Too Big to Fail - the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L - Plus the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L + Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux-M
Two stops - what does it really mean? To put it in context, it is the difference between shooting a fast prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 and a fast mid-range zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. On face value, that might not seem like a meaningful difference. But in the real world, two stops essentially translates into shooting at ISO 1600 instead of ISO 6400 - assuming that the rule of reciprocity is practiced for the minimum shutter speed.
Back in the days of film photography, having an extra two stops made a world of difference in low light situations. It meant one could shoot without too much difficulty at ISO 1600 - whether at the rated box speed or pushed a stop or two. In doing so, the resulting image capture can still appear to look natural, without that unnatural look of appearing forced in documentation - that is to say, overly grainy, contrasty in highlights and shadows, and flat in midtones.
But in the world of digital photography, can the same be said about an extra two stops? After all, ISO 6400 is essentially the new ISO 1600. As such, the need for fast lenses have become rather unnecessary, given how much cleaner contemporary sensors can presently render at ridiculously high ISO. Because of that, how relevant is that extra two stops? With a compact mid-range zoom lens widest at f/4, one can effectively conquer the night without breaking a sweat.
Not surprisingly, I have grown rather fond of the Canon RF 24-105mm f/4 IS USM, given how well it performs in low light with the Canon EOS-R. So impressed I was with its overall performance in low light, I even forgot about the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM, which I actually received one week before the RF 24-105. That was three weeks ago, and only now am I writing about this lens - thus making this review fall behind the news cycle, which makes it yesterday’s news.
Don’t sound so enthusiastic, you say? Fact is, the RF 50 1.2 is truly a wonder of contemporary lens design. If there were an Olympic competition for optical performance, this prodigious lens would surely top the medal podium by exemplifying the true spirit of the games - in being faster, higher (in resolved details), and stronger (in accuracy). But why wouldn’t it be? Given all the technology injected into it, the RF 50 1.2 is a lens on steroids. Needless to say, it’s a formidable contender.
That’s the problem with the RF 50 1.2. It’s so big. All that added girth for an incremental third-of-a-stop gain in speed, just because that extra two stops wasn’t quite enough of a statement in low light photography? Seems like an unnecessary amount of fuss for so very little, if you ask me. To that end, all I can say is vanity of vanity, all is vanity. I mean honestly, doesn’t a lens like the RF 50 1.2 make you wonders if size really matters in performance?
If one were to accept the misguided proposition that bigger is better, then the RF 50 1.2 must be phenomenal. To put the heft of this lens in perspective, it’s the same size as the Sony Planar T* FE 50mm f/1.4 ZA at 4.24” (or 108mm) in length - albeit heavier by 0.38lb (or 172g) - weighing in at 2.09lb (or 950g). That being said, it’s noticeably less ample than the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-SL by 0.63” (or 16mm) and 0.25lb (or 115g).
Though to be fair to the RF 50 1.2, comparing it to the Sony 50 and the Leica 50 SL isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples. After all, the RF 50 1.2 is a third of a stop faster than the other two. Because of that, one could argue that the substantial girth of this lens is justified, since it is faster. However, there is a much smaller lens that is just as fast which can also be paired with the Canon EOS-R. That is its predecessor, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM.
Although still a very sizable lens, the EF 50 1.2 is not as substantial as the RF 50 1.2. At 2.58” (or 65.5mm) and weighing in at 1.28lb (or 580g), the EF 50 1.2 is 1.67” (or 42.5mm) smaller and 0.81lb (or 370g) lighter. Of course, the EF 50 1.2 is not an RF mount lens. Still, with the adapter, which is 0.9” (24mm) and 0.24lbs (or 110g), the Canon EF 50 1.2 pairing is still 1.77” (or 42.26mm) smaller and 0.57lb (or 260g) lighter than the RF 50 1.2.
However, does the EF 50 1.2, being a much older lens intended for a bygone system, match up to the RF 50 1.2. Does it exemplify the spirit of reaching up to faster, higher, and stronger? The only way to settle this Olympian debate is to conduct a comparison. Fortunately, I conducted one, two weeks ago - a day after I reviewed the RF 24-105. In truth, I would have probably posted this blog entry earlier, if not for the colder weather look of the sample images.
Worth noting too, I also threw in the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux-M Aspherical for good measure, in addition to the EF 50 1.2 and the RF 50 1.2. In terms of size, there is no comparison. Even with the adapter, the Leica Noctilux is much smaller and lighter to such an extent that it’s not worth the effort to detail its size difference. That said, the Leica Noctilux doesn’t have autofocus. However, I firmly believe it’s worth demonstrating how an adapted manual focus lens measures up.
With an extra third of a stop beyond the two offered by any run-of-the-mill f/1.4 lens, I decided to tempt fate and extend myself further an additional stop by shooting at ISO 800. I reasoned I can shoot a stop slower, since a mirrorless camera like the Canon EOS-R won’t experience mirror slap in shutter actuation. Moreover, I also figured that ISO 800 would offer sufficient dynamic range to salvage details in the shadows, should the need to push the exposure in post presents itself.
But in terms of image quality, the RF 50 1.2 clearly demonstrated more resolved detail at higher magnification, compared to the EF 50 1.2 and the Leica Noctilux. Whether increased definition in resolved detail extends to the corners or continues across the aperture range, I can’t say (since I didn’t test that). But from what I can eyeball on the bottom right corner of the third comparison set, it would seem that the RF 50 1.2 is sharper at the corners wide open - I think.
Other than that, the only other notable difference is the minimum focusing distance between the RF 50 1.2 and the EF 50 1.2. Though not a secret, since this comparative statistic has already been informally disclosed, the RF 50 1.2 can focus up to 1.34’ (or 0.4m), which is 0.14’/1.68” (or 0.05m) closer than the minimum focusing distance of the EF 50 1.2. As for the Leica, it’s closet focusing distance is 3.28’ (or 1m), which is more than twice the distance.
In conclusion, I believe the RF 50 1.2 is a remarkably high performing lens. It’s truly a marvel of optical design. However, the EF 50 1.2 when adapted doesn’t seem to trail too far behind. Given that the EF 50 1.2 is relatively more compact and performs more or less like the RF 50 1.2, it is difficult to understand why anyone would update to the newer mirrorless version - that is - unless one truly needs more definition in resolved details.
On the medal podium, RF 50 1.2 reaches higher in resolving details, despite being no faster than the EF 50 1.2. That being said, it’s probably still a tad stronger in keeping optical aberration under control. Overall, this settles our Olympian debate. Personally, I’d wait and see what Canon offers at f/1.4 or f/1.8 - that is - unless you really need a maximum aperture of f/1.2 for that extra third of a stop over any run-of-a-mill f/1.4 lens for low light, more bokeh, or subject isolation.
As for the Leica Noctilux… that was really included just for fun. Most of this blog’s readership are Leica photographers, so the question of adapting Leica lenses would likely be of interest. For that reason, I also included below a fourth image from the second comparison set above, shot natively on the Leica M10 with the Leica 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux-M Aspherical. For its efforts, I am giving the Leica Noct a participation medal.
Images have not been optimized or cropped except for the title image. The three images below are magnifications of images at the top of the blog entry. All images have been shot at ISO 800 and at the maximum aperture of f/1.2.