8.23.2013

Today I want to talk once more about fast 50mm lenses. Because I love them.

Ten foot high painted self portrait by Chuck Close.

There are a number of things I like about 50mm lenses. Especially really good ones. I can't afford the 50mm lens I really want. It's the new Leica 50mm Summicron APO and while the price is upwards of $7,000 it may be the best 50mm lens on the planet. If I scrimped and saved I might be able to afford the actual lens but the lens only shines when you have the right body to put it one and I'm not heading down the Leica digital M rabbit hole any time soon. At least not until we're able to get those day rates well over $5,000 and the phone is ringing off the hook....

Anyway, there are a good things about all good 50mm lenses that bear telling or repeating. First, they are generally really good optics that render sharp, contrasty images onto camera sensors. If you are used to horsing around with kit zooms you'll find the difference between a very sharp f2 aperture on a 50mm and a so-so "just good enough" aperture of 3.5 to 5.6 on the zoom. While shooting yesterday in the Blanton Museum I watched the little exposure graph in the camera and realized that a lot of what I shot was snugged in a f2.5 and the shutter speeds were in the range of 1/60th of a second. Even so the images were sharp. Especially in the middle of the frame where it counts for me. If I used a kit zoom I might need f5.6 to get the same kind of quality performance and that would kick the shutter speed down into the handholding danger zone or rocket the ISO up in the negatively charged stratosphere, adding noise and sucking out dynamic range from my work. With a good 50mm 1.4 you get, not just speed, but speed with quality.

If you fill the frame with a subject and you're shooting with a fast 50mm it's easy to use wide apertures to drop stuff in the background out of focus. Really out of focus. And that can be cool too. Because with a good lens the stuff in focus isn't just "in focus" but it's truly sharp.

A good 50mm 1.4 prime is a lot cheaper than a professional quality zoom lens. And it may be better where it counts, near wide open. Sure, a 24-105mm f4 gives you a lot of range but if you look at the images from that lens at f4 and a good prime at f4.0 the primes still have the edge is sharpness, contrast and some almost intangible parameters that just subconsciously make us say, "Wow."  I paid about $399 for my 50mm 1.4 Sigma and I'm amazed at how well it performs. But part of that amazement is that I'm comparing it with zooms I've been using....

Finally, I actually consider the 50mm focal length and the 85mm focal length, on full frame cameras to be just about a perfect angle of view. The wide lenses have angles of view that seem gratuitous to me, almost garish in their frantic desire at inclusion... While the longer lenses, especially above 200mm seem claustrophobic. My eye settles down nicely when we're right in the middle.

Traveling on my own dime these days this is the focal length and the lens I put onto my full frame camera and just shoot with. Happy not to have to make too many choices. Once you have the lens figured out you get down to important issues like where to have coffee....

My favorite shots lately are coming from the Sigma 50mm 1.4. It came onto the market with some issues like front and back focusing with some cameras. It also came with a price tag of around $500.
The price recently dropped by $100 and the lens I got seems to have all the kinks engineered out. I'd buy it again in a heartbeat.




Studio Portrait Lighting


13 comments:

Jason Hindle said...

As soon as I saw the title of the article, I thought of Sigma. That Leica is not the lens you're looking for. You may move on.

Kirk Tuck said...

I am happy with the Sigma. It is better than the 50mm 1.4 Sony. After a few weeks of using the Sigma I got rid of the Sony...

Michael Matthews said...

I take it the woman frame right is turning around to see what that loud ker-thunnkk was when you tripped the shutter on the Sony a850 for first time.

Anonymous said...

Believe it or not its not as loud as the 5D MkIII

Kirk Tuck said...

Maybe the entire appeal of mirrorless cameras is the lack of loud mirror thwacks. The OMD EM5 has a great, quiet operational sound but then so does the mirrored Pentax K5ii....

Anonymous said...

Amen to fast 50's. Love them too. In my case the first generation Minolta AF and the 1970's Minolta Rokkor. It's like putting on your favourite sweater. Or having a glass of cold fresh water. A feeling of relief.
Cheers/Mattias

Corwin Black said...

New Zeiss ZF.2/ZE (etc) 55/1.4 is very close to new 50/2 AA. At least thats what Erwin Puts says. Pics seem to say same, except obvious difference in rendering.

It might seem like "not important" for Sony users. But, ZF.2 versions need just Leitax and screwdriver and you can use them on any Sony.

No its not Leica, but its very close. Other options are Leica R and Leitax (or some knockoffs from Fotodiox, if they make it for Sony too).

Since I prefer sometimes character over perfection, Leica R 50/2 ver. I is something I would like on any FF camera. And its cheap.

stefano60 said...

+1 on the dream new Summicron ... unfortunately, a bit too pricey - and it should really be mounted on a Monochrom and be done with it... well, one can dream.

I had the Sigma a while back when i was still dabbling with DSLRs and found it excellent, with hard to beat value for money - actually, i will rephrase that, impossible to beat value for money.

my favorite 50 now is a Zeiss Planar 1.7/50, mounted on my XE1 with a Speed Booster, so it remains a 50mm AND gains one stop. REALLY nice.

the other one i am thoroughly enjoying is a very old Jupiter 8 (the Soviet Ziess 2/50), which is almost bolted onto my CL, superb character.

André Balsa said...

Kirk, there is the V1 with the 18.5mm f/1.8 (50mm equivalent) which as you know is totally silent, no mirror thwacks or shutter noise at all. The 18.5mm is a brilliant little lens, have you tried it? And just on the market these days, there is also the 32mm f/1.2 (85mm equivalent) with gorgeous bokeh and exceptional low light capabilities.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Kirk. I recently got the Olympus 45mm f1.8 and put it on my E-PL2. It has remained there, except when I put it on my old Lumix G1 for a try. I am really pleased with the - pardon the artsy term - bokeh, the silent focus and the tiny size. Wonderful lens. Tom Barry

Fugazi Dave said...

I've had my Sigma for 2.5 years now or something like that, using it mostly on my 5D II and to a lesser extent my EOS 3 for film. I've had a bunch of 50s, and the Sigma is probably the best overall. I like it better than the Summilux I had when I had my brief Leica phase. I also like it better than the old Nikkor S•C that was my gold standard for a long time because of the look I got with it that I adored so much. Hell, I even like it better than the 50mm f/1.2 AI-S I had for a while. For me, it is the superlative among superlatives. Perfect? Of course not. But damn is it good.

arg said...

The new Sigma f1.8 standard zoom for crop sensors is an interesting take on the wide normal lens.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous has never used a 5D3. Silent shutter is awesome. As quiet as an M6.