Sony's answer to Nikon and Canon's "Nifty Fifty."

A Rehearsal Photo from Zach's upcoming production of: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The Musical.

In the distant past cameras did not come with nasty little "standard zoom" lenses as part of their cost effective package, they came with a 50mm f1.8 or f2.0 normal lens. The benefits are legion. Even the most pedestrian 50mm lens handily outperformed the plastic zooms when it came to sharpness and clarity. The zooms were preferred only for their focal length flexibility which, unfortunately, was only deliver along with a big helping of slow aperture. Over time the general public became less and less discriminating (or less well educated) and chose to think that the zoom gave them more stuff for their money. Now cameras no longer come packaged with normal, prime lenses. 

Nikon and Canon continued to make small, light, fast and inexpensive 50mm lenses and, as trends go through cycles, the benefits of the single focal length lens have been rediscovered. Hundreds of thousands of "Nifty Fifties" have been sold over the last decade and photography is better for it. But if you chose to live your photographic life in the Sony mirrorless camp you had few low priced options in that focal length range. Sony introduced one lens, the 55mm f1.8 that cost about $900 and, while it is very, very good, it seems almost churlish to have the ambition to be a big camera company if your customers don't have a cost effective choice in this realm. No, the Zeiss Loxias don't count as cost effective.

The faithful waited three years from the launch of the original A7 series cameras in order to see the introduction of a cost effective alternative to the super lens. It comes to us in the form of a 50mm f1.8 FE lens at a list price of $249 and a current street price of $199. It comes to us with six elements and, in a departure from Nikon and Canon, one of the elements is an aspherical. There are seven aperture blades and it's touted as a high resolution lens solution. According to the test hungry technicians at DXOMark.com it tests out very, very well. It out resolves 24megapixel, full frame sensors and deliver a score of 36, which is a big bump up from most standard zoom lenses --- even the Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0.

I had read the reviews of the lens at DPReview.com and understood that it had some handling issues that might ---- make a lot of users unhappy. The biggest issue is that this is one of the few Sony lenses that does not autofocus at the wide open aperture and then stop down. Nope, when put onto a camera the camera tries (some times desperately) to focus at the set aperture. If you've set f2.0 or f4.0 it generally doesn't present much of a problem. If you set f11 and you are in a dim setting you are in for a world of focusing hurt as your state of the art camera hunts and hunts. The flip side is that focusing at the taking aperture (especially at f4.0 and f5.6) does away with the effects of focus shift which plague even the priciest of lenses. That's a good thing.  But it's a good thing (accuracy) mixed with a big dose of bad thing (slow focusing acquisition). It's a compromise. And each user has to decide if the compromise is worth it to him/her. 

I bought the lens fully aware of this issue. The lens also has an interesting/annoying characteristic that makes it feel like it's part of a point a shoot camera. It doesn't just acquire focus and stop, the lens goes to either side of sharp focus before stopping. It introduces a bit of delay. I'm not sure if it's fixable with a firmware update but I'm using 3.10 in the camera and it should be working in full phase detection AF mode, so I don't get the compact camera hunt motif...

All of this is critical to know if your intention is to use the 50mm as a convenient AF lens. I had other plans. I love the manual focus action of my existing choice of lens for the A7ii. It's a Contax/Yashica Zeiss 50mm f1,7 that is very sharp and contrasty. It works well with the one button focus magnification of the A7 camera series. It's also quite usable with focus peaking. It's more accurate with the magnification but it's an extra step to push a button to engage the magnification and then push a button again to go back to the normal view in the viewfinder. Too many steps for stuff that moves quickly or erratically.  I wanted an inexpensive lens with good optical quality that would also trigger the focusing magnification with a touch on the focusing ring. You grab the ring to focus, the magnification engages and shows you a big, crisp image (with focus peaking intact) in the viewfinder and the second you stop turning the ring the image snaps back to showing the full frame. 

I didn't know how well this would work but having spent decades using my hands, in conjunction with my brain, to focus any number of cameras, I thought I would give it a try. What better place to try than on a stage production rehearsal, under mixed light at my local, regional theater?

I had already done some casual images just walking around and came to the conclusion that the lens was terrifically sharp across the center almost wide open. I've been shooting it at f2.5 and f3.5 and have been very, very satisfied by the optical quality. The optical design and the construction of my sample is top notch. But stationary objects are like shooting fish in a barrel, it's easy to get a nice sharp frame that way. 

While it took a bit of practice I was comfortable with the manual focusing routine I've described above: grab the ring, focus with magnification, let go and shoot. The results were gratifying; my images are impressively sharp.  As sharp as I need them to be. When the camera gave me an enlarged image I could easily focus on skin texture or eyelashes, even the weave of fabric. Once I released the lens I obviously didn't have to mess with focus hold buttons as the focus remain fixed until I changed it. 

My takeaway from the 400 images I shot in a preliminary rehearsal yesterday is that the lens is quite sharp and the manual focusing, with the A7ii body, is easy and quick. The lens may, in fact, be no better than its Nikon and Canon counterparts but the focusing method I've described might just be more accurate and allow exacting focusing position and acquisition a much higher percentage of times giving me the perception that the lens performs better. And if the images look better then who is to argue? I will keep this one on the front of my A7ii as daily user and look forward to some sort of firmware update that makes AF a more transparent transaction. Until then I'll count on the manual focus to do my heavy lifting. 

A lot of words for a cheap lens but in the end I am glad I bought this one and put the left over $700 into my retirement account. I might need that cash some time in the future. You never know. 

Nice resistance to flare. 

Enjoy the book. Get one now.


Ricardo Silva Cordeiro said...

I've just bought a FE 50/1.8 too, did it upon the announcement of a firmware upgrade for the lens wich mitigates the AF hunting a bit, making it more usable:

I can't really give a before/after feedback since I updated the lens right from the start. I can say that with the new firmware the lens still has occasional problems locking AF when stopped-down, but still I think it's very usable and there's always the possibility of manual-focus since the focus ring is quite enjoyable to use, even being the "by-wire" kind.

With this lens my search for a 50mm is over, this one is sharper and delivers better bokeh than any legacy 50mm I've tried. It's also lighter.
It would be good to get a further firmware update, but even if not, I will be happy, just accept it as a AF lens until f/2.8 and MF lens stopped down.

Having said all that, I will continue to keep an eye on a good-priced second-hand Sonnar 55/1.8, just love the rendering of that lens.

Kirk Tuck said...

I have updated the firmware and the focusing is quicker than before but it still does the little "two-step" before locking in. Annoying but not so annoying that I'd rather not have the lens...