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.
Edit, September 2019: Since this review was first published, I have obtained a new copy of the FE 50mm f/1.8, and have now had a chance to evaluate the lens using the latest firmware from Sony, v.03, which contained significant improvements to the autofocus of the lens. New observations that concern updates from the firmware update are in italics. The original text from the review is left intact or with strikeout, so the reader may read the original review conclusions.
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. Edit, November, 2019: It is worth noting that on my personal copy of the lens, the lens hood locks tightly and securely.
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.
Edit: In 2017, Sony released firmware version 3 for the FE 50mm f/1.8, which included rather significant updates to the autofocus of the lens. On my A7 III, the difference with the new firmware is night and day from my experience with the original firmware on my A7 II. The lens focuses reasonably quickly and very surely in a wide variety of lighting conditions. While shooting in very dim conditions at small apertures will still cause AF to slow considerably, the lens still finds focus quite well. The only area where it still does focus somewhat poorly is in backlit situations, where the FE55mm finds focus easily, but the FE 50mm struggles. For everyday shooting, while still a bit slower than something like the FE 55mm f/1.8, the new firmware makes the FE 50mm f/1.8 perfectly usable for daily use. Alas, noise is still present when focusing because of the type of motor used. The original text that discussed the autofocus when this review was originally published is below.
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.