My Favorite and ONLY Lens: The Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM

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I operate my photography business on a shoe string budget. This started out of necessity, but continued because it became abundantly clear to me early on, that I would rather spend the money I earn from photography towards black t-shirts, home décor, five dollar lattes, and bills. Mainly bills, but no sense in pretending the other indulgences don’t factor into my take-home pay.

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I started my portrait business with a Canon Rebel, kit glass, and a prayer. As my business grew I invested in a 30D, and later a 5D. One particularly good tax refund, and a little generosity from my mother around my birthday, found me the proud new owner of a Canon 50mm L-series lens. I didn’t even know what the L stood for (to be honest, I still don’t), I just knew that all the photography blogs I read at the time called it the end-all, be-all lens. The It Lens. The Portrait Lens. I also had a seasoned pro tell me that I should spend as much money as possible on good glass, and it doesn’t get any better than this one.


It’s also important to mention that I was at a place with both photography, and my confidence, that I would listen to just about anyone who even pretended they knew what they were talking about. Had she told me that my pictures would be better if I carried a frog in my pocket, I would have carried two, and a lizard in my shoe just in case.

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I am going to tell you all a secret. I am going to answer the question I always get asked when I pull out my big, fancy lens that is mounted to my camera body, which to be clear is the Canon 5D model from 4 models ago: does that snazzy lens make photos better? Brace yourselves because, yes. Yes, it does. So much so in fact that I don’t even own another lens.

I had a fixed 24mm lens for a few years, but it did nothing more than take up space in my bag. Space that I prefer to give to gum and bug spray. So I sold it to increase my coffee and black yoga pants budget. Zoom lenses have never been my favorite, so that narrows down my choices considerably, and a 50mm just feels like the right length for me—I’m close to my subjects but not breathing in their face, even if my breath is minty fresh from my bulk gum purchases.

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Can you live without a lens that costs three times what my first car did? You bet. But I’ll tell you another thing—you can live without an entire bag of lenses just as easily. A back-up body and lens is nice—some may even say essential (particularly if you are a wedding photographer), and I suppose if you do certain types of photography, you may need a few different lenses. But I am here to tell you that I have operated a very successful portrait and wedding photography business with my one, albeit super fancy, lens and done just fine, thank you very much. I can count on one hand the times I’ve needed a different lens, and each time it was easy to either borrow or rent, and much more cost effective.

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I know my 50. I named my 50, if we are being honest (its name is Seth—it work well with Nancy my MacBook, and Monte my iMac). At this point it just feels like an extension of my arm, or eyeball. I know what I will see in the viewfinder by the time I get my camera to my face. Since my feet are the zoom, I know exactly where I need to stand to get the frame I want.

Prime lenses are fast and sharp. If this means I have to walk around a bit more, then I can call it my exercise for the day (okay, fine: week) as well. The bulk of my business is photographing kids, so no matter what, I am going to be on the move. I’d just rather know that upfront, than mess with a zoom and continuously risk less than tack-sharp focus. This isn’t even counting the fact that by not spending a great deal on equipment I am able to be well caffeinated on expensive coffee during shoots, and sit at a very pretty desk while I edit.

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The other plus of counting on one great lens for everything? I invest my money back into my business in other places, beyond expensive equipment. Places that I feel reach farther than a bag full of stuff. I have a bold website and eye-catching business cards. My clients get their images in top-of-the-line professional packaging. I have a ShootSac and buy lollipops in bulk. I wear the most expensive contact lenses on the market, and you should see my hair tie-back selection.

I can only afford these things because I’m not up to my expensive contact lens-wearing eyeballs in debt over fancy equipment. Additionally, my fees are not so outrageous that my client base is only a select few. My overhead being lower than average, allows me to continue photographing the families that supported my business when I was just starting. Families that otherwise may not be able to afford my services if I was dealing with extraordinary costs.

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My mom taught me to buy quality; to save my money and buy a good pair of jeans, instead of the cheapest pair that fit. Sadly this lesson didn’t stick and at this very moment I am dressed head to toe in Target. However, it’s true here; buy the nicest lens you can afford and make it work for you. It’s your paintbrush, your potters wheel, your knives (I’ve heard big-time chefs bring their own knives to everything); make it the best possible one and make it the only one you need.

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Have you invested in top quality lenses or “glass”? What is your go-to lens and why?


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Lynsey Mattingly

photographs families, kids, couples, and other groups of people who, for whatever reason, kind of like each other. Her portrait work has been featured in People Magazine, Us Weekly, BBC Magazine, and on national TV including CNN, Oprah, and Ellen, but most importantly, in the personal galleries of clients across the country. Her photography can be viewed at www.lynseymattingly.com or on Facebook.

  • Chris BSomething

    I understand this lens is quite well suited to your style of photography. On the other hand, you don’t seem to have tried much else. One day go and force yourself to use a 135/2 and see what you come up with.

  • Donna

    Your articles continue to inspire me!
    I bought a 70-300L to get closer to the beach/ocean/boat/lighthouse photo images I want to capture but my most recent purchase was a Canon 85 1.8- I stopped short of the much more costly 1.2L. Not sure if it was the best decision but it was the right one for me at the time. Now I want the 50 1.2 L!
    I love that you work so successfully with one small prime lens!
    Thanks for some great articles.

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  • dmichu

    I have several primes. 135, 24, 50, 35 but the 40 stm i use the most (about 80%). It is sharp, light and small.

  • Andy Whiteman

    Great article – great photos. I do think that there is too much focus in the world of photography on equipment. You have to have this lens, this camera and of course, for “street photography” you have to have a mirrorless system….to much buy, buy. buy need more photos!

  • Eleni Ledford

    Love, love this lens, one of my better lenses and a constant favourite.

  • ricardo japur

    great article ! i do know my low profile gear , and i`m able to get the best of it . take a look at : http://www.flickr.com/photos/ricardojapur/albums

  • gusjones

    Yes this is a good article but I cannot agree that this has to be the ONLY lens, the lens is excellent but as in life it is up to the user and my favourite lens is the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. My choice your choice what does it matter if the results are what you want?

  • Donnie Robertson

    WELL SAID DONNA! “My choice your choice what does it matter if the results are what you want?” Only the “picture-taker” knows what her or his mind sees as “the shot”! If the lens at hand is the handiest of lenses …… and it works to capture that image your eye sees BEFORE the shutter is released ….. it is the RIGHT LENS! I really like your line (and it deserves repeating): “My choice your choice what does it matter if the results are what you want?” YES INDEED!

  • gusjones

    Have a great Christmas!

  • Steve CheapSausage

    yea, great for portraits however life is much bigger than people all posing to look the same as every other portrait/wedding photograph which is what this lens is all about, that is, it fits a very narrow formula. Landscapes, street pics, object pics (cars, yachts, aircraft etc) wildlife etc etc need several lenses or at least a top quality zoom.

  • R-KA

    nikon dx nikkor 35-80mm lens is my favorite go-to right now.

  • Donna

    I also have the 24-105 and do love it but it’s maximum aperture (f4) is a bit limiting in low light. Other than that I think it’s a great walk around lense!

  • michael young

    Cool article. The longer I shoot, the less gear I need to get the job done. In fact, the less gear I WANT to get the job done. I, like many others, have purchased quite a few lenses through the years. I lost count after 10…….but now in my bag I only have 5. 17-35, 24-70, 70-200, 50 Prime and 85 Prime. If I had to rate their quality and my love for shooting them the 50 and 85 primes would be my top two. For shooting portraits, they are the only two I shoot. My 50 prime was the very first lens I purchased for my very first film camera back in the mid 90’s. We have been through it all together and to this day it still my most versatile lens. I love that thing. And judging by the quality it helps me produce it loves me back. In the end, I feel it really comes down to this. Shoot what you are comfortable with and what gets you YOUR best results. Another great article Lynsey. Thank you.

  • gusjones

    Not on the Canon 6D, this camera is made for low light and high ISO it’s amazing really.

  • Mayush Jain

    Exactly! Photography is an art like painting no matter what colors you have whichever be the canvas imagination is the key

  • Archieman

    Thank you for a moment of sanity, the seemingly unending discussions over equipment is a colossal waste of time.
    Find a camera and a lens that fits your style of photography and shoot,shoot,shoot……..you will enjoys yourself and your photography will improve by leaps and bounds.

  • Archieman

    I have heard many positive comments on Canon STM lenses. I am selling all my cameras except the RX100iii and buying a Canon 6D with either a 35mm,40mm or 50mm…too many cameras cripple my creative juices.

  • Matthew King

    Hi Lynsey. Great article. I just thought you’d be interested to know that the L stands for Luxury line. As a Canon shooter who religiously uses L glass, I wondered the same thing. I finally asked a Canon rep and that’s what he told me. I was kind of let down, if I’m to be totally honest, I was hoping for something cooler. 🙂

  • Jane

    I don’t have a Full Frame camera ,I have a 35mm prime lens on my Sony A58SLT but I,m not that happy with it , Any suggestions
    would be great!

  • What about the lens are you not happy with? is it the focal length itself? Certain aspects of its performance/picture quality? Build/ergonomics? Lack of zoom?

  • asiafish

    Try that 6D high ISO at f/2 or f/1.2. Available darkness has its own magic.

  • asiafish

    As a Leica rangefinder shooter I’m used to shooting with only prime lenses. The classic kit of 35, 50 and 90mm primes (some prefer 28 to 35) has been my companion for years.

    When I travel to exotic (and humid) places or shoot events where I expect low light or the need for auto focus I leave the expensive (and not weather sealed) Leica gear at home and bring my Canon 6D with the same lens kit, only instead of a 90mm I use a 100mm macro. The Canon kit is much larger and a whole lot heavier, but SLR viewing and those weather-sealed L lenses add their own tricks that my M-E (same as M9) can’t match.

    True 1:1 macro with the 100/2.8 L IS, closer focusing on the 50 and 35mm f/1.4 L primes than the 0.7 meter minimum focus distance of a rangefinder, and of course auto focus. Different tools for different roles.

    Until now I just used the 35mm f/1.4 L mk2 (fantastic lens) and the 100mm macro, but last night I pulled the trigger on the 50/1.2 L. It’s not technically as good as my primary 50mm (Leica Summilux aspherical), but it will do things that the Leica will not. I think I’m going to enjoy this lens.

  • Pip Hume

    This is entertaining … Of course, it depends on your genre and style of photography. I personally belong to the “only buy what you really, really need” camp. I have a handful of high quality lenses which cover the bases for me. The least used lens in my bag is my 50mm 1.4 – it’s simply not that useful for what I do.

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