Tokyo wide open

Canon’s 50mm f/1.0L is a one of a kind optic – the fastest autofocus lens ever manufactured. You can’t buy one new – it’s been replaced with a slightly slower and considerably cheaper f/1.2 lens – but there are still plenty around second hand and via rental houses. Visiting Tokyo for a brief work trip I thought it would be fun, and maybe instructive, to limit myself to just this one lens and see what sort of dreamy, “Lost in Translation” look I could manage amidst the Tokyo neon.

The advantage of the f/1.0 is, self-evidently, its speed. The chief disadvantage is cost, cost and size. The two disadvantages are cost and size and focus speed. The three disadvantages are cost, size, focus speed and corner sharpness. Among the many disadvantages are… well you get the idea. It’s not a general purpose tool. This is a lens that you buy or rent because, wide open or slightly stopped down, it yields a unique look that isn’t going to be mistaken for an iPhone image. Only a fool would stop it down, and with that in mind my original plan was to shoot everything at f/1.0. That turned out to need more skill and experience than I managed to acquire in my brief time with the lens, and I shot a number of frames where the background – which was intended to give a hint of a recognizable image – was blurred beyond recognition (it doesn’t help that this is a lens that, at f/1.0, opens up when you press the shutter). Of the f/1.0 frames, my favorite is this image of pilgrims praying at the Senso-ji shrine:

Senso-ji shrine

Pilgrims at the Senso-ji shrine, Asakusa, Tokyo (f/1.0)

Sake barrels Meiji shrine

Sake barrels at the Meiji shrine (f/1.0)

Kashiwa at night

In the suburbs… Kashiwa at night (f/1.0)

In daylight, you won’t be shooting the bare lens at f/1.0 as a shutter speed of 1/8000 is too slow even at ISO50! You’ll need a neutral density filter. Lacking one of those, most of my daylight shots were “stopped down” to f/2.0. The lens has quite a distinctive, and to my taste attractive, character even then.

policeman tokyo

Traffic police, Tokyo (f/2.0)

The lens is also usable for available light photography and for portraits, though for these purposes Canon and others make cheaper and / or sharper optics (e.g. the new Sigma 50mm f/1.4, or the Canon 85mm f/1.2) that would probably win out in a head-to-head comparison.

Hilton Tokyo view

Panorama from the Shinjuku Hilton, twilight (f/2.0)


Chris, at the New York Grill (f/1.2)

Overall, my impressions from just a couple of days shooting with the f/1.0 were pretty much a mirror of the numerous reviews you can find on the web. The lens is sharp wide open at the center – albeit with a very shallow depth of field – while away from the center it’s soft with a crazy hotchpotch of optical peculiarities and mishapen bokeh. Although that sounds bad on paper, it’s a look that’s very easy to love. One area where I’d quibble with most reviews is the autofocus speed. No, it’s not fast, but it’s not go away and brew a cup of tea slow either. For most situations you’d use a lens like this for, I found it more than adequate. I’d be hard pressed to recommend buying one – let’s face it this is a $4000+ lens that would quite possibly be impossible to repair if it broke – but I was sorry to part with it and am already thinking of other trips where renting it again would make sense.

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