Lenses

Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm lens Review – An impressive classic gem

Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm

The Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm is a lens that doesn’t seem to quite have the following it deserves – or at least that’s what you’d guess by looking at their used value. I think in reality, it’s possibly overshadowed by the two giants from the same era of Canon lenses: the 50mm f/1.2 and so called “dream lens” 50mm f/0.95. These two super-fast lenses have never really piqued my interest – the 0.95 looks like fun, but it’s also massive, doesn’t come cheap and isn’t exactly an ideal match for a Leica body. The f/1.2 comes cheaper, but for the money, there’s a whole heap of other classic lenses sat on my list that have been of much more interest to me to try first. Actually, the f/1.4 wasn’t really even on my radar until I saw a few images taken with one on Twitter a little while back – as I say, it had just been overshadowed.

The images posted on Twitter were actually sent to me in response to me talking about looking for a Canon 50mm f/1.5 ltm. The f/1.5 is an older lens design based on the Sonnar formula. I have a now long-standing project exploring Sonnar lenses from the era and was waffling on about this on Twitter when someone (I’ve unfortunately forgotten who) waved some 50mm f/1.4 photos under my nose. The gist of the tweet was that I should try the lens as I might like it too. At the time, I was a little smitten with the results, and after a bit of reading, I became quite inthralled by it. But, apparently in a moment of clarity (or possibly financial shortfall) I decided to stick to my guns and carry on down the Sonnar road.

Not long later, Anil Mistry got in touch to ask me if I could recommend a good, fast, 50mm lens for Leica mount cameras that would suit portraiture and wouldn’t break the bank. The Canon 50mm f/1.4 quickly came to mind, and with the caveat that I’d never tried one, I suggested it as a possibility. He subsequently bought one and came back to me with some positive thoughts.

One of Anil’s street portraits – taken with the Canon 50mm f/1.4

That was that, until some months later when Anil got in touch to say he like to sell his Leica gear through 35mmc – including the Canon lens. A deal was done, and I found myself in possession of the very lens I’d recommend – ironically, in the end, prior to ever owning the 50mm f/1.5 I’d originally been talking about on Twitter.

Shooting with the Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm

I’ve been using the Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm on and off for a good few months now. I think my most overwhelming response to it has been how little I feel it’s imposed itself on me – especially as a an older lens. As I will come to, there are of course telltale signs that it’s not a new or modern lens – both in terms of its mechanical performance and its optics – but actually for a lens that was designed in the late 50’s I’ve been very surprised at its performance.

Handling and build

Talking about any vintage lens’s build quality always seems a little questionable – after all, there’s a lot that can happen to a lens in 50-60 odd years. That being said, the copy I have here has been well looked after – it’s certainly never done hard time in an attic. The only noticeable mechanical issue is a very slight bit of give in the focus. Focusing in either direction, I can just feel the slightest click before the helicoid is engaged. Funnily enough, my 50mm f/2.2 of the same era does this too, so I suppose it might be something common to this era of Canon lenses…?

Once the focusing is engaged, this particular copy has a lovely smooth action, with no lumps or stiff patches – a good sign it’s been well looked after, but it also shows just how high quality these lenses were in their day. The same goes for the aperture clicks – they’re very nicely clicked, and unlike many of the Leica m-mount lenses I’ve tried from the 60’s and 70’s, at each end of the range the click provides a dead stop and the aperture control won’t turn slightly past the setting.

Focus throw

One notable difference in terms of handling the Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm compared to modern lenses is the length of the focus throw. It’s very long compared to my modern lenses. There’s no right or wrong here, of course, just personal preference. Long throw lenses are easier to focus more precisely, but can be slower when frequently shooting between close and distant subject matter. It feels very obviously long in use with this lens though – everyone I’ve handed it too to try has commented about this almost instantly. It also has an infinity lock which is a little annoying, though could quite easily be removed.

Optics

Again, speaking specifically about this lens, it’s clear to see that it’s not been mistreated. There are of course a few spots of dust, but the glass itself is free of any of the nasties often found within lenses of the era. I do like the look of the orange single coating too – but that’s purely a shallow aesthetic thing.

Optical qualities – shooting wide open

Shooting at f/1.4, as you’d expect, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm is very much at its most characterful. It’s sharp, but definitely not bitingly so – it has a subtle glow that combined with it being lower contrast than a modern equivalent, takes the edge off finer details.

Connie

Leica 262

Norah

Canon P – Portra 400

This is not to disparage it though, I have a lot of time for this sort of rendering, and actually given its age it’s quite remarkably “good”. There’s actually a lot less glow than pretty much every other 50/1.4 lens I’ve used from this period, and though I’ve not tried a contemporary Summilux, I’ve read a number of time that the Canon is either not far behind, or is in fact a slight step up over the Leica when shot wide open. Looking at various results online this would seem to be specifically true when comparing the first version ‘lux. Comments welcomed from people who’ve made that comparison.

Vignetting

As is always the case, wide open is where it vignettes the most too. I’ve said a million times on this website that I don’t don’t mind a bit of a wide-open-vignette. Actually, the only time I really noticed it – certainly in an arguably more negative way – was when Connie asked me to take a photo of her doing a cartwheel. I knew I was too far away to take a good photo so I just focused and snapped to humour her.

Leica 262

You can see the extent of the vignette because of the type of image it is. Framing close for a portrait, vignetting tends to get a little lost into the bokeh. It’s still there, it’s just less apparent and aids more in focusing attention to the subject, rather than looking like an optical defect as it does above.

Connie

Leica 262

The vignette is of course equally less issue when shooting in lower light.

Beers & Cameras

Leica M3 – P3200

Flare

I was quite surprised while using the Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm that I didn’t come across much in the way of flare. Alongside the lenses lower contrast nature, a bit of veiling flare no doubt contributes to the flatter look when shooting wide open in certain light, but in general use I’d not spotted much in the way of ghosting. So, I’m sorry to say, I went out in the garden and took some photos of the bushes with the sun in the background. I know, I know… these sort of test shots don’t exactly make for interesting subject matter, but hopefully they do give you an idea of the sort of ghosting this lens will kick out given a bit of abuse. Rainbows are the name of the game. And sometimes (looking at images elsewhere online) some squiggly patterns in the opposite corner to where the sun hits the frame.

Leica 262

Bokeh

I do try not to get carried away by bokeh – my extended thoughts on the subject can be found here. That being said, I do like the out of focus rendering with the Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm. Funnily enough, this is mostly because of the reasons I don’t get excited by bokeh. Largely speaking, it just gets out of the way. That being said, given the right circumstances, you can find yourself with slightly edged out-of-focus specular highlights.

Norah

Leica 262

Here’s another shot from the back garden of some out-of-focus foliage just to give you some perspective of the extent edged bokeh in these sorts of circumstances – sorry it’s another dull photo.

Leica 262

One thing I have felt missing somehow is the melting transition to out-of-focus that I get with some other lenses in my collection, specifically my Sonnar lenses. It’s not a big deal mind, this is a very personal taste thing.

Stopped down

Of course stopping down sees all round improvements. It’s sharper more contrasty, the vignette is much reduced, and the flare seemingly less apparent.

Barrel distortion

What’s not reduced is of course the barrel distortion, which once I saw in a couple of my photos, I started to see in quite a few more. To be fair, it’s not that pronounced, I’ve seen lenses with a great deal more distortion, it’s just there if you look for it.

Bath

Leica M3 – Tmax 400

Bath

Leica M3 – Tmax 400

Colour

The final thing I wanted to mention was the colour rendering the Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm churns out. Both wide open and stopped down I’ve found myself having to push the sliders in Lightroom to get the higher saturation look I like. Obviously the colour images in this review have been edited a little, so you’re just going to have to take me word for that one…

A load more photos

Bath

Leica M3 – Tmax 400

Bath

Leica M3 – Tmax 400

Beers & Cameras

Leica M3 – P3200

Norah

Canon P – Portra 400

Cat

#catphoto – Canon P – Portra 400

Skip to the end

As I said at the beginning of this review, I don’t feel like the Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm has imposed itself on me too much. It is a “classic” lens, does exhibit more “vintage” rendering traits but they are dominating traits as can be found in some lenses from the era. As you would expect, the character traits are most apparent when shot wide open, and though they never completely check out when stopped down, there is significant “improvements” that bring this lens inline with what you’d expect from a more modern multicoated lens. That being said, as far as lenses that were designed in the 50’s go, this one is a real gem. It’s one of the objectively better lenses I’ve used from this period, and is certainly the best 50mm f/1.4 lens I’ve personally used that’s anything as close to as old as this.

Of course, this is speaking objectively about what is apparently a good copy. Subjectively speaking whilst I really love this lens, I’ve decided not to keep it. I have a lot of 50mm lenses now, and I’m actually trying to pare them down a little. I have classic glass, and I have modern glass, I also have my beloved 50mm f/1.5 that sits happily in the middle and oozes character traits I love like they are going out of fashion. As such, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 doesn’t really fill a skills gap in my collection.

That all said, If you’re looking for a good value, fast 50mm lens, you don’t mind – or indeed like – a little bit of classic rendering, but want something fairly reliably “good”, it’s hard not to recommend the Canon 50mm f/1.4 ltm lens!

You can find more photos taken with this lens on my flickr here

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    MIke Hinkleman
    July 8, 2018 at 10:10 pm

    Hamish

    I think your flickr images with the Canon 1.4 on P3200 at your camera & beers are as good or
    better than anything you’ve made. I like grain though and like the feel that the lens makes. I doubt you’d get that look with a zeiss zm 50/1.5.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 9, 2018 at 7:04 pm

      I shall have to try the combo now you’ve said that 😉

  • Reply
    Cheyenne Morrison
    July 9, 2018 at 1:12 am

    Another great review, thanks Hamish. You left out the link to your Bokeh Rant 🙂

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 9, 2018 at 7:03 pm

      cheers, Cheyenne, link added! 🙂

    • Reply
      ScottP
      July 10, 2018 at 2:38 am

      Oh, good. I thought it was just me being technologically lame.

  • Reply
    eric
    July 9, 2018 at 7:49 am

    Hiiiii Hamish,
    Thanks to publish my comment !
    I have one Canon 50 ltm f/1’4 also, I have bought for 150 $ and I simply love it. I use with my Leica M3 and with my Sony A7 RII. I love his rendering, his signature, his BW and colors, and his soft sharpbess. An awesome lense !
    Here one of my captures with it at 1’4 :
    http://www.eyem.com/p/112098861
    Nice to read your reviews. Great review.
    By the way, you have not the self-timer on your M3 ? It is not an original black one, it is a chrome repaint ? But it is a very very beautiful one. I have a black one from 1965, the best Leica I have own !

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 9, 2018 at 7:00 pm

      Yeah, it’s a repaint with a few mods…
      I’m going to publish a post about it soon

      • Reply
        eric
        July 10, 2018 at 1:52 am

        Thank you so much Hamish.
        I will be very happy to read you about your great fantastic M3 it is very beautiful.
        Here one photo of mine :
        http://www.eyem.com/p/106576504

        • Reply
          Hamish Gill
          July 10, 2018 at 10:39 pm

          The link doesn’t seem to work…?

  • Reply
    Ashley Carr
    July 9, 2018 at 7:53 am

    Nice to see a review of a Canon LTM lens that doesn’t have ana max aperture of 1.2 or 0.95 for a change!!

    I’ve owned both the 50/1.4 and 50/1.8 for use on my M2. I sold the 1.4 and kept the 1.8 as, in my opinion it betters the 1.4 in every respect and the difference in speed from the one to the other is smaller than the gap in quality.

    The 35mm focal length Canon LTMs are also lovely lenses with bags of character.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 9, 2018 at 7:00 pm

      Yeh, a few people have said that about the 35…
      I was singing your praises on a podcast the other day, by the way 🙂

      • Reply
        Ashley Carr
        July 11, 2018 at 5:44 pm

        Oh my burning ears…where was this podcast Hamish?

  • Reply
    Bill
    July 9, 2018 at 10:40 am

    Thanks Hamish – this lens is on my radar for using with my Canon “7” rangefinder and my Fuji X-T2. Seems to be one of the better thread-mount lenses out there. Any idea how the f1.8 or f1.2 versions compare? Obviously, the f1.8 is cheapest, but could the narrower aperture make it sharper wide-open? It’s hard to find good online resources for pre-M mount lenses; there’s hardly any thread-mount reviews on YouTube.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 9, 2018 at 6:59 pm

      I’ve read a lot of good things about the 1.8, but never tried it. I suspect what you would assume would be correct. I might look at getting a 1.8 to try… as I mention in the review, I have a 2.2, but they are a little on the rare side

    • Reply
      picturenaut
      August 6, 2018 at 2:14 pm

      Bill, I have both the 1.8 and the 1.4 50mm ltm lenses. Hamish’s great review of the 1.4 fits very well to my experience with it. The 1.8 is a nice small lens, great for street shooting. I got a good copy with my first Canon 7 copy from Japan, as a cheap “kit” addition. After a while I was convinced that the 7’s rangefinder works so well for me, that I can take a plunge for a faster lens (my criterium is that I can use it in real life wide open and get a decent share of in-focus results). I tried the 1.4 as a step up and fell in love with this lens. I got a very good, optically clean copy without any scars or scratches from Japan. Hamish described its optical and mechanical properties precisely. Stepped down, according to real world experience, I couldn’t identify any optical differences between both lenses that are worth mentioning. Both lenses produce a quite modern look compared with older Leica thread mount lenses, and stepped sufficiently down they are nicely sharp from edge to edge.

      For Canon 7 owners I’d add that this bigger but still compact lens harmonizes much better with the not so small camera body than the tiny 1.8 lens. The combo looks so well that mine recently attracted the attention of a Leica fan, he murmured “what a beautiful vintage camera” and took an image of it. For me that’s not so important, I want a tool, but a nice look is certainly welcome.

  • Reply
    Ray
    July 9, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    I have to agree with your take on the Sonnar design, how the background just melts out of focus. I wish I still had my Hassy Sonnar 150, one of the best portrait lenses ever.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 9, 2018 at 6:53 pm

      What do you shoot now? Have you thought about the early version of the Nikon 105 2.5 – that’s a sonnar and has similar traits

  • Reply
    David
    July 9, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    Thanks for the good review. I think it is a bit humorous to recommend a lens having not shot it, then getting it later and reviewing it.
    I am shooting the same era Canon 3.5cm f2 lens as your 5cm, and it has the same ‘click’ on focusing. I think that it is good therapy to learn to live with a bit of imperfection as a trade off for such nice image-making.
    I like that your pictures both illustrate your review ‘points’ as well as make enjoyable viewing.
    sincerely,
    David

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 9, 2018 at 6:52 pm

      I did caveat the recommendation, and had researched it a fair amount by the time I recommended it… but yes… 🙂
      I know what you mean about learning to live with the click
      And, thanks, glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    July 9, 2018 at 8:41 pm

    Cracking set of pictures H. I guess Mike Hinkleman is a Canon fanboy as I don’t think this lens has much character judging on the results. It seems better in B&W to me. Nice though all the same. I wondered about flare just seeing the picture of the lens itself. A lot of shiny surface and bright white lettering next to the front element. Not ideal.

  • Reply
    Theo
    July 9, 2018 at 10:46 pm

    Great review thanks! I am thinking of getting one of these for my IIIf but I am worried they might be a bit on the big side for the camera. Have you tried it on one of theses and if so any thoughts?

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 10, 2018 at 10:40 pm

      Hi Theo, can I point you to Peggy’s post below 🙂

  • Reply
    Peggy Marsh
    July 9, 2018 at 11:19 pm

    I have that lens attached to my Leica III, it was all I could afford but I am very happy with it. I did find the framing a little tricky. For some reason I need to pull the camera slightly up for the frame I want.

    • Reply
      Picturenaut
      August 6, 2018 at 2:32 pm

      Peggy, I recommend you to take a closer look at a Canon 7. Compared with a Leica III it is a modern rangefinder, but with Leica’s old M39 mount. It allows you to frame and focus easily, and you still can get mechanically very good copies from Japan for little money, if you accept a camera with a dead built-in meter (shouldn’t be an issue of a Leica III user). The only downsides for you could be that the Canon 7 is a quite a big rangefinder body (a bit wider than a Leica 6, but less “thick”), and it has no conventional hot shoe (the later, but rarer model Canon 7z has one). The big advantage of the Canon 7 over the real beauty from Canon, the famous P, is its wider rangefinder base. It allows you to focus faster lenses wide open more precisely. The 7’s rangefinder is nearly as good as the one of a Leica 6, only the edges of the small framing window are less pronounced.

  • Reply
    Three 50mm lenses that fit my needs (video) - 35mmc
    July 15, 2018 at 10:14 am

    […] my recent Canon 50mm 1.4 ltm review, a couple of friendly comments were made at the end of episode 26 of The Classic Lenses Podcast […]

  • Reply
    Canon 50mm f/2.2 Leica thread mount lens review - 35mmc
    August 5, 2018 at 11:26 am

    […] is a little tatty. There’s a bit of give in the focus wheel (similar to that which I found in the 50mm f/1.4), but additionally the front part of the lens body has a little bit of rotational give in it too. […]

  • Reply
    Robin Ferand
    August 17, 2018 at 3:29 am

    Just got that lens today from Japan! I do not own a Leica myself but my dad does and I am going to offer it to him when I go home in September. He has a Leica M6. I see you took photographs on a canon body but also on a leica M3. My question is: do you need an adapter to mount the canon ltm onto a Leica M6? Online I see people saying yes, other no… Quite confuse and cannot test to myself yet since I don’t have a Leica under the hand. Thank!

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      August 18, 2018 at 8:34 pm

      Yes, you need a Leica thread mount to Leica m adapter – it also needs to be a 50/75 one. This is who I would buy one from in the UK (if you are in the uK) – give him a bell, say I sent you 🙂

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