon f/0.95 is mostly a pointless lens.

Finally, the Canon RF lens looks to be sharper than the Otus in the center wide open.

"Because there is no other 50mm lens that performs at this level with an aperture this wide with AF."

How do you know? Did you test them all? Did you try the Sigma 401/.4Art (albeit not a 50mm)? It *smokes* the 50Art. Or the Sony Planar T* FE 50mm f/1.4 ZA? Or the Tokina 50/1.4 Opera FF? Or the Nikon 50/1.8 S? Obviously not Nikon's upcoming 50/1.2. Like I said, you live in a small world or walk around with horse blinders.

Did you firmly predetermine your test criteria? LoCA, image quality at macro vs infinity distances, distortion, coma, etc? Of course not. You said it yourself, "I'm also playing with the idea of "best"..." I guess "best" is really about one's subjectivity (even though systematic lens testing is objective).

You didn't address any of my points because your comparison is neither systematic or objective, as example: "...the Nikon f/0.95 is mostly a pointless lens". (I wasn't even referring to the Nikon since it is still not available).

More to the point, nonjudicious dispensing of superlatives like "BEST" is really just clickbait, which undermines any "review" or "comparison" with that in the title.

Usman Dawood's picture

I did test them all. There are only two 50mm f/1.2 lenses on the market with AF. Both of them are included in this comparison lol.

Seriously??

Can you be objective for one microsecond and reread the title of your own article? Perhaps you need a seeing guide dog.

Usman Dawood's picture

Once again, I’m playing with the idea of “best”. I’m describing it more as a subjective concept throughout the article.

In the article which lens do I proclaim to be the best?

Jan Kruize's picture

I think you are all right and wrong. These lenses are all so good that only the greatest photographers get the most out of it. I see lots of people buy gear for thousands of dollars or replacing it for something that's giving one dynamic stop more and getting results with it... my mother should be ashamed of it. As a photographer i don't even dare to name people like cartier-bresson or adams in an article like this. Apart from the gear they used they had such an eye and that eye made the photo for 95%. Most of the articles in here are about why you should buy a fuji or canon or whatever. Not about what makes a really good photograph.

Usman Dawood's picture

I didn't name him or anyone in this article or video. Well, I did name Anete, but she was the model.

An individual discussed him in a comment above and I replied. I get the feeling you haven't actually read the article?

Also, I regularly do gear reviews, that's most of what I do on Fstoppers. I don't talk about art or what makes a good photograph, that's just not what I do because I'm not trying to be a teacher.

I obviously want you to read my articles if they interest you but you can't expect to write what you individually want me to write about.

Patrick Rosenbalm's picture

"An individual discussed him in a comment above and I replied. I get the feeling you haven't actually read the article?"

I thought that myself after reading Jan's comment.

Adam Palmer's picture

Sigma appears to be a little more contrasty. Canon has the edge with CA control. I was surprised that the sigma bokeh appealed to me more

Usman Dawood's picture

The Sigma is such a good lens.

Fritz Asuro's picture

Sharp and crisp image quality is always appreciated, I mean, who wouldn't want the best? But I've realized to myself that such incremental benefits doesn't equate to amazing photos (duh, but let me explain).

I used to own collection of NIKKOR f/1.4's (24,35,58,85,105) and those lenses were amazing. And sometimes, I use Sigma Art lenses if I need more sharpness. But then, my oddball 58mm always made me realize that sometimes it's not about tack sharp photos that makes images beautiful. The "softness" of that lens creates a character or a look that I can never recreate with "sharper" lenses.

Now that I'm using f/1.8 lenses from the new S-line from Nikon. I just don't care about how super sharp or gorgeous the bokeh looks. As long as a lens renders an image to my liking, then I'm sold.

Just shoot.

Usman Dawood's picture

That's why I really enjoyed shooting with the EF mount 50mm f/1.2.

Patrick Marcigliano's picture

I own the EOS R and have used all three as well. I need a 50, and I find myself renting the Sigma all the time. I would disagree with you though (with your Youtube comment) that the Art doesn't perform well with the R adapted. I think it's awesome. And was clearly better for me adapted to the R than the 1.2L. For me the L wasn't just soft, it was too often out of focus. The RF 50 is just the best lens I have ever used to date. It's nuts. But like you...I'll buy the Sigma, cuz it's just the best bang for the buck. Thanks for the review!

Usman Dawood's picture

In my experience the Sigma wasn’t brilliant when I adapted it. Maybe there was an issue with my lens or adapter. I’ll try it again and give it another look. Thank you for the comment.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I'm a bit surprised the EF lens is that soft...to the point I think there's something wrong with it. Almost seems to be front focusing. For instance, the sign "Ferndale" is sharper than the building sign "Investec". Which in it self is weird since you shot it at f1.2. Even if Investec was soft, Ferndale should have been even softer.

https://cdn.fstoppers.com/styles/full/s3/media/2019/05/10/aae9f4f0efdd58...

Keith Meinhold's picture

Leica? Something about the separation, contrast, 3D from the Leica 50's has always drawn me in that no other combination has. I cant explain or put my finger on why - but to my eye every time I look under the hood its a Leica.

Usman Dawood's picture

The best 50mm lens they make is an f/2. It just doesn't have the same wide aperture. I know this is the best 50mm lens they make because this is what I've been told by several employees and engineers at Leica.

Keith Meinhold's picture

PS: I say that as a Sony user (who cant afford a Leica). :)

Nice little comparison . I don’t use the 50mm range much as I much prefer my 35 Sigma , but if I did it would be that 50 Sigma . However , that new Canon 50 1.2 RF Looks stellar .

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

Oh boy, I can only imagine what's going on in the comment section above or below... Great video!

Chamkaur Singh's picture

Rf is an amazing lens . I rented other day and photos were extremely sharp at 1.2. The place i had rented from even they said rf is the best 50mm they think .

barry cash's picture

Best 50mm in the world right now is the Voigtlander 50mm F1.2 PERIOD!

Best build, best color saturation OOC, almost best bokeh (that belongs to my Porst 55mm f1.4), sharpest and finaly NOT POSSIBLE TO BEAT THE OVERALL QUALITY WITH ANY-OTHER LENS MADE AS OF THIS POST.

And it's only $1000 and smaller than most lenses. Otherwise your comparison is good for the lenses you tested.

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