Once upon a time, the 50mm lens was a considered a common lens. The so-called “kit lens” of an era; it would be the most basic and cheap lens you would get with your new camera. It was characterized by a compact and lightweight design, had few frills, and just gave you a reliable, normal field of view. These 50mm lenses languished over the years and fell out of popularity as zooms hit their stride. The 50mm eventually led to the 18-55mm and 24-105mm as the one lens everyone had. But in the last several years, the 50mm has been reborn, or maybe more accurately, it has grown up into a much more sophisticated and specialized lens. Leaving the general shooting needs to the standard zooms, the 50mm is now the not-so-normal normal-length premium lens, which optics designers are using to show what they’re truly capable of.
In the early years of zoom lenses, these versatile lenses were mainly considered a novelty and used for their convenience at the great expense of image quality and speed. Photographers still turned to the 50mm as an all-around solution that provided a healthy mixture of image quality, speed, and a field of view that was suitable for most subjects (the desert island lens, as dubbed by Todd Vorenkamp). As zooms caught up in quality, and speeds pushed down to f/2.8 for a wide-to-normal lens, the choice between a 50mm f/1.4 and a 24-70mm f/2.8 or 24-105mm f/4 became more contentious. More often than not, casual and even professional shooters began to favor the range of focal lengths over the couple of extra stops of light a prime lens gave them. Image quality concerns began to subside and image stabilization was being added as zoom designs became more advanced, and slowly, the 50mm (and many prime lenses, for the record) began to decrease in popularity.
While zooms were gaining in popularity, the 50mm was relegated to being a lens that was compact for compactness’s sake. Take the hugely popular Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 lens, which has been succeeded by the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM. This lens’s main successes are its sleek design and its value. It’s an incredible lens for what it is, but, to be frank, it is not a lens prized for its optical merits. It’s not a premier lens, nor was it designed to be. All major manufacturers have their version of this lens, and they are popular for being the prime lens you might add to your kit of zooms.
In the early 2010s, however, coinciding with the meteoric rise in sensor resolution, lens designers began to re-realize the value of a prime lens. There are just some things a zoom cannot do, and there are too many compromises that have to be made when designing a zoom. Capitalizing on this bold-at-the-time mentality, ZEISS set out to redefine what a normal-length prime lens could be, with its first Otus-series lens, the Otus 55mm f/1.4. This lens feels like the executives at ZEISS simply told their optical engineers to have at it and design the best-performing lens they could, without needing to accommodate autofocus, image stabilization, or worry about size, weight, or cost. Drastically different from the petite 50mm f/1.8 lenses most are accustomed to, the Otus isn’t truly the first ultra premium ~50mm lens (that feat may belong to something like the original Nikon Noct-NIKKOR 58mm f/1.2 or the Canon EF 50mm f/1.0L), but it is one of the first in the contemporary age, which has been designed specifically for a new crop of high-resolution DSLRs.
Following closely behind the first Otus, Sigma released the second full-frame prime in its now supremely popular Art line, with the 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM. Heralded as “Otus-like but with autofocus,” this lens earned respect with its sharpness and color rendering, but also, size-wise, forecasted a new trend in prime lenses. Just like the Otus, it’s a big lens! And these aren’t the two exceptions: Sony’s Planar T* FE 50mm f/1.4 ZA is notably larger and heavier than its counterparts, and even something like the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 25mm f/1.2 PRO lens is noticeably hefty for the smaller Micro Four Thirds system. Even more recently, looking at the most recent crop of full-frame mirrorless systems, there is the impressive Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L USM, measuring more than 4" long and weighing more than 2 lb; the even larger Panasonic Lumix S PRO 50mm f/1.4, which spans 5" in length; and even Nikon’s more modest seeming NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S is still a fair-sized prime, albeit receiving reviews for being of the finest 50mm lenses Nikon has ever designed. The forthcoming NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct is even larger still.
The point here isn’t to point out merely how lens designs have lately increased in size and weight, but rather to highlight that manufacturers are treating their 50mm lenses with more seriousness and making these lenses a reference point for a system. Rather than, in the past, where the 50mm might be the expectedly unimpressive lens of an optical lineup, 50s are now the hallmark lens and the first lens in many emerging systems that are being deemed the premier lens.
What is your take on the direction and evolution of 50mm lens designs? Are you a fan of the larger, more premium lenses? Or do you yearn for smaller, more compact 50mm designs of yesteryear? Give us your take, down below.
I think this article knocks the "cheap and cheerful" 50mm full-frame lens a little too readily (most examples of which maxed out at f1.8-f2). At f2.8, almost every instance of this focal length prime lens by any major manufacturer is better than any zoom lens made by any manufacturer at the same focal length. At a rock-bottom price. I don't shoot Canon. But I would be very surprised if that 50mm lens mentioned has any significant optical issues. It's simply too easy to make a good 50mm lens. Six elements does it. The price jumps up when you want PERFECTION at f1.4 or faster (maybe another element or two). But f2 is still very good on all of these cheap lenses and incredibly convenient if you've got auto-focus. The lens is fast enough to let auto-focus really snap in low light situations--and you need the auto-focus because the depth of good focus at f2 is shallow.