Like I said in the previous parts of this ongoing review, I bought the NEX 7 primarily for use with my Leica lenses, but when Sony came out with a cheap, fast 50mm prime I couldn’t resist giving it a spin. Manual focus lenses are great for when your subject isn’t moving around much, but there’s times when autofocus makes your life a whole lot easier. The lens sports an all metal body, circular aperture blades and built-in image stabilization; I was prepared to be satisfied with even mediocre sharpness in a lens with all these features and a price tag that’s comparatively easy on the wallet. After playing with it for a couple months now, I’m giving this lens five stars, a gold sticker and two thumbs up.
The first thing that attracted me to Sony’s lens line up was their use of all metal barrels. Their lenses feel nice and solid without being overly heavy and I find the ridged grips on the focus and zoom rings much more ergonomic than the usual rubberized rings. Construction-wise, I give the SEL50F18 a 10/10; the only complaint I could come up with was that it’s nearly identical to the 18-55mm kit lens at a quick glance. Not a huge deal, switching to different colored lens sleeves for each lens has prevented any further mix ups.
A metal barrel isn’t the only thing the SEL50F18 has going for it that you usually don’t see in lenses in this price range; circular aperture don’t usually show up until the $600+ price point. For those who’re saying, so what, the shape of the aperture blades affects how the lens renders out of focus areas. Their effect is particularly noticeable in out of focus light sources; non-circular apertures will produce geometric shaped highlights (hexagons, pentagons etc, instead of nice circles or ovals).
Image stabilization is also a nice bonus in such an inexpensive lens, although it is a feature that’s been creeping into other consumer bracket lenses lately. All stabilized lenses are not created equal, however, there’s quite a large performance range. In the case of the SEL50F18, it’s been implemented very well. It’s virtually silent; I have a hard time telling whether it’s turned on or not, unlike my Canon 70-300 that has a noticeable thunk when it engages and a quiet whirr when active. I never used to care whether my stabilized lenses were silent or not, but now that most of my cameras have video capability it’s become a real concern. So far I haven’t noticed any noise from the IS system bleeding into a video recording, even in fairly silent scenes. I haven’t done controlled tests to see exactly how many stops of stabilization you get, the spec sheet boasts an impressive 4-stop of stabilization and that doesn’t seem to be an exaggeration. I can definitely get sharp photos out of this lens at 1/4th of a second, just remember however that this only compensates for camera shake, your subject also has to be relatively stationary to still get sharp photos with this low of a shutter speed.
I wasn’t expecting miracles from the auto-focus, the contrast detection AF system that most mirrorless cameras use just can’t compete with the phase detection systems on DSLRs. The SEL50F18 looks to be as good as it gets compared to the rest of the lenses I’ve handled. It hunts less than most, especially in low light (although this is most likely due to having a f1.8 max aperture than any improvements in the focusing system) and focus is fairly snappy. Mirrorless cameras just don’t cut it for fast action at the moment, and I wasn’t expecting the SEL50F18 to change that fact. For slow to medium speed subjects though it does a nice job. I won’t be retiring my DSLR quite yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.
OK, now for the big shocker. With so many features and such a low price point, I really expected the sharpness, contrast and overall image quality of this lens to be average at best. Granted, a 50mm prime is one of the easiest lenses to produce, but I still assumed they wouldn’t put out a razor sharp lens so cheap. Let’s face it, this is how the photography market has always worked, you put out a merely decent lens for the consumers so you can charge a premium to pros (and amateurs with money to burn) for your premium lenses.
The SEL50F18 blew me away when I started looking at my shots back at the computer. Looking at 100% crops I realized that none of my other lenses were coming close to taking advantage of the NEX 7’s 24MP sensor. The sharpness is very even from corner to corner and I don’t notice any light fall-off at the edges, even wide open. Contrast and color are very nice, much better than I expected. Combined with the NEX 7’s amazing low-light performance, I’m getting detail in my night shoots I’ve never been able to achieve before. The NEX 7 + SEL50F18 combo has now almost completely replaced my Canon 50D as my night-time/lowlight camera; I have to keep the 50D at ISO 400-800 to get the same level of noise and detail the SEL50F18 and NEX 7 can produce at 1600-3200.
CONCLUSION: This lens is a must-buy for any NEX user. Especially if you’re using a NEX 7, it’s one of the few lenses that seem to be able to take advantage of the cameras dense pixel count. Considering one of the other lenses that can say the same is the Carl-Zeiss 24mm that costs around three times as much, the SEL50F18 is a bargain. Some people might find the 50mm focal length a bit long on a crop body, but I was always a fan of 85mm portrait lenses when I shot film so I haven’t noticed an issue. I’d love to see Sony come out with a 35mm touting the same specs as the SEL50F18, but for now I’m happy with a nice fast 50mm.