Are We Witnessing the Slow Death of the Nifty Fifty?

Are We Witnessing the Slow Death of the Nifty Fifty?

When I moved from Canon to my Sony a7 III late last year, the first lens I ordered was a nifty fifty: a cheap, incredibly lightweight, relatively fast 50mm prime lens that’s good for portraits, landscapes, and pretty much everything in between. Given that this affordable lens is so universally loved and has such an important role, why does its future look so bleak?

Sony’s full-frame nifty fifty is not brilliant: autofocus is nowhere near as snappy as more expensive counterparts such as the Sonnar T* 55mm f/1.8, not as sharp, and the spherochromatism (blue and pink fringes) can be quite intense. However, this is a ludicrously affordable and lightweight lens. Even at its regular price of $249 it’s cheap, and this is a lens that frequently sees generous discounts. Any complaints regarding performance have to keep this in mind, and I’ve been pleased with the results I’ve achieved from it over the last 11 months.

Capital concrete: Belgrade on the left, Paris on the right. Sony FE 50mm f/1.8.

Capital concrete: Belgrade on the left, Paris on the right. Sony FE 50mm f/1.8.

The nifty fifty has a special place in the world of photography, offering a standard field of view in, thanks to a quirk of physics, a very small form factor. In the past, manufacturers have taken advantage of the ease of design, swapping out metal for plastic and producing budget, autofocus lenses that have deliciously wide apertures while retaining decent sharpness. For those learning photography, it’s an excellent choice when upgrading from a kit lens for something that gives you succulent subject separation and much-vaunted bokeh.

As well as the wallet-friendly price, a nifty fifty can typically deliver acceptably sharp results, and the size and weight makes it wonderfully convenient. A lighter lens is more likely to get thrown in your bag, is more suited as a walk-around option, doesn’t make your camera feel like it’s trying to twist your hand from off the end of your arm, and is less intrusive when shoved into someone’s face. I travel fast and light, and having so much bokeh in such a friendly format is a godsend.

Shooting in Belgrade with on the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8

Shooting in Belgrade with on the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8

I’d argue that no other lenses offer such solid performance for so little money. There’s good reason that Fstoppers’ Evan Kane described his Canon nifty fifty as the lens that never lets him down, and the results speak for themselves.

A Veritable Array of DSLR Options

Nikon and Canon DSLR shooters are spoilt for choice when it comes to nifty fifties. Both have OEM 50mm primes that are alarmingly cheap: the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM is a mere $125, and Nikon offers a choice of two nifties, both at very low prices. And if f/1.8 isn’t fast enough, Rokinon/Samyang has an f/1.4 for each mount that’s available for a lot less than $400 if you don’t mind foregoing autofocus, and that's without mentioning the plethora of other manual focus nifties available.

Canon and Nikon nifty fifties

The Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM on the left, and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G on the right.

As affordable lenses go, the size, price, and results seem a little ridiculous when compared to bigger, meatier lenses with their weather sealing, ultra-fast focusing, and endless elements. A few years ago, Yongnuo decided to make things even more nonsensical by introducing Canon and Nikon mount nifties that chopped the price of the OEM versions in half. Inspired by the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM, the compromises are plentiful: the metal bayonet was ditched in place of plastic, and sharpness was largely ignored to the point that you wondered if you’d forgotten to peel the protective film from the rear element after taking it out of the box.

The Yongnuo YN 50mm f/1.8 is a fun lens, however. At a paltry $53 for the Canon version, your expectations should be low, and be assured: you are getting what you pay for. However, if you have a cheap, entry-level Canon DSLR and need bokeh-tastic images for use on social media, you’d be hard pushed to find a cheaper option (unless you already own an expensive phone with multiple cameras, of course). This is not a serious tool, but fortunately, when it comes to images, Instagram is not a serious platform. Go nuts.

The Yongnuo YN 50mm f/1.8

The Yongnuo YN 50mm f/1.8 lens. Gloriously soft, beautifully cheap.

So, Sony?

So DSLR users have a veritable smorgasbord of nifties, and Sony released its FE nifty in 2016, three years after the appearance of its first full-frame mirrorless camera. As a means of drawing new users to its camera bodies, Sony probably knew that an affordable 50mm lens would make its a7 cameras much more appealing. Sony’s marketing sang about mirrorless being smaller, and this was a lens that actually made this song make sense. Sure, those ditching Canon could adapt their old glass, but the MC-11 on its own is actually almost twice heavier than the Sony 50mm f/1.8, undermining the concept that the nifty is supposed to be tiny and weigh next to nothing.

All of this makes Nikon and Canon’s lack of nifty fifties for their mirrorless cameras a mystery — the gaping void in RF glass in particular. Nikon’s approach for pushing out its new mirrorless cameras has been to produce relatively affordable prosumer glass and balancing that somewhat lackluster lineup with one laughably expensive lens that is the exact opposite of what people want. While the nifty fifty is typically lightweight, affordable, includes autofocus, and can be found in every high street store, the NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S is unwieldy, manual focus, unfeasibly priced, and seemingly unavailable.

The NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct and the NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S

The NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct and the NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S. A folly, a fifty, and neither of them nifty.

Despite this, Nikon does come close with its NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S, a lens that was $600 when launched and has now dropped to less than $500. This is not quite nifty fifty territory, however, and given that third party glass takes its time to reach Nikon cameras, it might still be a couple of years before a budget 50mm emerges.

For Canon, an RF nifty fifty is not even on the radar. In contrast to Nikon’s mirrorless glass, Canon has opted for premium lenses at premium prices, making its less-than-premium bodies feel a bit underwhelming at this stage. Given that the RP is now less than a grand, wouldn’t it make sense to have $250 50mm walk-around lens that ties in with the camera’s affordability and makes the most of its diminutive size? Again, of course, you can adapt the EF nifty, but when nifties are about lightweight convenience, adding size and weight with an adapter seems incongruous. Maybe I love nifty fifties too much but if I were in Canon’s marketing department, I’d want a sharp, fast, affordable 50mm to give R and RP shooters something fun to use as an everyday lens, and give budget-conscious first-time full-frame buyers a piece of kit that makes the Canon line feel slightly more accessible.

As it stands, that lens does not exist and nor will it any time soon. I’m sure the 50mm RF f/1.2L is a truly astonishing piece of glass, but at two grand, few will ever find out. Hopefully this is where third party manufacturers will come to the fore, and while Sigma has signaled its intentions (it's said to be announcing its plans for RF glass early next year), I doubt it has any intention of creating something small and lightweight, given its propensity for producing doorstops.

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon EF. Banana for scale.

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon EF. Banana for scale.

There’s a much stronger possibility that Rokinon/Samyang has something up its sleeve. The South Korean company launched the first third party RF lenses, cranking out the 14mm f/2.8 and 85mm f/1.4 earlier this year (also available for Nikon Z), and followed that up recently with the announcement of the first third party RF autofocus lens: the AF 14mm f/2.8 RF.

Canon’s mirrorless autofocus is currently undergoing some rapid changes thanks to firmware updates and it’s now down to third party manufacturers to keep up. It will be fascinating to see some tests of eye autofocus on the EOS R using Rokinon/Samyang’s forthcoming lens. If Rokinon/Samyang has the technology dialed in, then the manufacturer definitely seems like the best candidate for producing a nifty fifty, and the AF 45mm f/1.8 for Sony might be an indication of its intentions. Until then, a manual focus version from dark horse Meike is available: the MK-50mm f/1.7.

Regardless of who gets there first, the days of the truly budget nifty fifty might be over for Canon and Nikon mirrorless owners. Z and RF glass comes at a premium — the latter particularly — and customers might have to be very patient before an OEM nifty becomes viable for either of the Japanese heavyweights to the point that it may never happen. Panasonic S1 owners probably shouldn't hold their breath either: Leica is more likely to release a smoothie maker than a lightweight lens, and as for Sigma, see the banana above. The closest you can get is a 45mm f/2.8 for more than $500.

I wonder whether — unless you own a Sony — the OEM nifty fifty might truly be a thing of the past. What are your thoughts? Are Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic missing a trick here by not making their mirrorless bodies more appealing to enthusiasts with limited funds? Or is my love of the nifty fifty coloring my opinion on what manufacturers should be giving us? Let me know in the comments.

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Having spent several K on a Z7 I personally am not that interested in a cheap and cheerful lens. If I wanted that I would have stayed with a cheap and cheerful camera.

LA M's picture

Boy....don't talk crazy just for clicks.

Dude , that Nikon 50 1.8 for the Z mount is an amazing performer . Don’t disregard it because it’s “only” 1.8. Eventually the nifty fifties will come out for both Nikon and Canon .

He's not disregarding it because it's F1.8. He's disregarding it because it's $600.

Robert Teague's picture

It's worth every penny of the $600 for me; I find it cheap for the value.

Fritz Asuro's picture

A $600 lens which outperforms all F mount f/1.8 lenses and even most expensive f/1.4 out there.

I myself used to own and use F mount 24, 45, 58, and 85 - all f/1.4s. And I always shoot around f/1.8 to f/2.2 anyway to cut down the usual prime issues at wide open. But these new S line of f/1.8 for the Z series are really good - it's a bargain for it's performance output.

The Z7 in Australia was close to $5000 - why would i want to hang a crappy lens of it?

Magnus Hedemark's picture

Compares cheap lens to expensive lens and handwrings over why the cheap lens isn't like the expensive lens.

fstoppers has really been just throwing a lot of crap against the wall more and more to generate clicks. Where's the quality content?

Jen Photographs's picture

Gotta pay the bills somehow, bro.

dont criticize FS to much or they will block your account. this is another clickbait article full of affiliate links. notice articles are all affiliate link friendly, thats how they pay their bills.

I don't think we read the same article. In the version I read, the author is praising cheap 50mm lenses and complaining about the lack of them on the RF and Z mounts.

different times, different technology, different volume market. i still believe that he canon 50 1.8 is sold below or close to production price. question is if it can keep up with the current high megapixel camera's.

What I see locally is a lot of the full frame mirrorless going to enthusiasts and a simple nifty fifty won't impress their camera club

and honestly It won't impress the person behind the camera the 40+ megapixel brigade really shows up poor glass (as you would expect) so why would you put a clowns nose on a supermodel?

Jen Photographs's picture

The mirrorless market is a comparatively new one, so yeah, the lens selection is a little limited right now.

> ... missing a trick here by not making their mirrorless bodies more appealing to enthusiasts with limited funds?

Until mirrorless cameras become as common as dslrs are, their lenses and other peripheral products will continue to command higher prices. Don't like it? Don't be a trendsetter and buy a more common camera that has a bigger range in prices for their lenses.

I agree with Leigh and Magnus: your article's title was very click-baity and misleading. It's so 2018.

I’d argue the camera manufacturers are giving up the consumer market to smartphones by focusing on the pros and alienating what consumers would be interested in. When cameras were analog, every camera was small yet full frame, with all its optical benefits. In the digital age, consumers have been delegated to small sensors, which you actually have to be a better photographer to get as interesting pictures from. The transition to mirrorless with its smaller cameras has been a lost opportunity as the manufacturers have compensated with even larger lenses that only pros can be interested in lugging around

Consumers aren't interested in 50's. If they were the manufacturers would be pumping them out by the ton. Instead they focus on products with margins that allow the to keep the lights on.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Not the same lens. Your link is for the f1.2. His was for the f1.8.

dean wilson's picture

Oops. my bad. It's probably going to be a lot cheaper 😂

I've always thought the term "nifty fifty" refered to the inexpensive 50mm f1.8 lenses. If you pay 400-500 dollars for a fifty it's no longer nifty.

Michael J Buongiorne's picture

Ah, what you and this article seem to be referring too is a "thrifty-fifty". What makes the fifty nifty is that it does a little bit of everything good enough, I'd say.

LA M's picture

Correct...and the reference was to Canon's 50mm F1/8 lens...which was basically plastic and glass.

When it focuses you hear all kinds of scratchy/squeaky sounds and it takes it's time. Focus accuracy was was spotty but it did the job and was very handy in all kinds of applications.

Best...$100 on the used market.

I need a fifty-fifty for my Sony. I love using the zeiss planar but for many situations it is too big. The canon 50 is half the price of the ok sony 50

LA M's picture

Sure thing...but!!

The Canon 50 nifty isn't in the same league IQ-wise. Not by a long shot.. go ahead and see if you can adapt it manually though. I'm curious about that myself.

Ryan Davis's picture

We've got the nifty-fifty, and the thrifty-fifty- I hereby dub the Yong-Nuo as the "shifty-fifty."

Motti Bembaron's picture

I had an older Nikon 50mm f/1.8, then I had the "D" version and now I have the "G" version. Some of the best photos I have ever taken were taken with these lenses. If I had to use one lens only it would be that one.

And it is not "relatively fast", it is fast.

I don't know about the Sony nifty-fifty but the Nikon versions are superb. Put on a D500 or a D850, focusing is fast, accurate AND very sharp.

I am sure you can find sharper and faster-focusing lenses but for portraits these lenses are superb.

In my opinion, these lenses are not going anywhere any time soon.

The G lens is very slow vs the D. Half as slow. Both of them are garbage shot open. Down to 2.5 and they seem ok onwards. Cheap though

Motti Bembaron's picture

Maybe you had bad copies, my G lens is excellent wide open.

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