Sometimes, picking a favorite is hard. If you ask me to choose a favorite song or movie, it just can’t be done. Lenses; however, are different beasts. Ask most photographers what their favorite lens is, and you’ll probably get little hesitation before they start gushing and waxing lyrical.
At least that’s how I am, and when it comes to picking my favorite, all you have to do is ask which lens is probably on my camera body right now. That is almost always the Canon 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro.
This lens is a gem that offers great quality in terms of sharpness, ease of use, durability and versatility, and even though I’ve acquired some fairly serious glass since I bought it 12 years ago, it’s still my go-to lens.
Making the choice
Regarding lens choice, one of the most common things new photographers are told is to start with a 50mm f/1.8, often referred to as “thrifty fifties”. The logic here is more or less irrefutable. These lenses are cheap, reliable, versatile, and their large aperture makes them much faster than anything else in that price range. Their versatility makes them perfect for portraits and most other subjects outside of the extremes such as landscapes, which favor wide-angle lenses, and sports, which favor telephoto lenses.
When I was starting out, I spent a lot of time photographing things like food, flowers, toys, and other small things with fine details. I had little interest in other types of photography, and no interest in portraiture.
As such, the biggest limitation I got from my kit lenses was the focusing distance. I was forever trying to get closer to my subjects using the long end of kit lenses, and falling short every time.
When it was time to consider upgrading that first lens, research made it clear that neither the thrifty fifty nor the 85mm f/1.8 would do much good towards those aims. On the other hand, a dedicated 100mm macro lens was far out of my price range. Because of all this, I put off upgrading my kit lenses for a long time.
It was only by chance that I eventually found the 50mm Compact Macro while browsing through Canon lenses on a retailer’s site. To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of research involved. I saw the lens, the price, and the focusing distance of nine inches, and I bought it within the week.
Pros and cons
The Canon 50mm Compact Macro is the workhorse of my camera bag and it’s certainly been put through its paces over the past decade. For my purposes, there are no flaws; however, it does have a few qualities that may make it unsuitable for some photographers.
Pro – Build quality
It can’t be helped that the first thing you notice about this lens is the build quality. This is particularly true if your previous experiences are with kit lenses. The solid metal casing makes it feel sturdy and the extra weight feels great in your hand.
It may be worth mentioning that when I did get to use a 50mm f/1.8 a few years ago, I thought that I was being handed a Holga lens. This isn’t in any way an attempt the demean the 50mm f/1.8, but rather as an illustration of how far apart these lenses are in terms of build quality.
Pro – Durability
Durability may fall under build quality, but experience makes me feel it’s worth mentioning separately.
This lens has been dropped on concrete, cobble stone, and Tarmac, and it has been in the ocean. It has been in ash storms, torrential rain, hail storms, and there was one terrifying incident where it was left to stew in a half litre puddle of shower gel for a few hours. Despite all of this, this lens has not once shown any performance issues.
Pro – Sharpness
As should be expected from a lens created for the purpose of macro photography, the Canon 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro cannot be faulted in terms of sharpness. While I’m unable to compare it to the other 50mm offerings from Canon, I can compare it with the excellent 85mm f/1.8 and 70-200 f/4 L IS USM. The differences are almost indistinguishable.
Pro – Large aperture
The compact Macro may have a smaller aperture than Canon’s other 50mm lenses, but it is still a fast lens and works well in all but the dimmest of settings.
In terms of background blur, if you take into account that depth of field is also affected by the distance of the camera from the subject (the closer you are, the shallower the depth of field) you can see that you will achieve a comparable amount of blur to the faster lenses.
Pro – Focusing
Whether it’s in auto focus or manual focus, it’s really hard to find fault with this lens. In normal situations, the auto-focus is fast and accurate. The large aperture of f/2.5 allows for a bright image in the viewfinder, making manual focus easy and quick.
Pro – Focus distance
With a focusing distance of just nine inches (23cm), you can get extremely close to your subjects. Yes, this may be the sole reason for this lens’ existence, but the versatility this adds is wonderful. For example, you are able to take a close-up of someone’s eye, then move a few steps back and take a normal 50mm portrait seconds later.
As mentioned, it wasn’t easy to come up with any negative aspects of this lens. There are; however, a few considerations that could mean this may not fit your specific photographic needs.
Con – Weight
At 9.88 ounces (280 grams), the Compact Macro weighs more than twice as much as Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 lens (4.6 ounces/ 130g). If you’re trying to keep your kit bag as light as possible, and the macro functionality isn’t that important, then you may want to consider the alternatives.
Con – Price
While I will attest that this lens offers tremendous value for the money, at $299 it is a big jump in price from the 50mm f/1.8 at $125. If you’re just starting out, and do not yet know what subjects you’re interested in, or whether or not you will stick with photography for long, it may be worth considering a more wallet friendly option.
Editor’s note: at the time of this article the 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro lens is listed on Canon’s site as Out of Stock. You may be able to find it used on Amazon.com or go for the even higher priced 60mm f/2.8 Macro at $419 USD.
Con – Light
There is a slight downside to the lens’ closest focusing distance. When you’re standing that close to your subject, you and the camera effectively block any light coming from the front. Often, this is easily countered with side lighting techniques, or by using a dedicated macro ring flash, but it can be tricky to overcome at other times.
Con – Magnification
What may be considered as a deal breaker for a lot of photographers is that the 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro is not a true macro lens. With a magnification ratio of 1:2, it only creates images at half life-size. This can be rectified with a converter that allows for 1:1 magnification.
In the end
I know I’ve been gushing quite a bit, but my experiences with this lens have been outstanding, despite the heavy use and torture I put it through. If you’re in a position where you’re deciding to buy a 50mm, and you like the idea of getting really close your subjects, do consider the Canon 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro. It really is a treat.