Saturday, March 26, 2011

Choosing a 50mm Manual Focus Lens

The sound gallery asked me if I were looking for my first 50mm manual focus lens, which one I would choose.  This seemingly easy question is actually tough to answer.

Back in the 70s and 80s, when an SRL was purchased, it invariably came with a 50mm lens.  Some will choose a 50mm f1.4, as an upgrade to the f1.7/1.8/1.9/2.0 lens that normally would come with the camera.  There is a good reason for this.  The 50mm lens has a field of view similar to that of the human eye vision.  It is much easier to compose and use than say, a 28mm wide angle, not to mention the usually fast aperture, which made it usable even in very dim lights.  In other words, the 50mm lens is a very versatile lens.  This hold true today.
But which 50mm lens would one get?  I don't think anyone can answer that question, because there are literally hundreds of different ones made by so many manufacturers, and they cost anywhere from five to thousands of dollars.  For NEX users, the choice is even broader, simply because you can mount more lenses on it than any other interchangeable lens cameras out there.  

Even though I can't recommend a specific 50mm lens, if this is the first time you are trying out a manual focus lens on digital camera, I would suggest starting with something cheap.  Cheap in price, but not in performance. This allows you to try it and see how you like focusing manually.  Really, manual focus lenses is not for everyone.

What manual focus lenses are still cheap in price?  My favourites are Canon FD and Minolta SR/MD mount lenses.  Often the Canon FD 50mm f1.8 can be had for around $10.  I tried a New FD version and it was optically excellent.  Optically equivalent to the EF 50mm f1.8 II, if not better.  The other good choice is the Minolta Rokkor 50mm f1.7.  This lens is often overlooked but optically it compares well with the modern equivalent.  Other low price but good chooses are lenses from Konica KR, Olympus OM, and of course the supremely well made Pentax Takumars. If you don't like stuff made in the east, there are low priced Pentacons, Meyer-Optiks, Carl Zeiss you can also try, mostly in M42 mount.

The danger here is that once you tried manual focus lenses, you may get hooked and even addicted.  Yours truly is a deeply addicted 50mm ( specifically 40-60mm) lens user.  No amount of auto focus lenses treatments has any effect on the condition.  Even extreme treatments with the L formulation did not help much.  Below is a snapshot of the a collection taken two years ago.

Fabulous Fifties. Click to see larger.


  1. For a first lens in an alt mount I'd almost always recommend a SMC or Super-Takumar 50 or 55mm. They're cheap, plentiful, good and adapters are likewise cheap & plentiful.

    For Nikon users, the only ones who can't use those M42 lenses, my recommendation is always the 50mm f1.8 Series E. Same reasons, cheap, good and easy to find.

    There's a ton of other options out there but few of them have the combination of price, availability and easy of adaptation as those two.

  2. I can say that I am more than honoured for the time you have taken on this reply, and further more You should be truly proud of what can only be called a amazing arsenal of manual camera lenses!

    As a teenage I grew up with manual focus as the only option, so today this just excites me more than it puts me off. On your kind advice I will be trying a Minolta or Pentax as my first toe in the water lens.

    Please keep up the good work here, as this blog makes wonderful inspiration for any Nex owner, and also in doing so helps makes using the camera just that bit more interesting.



  3. There's one small problem with the post. 50mm is 'eyesight equivalent' on a Full Frame DSLR or on film, but it is quite tele on APS-C DSLRs or NEX, and very tele on a 4/3rds camera.
    There's lots of good MF 35mm lenses out there too (on a NEX its equivalent to approx 50mm on a FF camera), but they do tend to be quite a bit pricier than 50mm. 24mm/25mm even more so for 4/3rds.

  4. @Adam, thanks for the recommendations. The SMC 50/55mm lenses are indeed excellent, but the Rokkor 50mm f1.7 or FD 50mm f1.8 are no slouch and much cheaper.

  5. @The Sound Gallery, I stared with film cameras in the early 80s, so manual focus lenses suits me just fine. I think you will have lots of fun with MF lenses.

    @Anonymous, what you said is true of course, regarding the focal length on APS-C. I was referring to the 50mm on the film cameras, which were all full frame :)

    1. @LensBubbles, the Anon is actually wrong, a crop sensor doesn't actually change the focal length or anything to do with the lens it just literally crops the picture. Like someone trimming the edges off of a drawing, it doesn't change the size of the end result but how much you see.

      The whole "equivalent focal length" is very misleading. Putting a 35mm on a crop Canon sensor gives you a 50mm "equivalent" but when you put the viewfinder to your eye and open both eyes you'll see a smaller picture from the camera. Put a 50mm and you see roughly the same as what your eye does, no matter if it's 35mm, crop or micro 4/3rds.

    2. @Krazyklod: thanks for the additional information.

  6. Hi

    I'd also go for the Canon FD as the option for alternative mount mainly because of the cost / performance ratio at the moment. The Takumar are a fine lens no doubt, but in the New FD you get that at least and at lower prices.

    Add to this the availability of other lens focal lengths at low prices and its hard to pass up.

    Why so cheap? Well pretty much only micro 4/3 and NEX can use them that's why.

    But my observation on KEH is they are going up ... so maybe soon it'll be the Minolta again?

  7. @LensBubbles: The FD and Rokkor's aren't that much cheaper (all but one of the Takumar 50's & 55's I've owned were under $30) and you have adapter issues. Given that M42 adapters are rarely more than $10 and are available for anything while MD adapters are only available for 4/3rds, m43 and E mount and FD is m43 & E mount only, the whole package is usually a better deal for most people getting into alts. Expensive adapters offset cheaper lenses in this case.