Camera Lenses // You get what you pay for {f/1.8 vs. f/1.4}

When I wanted to buy my first prime lens, the 50mm was a no-brainer for me. A great photographer I know gave me this advice: take whatever zoom lens you have and set it at a focal length (20mm, 50mm, 85mm – whatever) and don’t touch it. Don’t zoom in and out just move around and pretend that it’s a fixed lens. When you find the focal length on your zoom which you feel comfortable using, then you’ll know what length prime lens you’re after.

So I did that and 50mm was the magic number. Now I had 3 choices:

  • The 50mm f/1.8 also known as the ‘nifty fifty’. Price: £85
  • The 50mm f/1.4. Price: £282
  • The 50mm f/1.2 (L series). Price: £1200

Being that I didn’t understand the difference between these three lenses, I opted for the cheapest one. I thought ‘what difference could one f-stop really make? Is it worth an extra thousand pounds?’. The answer is a resounding ‘YES’. And it’s not the one-extra f-stop you’re paying for when you’re talking the difference between the 1.8 and 1.4. It’s glass quality, optics, mechanics, build – everything!

When I first got the 50mm f/1.8, I Hated it with a capital H. It was clunky, loud, constantly refocusing. I just didn’t want that thing on my camera. So I returned it and bought the 50mm f/1.4 and it is a dream compared to the 1.8. It’s sturdier, nice and heavy and super fast at focusing. Not to mention sharp as a tack. A few months ago, I took the dive into the 50mm f/1.2 and -gosh- it just keeps getting better! It’s like seeing for the first time! I didn’t think it could possibly get better than the 1.4!

So tonight, I was trolling the Clickin Moms forum and caught this great shot from photographer Karly Campbell to show the difference between the image quality of the 1.8 and 1.4 Nikon versions. I think this is an excellent visualization to show you the difference in lens quality as you climb up the price scale:

You can see that the image quality is much better with the 1.4, but what’s the physical difference between these two lenses?

  • Motors – The 1.8 has a micromotor while the 1.4 employs a USM (ultrasonic motor). The micromotor is the older/slower/noisier type of focusing motor from Canon and, therefore, cheaper. f/1.4 versus f/1.8 – The smaller the f/number, the more open the aperture. The more open the aperture, the more shallow your depth of field will be. Thus, the background will be more soft and blurry at smaller f/stop numbers. And this also lends to more beautiful bokeh.
  • More aperture blades – The 1.8 has a 5-blade aperture diaphragm while the 1.4 lens has 8 blades. This means a couple things. Light bokeh produced by the 5 blade diaphragm will be the shape of a pentagon because of the shape of the diaphragm being a pentagon. With 8 blades, bokeh will be more circular as seen in the first set of photos on this site I found tolling the web for info.
  • Weight – 1.8 is 130g while the 1.4 is a nice hefty 290g

Clearly, there are so many things people can say when comparing lenses. Colour quality, sharpness, etc. and it’s a no brainer that the more you spend on a lens, the better quality all of these things will be. If you’re a newbie, don’t be afraid to spend more on a lens. Lenses aren’t like shoes where UGGs cost a million times more than Rocket Dogs just because they’re a popular ‘look-at-me-I’m-cool’ item. You really are getting more for your money when you spend more on a camera lens.

  • When I first started ‘getting serious’ about photography, I brought a 50mm f/1.8 and it totally rocked my world! I loved it and learnt so much on it…I’ve recently upgraded to the f/1.4 (recently as in a year or two ago) and to be honest I am just not that impressed. I still prefer my tamron 28-70 but maybe I’m a zoom woman? I just find the 50 mm so much harder to focus that I often miss shots that I would easily get with my tamron, and I love the way skin looks with the tamron. I look forward to trying out the canon 24-70L which is what I’m lusting after next! (But like you say, shouldn’t even be thinking about until I get the $$$ in the bank!)

  • Hi Michelle,

    A fast lens (like f/1.4) at wide open would be really difficult to focus because the depth of field is really thin. That might be the reason why it’s difficult for you to focus with it. I’m a Nikon shooter myself, so I can’ really recommend any lens for you but I’ll always read reviews by Ken Rockwell on any camera’s and lenses. It’s quite thorough and at least to me, easier to understand than other reviewers.

  • great food for thought! I have a question: I’d like to get more “serious” wit my photography but wonder if I’ll look like a giant ass if I have nice expensive professional lenses on my Rebel xs? Would it be like throwing pearls to swine, so to say?

  • Jenny Cruger

    If I remember correctly, though, those two images were taken with Nikon lenses, NOT Canon. I can’t say Canon wouldn’t be exactly the same, but a lot of 1.8 canon users (me included) were pretty shocked by that comparison. Of course the 1.4 is better and I plan to get that soon, but I don’t think it’s fair to compare what you know and have played with (canons) to those pictures, right? How different is the Nikon 50 1.8 vs. the Canon 50 1.8? I don’t know…

  • elizabethhalford

    @Jenny: On, I hadn’t caught that they were Nikons. I looked for the original post and couldn’t find it.

  • Mike

    I also have my eyes set on a full frame dslr. It may be a while before I can actually purchase one, but I’m wondering about my lens investments…

    Obviously, my focal length will change once I make a move to a full frame. For example, my 50mm lens which was slightly telephoto will become a standard lens on a 5D. Do you think I’m going to have to re-discover that “magic” number all over again?

    If that’s the case, I think I’ll stick to zoom until I actually get the money to purchase a full frame.

  • If you are coming from a “cheap” kit lens (or similar), the 50mm f/1.8 will be a jump up in image quality. However, it is plasticy, slow and noisy as you said. It’s one main advantage is that it’s a cheap lens that allows you to get the wide aperture and shallow depth of field, and is an ideal portrait lens on a crop sensor camera.

    You can get the “nifty fifty” for a bit less if you shop around on eBay. I managed to get mine for just over £65.

    But – I do find that while it’s better than the last kit lens I had, it is no match for my Sigma 17-70mm lens. As a result I don’t use it.

    There is another choice – Sigma fairly recently brought out a new 50mm f/1.4 lens. It’s the first “new design” 50mm lens that’s been released in a long time, and it is especially designed with digital cameras in mind (with appropriate coatings, etc.)

    It does actually cost a fair bit more than the Canon f/1.4 equivalent, but seeing as it’s a much newer lens (and costs more), I’d hope it would be much better image quality.

  • Jenny Cruger

    If you go to the page where the pics came from, that particular thread is on the front page…about midway down right now I believe ;)

  • That’s it! I’m moving up to a 1.4. I would LOVE the 1.2, but can’t get there financially. Thanks for the post!!

  • Thanks Amryl I usually set my 50mm to f/2.8 because of that exact problem, and I do get my photos nice and sharp, I’d just prefer the lens to be a bit quicker at focusing…more like my tamron.

  • I would have to disagree with this. I have tested the 1.8 against the 1.4 on numerous occasions and never seen a difference like the one pictured. That NIKON 1.8 is a very cheap expensive lens, by that I mean in the case with the nikon 1.8 you don’t just get what you pay for, you get a whole lot more. This is a brilliant lens. Yes, can be noisy and is cheaper plastic looking than the 1.4 but it’s tack sharp. My friends that have canon say that the canon 1.8 isn’t as good as the 1.4 canon or the 1.8 nikon. I can only talk for nikon. I think Thom Hogan wrote up some comparison too. Just my 2 pennies worth! Happy New Year :)

  • PS: on another note: I just bought myself some f’uggs for 840 yen ($10/7 pounds) and they are great!!!

  • Robin

    thanks for the explanation of why they are so different. I got the 1.4 last year for xmas and have been disappointed with the clarity of my pics esp when I print them. I was ok with the higher f-stop but not the lack of clarity/pixely-ness looking of my pics! I can sometimes get a really clear shot but I’m not sure why yet that one is clear vs the others not so much. hoping to upgrade when I can!

  • Celine

    I think it would be fair to update your post now that you know those picture weren’t taken with a Canon 50mm lens. I personally have the 50 mm 1.8 II and I LOVE LOVE it.

  • elizabethhalford

    @Celine: Oh yeah thanks for reminding me :)

  • I’ve had — and broken — two 50mm f/1.8 lenses in the past five years. It was slow to focus, a little soft overall, and made me wonder why everyone swore by prime lenses. I only used it for low-light emergencies. But after breaking the second one, I decided to upgrade to the 50mm f/1.4 — and WOWZA, I can’t get enough of it. Like any fast lens, you have to be super-careful about your focus, but I can’t believe how much faster and more accurately it focuses than my 1.8 did. It’s an amazing portrait lens — it inspired me to buy the 28mm f/1.8 for weddings, and I’m saving up for the 85mm L. I realize the comparison above were Nikon lenses, but before I read that correction, my immediate thought was, “Yup, that’s about right!” A little more extreme than the quality difference I saw…but ONLY a little.

  • I’ve had both the Canon 1.8 & the Canon 1.4. A friend lent me the 1.8 which was my first experience with prime lens and it rocked my world. I used it a few months ago to shoot a 10 page children’s fashion spread for a parenting magazine and the results were stunning. When it was time to give it back, I bought a 1.4 and the image quality and focus speed are better and faster. I use shallow depth of field alot.
    Shooting wide open at 1.4 is something I hardly do as I’m damn good at nailing focus, but I have missed it a few times at 1.4. A trick I learned recently is, instead of focusing on one eye, I focus smack bang in between the two eyes. Has helped!
    If you’re on a budget and you only have kit lens, you will LOVE the Canon 1.8.

  • Barbara

    Great post, but I agree the comparison photos are Nikon.

    Here’s a Canon comparison:

    I couldn’t find the post with the above photos, but it is Nikon (as you can tell by how the 50mm f/1.4G is labeled).

    I’ll be upgrading my 50mm soon and plan to do a comparison too.

  • I’ve been wanting to get a fixed 50mm and I’ve been trying to decide between the 1.2, 1.4, and 1.8.  I know that the 1.2 would be the best, of course, but I’ve been wondering if the 1.4 or 1.8 would do since they are sooooo much cheaper.  I appreciate your review and this helps me make my decision.  I’m leaning toward getting the 1.4.  I already have the 85mm 1.2.  So having two 1.2 lenses would be awesome but maybe not practical when considering the pocket book.  I adore my 85.  But sometimes I just can’t get back far enough in a tight space so then I’d switch to the 50.

  • guest

    Question…do you suggest an autofocus lens or a manual?  I just purchased a 1.4 50 mm autofocus, but am actually unclear of the difference?

  • Bagalao

    Sorry but is a misleading post where you about canon lens and show images from a nikon. The 1.8 produces crisp images if focused right and for the untrained (or evevn a pro) eyes cant see the difference. You prob want to create some impact but again, it isnt informative at all.

  • finsoft

    It seems like this is a advertisement of f1.4 lens. The sample image shown above of f1.8 is edited to make it look worse. Not even the kit lens shoot that bad. Its total crap.

  • elizabethhalford

    Um no…if I was going to “advertise” a lens, it would be the 1.2.

  • Afraz

    Although, the 50mm f/1.8 is a blessing for people on a really tight budget.