Sony has been cranking out new lenses in 2016, with a total of 5 new lenses announced over the first 5 months of the year. In addition to the long-awaited fast aperture G Master line, Sony also released two options that were more modest in aperture: the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 and this lens: the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8. Sony already has a Zeiss branded f/1.8 normal prime in the truly excellent Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8, but the 50mm is intended to fill the role of Sony’s ‘nifty fifty:’ a low-cost lens with good image quality that provides an inexpensive way to get a faster lens. While the $250 price tag of the 50mm f/1.8 is a bit higher than the 50mm f/1.8 lenses from Canon and Nikon, it’s only a quarter of the asking price for Sony’s premium 55mm f/1.8. Let’s find out how it stacks up.
If you’re not familiar with my reviews, I review from a real world shooting perspective. You won’t find lens charts or resolution numbers here. There are plenty of other sites that cover those. I review products on how they act for me as a photographic tool.
Construction and Handling
The Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 is intended to be a low-cost lens, so as you might expect, the feel of the lens exterior isn’t quite as premium as most of the FE lenses. However, much like the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6, the 50mm f/1.8 is quite well constructed for what it is. The lens has an all-plastic construction, and while the plastic doesn’t have the durable finish that the GM lenses have, it is still a tightly assembled lens that feels quite well-built considering the price. The lens does have a metal bayonet mount, and though there is no flex anywhere in the lens body, nor any slop in the manual focus ring, the lens does belie it’s cheaper construction simply due to heft. The lens is so light that it almost feels hollow. It’s a crazy light lens. When mounted to the body, it almost feels like you don’t have a lens mounted, which is great for a lightweight walkaround kit.
As such, the lens handles beautifully on any camera, with plenty of clearance from the lens to the grip. While lightweight, it’s not super small, but it’s reasonable in size given the focal length and aperture. It’s roughly the same diameter as the FE 55mm f/1.8, if not slightly fatter. It’s about 1cm shorter than that lens, however. The FE 50mm f/1.8 comes with a standard cylindrical plastic lens hood that mounts and reverses for storage using a front bayonet mount. The hood locked easily and without slop, but the detent holding it in place was a bit weak, making it a bit prone to shifting from time to time.
The manual focus ring is a plastic rubberized ribbed ring that moves smoothly and without any unwanted displacement. The damping is fairly light, however: another casualty of hitting a price point.
The biggest cost cutting casualty, however, is the autofocus system. Sony has put in a standard DC motor for the linear extension focusing group of the FE 50mm f/1.8. As such, the lens focuses fairly slowly, and the autofocus motor is quite audible. The front element moves in and out from the lens body during focusing, so it’s probably a good idea to keep the hood affixed to avoid accidental contact with the focusing group.
The speed of the autofocus truly is a detriment to the lens. It’s the slowest focusing FE lens I’ve used, as it takes a good while to obtain focus, especially in dimmer light. While wide aperture shooting outdoors allows for reasonable focus speeds, once you start stopping down, the lens also struggles to find focus sometimes. Since the lens focuses at working aperture, when shooting at an f-stop like f/11 or f/16, the lens can slow down considerably, and sometimes accuracy suffers due to the deep depth of field at these apertures as well. In all, it was a frustrating experience using autofocus with this lens in many situations; it is by far the worst thing about the lens.
While the autofocus of the FE 50mm f/1.8 is disappointing, I can’t really say that about the optics. The lens, in most situations, is extremely capable.
Being a low-cost consumer-grade lens, I didn’t really expect perfect image quality out of the FE 50mm f/1.8. I didn’t get perfect image quality either, but what I did get is very good quality. The lens shows some softness at f/1.8, especially when focused very close up, but at more moderate distances beyond a meter, it actually produces good central resolution, and even maintains that towards the edges. What’s interesting to note is that at f/1.8, there’s a mid-zone dip in resolution around 1/3 of the way from the center, where it shows notably softening. It’s actually sharper at the edges than it is just outside the center. The extreme corners are also soft at f/1.8, but overall it’s not bad at all. For most shooting, it’s definitely very usable wide open. Stopping down to just f/2.2 brings sharpness up considerably, though, and the images get a bit of bite. By f/2.8, the lens produces images that are very sharp almost to the extreme corners, and even those corners are quite good. By f/5.6, it’s simply tack sharp corner to corner. It’s a very impressive performance. While not quite on the level of the FE 55mm f/1.8 when shot at wide apertures, stopped down it begins to rival the sharpness from that great lens. For a 100% edge crop of the shot below, click here.
Often, one of the things that gets left out of the design process with inexpensive optics is a focus on good out of focus character, but thankfully Sony has not gone that route with the FE 50mm f/1.8. Out of focus areas are rendered with a beautiful softness, and specular highlights, while not perfectly neutral, are predominantly free of any bright ring outlining. A bit of a cat’s eye shape can be seen when shooting at wide apertures, near the corner of the frame, but I don’t find it distracting in most situations. The seven-bladed aperture keeps highlights relatively round until f/5.6, where the heptagon shape begins to be visible in specular highlights. I was quite pleased with the bokeh from the FE 50mm f/1.8
Color, Contrast and Chromatic Aberration
The FE 50mm f/1.8 doesn’t disappoint either with regards to color and contrast. The lens renders colors richly with a neutral color cast. Contrast is also excellent, right from f/1.8, as you can see in the image above. The end result is that images look rich and vibrant. This behavior is probably the biggest surprise out of this lens. It’s a cheap lens that renders like an expensive lens.
While lateral chromatic aberration is very well controlled, I can’t say the same about longitudinal CA. Greenish blue fringes are quite visible when shooting at wide apertures, when just out off focus, while a magenta fringe appears on areas just closer than the focus point. This also can affect bokeh in some instances, with white specular highlights displaying a green ring around them. It’s not a major issue in the field, but it’s definitely visible, and may require correction depending on the shot.
Distortion, Flare and Vignetting
The FE 50mm f/1.8 continues it’s very good optical performance with good control of distortion and vignetting. The 50mm f/1.8 shows a very minor amount of barrel distortion that is negligible in more situations. Only in architectural shots where straight lines at the edges of the frame are an integral part of the composition will some minor distortion correction be required. Like all fast aperture lenses, the 50mm f/1.8 shows a bit of corner darkening at f/1.8, which eases somewhat at f/2.8. By f/4, though, there’s essentially no field-relevant vignetting left to be had.
As you might expect from a lower-cost lens, the FE 50mm’s lens coatings aren’t the greatest in the world, but I actually expected a worse performance with regards to flare. In most situations with bright light in the frame, there is only minor loss of contrast and minimal ghosting. There can be some multicolored flare that surrounds the sun when it’s in the frame, but severe ghosting only occurs with the sun in a very specific location, which can throw rather impressive pink and green ghosts across the frame. As you can see from the shot above, it can certainly impact an image in the right circumstance, but it’s far from a terrible performance.
- Decent resolution wide open and excellent sharpness stopped down
- Very pleasing bokeh
- Lightweight and compact
- Well constructed for the price
- Excellent color and contrast
- Good control of lateral chromatic aberration
- Low distortion
- Reasonably priced
- Autofocus is slow, noisy and can struggle to lock focus in low light or stopped down
- Some softness at f/1.8, especially close up
- Longitudinal CA can be an issue in some cases
- Average flare performance
The FE 50mm f/1.8 is a tough one to judge. Optically, it’s really a very good lens. It’s very sharp over almost the entire aperture range, it has beautiful color and contrast and very pleasing bokeh. It’s also got low distortion and while the flare performance isn’t great, it’s not the worst I’ve seen. While the cons list above is short, the first one is the only major issue with the lens, but it’s quite significant. To be blunt, the autofocus on this lens sucks. It’s slow, it can struggle to lock in low light, it has some trouble stopped down even in good light and the DC motor used for focusing is a bit noisy. It’s really a shame that usability in focusing is coupled with what are quite excellent optics.
When comparing to the venerable 55mm f/1.8, you get slightly less background blur and a bit softer images wide open. Otherwise, the two lenses actually compare very favorably when looking at the optics. That said, the autofocus performance between the two is quite different, with the FE 55mm f/1.8 capable of very quick and accurate AF in almost any shooting situation.
But ultimately, when you consider whether you should buy the FE 50mm f/1.8, the question you have to ask is: how important is quick autofocus to my shooting? If you can wait for it to lock, or will be using the lens for tripod work and can manually focus, it’s quite an outstanding lens. If you are planning on using the lens for event shooting or other situations where fast and accurate autofocus is critical, you’ll want to give this lens a pass and move to the FE 55mm f/1.8.