Keeping up with a toddler is tough enough, slow AF lenses take that challenge to a whole new level. My hit rate was about 1 out of every 20 for this fast little dude
Canon 5D Mark III with Canon 85mm f/1.2L – 1/125sec @ f/2 ISO 400 (flash fired)
A reader writes:
I’ve heard that the autofocus system in the Canon 5D Mark III is so good that even traditionally slow focusing lenses work much better than in the past. Is that true?
I’ll cut to the chase and say, not really. In my real world testing I found that two of my favorite, but also most frustrating lenses (which I’ve bought and sold twice) performed just as bad as they always have with cameras from the past. This is a subjective test, not scientific one, so some may choose to argue with me. However, I didn’t find myself saying “wow, look at all of these perfectly focused shots I’m getting”. Instead, I was typically saying “f#@k” as shot after shot would often be out of focus.
Even when you do everything right and hit your target, these lenses can still disappoint
85mm f/1.2L at f/1.2 for 1/125 sec at ISO 400 (flash fired)
Focus was aimed at the right eye but I hit the eyebrow due to the shallow DOF of f/1.2
Now I’ll add the disclaimer that at f/1.2, it doesn’t matter what lens you are using or how fast it is or the camera its attached to. f/1.2 is shallow so moving subjects are going to cause misses unless you track subjects like a sniper. I tried to discount those “user error” misses from my testing and just pay attention to my keeper rate when doing typical shooting (sometimes as high as f/4 or f/5.6).
Out of 40 shots, only a handful acquired the focus quickly enough for the moving subject
Most often the camera would hunt for focus so long that the shot was gone
50mm f/1.2L at f/4 for 1/125 sec at ISO 1250 (flash fired)
Ultra-low light, kids and these lenses? Fugetaboutit! I was aiming for the eye and got the ear
as the camera was hunting for a while with this lens to get any focus at all
50mm f/1.2L at f/4 for 1/125 sec and ISO 1250 (flash fired)
Keep in mind that it’s in my best interest to tell you that these lenses do focus faster as your buying them from links in this blog helps support what I do. However, I’m here to tell you the truth as I see it, and I say that these great pieces of glass still focus like crap with current cameras like the 5D Mark III. Hopefully we’ll get new versions in the future that address this problem.
I should also note that I don’t expect that this is isolated to just these two lenses. Great lenses like the 135mm f/2 are probably just as slow too.
The Test Lenses
The Canon 50mm f/1.2L and 85mm f/1.2L (available for rent by LensProToGo.com) are legendary for their wonderful bokeh and excellent sharpness. They are indeed magical lenses, but for those who have plunked down the $1500 – $2000 for these two lenses, you’ve quickly found out that it’s easier to get an out of focus shot than it is to get one of those magical shots. Some say that the big heavy glass is hard for the little AF motor to move, and others cite the longer minimum focus distance. However, the real reason doesn’t matter – the fact is that these are very tough lenses to use if you are taking photos of anything that moves as they are glacially slow to acquire a focus and often will hit the wrong spot or not track very well. As a result, these are lenses that you do have to spray and pray a little bit with as everyone I’ve known (including some very well known pros) has said that no matter what camera you have, you’ll have more misses than hits.
When you nail a shot with these lenses it’s still magical, so I’m not saying don’t buy these lenses – I’m just saying set your expectations properly and plan to be deleting more than you keep with these lenses – even if you have a fancy new camera. Personally, slow focusing lenses these will stay on my “rent as needed” list rather than my buy list.
Given the legendary status of these lenses and the fact that they are generally a pain in the ass to use, I thought they’d be great candidates to use to answer this question.
For the record, the 50mm f/1.2L performed SIGNIFICANTLY better than the glacially slow 85mm f/1.2L.
How I Tested
I followed my family members (mostly my toddler) around in low light situations and attempted to grab some candid shots. I typically used the spot auto focus feature (new for the 5D Mark III & 1D X) as I find that it has laser pointer focus with other lenses. However, I tried all of the different focus types when I was getting a high fail rate just to ensure that I wasn’t hitting a limitation of the focus mode I was using.
I tried with both AI Servo for moving subjects and One Shot for stationary subjects. Generally speaking, AI Servo failed really bad with these lenses.
Since I was using a flash, the 1/125 sec shutter wasn’t typically an issue as the flash would freeze movement. If I was shooting without a flash, I would have shot many of these at 1/500 sec or faster.
What about the 1D X?
From what I saw during my real world testing, my 1D X offered no measurable improvements over the 5D Mark III in this particular test with these two lenses. I’ve noticed improvements in its AF system overall with super fast AF lenses like the 70-200mm, but the slow focusing lenses are still cumbersome with the 1D X as well from what I’ve seen.
This article was brought to you by LensProToGo.com. They generously donated a free rental of the 50mm f/1.2L and 85mm f/1.2L for the weekend so that I could experiment with them to answer this question.
LensProToGo.com has been gracious enough to offer you a 5% discount off any order when you enter the coupon code MART5 as shown below in yellow:
Where to Buy?
If you make a rental or purchase using select links in this article, I may make a commission. See the special offer for more disclosure details.