Can You Tell The Difference Between a $100 Lens and a $1600 Lens?

Can You Tell The Difference Between a $100 Lens and a $1600 Lens?

One of the most popular lens lengths on the market is the 50mm. As a Canon shooter I have a few different choices to pick from at that length, but the three most popular seem to be the 50mm 1.8, 50mm 1.4 and 50mm 1.2. While on a shoot last week I decided to play with all three lenses and shoot a few photos to see how different each lens was from each other. Here are my results.

I feel like I should preface this article by saying this is not by any means a comprehensive test. A group of photographers were out shooting and I realized we had the full variety of 50mm lenses (1.8, 1.4, and 1.2) so I asked if I could borrow each for a couple shots. In order to keep things fair I shot each of these photos with the exact same settings, from the exact same distance, using the same camera. I decided to shoot all the photos using an aperture of f2.0 so that it was even across the board. I realize that the 50mm 1.2 lens is a great performer even when wide open so shooting at f2.0 might be limiting it's potential but I thought it would be nice to see all the images using the exact same settings. Lastly, the images being shown are JPEG's coming straight from the camera. Any processing (contrast, colors, sharpening) were done all in the Canon 5D Mark III using the Camera Standard profile.

The 50mm 1.8 II lens currently sells for around $125, the 50mm 1.4 lens is $400 and the 50mm 1.2 lens is $1,619.

Comparison of All Three 50mm lenses Talia

In order to get a good close up look at each file I have uploaded the high resolution images as well for comparison. You can view them by clicking the links here. Photo from 50mm 1.8, 50mm 1.4, 50mm 1.2.

Here is another example.

Comparison of All Three 50mm lenses Jeff

View the high resolution images here. 50mm 1.8, 50mm 1.4, 50mm 1.2.

As I mentioned in the beginning this was by no means a comprehensive test. But it really was quite eye opening for me and the other photographers with me that day. I was surprised that at f2.0 I really didn't notice as much difference as I thought I would between each of the three lenses. I plan on doing more of these tests on upcoming shoots and trying out a number of different scenarios. But I thought it would be fun for now to share these shots. Hopefully if you are a photographer sporting the 50mm 1.8 lens on your camera you can hold your head high and carry it with confidence knowing that your $100 lens is actually quite nice!

If you're passionate about taking your photography to the next level but aren't sure where to dive in, check out the Well-Rounded Photographer tutorial where you can learn eight different genres of photography in one place. If you purchase it now, or any of our other tutorials, you can save a 15% by using "ARTICLE" at checkout. 

Log in or register to post comments
210 Comments
Mike Manzano's picture

Love the nifty 50 (1.8), but the bokeh is so much nicer on the 1.4.

Brian Hawkins's picture

It's all about the bokeh. Even at the same aperture setting, the bokeh is smoother on the better lenses.

Mr Blah's picture

Yeah! I never really compared them side by side but daaaamn it's night and day! (bokeh wise..)

the 1.2 might be a hait less contrasted but it might be a milion other things that make the picture like that...

Mansgame's picture

but the 50 is a normal lens where bokeh is a second thought. For portraits bokeh does matter but 50 1.4 is a general low light lens.

Patrick Hall's picture

Maybe I'm crazy but looking at these images made me realize that it doesn't matter at all! I actually found the 1.8 II images to be my favorite. The reality is 100% of your clients will never be able to tell and ironically enough like me they may actually prefer less Bokeh!

Neville Cooper's picture

Yep same page here, in both pics I preferred the 1.8 II, maybe less is more

jerry tosh's picture

Very true at patrick!.. I love the 1.2 but the 1.8 and 1.4 is soft and crisp enough that most people won't even notice.

Patrick Hall's picture

Just to be clear, I'd still buy the 1.2 (if Nikon made one with AF) simply because I shoot a lot of video and I think it would be really helpful in that field. I'm just saying that not a single client would ever be able to notice the difference in this type of shooting. If you were doing super shallow dof headshots with some crazy lighting then yeah it's a big deal but portraits like this....it's pretty nominal at best.

An Vu's picture

I like the picture taken with 50 1.8 because it shows more contrast, which is with me more interesting

Joebbowers's picture

Yes, I agree, the 1.8 is certainly the most punchy contrast, however the 1.2 is creamy. I'd probably rather have the 1.2 and punch up the contrast in post. However, at that price difference, I'd go with the Sigma 1.4. Also very creamy bokeh and contrast.

An Vu's picture

It's like mocha and frappuchino haha

Drew Valadez's picture

I think i speak for the even greater majority when i say:
The reality is 100% of your family will never be able to tell.
ALSO:
I agree with less Bokeh too at times. Sometimes it can just seem dreamy but often we put our subjects in such a beautiful scenery to have it out of the DOF that we just get a subject standing in front of just about anything when wide open.

Michael D's picture

If that's the standard to meet, the "does the family notice" test, all we need are the cameras in our phones!

Leo's picture

Bokeh is about HOW, not HOW MUCH. DOF is about HOW MUCH.

Aia's picture

It's also not only about the bokeh, I mean with the build and all, more expensive lenses are always way more robust than all the other lenses. But I agree that clients won't notice the difference.

rh587's picture

You get what you pay for in build quality - I looked at the 1.8 and it's a perfectly good lens optically, but I felt for me I didn't much like the plastic manual focus ring at the front, so splashed for the 1.4 with a nice rubber focus ring and the Full Manual Override. It's twice the price but it feels like twice the lens when you've got it in your hands. Being comfortable with your kit and being able to use it easily and as second-nature is as important as the innate capabilities of the kit.

Jason Ranalli's picture

Exactly. Especially with solid post work it makes even less of a difference IMO.

In this comparison I actually prefer the look of the 1.8...seems to offer more contrast.

Jonas N's picture

Yes, I agree and think the subject is the sharpest on the f/1.8. But it's a poorly kept secret that despite some lenses allowing very large apertures, they often need to be stepped down for optimal quality, while f/1.8 don't need as much. For example, the Nikkor 35/1.4 is much more expensive than the 35/1.8, but also less sharp wide open than the cheaper one wide open. So they're only useful if you desperately need any light you can get, or buy it for other reasons like lens build.

Extremely large apertures are just so good attractors of optical defects. They really bring them out.

zaakir's picture

bokeh is crappy on the 1.8, I picked out the 1.2 almost instantly.

Brendan's picture

The backgrounds in these images are and blown out and already high contrast. High aperture is not needed in these instances for subject separation, negating the real lens difference. Try the test again with less contrast and more background texture.

I own the 50mm Sigma and have tried going back to the nifty 50. The softness wide open is much more noticeable combined with higher ISO.

Simon Howes's picture

If it is about the bokeh for you, then Canon are not the lenses for you. Look at some of the Zeiss lenses, DOF falls off more rapidly than Canons.

Brian Hawkins's picture

It's all about the bokeh for this particular comparison. It's not the only thing a photographer should care about. And I completely agree - Canon's 50mm lenses are inferior to some other glass.

Don Reid's picture

i completely agree with you brian--what that 1.2 does to backgrounds is just one of the many reasons i love my 50mm 1.2 and will happily keep shooting with it.

alberto cabrera's picture

Only other fellow photographers and photo editors would really care about the bokeh. Am sure with a few adjustments the 1.8 can look even better. Regardless, regular off the street clients don;t really care about the slight differences...as long they look fab. That is all that matters and it a $100 lens does the job. Then that's a bonus.

Basically, what am getting from the article...you don;t have to spend $1400 to get a decent image.

Trevor Dayley's picture

For $100 the Canon 50 1.8 is definitely the best value lens on the market.

Jesse Scroggins's picture

Agreed. Anytime a beginner asks me advice on lenses it is always my first suggestion.

ihatedavidjay's picture

BTW - Same deal with Nikon, best value is the 50 1.8 hands down.

Jack Western's picture

You can pick up a 50mm f1.4 D for about the same price, and I actually prefer it, apart from the focusing noise. Ideal world, I'd have a 50mm f1.4 G though, because of that reason. One day...

Mike McKallicuffy's picture

For studio or other controlled situations, probably so, but for anything where being able to focus quickly becomes an issue, the 1.8 really starts to show it's faults. For me, the Sigma 1.4 is a better value, but I'm not a really a studio or portrait guy.

Phil Shifley's picture

I heard it's hit and miss on getting a good Sigma though.

ralphr's picture

Just be careful with the 1.8. I got a problem which several people also got. It got stuck to the body of the camera and it wouldn't go off. After reading many posts how to deal with the problem, the solution proposed by many, was to twist hard to break the len's plastic pin. The lens is now broken. Just google "1.8 canon stuck on camera body" and you will see what I'm talking about.

ZQ Tan's picture

Totally agree with that. Im a sony user, but when my friend ask me what to begin in kits...I always recommend canon because of that 50 1.8!

Calin Florea's picture

other than i bit of shallower dof in the 1.4 and 1.2 there is no difference, and the focus was not perfect on the subject only in the 1.2, the guy is sharper, personally i dont see the 1400$ difference, not worth it only and only if you have a low light situation and even there you can manage with a 100$ flash at 1/32 power :)

Frank Donnino's picture

Great Trevor. I would been beating this drum too. Even the 3.5/5.6 kit zooms included with Canon camera are awesome and sharp too! Good article!

Jason Hermosa's picture

That's where I would draw the line. I recently purchased a 24-70 f/2.8 because I can't get the same amount of sharpness on my kit lens. I'm sure that if we do 100% crop tests on these lenses in various lighting conditions, even with the same settings, the sharpness difference would be very apparent. It's just that the pixels in the photos are close to clipping that's why we don't see much of the detail difference.

Frank Donnino's picture

And neither will my client for the cost and trouble. I used to have the sames lens you have and had the 70 -200 L. Got tired of the weight at 57 years old. Sold them both. I use mostly fixed but use the two kit lenses for "on the go" I've been shooting for 33 years so I kinda know what I want. Your fine though absolutely!!!

Jason Hermosa's picture

Haha! You do make a valid point there when you say that your clients would never notice the difference. Especially for events, I guess. I never thought about it that way, actually. I'm a hobbyist and I do mostly fashion and creative photos and I hate it when I don't get the sharpness that I want. My clients on the other hand have no idea what they should be expecting, though. Hmmm..... Good point, @frankdonnino:disqus.

Tara Lundrigan's picture

I would love to be able to get my hands on that dreamy low aperture wide. I wish I wasn't a starving artist...lol

Jon Woodbury's picture

I believe that my clients could easily tell the difference between an L-series lens and the kit lens, especially in prints over 8x10. I have shot with the Canon kit lens a lot as I trade lenses with students at workshops so they can shoot both levels of lenses and it is very obviously inferior, not just on sharpness but on contrast and color. I have yet to upgrade my 50 1.8 II because the quality is acceptable so I'm no lens snob but I can't agree on the kit. Different strokes I guess.

Clayton Austin's picture

While I can certainly appreciate the point you were attempting to make I think it's lost on the fact that you weren't using the lenses at their best. The 1.2 is simply amazing when shot wide open. Especially in low light situations. I think a better comparison would have been shooting all three lenses wide open . That is where you will see the difference in quality. Unseasoned photographers may read this and feel that the cheapest lenses are just as good as the L series lenses which certainly isn't the case.

Trevor Dayley's picture

I will be sure to do some more shooting with all three lenses and post my results in different scenarios including shooting all of them wide open. I do hope though that sharing these results here gives confidence to new photographers who have a 50mm 1.8 and might even be ashamed to admit it in front of others. Be proud of that little lens... especially for it's price!!!

Clayton Austin's picture

Yeah, I totally get and appreciate that. But the article's title "Can You Tell The Difference Between a $100 Lens and a $1600 Lens?" implies that there isn't a difference. Also by "keeping things fair" and shooting the faster lenses at 2.0 you were in effect putting them at a disadvantage to the 1.8. I feel that all three of these lenses are best and sharpest wide open.

Clayton Austin's picture

I see it like this. Take a Canon 60D and a 5DMk3 and shoot them both in low light at ISO 800. Im not sure there would be much difference in the noise and low light quality. However shoot the same bodies at 3200 iso and you will see you truly get what you pay for. :-)

Trevor Dayley's picture

I get what you're saying... But you have to admit that seeing the results of the $100 lens at f2.0 compare pretty closely to the others is pretty eye opening. At least for me it was. I realize that you, Clayton, love to shoot your 50 wide open at 1.2 so testing these at f2 might not mean much to you but I was just trying to pick a setting across the board that would be equal for all three lenses. I had no idea what the results would look like, but ultimately I am glad I did the test.

Clayton Austin's picture

no, no its true. At 2.0 the images really do look similar!

Mike McKallicuffy's picture

but then it would be more abut comparing apertures than lenses.

Mansgame's picture

I've said it before, I'll say it again, nobody NEEDS a 58mm lens that costs 6 times as much as the next best one in the market.

Jaleel King's picture

It's a bit more to it than just price. I loved my 50 1.8 when I first got it. However, it's focusing was loud and hunted a lot in well lit situations. I upgraded to a Sigma 50 1.4 and there was a huge difference in the speed of the focusing and less hunting. I thought about upgrading to the Canon 50 1.2 at one point but when I compared it to my Sigma, I liked how the Sigma looked and handled at 1.4. Also keeping an additional $1,000 in my pocket helped too. :) Still the 50 at 1.2 has it used too. :)

Trevor Dayley's picture

Absolutely. As I mentioned in the article this wasn't comprehensive. But I thought it was fun to see any way.

JZ's picture

You picked a notoriously amazing cheap lens to do a comparison with. The "nifty" fifty is known for being the best bang for the buck lens quite possibly of all the lenses in existence.

More comments