Many of us desire to own at least one super fast lens! It doesn’t really matter if it’s worth it or not, we are simply drawn to the speed and the idea of owning an F1.2 lens! The problem is that most of these lenses are pretty expensive, even the vintage ones, but in this review I’ll be taking a closer look at what I believe to be the cheapest F1.2 lens with a full frame (35mm) coverage. Say hello to the Canon FL 55mm F1.2
Released in 1968 as a replacement to the FL 58mm F1.2 (another F1.2 bargain), this lens was the high end offering from Canon, very much like the “L” lenses today. I’m sure at the time it was quite a something, but how does it stack-up against the modern standards?
Like many other vintage lenses, FL 55mm F1.2 is a very well built lens; in fact it’s one of the most solid lenses I own, definitely more rugged than any modern Canon lenses I’ve tried. The whole body is made fully out of metal and you can tell that it can take some serious abuse. After almost 50 years it still looks and feels great, so I guess that is the best proof of its great built quality!
This lens was designed and produced before computers ruled the world and with that in mind I’m quite impressed with the image quality, but it’s of course no match to the modern Canon equivalents, especially wide open. At F1.2 it just don’t resolve the fine detail very well and the fairly obvious glow in the highlights reduces the perceived sharpness even more. This is also where this lens has the lowest contrast and most CA. Is it usable wide open? My test above was shot fully wide open in combination with a Lens Turbo II, which turned the FL 55mm F1.2 into a 39mm F0.9 (S35) low light beast and I guess if you really need that kind of look or low light performance, then yes, you can use it wide open; otherwise stepping it down is a good idea. The slight turn of the aperture ring takes it to the F1.4 (marked as a dot on the aperture ring) and right away flare control and contrast improves slightly (see my “Sharpness/Contrast”| tests below), although don’t expect to see much more detail just yet. It’s only at F2 where we see a massive improvement in every department and by this point this lens is pretty usable, but it keeps getting sharper and cleaner as you stop it down to F2.8 and even more at F4, by which point it’s almost as good as it gets, perfectly capable of handling 4K and capturing pin sharp stills. At F5.6 the difference is almost unnoticeable and why would you want to use an F1.2 lens at F5.6 anyway? For me F2-F2.8 is where I prefer to use this lens unless I want more of that vintage character!
Full Res (16mp) test stills can be found here
Unsurprisingly you have to go all the way back to F1.2 if you want to experience the magical side of this lens. The flares it produces at F1.2 are quite beautiful indeed and this is where the bokeh is at its smoothest also, but even at F2/F2.8 bokeh is still very smooth and creamy, partially thanks to the pretty rounded 8 aperture blades. Stopping down to F2/2.8 doesn’t mean that flares completely disappear completely either. The coating back in the day must have been pretty simple and un-effective, because this lens will still produce plenty of flares at any f-stop. It also has that lower contrast look that so many vintage lens users absolutely love, but of course it’s not always the desired look and it won’t match modern lenses very well. The video below was shot at various f-stops, between F1.2 and F2.0 which should give you a fain indication of what to expect from it it terms of look and character!
The 19 time Emmy award winning filmmaker Nathan Thompson had this to say about the FL 55mm: “The flare is actually very reminiscent of much more expensive lenses like the Canon K35’s and Canon 50mm F0.95. The hazy character wide open as well”. I know that Nathan owns the legendary 50mm F0.95 and has used the K35s, so I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about!
Using this lens on pretty much any mirroless camera will not be a problem at all, but I usually I warn people about trying to use FD and FL lenses (same mount) on Canon EF mount cameras. So many of us use such cameras and funnily enough Canon FD/FL lenses are not quite compatible with Canon EF cameras. Generally there is only one option and that is to use an adapter with an optical correctional element inside, which is a pretty bad idea, because it’s quite frankly not very good optically, making the whole thing a bit pointless, but about a month ago I found out that EDMIKA makes a custom conversion mount for this particular lens, which involves no crappy optical correction elements! Personally I mostly mirrorless cameras, so I don’t need to bother with such conversion, but for someone with an EF mount camera, this is the only way to use such lens without any negative effects produced by common FD to EF adapters (video below shows how easy it is to convert this lens to EF). Generally I would say $75 for a mount that can only be used on one lens is pretty expensive, but since this lens itself is quite cheap for an F1.2 prime, even with $75 mount it would still be one of the cheapest EF mount F1.2 lenses out there!
- Focus Throw – Approx 180°
- Closest Focusing Distance – 0.6m
- Filter Thread Size – 58mm
- Weight – 460g
- Aperture Blades – 8
- 9 Aperture Settings from F1.2 to F16
- Made in Japan
- Average Price on Ebay – $200
FL 55mm VS FL 58mm?
Many ask me what is the difference between the FL 55mm F1.2 and FL 58mm F1.2 and the answer is simple: FL 55mm was the replacement for the older FL 58mm F1.2, which itself was a highly acclaimed lens at the time, but based on my research FL 55mm produces better results, including smoother bokeh due to a better aperture construction. That kind of makes sense, because one would generally expect the newer lens to outperform its direct predecessor. The FL 55mm is also generally a bit cheaper than the FL 58mm, because the latter is even older has more of a collectable appeal/cult status. Nevertheless it’s worth keeping an eye out for the FL 58mm on ebay, because they also pop up very cheap once in a while! Keep in mind, the FL 55mm is the only one that can be easily converted to EF.
As usual, before we can reach some sort of conclusion, let’s round up the pros and cons of the FL 55mm:
- One of the cheapest full frame F1.2 lenses
- Really sharp when stopped down
- Smooth focus ring with hard stops & multiple M/FT marks
- Approx 180° focusing rotation for precise manual focusing
- Beautiful mix warm/purple flares for creative old-school look
- Smooth & Creamy Bokeh
- One of the most compact F1.2 lenses
- Soft wide open
- Strong CA wide open and visible up to F2.8
- Flares very easily (can be a problem in certain situation when you want to preserve high contrast)
- FL mount is a little fiddly making quick lens changes more difficult
- Costly to adapt to Canon EF mount
For me the pros, of course, outweighs the cons of this lens. It’s a proper vintage prime its strong points as well quite a few quirks and imperfections, but that’s part of its charm; you just have to accept it for what it is and get the best out of it. The biggest argument for getting such lens though is of course the price. If you’ve been dreaming of an F1.2 lens, I don’t think there is a cheaper way to get one!
Find Canon FL 55mm F1.2 on
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