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TS-E 50mm f/2.8L macro review

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Canon TS-E 50mm F2.8L macro lens review

Using Canon’s 50mm macro tilt shift lens


The Canon TS-E 50mm f/2.8L macro lens is Canon’s ‘standard’ focal length tilt/shift lens.

The lens replaces the 1991 TS-E45mm F2.8 with a lens in Canon’s ‘L’ category. Keith has been trying out the lens on his EOS 5Ds 50MP DSLR

Whilst the review covers the image quality of the 50mm (rather good BTW) it also looks at some of the uses for such a lens, making use of the tilt and shift to obtain images you can’t easily get in other ways. You might also want to look over our lengthy TS-E135mm review that has lots more examples of what makes these lenses special.

If you are new to tilt/shift lenses Keith has written numerous articles and reviews. A good place to start is ‘What tilt/shift lenses do‘ with more about tilt in ‘Focusing the tilt/shift lens

TS-E 50mm

Buying a TS-E50
(any purchase initiated through our links is much appreciated)
Amazon.com | B&H | Adorama

Canon TS-E 50mm F2.8l Macro lens

Canon UK lent me the lens for a short while for this test. If you buy your own, it comes with a soft bag and ES84 lens hood.

This review has a lot of example images that I hope give a bit more of a feel for what you can actually do with the lens (and why) than more usual test chart ‘lens reviews’.

The key features are

  • EF-Mount Lens/Full-Frame Format
  • Aperture Range: f/2.8 to f/32
  • Maximum Tilt: +/- 8.5°
  • Maximum Shift: +/- 12mm
  • Minimum Focusing Distance: 27cm
  • Maximum Magnification: 0.5x (1:2)

I’ve the full specs later, but it feels a distinctly more solid lens than the old TS-E45mm

As with all TS-E lenses it’s manual focus only. The action is smooth, but at f/2.8 the depth of field is thin enough to need some care with focusing

At the closer focus end, the focus markings directly refer to reproduction ratios 1:5, 1:3 and 1:2

The lens has a throw of less than half a turn, which I find rather short for precise focus at the distant end.

This photo taken during my testing of tilt for macro use, shows the depth of field scale on the lens.

Much as when I tested the TS-E135mm, it serves mainly to remind you how thin it is when using the lens close up.
[like many images in this review, click to enlarge, or check the gallery at the end of the article]

close up and tilted

Then, there’s the other difference from the 135mm – the lens front extends as you focus closer. Not a problem in of itself, but a dust ingress point if you’re using the lens in some environments (I’ve done on-location macro work in foundries).  The focus also goes past the ∞ infinity focus mark. This is useful when using tilt and also reflects the variety of more exotic glass types in the design and their temperature response.

The lens goes to f/32, which as I’ll show gives a distinctly soft image, but that extra DOF may well make up for it.

The lens shares the huge tilt knob of all three new TS-E lenses, which does indeed make it easier to adjust. There is a smaller tilt knob available if need be.

Here’s the lens on my 5Ds showing the full range of movements. The tilt and shift movements are independent and can be rotated to 90º apart (in 45º steps), whilst the whole lens can be rotated 180 degrees relative to the mount (in 30º steps).

50mm on 5Ds tilt and shift

Once you get the hang of things, you’ll appreciate the flexibility of the design. If you get lost in the process, remember that at heart it’s just a very good quality f/2.8 50mm lens.

Specifications

For completeness I’ll show the table covering all three new TS-E lenses

Canon TS-E 50mm F2.8L Macro Canon TS-E 90mm F2.8L Macro Canon TS-E 135mm F4L Macro
Principal specifications
Lens type Prime lens
Max Format size 35mm FF
Focal length 50 mm 90 mm 135 mm
Image stabilisation No
Lens mount Canon EF
Aperture
Maximum aperture f/2.8 (50mm to f/32, 90mm to f/45) f/4 (to f/45)
Aperture ring No
Optics
Elements 12 11
Groups 9 7
Special elements / coatings Moulded glass aspherical and UD elements + SWC and ASC coatings Moulded glass aspherical and UD elements + ASC coating Moulded glass aspherical and UD elements + SWC coating
Focus
Minimum focus 0.27 m (10.63″) 0.39 m (15.35″) 0.49 m (19.29″)
Shift ± 12mm ± 12mm ± 12mm
Tilt ± 8.5º ± 10º ± 10º
Maximum magnification 0.5x
Magnification
12mm tube
0.74 – 0.23 0.64 – 0.15 0.62 – 0.09
Magnification
25mm tube
1.0 – 0.48 0.82 – 0.32 0.77 – 0.2
Autofocus No
Full time manual Yes
Focus method Internal/external
Distance scale Yes
Physical
Weight 945 g (2.08 lb) 915 g (2.02 lb) 1110 g (2.45 lb)
Diameter 87 mm (3.43″) 67 mm (2.64″) 89 mm (3.5″)
Length 115 mm (4.53″) 117 mm (4.61″) 139 mm (5.47″)
Materials Magnesium alloy
Colour Black
Filter thread 77.0 mm 82.0 mm
Hood supplied Yes

MTF charts and internal design TS-E 50mm

Data from Canon

50 lens construction50 mtf

As you can see from the internal design, this is a relatively complex lens. When you tilt or shift the lens, the whole optical assembly moves. Whilst the aperture is electronically controlled, it’s worth noting that the lens supplies no tilt or shift data for EXIF purposes. If recording the tilt or shift matters to you, then it’s notebook time.

Internally the lens is very resistant to flare with a few shots into the sun showing little problems. It has some of Canon’s recent lens coating technologies and they work well.

sunburst

Looking in the top corner, you can see the 18 point flare (distorted by the rough edge of the tree) from the 9 blade aperture.

sunburst f5 100

The aperture moves to 9 blade from the 8 of the TS-E45

9 blade aperture

Whilst taking that photo in the woods, I shifted the lens fully to put the sun right at the edge of the lens image circle

Image circle?  Think of the image that the lens is projecting behind it, onto your sensor. With a shift lens, this is much larger than needed to cover the area of your sensor. When you shift the lens, you are using the part of this image that is towards the edge. As with all lenses, quality tends to drop off towards the edges. I’ve much more about tilt and shift lenses at What tilt/shift lenses do

Here’s the same view (still at f/5) but with the lens shifted. [click to enlarge]

full shift corner

A 100% crop

image circle

The lens is showing almost no chromatic aberration, even at full shift.

The loss of the ‘spikes’ is indicative of a softening of the image, which in looking at other shifted images suggests to me that at extreme shift you need to go to f/7 or above if you’ve important detail at corners near the edge of the image circle.

A quick check with my laser pointer star shows little coma (a few 5Ds pixels wide in the corners at no shift).

Vignetting

All lenses vignette to varying degrees, it’s less as you stop down from wide open.

To get a feel for just how the lens performs, I got one of my old light boxes out to give a flat field illumination.

vignetting test

Focusing at infinity gives a good flat illumination – far better than you’ll get from a wall or the sky.

Here are a series of images showing the progression from f/2.8 to f/8

(these are screen grabs so show a bit of posterisation that wasn’t there in the images)

vignetting

As you can see, the drop off for an unshifted image is rapidly reduced by f/4, whilst even for fully shifted images, it’s low (for real world scenes) by f/5.6 and much reduced by f/8.

You may notice the brightest part of the shifted f/2.8 image looking slightly ‘D’ shaped?

By expanding and emphasising the drop-off in Photoshop and posterising the image, this becomes much more visible.

posterised vignetting

What I noticed most was the slight vignetting on the right side of the frame at wider apertures.

You might think that this shouldn’t be there, since it’s quite close to the optical axis, and we can see from the unshifted version what that should be like.

What you’re seeing is a manifestation of physical vignetting from the lens design itself – this needs getting on for f/8 before it’s largely eliminated (although it’s not much even at f/5.6)

How does this matter?

Well, if you are stitching two shots shifted in different directions, then the same parts of the scene in the two different images may not match in exposure.  Using Photomerge in Photoshop this isn’t that much of an issue, but if you plan on stitching images at wide apertures it might be an issue you need consider.

Tilt vignetting

If you look at some of the tilted examples later in the review, you’ll see quite noticeable vignetting. Showing this got quite complex with the lightbox shots, especially once you add in shift, so I’ll leave it for the example photos later.

At more than a few degrees of tilt it’s visible at f/2.8, but stopping down helps considerably.

As with the shift vignetting it’s something you should be aware of when using more extreme movements.

Other effects

One other thing – forget DSLR auto exposure with much shift or tilt.

Camera movement can really throw a curve ball for DSLR metering. I first noticed this when testing the original TS-E24m F3.5L on my 11MP Canon EOS 1Ds, and it still causes issues today.  It’s possible for the metering to over -and- under estimate exposure depending on camera movements.

I tend to shoot fully manually (i.e. manual aperture/shutter/iso) so this is just something I allow for. If you’re unfamiliar with T/S lenses I’d definitely suggest taking time to get to grips with exposure (it works fine with no tilt or shift).

Nodal point

Not in my original test but I’m informed [thanks Andy] that:

“At, and around infinity, you can adjust the focus with no noticeable impact on the nodal point. However, when you adjust for a much closer focus the point does change and enough that you would need to establish a different nodal point for the closer focus range.”

Using the lens outdoors

As I’ve said, this is essentially a very high quality 50mm lens, so in thinking how you’d use it, think of the sort of views and perspective you get with 50mm. The tilt and shift options expand on that, but they don’t change the fundamentals.

One of those is focus – a simple (hand held) shot looking down a street near my home – looked fine in the viewfinder, but on checking the image, I can see that the point of focus (@f/5.6) is about 10 metres away. I’d set the lens at ∞ but in picking up the camera up I’d moved the focus ring slightly.

street scene

Now, I’m used to manual focus lenses and I still sometimes forget to double check…

A comparison with the old TS-E45 (top) shows why manual focus at any distance is rather fiddly.

focus compare

The focus throw between three metres and infinity is just a bit too small for my liking – this sort of stuff may be OK for AF lenses, but it’s irksome if you are trying to use the viewfinder, or manually set a distance.

Whilst on the matter of focus, it’s also worth mentioning that with the TS-E50mm design, the whole lens assembly moves with focus and effective focal length varies with focus position. Not a problem for single shots, but something to take note of if you’re focus stacking (or doing focus pulls on video). Different lens designs do this in differing amounts, even for the same nominal focal length (which is defined at ∞).

Where tilt/shift lenses really earn their keep for me is in being able to use shift to correct perspective distortions such as converging verticals.

Point the camera upwards and  buildings look as if they are leaning.  This is particularly so for my TS-E17mm and 24mm lenses, but is still noticeable at 50mm.

In this shot, the camera is horizontal, my eye level is around the bottom of the frame, but I’ve shifted upwards to show the building.

Edith Murphy building, DMU

The 50mm focal length gives a more natural feel to the scene compared to my shorter lenses. Of course, when there’s not room to get far enough back and for dramatic impact, the wider lenses may be more suitable.

One personal observation – I produce images for designers and architects, and whilst some designers seem to favour unusual and dynamic angles, most architects want photos that look closer to their visualisations and drawings…
I look at a lot of other working photographers’ web sites and when they have an ‘architecture’ section, you can spot the ones who’s primary work is weddings and editorial work, in the dearth of buildings showing good verticals ;-)

Of course, if you can raise the lens to get the top of a building in, then you can lower it for the foreground. If need be you could stitch them.

These three more images of the Vijay Patel building at DMU are up/down stitches, giving images between 70-80MP

vjp 50 stitch-2

In the second view, you may be able to see a black line on the left hand side top half.

This is a stitching problem caused by the actual shift (up/down) axis not being properly vertical. It varies from lens to lens and I normally just crop or edit it out.

It’s most noticeable in my (most used) TS-E17mm and seems to relate to a bit of slack in the shift rotation mechanism – if you’re buying a used tilt-shift lens and intend stitching, it’s a good test to do if you get a chance.

vjp 50 stitch closer

Two more shots stitched and cropped to a square format gives around 70MP of detail.

vjp 50mm stitch

When stitching, you’d ideally keep the lens still and move the camera, to avoid parallax errors.

For my TS-E17 and TS-E24 I use a TSE Frame or PPL adapter to attach to the tripod, but unfortunately neither of these fit the TS-E50mm. There’s more about stitching in those reviews.

Experience tells me that vertical edges show the most obvious parallax errors, so shifting up/down minimises this, such as this view of a nearby wood in Leicestershire. Even in a 30″ square print, I couldn’t see the join.

winter woods

Two views of Leicester castle and the nearby gatehouse needed no editing to allow for parallax errors at all.

Leicester castle

Both are views I’ve captured with wider lenses, but the 50mm gives a closer feel for the scene.

Castle yard gatehouse

Of course, what view ‘works’ best depends on the client…

Tilting the lens

As I’ll also show in the macro examples, changing the tilt lets you throw the plane of focus in different directions.

If you’re new to such lenses, the effect can seem entirely arbitrary and unpredictable – it isn’t. It’s precisely given by a combination of the amount of tilt and the lens focus setting. I’ve tried to clarify this from a practical viewpoint in some of my articles [what tilt/shift lenses do] after noticing that almost any mention of the Scheimpflug Principle on the web dropped you into articles with more than enough maths to frighten off most photographers ;-)

Tilting the lens sideways (known as ‘Swing’) and adjusting focus lets me run a vertical plane of sharpness through the tree and on along the path.

woodland path

Note how at extreme tilt, the out of focus areas take on a quite distinctive look (f/2.8).

There is no way you can (accurately) fake this with software…

I’ll not go into all the technicalities of using tilt, but have written an article ‘Focusing with tilt‘ that has all the details (and very little maths)

The view from the roof of the gallery in the earlier DMU shots

campus view

I could have added just a bit of downward shift to keep verticals more ‘true’, but this is really just a photo to show the ‘real view’.

Anyway, here’s the same view, but with a lot of tilt, and then changing the focus to get the plane of sharpness running across the view.

dmu model campus

Two 100% crops retain some of the ‘Model world’ feel, and for how thin the plane of focus is at f/2.8

dmu model 100

The plants look more like ones from a model railway…

dmu model 100 #2

A look over the river, with some rowing practice underway.

Model boat

A look at a 100% crop showing the sunlight reflecting in the water (click to enlarge).

water reflections 100

The nearer highlight show a distinct D shape and a bit of longitudinal chromatic aberration.

At f/2.8, there are no prizes for guessing that those shapes are related to the vignetting shown earlier.

They contribute to the nature of the out of focus areas and and much less obvious in more normal uses of the lens and at smaller apertures (where the increased DOF quickly reduces the ‘Model’ effect.

 If I’m honest, this is an effect I rapidly tire of (much as with ‘obvious HDR’). It’s one of those things that will get a reaction from people (especially if they know the place) but then they move on. That said, if a client asks…

I’ve a more conventional use of extreme tilt to emphasise the table tops in the shot below.

The image was focused by knowing the height of the camera above the plane of the tops, setting the downwards tilt (nearly full) and setting focus to infinity. This is where my printed tilt tables are most handy.

table tops

This is similar to the set of shots of my stairs at home, shown later.

Indoors

Two views coming down the stairs from the rooftop.

inner tilt 1

Look carefully and you’ll see that the plane of sharpness does not have to be horizontal or vertical, or even at one of the 30º/45º settings of the lens.

inner tilt 2

Two views of the crowds at The Photography Show in Birmingham.

Great if you’re in the crowd, but definitely shots in the ‘because I could’ category…

eating at TPS

The miniature Canon stand…

model show

Looking down the stairs

In the TS-E135mm review, I included a set of shots looking down my stairs, to show how you could get all steps in focus.

I’ve set up the same shot here, although going from 135mm to 50mm gives a different view.

top of stairs

Here’s the camera at the top of the stairs looking down, set at almost full tilt.

pointing down stairs

A quick diversion to how I worked out the initial positions….

The principles and process is set out in much more detail in my article about focusing the tilted lens.

My well thumbed tilt tables tell me that at 8.5º tilt, the plane of focus runs around 35cm below the camera. This is the ‘J’ distance in the diagram below. I’ve copies of the tables, for all current TS-E lenses at the end of the article.

stairs diagram

Here are three shots at f/2.8. f/5.6 and f/8

stairs f/2.8

f/2.8

stairs f/5.6

f/5.6

stairs f/8

f/8

Whilst the change in depth of field is noticeable, the vignetting from the ~8.5º downward tilt is quite obvious (top of the frame) in the progression of images.

Here are three 100% crops showing detail of the stairs, and why I would much prefer to use a proper geared tripod head for setting up and levelling a shot like this.

stairs 2.8 100

f/2.8

stairs 5.6 100

f/5.6

stairs 8 100

f/8

Macro use

The lens offers a maximum magnification of 0.5x or 1:2 as it’s marked on the lens barrel.  Focusing further offers marked reproduction ratios of 1:3 and 1:5.

If you need to get closer, then adding extension tubes will give ~0.74x for a 12mm tube and 1x for a 25mm tube.

You don’t need expensive tubes for experimenting with this – one of mine is 31mm and gives a magnification of ~1.13x

I don’t have any teleconverters to test, but both the 1.4x and 2x varieties work with the lens. One thing to note is that they are not detected by the camera and do not appear in EXIF data (this is so for all the TS-E lenses). Previous experience suggests that the 1.4x will have much less impact on lens performance, but their usage is not advised for critical applications.

You can use a close-up lens with the TS-E50mm, but the cheap one I’d got showed far too much distortion – one of the more expensive Canon ones might be a better investment…

Tilt and shift work fine at macro distances, but you should be aware that the maximum amount you can tilt the focal plane drops off as you get closer.

I used the same test setup for checking this as for the TS-E135mm and my earlier experiments with adding extension tubes to the TS-E90mm (original version)

Here’s the setup, showing a piece of stripboard at the closest tilted focus position (actually 8.5º not 8º as shown)

closest tilted focus

The camera is tethered to my Mac and I’m running Kuuvik Capture for taking the photos.

Whilst the free EOS utility is just fine, Kuuvik lets me apply focus peaking to the live view. This is shown by the red specks in this monochrome version (at ~0.5x)

focus peaking

The stripboard has holes at 0.1″ spacing, making it easy to see the magnification and lack of barrel/pincushion distortion.

A view at 1:5 with 8.5º of tilt gives a feel for how much you can move the focal plane.

tilted sharpness

It also shows how the tilted lens loses a touch of sharpness (at f/2.8) on the opposite side to the tilt.

Stop down a bit and this quickly becomes less obvious.

One useful feature of Kuuvik Capture is to be able to set up to three sample points and see liveview at 100% for each point (two shown below).

split live view

The  photo below shows the camera to subject distances at several settings along with the position of the focal plane at full 8.5º tilt.

range of tilt

Note: The top set of pencil marks are from my TS-E135mm testing.

This short video clip shows the view focused at 1:5, initially with no tilt, but then moving to the full 8.5º

The field of view shifts leftwards as the front of the lens is moved.

Next up, a series of tilted shots of the TSE Frame. They are shot at 1:5 and ~8º of tilt

The images and 100% crops show the handling of OOF areas and the sort of depth of field you can expect.

As you’d expect, f/32 is distinctly soft, but if you need the depth of field it’s a useful option. Even f/16 gives you a much less obvious transition from sharp to not sharp. If you photograph relatively close-up, those smaller apertures can be a real help.

Click on any image to see enlarged (or see the gallery at the end of the article)

tilt f/2.8

tilt f/4

tilt f/5.6

tilt f/11

tilt f/16

tilt f/22

tilt f/32

Now, the 100% crops

tilt-28_100tilt-4_100tilt-56_100tilt-11_100tilt-16_100tilt-22_100tilt-32_100

If you step through the full size images you’ll see very clearly how the image quality changes (remember this is with a fully tilted focal plane)

Offset tilt axis

The examples above have the plane simply tilted by moving the lens to the left.

One of the really powerful uses of these lenses is to place the focal plane at an arbitrary position in the space in front of you.

It can be difficult to work out the tilt axis, even if you have a good 3D visualisation ability.

My own preference is to use a flat plane with lots of detail, such as the stripboard shown earlier or even an iPad screen.

find tilt axis

I just place the iPad where I want the plane of focus to go, and then place the subject where it is.

Rather than go through the details again, see the discussion in my TS-E135mm F4L Macro review

Setting up tilt and focus visually can be quite tricky too – for close up work, my preference is to use an iterative tilt-shift focus technique after I’ve found the correct tilt axis.

I’ll finish off with some quick (hand held) examples from a coffee shop I stopped off in, on my way back from photographing the architectural views earlier.

coffee and bar

A bit of downwards tilt cuts through the coffee cup and goes just above the top edge of the frame – the logo and coffee are sharp, but I’ve softened the table, whilst still keeping some distant detail (f/4)

The coffee cup with the focal plane in two different positions – working out where it goes is something you only get a feel for with experience (a lot easier to come by in a studio setting).

First at f/6.3

coffee-cup-tilt-1

Then at f/4 – the overall softness and smoothness of the OOF areas are more obvious.

coffee-cup-tilt-2

Lastly, one at f/2.8 where I should have perhaps gone for f/4 to get more of the logo sharp…

coffee-biscuit

A detail, showing how the positioning of the focal plane could do with being a bit closer.

Don’t forget though that with a lot of tilt, changing the lens focus no longer simply moves it closer/further.

thin-cup-DOF

I don’t have the old TS-E45 to compare, other than note that optical design, coatings and glass have come a long way in 25+ years.

Also the new independent tilt/shift axis controls (first introduced on the 2007 TS-E 17mm &24mm) makes for much easier control of your image (that and the larger image circle and slightly increased tilt range).

Conclusions

As a basic 50mm lens the Canon TS-E50mm F2.8L Macro is an excellent sharp manual focus lens, with minimal distortions and a solid build quality warranting the ‘L’ name.

Then again you’re not buying a lens like this just to add to your 50mm lens collection – it’s all the ‘other stuff’ it does that makes you want a speciality lens like this (and the other TS-E lenses).

Canon have also pushed the lens quality and physical design in areas you won’t see using it as a basic 50mm. Working wide open at extremes of tilt or shift becomes much more predictable and rewarding.

At the price (~$2200), this perhaps isn’t a lens for casual experimentation – it’s firmly aimed at those with the patience and skill to learn to use it.

Buying a TS-E50 (any purchase initiated through our links is much appreciated)
Amazon.com | B&H | Adorama

Tilt tables for current Canon TS-E lenses

For detailed explanations of why these tables are useful and why I keep laminated prints of them in my camera bags see ‘How tilt works

tilt table metric

And one for when I’m still thinking feet and inches

tilt table mixed

 

Has this review piqued your interest in camera movements but you can’t justify a lens like this?
I learned a lot about camera movements by making (for a few pounds) a simple DSLR adapter for a view camera I’d bought from eBay – more tilt and more shift, just not so practical.

Image gallery

Click on images to open at larger size.

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