Classic Canon 50mm f1.4 FD Vintage Lens
It’s so awesome that modern mirrorless digital cameras gives us the ability to use almost any vintage camera lens through the use of adapters. Some of these lenses are better than others, and some are just flat out amazing due to their unique image qualities. The Canon 50mm f1.4 FD vintage lens has a reputation of being a very iconic lens that produces sharp images with that special vintage feel to it. Therefore, I was very excited to try this lens out and see how it performed on my Sony A7 II full frame mirrorless camera.
The viewpoint of this review is based on the real world experience of using this lens mounted on the Sony A7 II camera for everyday photography situations. This is not about MTF charts, perfect scenarios in the studio, etc. I want to provide a review of how my lens copy handled while using it.
Canon FD Lenses
The FD mount was introduced by Canon in 1971 for 35mm SLR Cameras, specifically their new F1 camera. Production of the FD mount lenses went all the way to 1992 with various updates, additions, and subtractions along the way. Over the life of this lens mount Canon made over 130 different lenses including primes, zooms, macro, and other specialty styles. The Canon FD lenses were very popular with amateur and professional photographers, so there were a lot of these lenses produced. Their lack of auto focus and the newer EF mount made the FD lenses all but obsolete, therefore they are mostly inexpensive to purchase except for the more rare specialty lenses. If you want to learn more about the Canon FD mount visit the Wiki Page here.
Lets get into the lens review.
The Lens –
Canon introduced the 50mm f1.4 SSC in 1973, and it was produced until 1979. 50mm is considered a “normal” focal length or lens for 35mm film or digital full frame cameras. The normal refers to the fact that it is approximately the same field of view as the human eye can see, This was a popular lens so Canon made a lot of them. Therefore, this is a fairly inexpensive and readily available vintage lens on the used market. Since the vintage lenses have gained popularity recently, the prices have increased. Still, this lens can be found in good working order anywhere between $25 and $150 depending on condition.
Size And Feel –
This classic Canon 50 is compact and lightweight compared to more modern lenses. A lot of this is due to the lack of electronics and auto focus motors and such. It makes this lens easy to stash in a small section of your camera bag, or a lens that is easy to carry around on your camera all day. The lens is all metal construction so it feels substantial in your hand.
Lens Operations –
My 50mm example has a very smooth and easy to operate aperture ring that clicks into place to avoid it moving on you while you are out shooting. The focusing ring is easy to grip and glides so smoothly. As a result, the manual focusing is quick and easy. My version is stamped with SSC, which stands for Super Spectra Coating, which reduces flares and ghosting, and this style/coating was produced until 1979.
As with all these vintage lenses, the Canon 50mm f1.4 FD is all manual. This eliminates these lenses for many people before they even try them. For those of us that don’t mind manually focusing and controlling the aperture, this can actually be a joy. I use manual focus a lot for my photography, so it does not bother me in the least. The focusing throw is long and smooth, and even better than a lot of modern lenses. The Jena Sonnar also has another interesting feature. The focusing ring is at the end farthest away from the camera. More on this later.
- 55mm filter ring
- 49mm (1.9 inches) in length
- Minimum focusing distance of 450 mm (1.5 feet)
- Weight is 305 grams (0.67 lbs)
This lens feels solid and well built. It has a quality to it you appreciate when holding it.
Mounted To The Modern Sony A7 II Mirrorless Camera –
An adapter is needed to mount the vintage lenses to the modern, mirrorless, digital cameras, like the Sony A7 Series Cameras. I use the FD to Nex adapter made by K&F Concept, and it works well enough. It adapter has a sliding lock mechanism that I find slides around more than I would like when I out shooting with it. This is definitely not a knock on the lens. I would definitely consider other options for adapters, and there a lot of them available on the market. This camera/lens combination is great for a lot of different types of photography, and I found it a great combination to walk around in areas where you don’t want to attract attention to yourself.
How the Canon Lens Performed –
The image quality of the 50mm f1.4 FD is what I expected from this highly respected vintage lens, and therefore it did not disappoint. The images are sharp, have good contrast and generally have that vintage look to them. As you can see in the images below the Canon 50 1.4 shows up very well with the test shot of the sign. The sign is sharp, and I really like the red hue this lens produced right out of the camera.
When you crop in you can even see the rust bleeding onto the top of the sign. This is a lot of great detail for a lens that was released 50 years ago!
When you stop this lens down to f4 or 5.6 the sharpness really comes alive. See in the below image, these tiny flowers have a ton of detail. Additionally, notice the how this lens does really well in good light. You even get the detail of the subtle texture and tone changes in the weathered concrete wall.
Canon 50mm f1.4 FD As An All Purpose Lens –
Given the flexibility of this focal length the 50 1.4 is really good general purpose Swiss Army Knife of lenses kind of lens. While I was testing this lens, I just kept finding new ways that this lens just worked. To be honest I don’t shoot images at 50mm on the 35mm format all that often, but after using this lens it just works for so many things. Whether it is walking around, street photography, portraits, cityscapes, or landscapes, I can really see a use for this lens. This normal lens did truly feel natural in field of view when I was out shooting and composing images.
The Canon 50mm f1.4 FD and Sony A7 II truly grew on me as a viable choice as an all purpose walk around lens that I could leave on my camera all day while exploring. It is compact and discreet mounted on the Sony A7II which makes it great to use in places where you don’t want to draw attention to yourself. I used this lens while walking around downtown Los Angeles and it was small enough that it never attracted any attention. That allowed me to take the below image of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The building is a marvel to look at, and so fun to shoot images of. As the sunlight changes, so does the reflections, shadows, and tones.
The Canon 50mm f1.4 FD For Portraits –
When I think about shooting portraits, I generally reach for an 85mm or 135mm lens. These focal lengths are famous for their portrait looks and abilities. Therefore, how does this 50mm lens handle portraits?
This lens really surprised me here and I would not hesitate to use this lens for portraits at all. The above image shows just how amazing this lens does for portraits. This portrait was spontaneous and using natural light in the artist’s studio (Thank you Teale Hatheway for letting me interrupt you while working). The natural light was a little harsh which led to a super moody portrait. This image was shot at f1.4 and as you can see that creates a very shallow depth of field where only the eye is in focus. To get a little more of the model in focus I probably should have shot this at f2 or f2.8. Either way at f1.4 focus was still very easy on the A7 II.
Below is another shot in Teale’s studio. The 50mm made it very easy for me to shoot images of Teale working in a very tight space. This was a huge benefit compared to say a 135mm lens that you need more space back from your subject. I will also point out here that the Canon mount to the Sony A7 II did really well with skin tones right out of the camera. There was very little adjustment needed, which is awesome because it saved a lot of editing time.
The colors produced by the Canon 50mm f1.4 FD and Sony A7 II are really good. As mentioned above, the skin tones were genuine and pleasing right out of the camera. See below, the accurate colors of the flag in this image. The reds and blues really pop, against the mostly monochromatic background even though this was a very tricky lighting condition.
Below is another image that shows off the color achieved by this lens, camera combination. Here in this reflection image, the green of the foliage on the left hand side really contrasts with the blue of the windows. These colors are very representative of what the scene looked like while I was there.
Some Things That Weren’t Great –
There is a lot to like about this vintage 50mm, but no lens is perfect. This holds true about the Canon 50 mm f1.4 mounted on the Sony A7 II. While I was out shooting with this lens I had a couple of things that kept coming up that was obvious issue with this lens.
Vignetting At f1.4 –
This definitely did not surprise me, but it has to be mentioned here. There is a lot of vignetting at f1.4 with this lens, especially in lower or tricky lighting conditions. Sometimes, the vignetting was so strong, the only way to get rid of it would be to crop it out. The image of the sign below really shows off this vignetting. This was a very tricky lighting situation, looking almost straight up in the sky, but it really shows how bad this lens can vignette. FYI, I do think the vignetting adds character to this image, so it works, but if I didn’t want it the only way to effectively remove it would be to crop in on the file.
The Bokeh –
Bokeh can make or break an image, especially when you start taking images with really shallow depth of field. Bokeh is the soft out-of-focus blur of the back ground when you are using a very fast lens. Different lenses have different bokeh characteristics based on how they are made, and this is a very non-technical, artistic area of photography. Therefore, what I say next is just my opinion based on my aesthetic and others might have a completely different opinion and I’m quite alright with that.
If the background is too busy the Canon 50mm f1.4 FD produces a very noisy almost chaotic bokeh. This really surprised me, given that I hadn’t seen it until the image below.
I would have expected the light balls in the background to be more circular especially near the center of the image. Additionally, the foliage in the background is just a little too busy. I would have hoped for it to be smoother than that. There was a lot of separation between the model and the back ground and that just doesn’t show as much as I expected. Maybe this is just my copy, but a quick internet search, I see that other people have had similar results using this vintage lens. While I put this in the things that weren’t great section, this bokeh does really give the Canon a very unique look.
None of these issues will stop me from using this lens. It’s important to point out the flaws I encountered though. Photographers know everything is about trade offs and balance when it comes to gear. Consequently, it is good to know what gear is good for what situations.
- Image quality is really good especially when you stop this lens down to f2.8 or f4.
- Color rendition is really rich when the Canon 50mm f1.4 FD is mounted on the Sony A7 II.
- The lens is extremely versatile for many types of photography.
- The price is right. My multicoated copy cost me $29 US and is in good condition (Not Mint, but close).
- The vignetting at f1.4 can require cropping to remove.
- The bokeh is not as smooth as I would have liked.
- All manual. Focusing, aperture all done manually.
Final Thoughts –
I found the Canon 50mm f1.4 mounted to the Sony A7 II to be a great lens/camera combination. It was compact and easy to carry around all day. The Canon is sharp and has really good contrast.
The images this lens produce have a unique character to them, which is something I look for in a vintage lens. It brings a lot to the table in terms of creating images that don’t look like they were shoot with modern digital lenses.
After shooting images with this lens for a bit, I found myself liking it more and more. Given that it was only $29 and is easy to stash in a bag, I think this is a great vintage lens. If you are wanting to try out vintage lenses on you modern mirrorless camera, or just add a new lens to your vintage collection, it’s hare to go wrong with this miniature powerhouse.
If you like prime, normal focal length lenses check out the Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f2.8 for medium format cameras.
Maybe you are looking for a longer telephoto lens. If so, check out the blog post about the Pentacon 500mm f5.6.
Additional Images –
Don’t forget to look at the images on my site in the galleries starting at: https://mjvphoto.com/the-art/. Hopefully you find some of them inspirational for your own photography adventures, or maybe you find an image you want to call your own.