Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM review

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Confessions of the prime shooter’s filthy sensor, part 1

I didn’t want to trawl endless reviews of Canon’s new 50mm f/1.8 STM lens, only to read the same things over and over again, nor did I want to look at charts detailing how soft it was in the corners. I didn’t even really need the lens; I had a copy of Canon’s previous plastic 50mm lens knocking around that I only put on the front of my EOS film camera on days I wasn’t working. But much against mine, and the camera shop guy’s better judgement, I decided to chop in my plastic 50 and pull the trigger on the new STM version to circumnavigate spurious online reviews see whether it was any good in the flesh/plastic/glass and now, metal. I knew the optical make-up was the same but it’s new features just seemed to bring a bit of refinement to the table outside of the test charts and unmeasurable by the numbers – smoother bokeh, quieter AF, possibly even more accurate AF and that metal mounting ring promised to be stronger and not prone to wear from constant prime lens changing. I’ve not been disappointed with it but it got me thinking, did I need this lens and why was I so obsessed with wanting this cheap bit of kit when I have access to some wonderful lenses already?

Long before I got into all this wedding business, I had a humble Praktica MTL5 with a 50mm lens, it carried me through bits of photography coursework and seemed to be ‘just-about-right’; when things needed to be further in or further out, there was a 28mm or 135mm lens. Gradually, this set-up got less and less use as I went the route of most folk and started out with with my first DSLR and kit zoom lens (a Canon 40D with 17-85) which on the surface of it, looked like a great bag of focal lengths in one. Gone were the days of film and being restricted to one ISO like a chump, gone were the days of carrying round a couple of piddling little prime lenses which needed focusing manually. Stepping up to this big boy lens felt good, especially as it had all the toys/all the letters after it’s name (USM, IS etc etc) There’s nothing like knowing a few acronyms which you can bandy about to make you feel reet pro. The reality turned out to be a range of soft images ridden with chromatic aberration, usually accompanied by a shutter speed which was far too slow in moderately low light situations. I stopped thinking about framing when using this lens – I zoomed in or out and shot with scant regard to composition or what AF point I was using.

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I then threw money at the problem and bought a SP AF 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II VC LD IF – it should improve my photos with that many letters after it’s name right? It was a stop faster but it still didn’t deliver the ‘wow’ I was hoping; I reckon I got a handful of good images out of it but had to go as it was very slow to focus and you had to stand and wait for the stabiliser to do it’s stabilising thing. A purchase of the 70-200 2.8 L IS restored my faith in zooms a bit but it does lend itself well to just turret shooting and not moving around. That, and the weight are some of the reasons why I never bothered replacing it with the lovely 70-200 2.8 L IS version 2.

I needed something which would make me think again. It was time for the prime.

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I’m a sucker for prime lenses. You’re immersed in your situation as you have to read your surroundings, anticipate what is going to happen around you and get in the best place to shoot from with the correct lens hanging off the front of your camera of choice. I won’t lie, I get caught out sometimes when the unexpected happens and I’m stuck with the wrong lens on, but these occurrences are getting fewer and fewer. You do need to be mindful of where and how you change lenses to stop dust getting onto the sensor as you’re going to be doing it a lot! The other side of the coin is that I can capture something in low light and be onto the next photo whereas if I was shooting with a zoom, I’d probably still be meddling with the flash like an utter bozo. My images are now much sharper, and I am carrying less weight and I can go bokeh-mental if I want to, all great ingredients for beautiful wedding and not-wedding photography.

To shoot weddings, an investment needs to be made in the best equipment, but for my own photography, I don’t want to be carrying around a heavy £700+ liability. What the Canon 50 STM still represents is a bargain which no longer feels like the runt of the litter and is now more in line with the other lightweight, sharp-enough 1.8 primes which I can use to get the most out of my film photography.

To answer my original question: as an existing owner of the plastic version 2, did I need this lens? Probably not, it won’t make me a better photographer and images taken on this lens don’t look radically different from those taken with the plastic 50. Why did I want it so much? I’ve tried a hundred ways to justify this – better build, quieter AF, smoother bokeh. All it comes down to is taking a type of lens I’ve had a lot of fun with and taking it to the next (but very modest) level, I’m keen to take pictures with it to see how they turn out, and anything which gets me out there taking photos is a good thing.

Bellavista, Milnrow, Wedding Photography ~ Dan Barlow

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Hayley & Steve

I was very pleased to hear that Hayley and Steve were holding their May bank holiday wedding at Bellavista in Milnrow, it’s a venue I love coming back to as it overlooks rolling countryside, has a beautiful garden and lets a lot of light in through those big windows – Hayley and Steve even mentioned this as one of the reasons why they were marrying there as they knew it could only be a good thing for their photos!

After the ceremony, guests were treated to a posh afternoon tea served in vintage china cups followed by the formal wedding breakfast. Hayley and Steve used the time between these points in the day for their bridal portraits session in Bellavista’s gardens which saw us spoilt for choice with pretty backdrops; also, as an accompaniment to their vintage theme, there was even a little time for shooting some photographs on film.

After the wedding breakfast and speeches, we managed to get out again in the evening sunshine for a few more portraits before Steve whisked Hayley away on a surprise pre-honeymoon minimoon.

Congratulations Hayley & Steve, thank you for letting me be a part of your day!

See Hayley & Steve’s Pre-wedding photoshoot here.

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Castlefield Manchester Pre-Wedding Photoshoot ~ Dan Barlow

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Hayley & Steve’s Pre-Wedding Photoshoot

Having seen my last pre-wedding photoshoot in Manchester city centre, Hayley and Steve asked if we could also do theirs somewhere in Manchester; we chose the Castlefield area near Deansgate to take their portraits as it’s bridges, canals and brickwork will stand in strong contrast to the leafy green photographs I’ll be taking at their wedding venue. Steve is an ardent film photographer so I knew he would appreciate it if I brought along an extra camera body loaded with Provia slide film to capture this day, you can see a few of the slide film images at the bottom of this post.

As well as getting some beautiful photographs, our time together meant that Hayley & Steve could relax in front of my camera and see how I work first-hand, just one of the reasons why I offer a pre-wedding photoshoot.

You can see Hayley & Steve’s wedding photography here.

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The great thing about slide film is that you can hold it up to a light source and immediately see a miniature version of your photograph; on seeing these at the lab, I couldn’t wait to get them through my scanner and up on here. The ‘look’ of Provia 100F is one which will fit well with Hayley and Steve’s vintage themed wedding and I cannot wait to take a few rolls with me to supplement my digital photos in May.

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Why I still shoot film

Film – remember that stuff?

35mm film negatives with hearts

You couldn’t pull it too far out out of the canister or open the camera because it would ruin the photos, every one of your 24 or 36 shots counted and when you were done, you had to take it down to Boots to get the photos developed waiting nearly a week for them to come back.

Believe it or not, there’s still a whole bunch of people using this inconvenient but beautiful medium, including me.

Film is my hobby, it slows me down, makes me take my time and forces me to be more considerate and creative to achieve my vision. When I get it right, I’m rewarded with a photo that I value so much more, and that brings with it a great deal of personal satisfaction. I love the chance that a photo shot on film may not work out and every negative becomes a learning curve; the knowledge gleaned improves my work photography and challenges me in a way digital doesn’t.

French windmill sign on Kodak Ektar film

The windmill at Rouvrou on Kodak Ektar 100, 1971 Canon F-1 & Canon 85mm f/1.8 FD

The image/look of the film is what I’m after and it’s straight out the box, no messing! The colour is sublime and detail is great, even compared to that from my full frame digital work cameras. I also develop my own black and white film which gives even more control over how the final image will look. Sure, there’s grain if you want a fast film but that’s part of the compromise – no-one’s getting their cake and eating all of it – you have to pick your fights to win with film!

Orange Olympus Trip 35 with Kodak Ektar

Olympus Trip 35mm

Lugging the heavy cameras I use for work around isn’t something I’d consider too pleasurable; I prefer the lighter, smaller old film cameras I use. I’ve noticed people find them a bit less intimidating when compared with waving a whacking great DSLR in their face and they also lead to some pretty cool conversations. These questions usually come up:

“I thought they stopped making film years ago” Lots of shop simply don’t sell film anymore but there’s still a lot of options for film and who develops them, not to mention the ease with which you can buy the chemicals and equipment to process at home.

“Isn’t film photography really expensive?” It’s not. I have work cameras and that’s set the bar pretty high for what I want in terms of image quality; if I were to buy a personal use camera, it’d have to be another 6D/5D3 as that’s what I’m comfortable shooting with. Rather than mess around trying to adapt to another camera’s menu/button layout, I can concentrate on getting the picture instead with a familiar camera. So that would be a £1200+ outlay right there with about £150/200 a year depreciation. A film camera and it’s lenses will have a lower outlay, even if it was a top of the range model in it’s day. As it tends to be older, high quality stuff I buy, it holds it’s value and doesn’t bear the same crippling depreciation as the DSLR body would. I can spend the rest on film!

“But the old cameras are old and so can’t be as good as modern digital ones, right?” Any camera can be great in the right hands – that old chestnut of the most important part of the camera being the user holds strong here! Old cameras can be slower to operate but it’s not impossible to react quickly and take a photo of something moving fast. While there have been some pretty shonky film cameras out there, the better equipment is, optically, not that far behind the equipment I use for work. A lot of the gear is made from metal and is physically better built than most modern cameras, your image quality is only dependent on the lens on the camera and film you use.

The thriving film scene has exposed me (see what I did there…) to a world of different photographers and their talent as well as altering the way I look at photographic gear, less is more and you work with what you have – I can’t just buy a ‘better’ camera, stick it on ‘auto’ and let it pick up the slack to mask my mistakes (or make mistakes for me!)

Pink blossom on Kodak Ektar film

May blossom in Chorlton on Kodak Ektar 100, 1971 Canon F-1 & Canon 28mm f/2.8 FD

The Yearning at Indietracks Festival 2014

The Yearning at Indietracks on Fujifilm Pro 400H, 1971 Canon F-1 & Canon 135mm f/2.5 FD

Sleeping baby in black and white Tri-X

Sophia on Kodak Tri-X 400, 1997 Canon EOS 1-N & Canon 85mm f/1.2 L

The colour and dynamic range of 35mm film is still superior to what most digital cameras can produce and will happily print to 18×12 (which is as much as I would need it to) without demonstrating any adverse grain-scan. If I use Velvia slide film in my EOS 1-N with a work lens such as my 85mm 1.2L, the transparency it produces will resolve more detail than my full frame DSLR and can be make bigger prints than the digital can. Don’t get me started on what medium or larger formats can produce – they capture mad detail!

Salford Quays at night on Fuji Superia film

Salford Quays on Fujifilm Superia 200, 1971 Canon F-1 & Canon 28mm f/2.8 FD

Indietracks Festival diesel multiple unit at Swanwick Junction

Swanwick Junction on Fujifilm Pro 400H, 1971 Canon F-1 & Canon 50mm f/1.4 FD

The best thing is that film photography usually ends in having a print of a special moment, something we don’t often make from the thousands of digital photos we take each year.

If you are interested in photography and want to keep learning – give film photography a go, especially if you know of an old camera knocking about!

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