The 50mm prime lens has a lot going for it. On a full frame DSLR it’s perfectly suited for street or candid shooting with just enough reach to let your subject occupy most of the frame without forcing you to get in their grill. And if you’re looking for the perfect portrait length on a APS-C camera, look no further; it’s the equivalent of an 80mm on a full frame.
And while a zoom lens gives you more focal lengths, a prime lens offers the ability to get down to much lower aperture values for low-light shooting and subject isolation, significant weight savings and (all things being equal) better image quality. Not to mention that the lack of a zoom forces you to think more about framing and composition while (cue Billy Mays) they cost less than a similar quality zoom.
The way we see it, the 50mm prime competition comes down to two lenses. One makes zero compromises and pursues optical perfection at whatever the cost, and one achieves nearly the same optical clarity while costing a hell of a lot less.
Zeiss Otus 1.4/55
Zeiss gave their engineers a pretty simple brief when it came to making the Otus ($3,990): “Make the best”. The result is an absolutely stunning piece of design that rightfully calls itself “The best lens in the world today”. The Otus renders colors beautifully and maintains otherworldly sharpness from corner to corner, even at f/1.4. It’s built like a Panzer and the smoothly damped focusing action on it is reminiscent of the adjustment knobs on a well made microscope. It’s a good thing that the focusing action is so pleasant because there’s no autofocus but if you’re able to nail the focus at 1.4 it just doesn’t get any better. Is it worth $4,000? Do you like to have the best of everything? Do you shoot food photos for a living? Did you just buy a sports franchise? Rationalizing it is the easy part.
Sigma 50mm F1.4 DG HSM Art
Sigma has a long tradition of producing budget lenses, usually only considered by photographers if they couldn’t afford the Canon or Nikon version. These days, though, they’ve been on fire with their “Art” lineup, which combines significantly improved build quality, stellar optics and relatively low price points for the best performance-per-dollar on the market today. Their latest, the 50mm 1.4 ($949), made its debut in April of 2014. The Sigma is significantly sharper and less distorting than Canon or Nikon’s top 50mm offerings at nearly half their costs. The only thing besting the Sigma in objective DXO Mark testing (for sharpness, vignetting and distortion) is the Otus, and that costs four times as much. It could be argued that, day-to-day, the Sigma is a better lens than even this German beast; what are the odds you hit the manual focus perfectly at f/1.4? Certainly less than a well adjusted autofocus. If you’re looking for the best autofocusing 50mm prime lens, the Sigma 50 f/1.4 is the easy choice.