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.
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 skochypstiks.com 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.