The 50mm focal length has always been one of my favorites. On a full frame or Super 35mm camera a 50mm lens will act as a beautiful “normal” length lens, closely resembling the field of view of the human eye, while on crop sensor cameras (such as Micro Four Thirds) they become excellent telephoto or portrait style lenses.
Why 50mm lenses are so great
Simply put, many 50mm lenses offer superb image quality, a fast aperture and a low price point. Certain focal lengths are more challenging to design and manufacture than others, which is why there are fewer lens choices when you get to the extreme wide angle or extreme telephoto side of the spectrum… And they are usually a whole lot more expensive too. Without getting into the science of how lenses are created, it’s safe to say that certain focal lengths (50mm and 85mm in particular) usually offer the highest performance to cost ratio. That’s why you might be able to find a 50mm lens for under $200 that outperforms a far more expensive lens in terms of sharpness, color accuracy and distortion, if the other lens happens to be a wide angle or telephoto. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but for the most part 50mm lenses offer a tremendous amount of bang for your buck and are most definitely conducive to the cinematic look.
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A few things to note before I jump into my top 5 list…
As stated in the title of this article, the lenses on this list are intended to be budget-friendly. In other words, I am not including Zeiss Superspeeds, Cookes or any other very high-end cinema lenses as they are simply far too expensive for most filmmakers to afford. Instead, I want to share with you some 50mm lenses that will deliver results not too far off from much more expensive glass, but at a price point that is affordable to the indie filmmaker. As such, not all of these lenses are “cinema housed” – meaning that they don’t necessarily have a manual aperture, follow focus gears, or hard stops on the focus ring. However, they can be used in a filmmaking environment easily with the usual workarounds.
Also – I’ve decided to base this list on full frame EF lenses, as each one on the list can be adapted to different camera mounts, including MFT.
CANON 50MM F/1.4
Why it made the list: This lens is truly a workhorse and offers a lot of value for your money. While it isn’t as cheap as the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens or as fast as its bigger brother, the Canon f/1.2 L-Series lens, it is the ideal 50mm for filmmakers on a budget. It is an extremely sharp lens, the colors are beautiful and at f/1.4 it is very fast. While the L-series lens is slightly faster and has a bit of a better build quality, I wouldn’t recommend spending the extra money unless you are a more seasoned shooter and really need the extra speed. (Retails for $399).
ZEISS 50MM F/1.4
Why it made the list: I mentioned up top that I wouldn’t be including Zeiss Superspeeds on this list (since they are far too expensive), but this 50mm photo lens from Zeiss is much more affordable and delivers the gorgeous quality that we all expect of Zeiss. While it is by no means the cheapest lens on this list, at $725 it really is a bargain considering the quality of the optics, not to mention the build of the lens body, which is designed to last a very long time. (Retails for $725)
SIGMA 50MM F/1.4 ART LENS
Why it made the list: Sigma has been releasing some incredible lenses over the last couple of years, some of which are falling into their “Art Lens” category. This is actually the most expensive lens on the list, and almost didn’t make the cut (as I wanted to keep all of the lenses under $1000), but if you have some extra cash to spend, it is well worth it. I have shot with this lens twice now and have been very impressed with the sharpness, detail and skintones that it produces, and for anyone already invested in Sigma glass it is a no brainer. (Retails for $949)
SIGMA 50MM F/2.8
Why it made the list: If you own some Sigma glass already and are looking to cover your 50mm focal range, but don’t want to spend almost $1000 for the Art Lens – this is a great alternative. The physical build and overall feel of the lens is excellent, and the image quality it produces is nothing to scoff at. The big consideration with this lens is that it’s not as fast as the other lenses on this list as it only opens up to f/2.8, but not everyone requires an extremely fast lens. Personally speaking, I usually set my lenses to f/2.8 or above anyways in order to achieve the sharpest image possible. (Retails for $349)
ROKINON 50MM T1.5 CINE LENS
Why it made the list: First and foremost, this is the only cinema housed lens on the list, which is a big consideration for some shooters. I also love that this lens is part of a bigger kit, so if you are looking to invest in an affordable cinema lens package, this 50mm could be an excellent starting point. It is very fast at T1.5 (which is about an f/1.4 equivalent on this lens) and when stopped down just slightly it is quite sharp as well. Other lenses on this list may give you a slightly sharper or more accurate image, but this Rokinon 50mm is the only that will offer a true cinema lens experience. (Retails for $549)
All of the lenses on this list are capable of delivering great results. Choosing between them largely comes down to what lenses you already own in your kit, your budget and what your needs are as a filmmaker. If you own a ton of Sigma or Canon glass, then complimenting your kit with a lens that will match well is always a good idea. But if you are starting completely from scratch, or are more of an eclectic lens buyer, the Zeiss or Rokinon might be best for you.