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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The vignette is of course equally less issue when shooting in lower light.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of course stopping down sees all round improvements. It’s sharper more contrasty, the vignette is much reduced, and the flare seemingly less apparent.
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.
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…
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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