UGLY DUCKLING OR KING? THE 50MM RETURNS

Zabriskie Point, USA

UGLY DUCKLING OR KING? THE RETURN OF 50MM, THE FOCAL LENGTH THAT MADE HISTORY

The 50mm focal length on 35mm film cameras has been called all sort of names, and not always nice ones. It went from being considered the most natural, closest focal length to the human eye, to the most boring lens in the bag. It was Cartier-Bresson’s favourite lens, and it’s now the one lens that a lot of photographers would never get. 50mm lenses cover an extreme spectrum, offering models ranging from the easiest, cheapest lens to produce to the fastest, most exotic and expensive lens in existence.

So, what’s with the 50mm? Is it the Ugly Duckling of focal lengths, or is it their King?

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In the film era, a newly designed lens would likely be produced for decades before becoming obsolete and needing to be replaced. Since the advent of digital, sensors with increasing pixel count coming out every couple of years or so caused lens designs to obsolesce really quickly. A great lens on a 12 Mp sensor is suddenly considered to be a dud on a 36 Mp sensor. A lens hailed as “the best” for its focal length, or zoom range, on an older generation of cameras with lower resolution sensors, is suddenly considered to be not much better than a paper holder when mounted on the newer, super-resolving cameras of today.

Generally speaking, the above is truer the more you move towards extreme focal lenses, such as wide- and ultra-wide-angle primes, or to zooms. The 50mm, on the other hand, has always been a pretty safe bet, the cheapest and sharpest lens one could always count on.

Every manufacturer had generally at least two of those in their line-up, a slower, cheaper one (f/1.8 – f/2) and a faster, more expensive alternative (f/1 – f/1.4).

So, with the advent of digital, most manufacturers have been busy developing new formulas for other focal lengths with either more commercial appeal or in more need of a revamp, and kind of neglected the 50mm. Updated versions of 50mm lenses basically reiterated old lens formulas with some minor updates such as adding ultrasonic motors or changing the lens coating.

Until now, that is. Lately we have seen a real surge of exotic offerings in focal lengths of 50mm and thereabouts, all of them very interesting and worth a look, for different reasons. Let’s see what we are talking about here.

Nikon recently came out with their Nikon 58mm f/1.4G AF-S, a lens in the Noct tradition of yore. A gentle and beautiful portrait lens, great for night shooting since it has no coma and light sources stay round, with no vignetting and creating beautiful out-of-focus areas. While it is not the sharpest normal lens ever, especially in the sides and corners, it is definitely one with a great look to it. The price? Around $1.700 US (B&H prices, January 2014).

Zeiss replied pushing the technical envelope, and with their Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus they set out to produce the best normal lens ever designed. As a result, the Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus is certainly one of the sharper normal lenses all over the frame, if not the sharpest. More, it has no colour fringing, no distortion and no chromatic aberrations. The price? Around $4.000 US (B&H prices, January 2014).

Leica, always the proud flag-bearer of the impossible, in this case meaning both impossibly good and impossibly expensive optics, doubled the challenge. On the one hand, they refreshed their long-running Leica 50mm f/1.0 Noctilux-M with a new, faster version in the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH. On the other hand, they also set out to produce the best 50mm ever in the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH.

This is a lens with no chromatic aberrations, as the Apochromatic label testifies, extremely sharp all over the frame, with practically no distortion and showing just a little vignetting as its only fault. Leica’s prices? Well, “only” about $11.000 US for the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH, and “just” $7.350 US for their Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH (again B&H prices, January 2014). 

Today, last to enter the fight, Sigma announced their contestant for the “Best of The Best 50mm” crown, soon to be thrown in the fight. While nothing much is known yet about the Sigma 50mm F1.4 DG HSM Art, as it is called, by looking at its optical scheme and if Sigma’s recent history means anything, I am pretty sure it will be a very interesting lens. Probably even one of the best 50mm out there. The price? TBD, but I think it will likely be around 1.000$.

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So, why so much sudden attention to this so far neglected focal length, in the “super-exotic, super-amazing, super-expensive” optics club?

Well, despite all the haters, it is undeniable that 50mm is one of the focal lengths that made the history of photography. Its normal perspective, with the pleasant and flexible compositional options it allows, appealed to many great photographers in the past and still does today.

With the changes in camera and sensor technology, many of us where asking for a 50mm that stood up to the demands of today’s and especially of tomorrow’s high-resolution sensors.

Finally, manufacturers listened: they saw a market for a modern, revamped, high-performance 50mm lens and they went to work.

Personally, I use 50mm a lot both for my VIERI BOTTAZZINI FINE ART PRINTS and for my commercial work, and I am certainly happy to see such a surge of interest for this focal. I print very large, and I can use every ounce of sharpness and of image quality I can get.

However, not everyone needs that. Therefore, my biggest qualms about these new lenses concern their prices and (even if cash weren’t a problem) the effects of the law of diminishing returns. Let’s examine the new 50mm offer’s philosophy.

Starting with Nikon and Zeiss, they seem to have taken two very different roads with their recent releases. To simplify, Nikon went for a more “artistic” approach, while Zeiss went for “technical perfection”.

For most photographers out there, I think Nikon’s approach makes more sense. The Nikon 58mm draws in a very different way from other 50mm lenses, and you can see such differences pretty much at any image size, both on very large prints and on images created for online use. A smart move on Nikon’s part, in my opinion.

The Nikon 58mm f/1.4G AF-S is less expensive than Zeiss or the Leica’s offer (however, Leica goes for a different market altogether), draws in a very personal way, one that is beautiful and immediately discernible, and while very expensive in regular 50mm terms it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. With it, you can take different, better looking pictures of your customers, of your wife and kids, of your family, and so on. Most importantly, they will immediately see the difference.

Last, price-wise you can cover both the “artistic” side with the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G AF-S as well as the “technical” side with another 50mm (such as the Zeiss Makro-Planar T * 2/50mm ZF.2) for about $1.000 US less than the price of the Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus alone.

The Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus, on the other hand, is a very specialised lens. I am certainly not saying that it doesn’t draw beautifully. However, I suspect that most people out of the photography business, people that do not care as much about the technical aspects of photography as we do, i.e. most customers, family members and so on, will not see the difference between a picture taken with the Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus and one taken i.e. with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G AF-S ($439 US at B&H) at the sizes they normally look at their images. Putting price into the equation, while it is true that the Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus definitely creates much better images than the old Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, the question is: are they really 9-10 times better?

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Even if they are, an even more important question is: what do people end up doing with their pictures? If people just show them online, or never prints bigger than 11″ x 17″ or even 17″ x 22″ (A3 or A2 in European terms), then they don’t actually need a really high-resolution camera anyway. On a lower resolution camera, one wouldn’t be able to see much of the technical differences that these new, ultra-technical lenses make. However, if you are one of those who really do need the Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus’ image quality, then you probably have been partying no-stop from the day Zeiss announced it, and you won’t be happy with anything else no matter the cost.

Now, with today’s announcement Sigma also stepped into the “exotic 50mm” game. This can actually be very interesting: long considered a “cheaper, off-brand” lens producer, Sigma has been working for some time now to reverse that image completely. Recently, they released high-quality lenses that are pretty amazing. Not just “amazing to be a Sigma”, but amazing, period. True, they are not as cheap as they used to be, but they are Made in Japan and they aren’t still as expensive as the likes of Nikon and Canon either.

My feeling is that their new Sigma 50mm F1.4 DG HSM Art will be following in the Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus’ footsteps rather than the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G’s. It will go for sharpness and technically outstanding performance, rather than trying to do something artistically unique as the Noct-Nikkor, while retailing at a much lower price than the Zeiss.

If I am right, and if it will follow in recent Sigma “A” lenses’ footsteps, it will be a disruptive lens in the 50mm arena.  

Leica is the odd one out, here. The majority of their customer’s base is completely different from all of the above. Most Leica users pretty much have the cash to buy anything that Leica offers, at any price. They very likely will buy the new Leica 50mm lenses regardless of most of the considerations above. I should know, since I shoot Leica as well. However, I always try and keep my lens purchase decisions purpose-oriented, and I for one didn’t get the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH or the Leica 50mm f/0.95 ASPH, since neither makes sense for me and the work I do with my Leicas. Of course, your mileage may vary.

So, in about one year we got quite a few new releases in the classic 50mm focal length, and once more, the 50mm went from Ugly Duckling to King in a very short time. All the better for us, of course!

Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I am not affiliated with any of the brands mentioned in this article in any way. I am a professional photographer looking for the best equipment for my work, I buy all my gear with my hard-earned cash and I don’t get paid by anyone to write articles for my blog.

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