I was chatting with Jason the other day about photography, and I told him that I was going to get myself a Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens for Christmas. He said that he had one (or equivalent) and liked it, but he referred to the lens as a “plastic fantastic.” I had no idea why, and my Google search only turned up this article about the inexpensive Holga medium format camera. I guess he calls the lens a plastic fantastic because it’s cheap and there are fewer adjustments than with a zoom lens. (Unlike the Holga, though, you can still focus it and change the aperature!) In any case, though, the name stuck, and from now on I will surely think of this lens as my plastic fantastic. (Jason happens to be incredibly good at naming things. It was he who started calling me “Mackenab” after I was assigned that username as a freshman in college. And he who came up with nicknames for many other people we knew. My wife still hasn’t let me live down the nickname that he gave her years before she and I ever dated… (Do you really think I would repeat it here?))
In any case, my plastic fantastic arrived on Friday, and, even though it is a Christmas present, it was perfectly suited for some pictures that I needed to take this weekend, so I gave myself permission to give it a whirl. (One picture of Charlie was needed for the Christmas cards and one of the whole fam for a Christmas gift.) It is now packed back away for two more weeks. I think Becky is even going to wrap it up and put it under the tree. But, in the meantime, I thought that I would give you a few impressions.
Basically, it’s an awesome lens compared to the kit lens that I have used exclusively so far. You give up the zoom, but you get oh-so-much-more in return. The biggest thing that you get is a wide aperture — that is to say that the lens lets in much more light than the kit lens. At f/1.8, it’s about 3 stops more than the kit lens (although the maximum aperture on the kit lens varies depending on how you have it zoomed). Three stops wider aperture means that the lens lets in 8 times as much light — each “stop” lets in twice as much light. This means that you can get beautiful, bright pictures indoors without a flash. I was shooting ISO 200 all weekend and my shutter speed was almost always fast enough to hold the camera in my hand. I even took some outside at night (during the Christmas parade) and some of them turned out reasonably well, too.
Of course, there is no free lunch. A wide aperture means a much smaller depth-of-field (meaning less stuff will be in focus). A small depth of field is terrific for portrait photography, but it requires that you get your subject(s) in sharp focus. I found that this was actually pretty tricky at f/1.8. On the default setting, my camera did a very poor job of choosing an appropriate focus point. So, I had to choose the focus point manually and then be sure to carefully point the appropriate focus point at something (usually, the subject’s eyes for portraits) for focusing. This is something that I will have to get accustomed to; it was particularly difficult when trying to take pictures of Charlie as he went careening around the room.
My only complaint about the lens is also related to the autofocus. The autofocus motor is not very smooth and is a bit slow. I suppose this is why Canon sells another version of the lens at 4 times the price with an ultrasonic motor (USM); it also buys you an additional 2/3 of a stop, down to f/1.4. Prior to buying this lens, I had always wondered what the big deal was with USM lenses. I had never noticed the non-USM autofocus on my kit lens, after all. But it is very noticeable on this lens. The USM version supposedly focuses much faster and quieter. Oh well, maybe when I have more money for photography.
(Canon also sells a “professional” L-series version of this lens. It sells for $1250 — more than 17 times what I paid for mine. I’m not sure what the big deal is with the L-series lenses. And I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to find out! Shooting with them has been known to cause an incurable disease knows as “L-Disease” which leads a photographer to buy an L-series lens in every focal length that he or she shoots. Not a cheap habit, I’d say.)
Anyway, I’ll show you some examples of what I shot pretty soon. I’ve been meaning to wire ye olde blog up to my Flickr account, anyway, in preparation for more shooting in the coming year. So, this will be a good excuse to get that moving.
Update: Another reason for calling this lens the plastic fantastic is probably that, in fact, almost everything here except the lens itself is made of plastic — even the lens mount. But, as this review points out, even with its shortcomings you would be hard pressed to find a better lens at twice the price.