Pekka Buttler, June 2022
What is a ‘fifty’?
Back in the days, the ‘kit lens’ (the lens which came with one’s new SLR camera) was never a zoom. Instead, it was a fifty: a prime with – typically – a focal length between 50 and 58 mm, giving a field of view between 46° (50 mm) and 40°50 (58mm). Even today a fifty is usually a beginning photographer’s second or third lens. As a result, basically everyone has used a fifty at some stage. For 35 mm film photography, the fifties are the most widely available lenses.
The main reason for the proliferation of the fifty is that it is optically a very simple design which can be economically produced in such a way that it combines a wide aperture and good optical qualities. Furthermore, the fifty is a decent compromise: it’s not a portrait lens, but can me used as one; it’s not a wide-angle, but neither is it really that narrow… Finally, some say that a central reason for the fifty’s long-lasting popularity is simply because that was the focal length of the first Leica’s lens.
Incidentally, if you’ve heard the fifty referred to as a normal or standard lens, that is technically not correct. There are two definitions of a standard lens: its focal length corresponds to the diameter of the imaging medium (which would be ≈ 43 mm on 35 mm film); its field-of-view corresponds to that of the human eye, thus making the resulting picture seem natural. Compared to both measures, a fifty (especially a 55 or 58 mm lens) is decidedly more narrow.
But there are fifties and there are fifties. Some fifties were paired with camera bodies in kits for the ‘hoi polloi’. These typically had maximum apertures in the range between f/2.8 (various tessar -derivatives) to f/1.8 even f/1.7 (typically planar-derivatives). Even today, this category of relatively low-cost 50 mm ≈ f/1.8 lenses are known as nifty fifties. These were churned out in bulk by every major brand (as well as a plethora of OEM manufacturers), and were never sexy nor offered their manufacturers those kinds of profit margins you’d want to highlight in your annual reports. That said, a several lenses which have to be classed as nifty fifties have recently received significant attention and acclaim (maybe a topic for a future comparison).
To complement these nifty fifties, basically every major manufacturer has – at least since the 1970’s – offered a faster variant for the aficionados (those willing to pay). These are the f/1.4 versions, which I will refer to as fast fifties. While I will not say that there’s anything pedestrian about the fast fifty – in fact, being able to design and produce such lenses profitably eluded some reputable manufacturers for a long time – the plain fact is that there are millions of them out there. Nikon alone has produced 4,6 million fast fifties (in contrast to 10 million Nikon nifty fifties). Therefore, while the fast fifty clearly is a cut above the nifty fifty, it is by no means a speciality lens.
Finally, there are the superfast fifties – fifties that sport a maximum aperture larger than f/1.4. Besides their function as high-end photographic equipment, these were also always ‘halo-lenses’ – lenses that optics companies produced to show their prowess.
Just as almost every legacy lens aficionado, I too have more fifties (lenses that have a stated focal length between 50 and 58 mm) than I dare count. Because it is entirely impractical to try to compare so many lenses at once, the comparisons of fifties will proceed as follows:
- Lenses will be divided up into groups based on their maximum apertures. These groups are
a) superfast fifties (lenses with a maximum aperture better than f/1.4)
b) fast fifties (lenses with a maximum aperture of f/1.4–f/1.6)
c) nifty fifties (lenses with a maximum aperture of f/1.7–f/2)
d) slow fifties (lenses with a maximum aperture slower than f/2)
- When JAPB has access to more lenses in a category than can be manageably tested at one time, those groups will further be divided into batches.
- Throughout all the comparisons of fifties, one lens will remain present to act as a common reference lens. That lens will be the illustrious Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/1.4 (C/Y mount)