Noteworthy Lenses – Canon FD 50mm ƒ/1.8

Canon FD 50mm F1.8 Lens Review 2

In previous weeks we’ve talked about some noteworthy lenses, including a Minolta fish-eye and a Nikkor ultra-wide. Today, we’ll talk about a more standard focal length, a focal length that many consider to be the standard, in fact. It’s the 50mm ƒ/1.8 FD (and FDn) lens from Canon.

Some lenses are noteworthy for their performance, build quality, visionary design, or wacky perspectives. This precursor to the “nifty-fifty” is notable for none of these reasons. While it’s solidly built and performs well, it’s not going to amaze with its technical chops. Instead, with the 50mm ƒ/1.8 FD Canon created a lens that, today, offers nearly unbeatable value for vintage shooters and users looking for a solid piece of glass to adapt to their mirror-less and DSLR cameras.

This jack-of-all-trades lens will do nearly everything asked of it at a price that’s so cheap it’s almost unfair to sellers. Of course there are some downsides, but are they bad enough to be a deal-breaker?

First produced in 1971, the original FD mount lenses will be instantly recognizable for having chrome filter threads and a silver breech-lock ring at the base of the lens mount. In 1973 the FD series was revamped to lower production cost, replacing the chrome filter threads in favor of black plastic. This redesigned series retained the silver breech-lock ring.

FD vs FDn, showing the breech-lock and internal lock.

FD vs FDn, showing the breech-lock and internal lock.

In 1978, Canon introduced the “New FD” range, colloquially known as FDn. This update brought the lens’ minimum aperture from ƒ/16 to ƒ/22, lowered the number of aperture blades from 6 to 5, and decreased weight from 255g to a featherweight 170g. This weight was saved through the inclusion of more plastic components, most notably replacing the breech-lock mount mechanism with an internal locking device. This made mounting the lens an easier process, especially when using only one hand. In spite of the shift to plastic, the lens became only slightly less resilient.

All versions of the FD range use two proprietary coatings, known as S.C. (Spectra Coating) and S.S.C. (Super Spectra Coating). Both coating systems favor multi-coating, with S.S.C. being the superior range. This shouldn’t be thought of as aligning with Canon’s modern “L” lenses, since neither S.C. nor S.S.C. feature aspherical elements or extra-low dispersion glass. Instead, think of the entire FD range as having acceptable optical coatings, with additional quality for all FDn lenses and earlier S.S.C. models.

Also notable is that the advent of the FDn range brought with it an across-the-board adjustment to optical coatings. All FDn lenses would receive the superior S.S.C. treatment, with only one exception: the 50mm ƒ/1.8. Unfortunately, this most common lens would only offer the less costly S.C., creating a lens that’s prone to flaring when shot into direct sunlight. It should also be mentioned that all versions of the FD lens are interchangeable and will mount natively to all FD mount cameras and any modern FD adapters.

With all these variants, which FD lens is the right one to buy? All versions share the same number of elements and groups (4 and 6), and an identical minimum focus distance of 0.6 m (2 ft). It’s generally believed that the earlier models are of a higher build quality, due to their slightly more robust construction, greater number of aperture blades, and S.S.C. treatment (on models marked as such). With an FDn lens the shooter gets greater portability, a smaller minimum aperture, and decent-enough optical coating. For most, all of these differences will be negligible. The final decision will likely lie in price, and in what’s most important to each individual photographer.

Performance is excellent, with some caveats. Sharpness is fantastic in the center of the frame. Get to the edges, however, and things become a bit fuzzy. While this isn’t a detriment in many shooting situations (a little edge softening can render things artistically at times) it will bother people who are obsessed with sharpness. Stop the lens down to about ƒ/4 and things become noticeably better, but diffraction comes in as we approach ƒ/11.

Canon FD 50mm F1.8 Lens Review 6

Canon FDn 50mm ƒ/1.8 shot at (if memory serves) ƒ/2.8. Soft edges, but not an unpleasant softness.

Canon FD 50mm F1.8 Lens Review 7

Canon FDn 50mm ƒ/1.8 shot at ƒ/2.8.

General contrast is pretty excellent. This lens is perfectly capable of making images that pop. Flaring is a problem in non-S.S.C. examples, but chromatic aberration is well-handled, with only extremely contrasty shots showing the slightest offense. Bokeh is reasonably attractive, but certainly not as good as the FD 50mm ƒ/1.4. While it’s possible to get nice looking blur, it can be a bit edgy and distracting, sometimes lacking the creamy softness one is looking for. It makes good bokeh to the average observer, but bokeh-masters might regard it with a shrug and a “meh.”

All told, it would be forgivable to think this is nothing more than a shrug-worthy lens. In some respects this is true; it’s already been stated that this piece of glass isn’t going to amaze with its specs. But where the lens starts to show its true worth, its worth relative to other lenses, can be found in its price. This thing is cheap, and I mean, really cheap. Compared with other 50mm lenses its value is unbeatable. Sure, some lenses make better bokeh, have better sharpness, and better low-light performance, but no other lens even comes close at this lens’ price point. Considering the kinds of images this lens can make, it’s downright amazing that one can commonly find perfect examples for under $30, and patient shoppers can sometimes fetch one for under $20. Incredible.

Today, the FD lens has found a welcome and loving home with photographers using mirror-less and micro 4/3rds cameras. Due to those machines’ typically short flange distances, the FD range slots in nicely, retaining all of its latent characteristics as well as the ability to infinity focus. Its capabilities only grow when mounted to one of these modern machines using Canon’s extremely rare FD to EF adapter (or suitable 3rd party adapters), or when mounted to Canon’s own EOS M system. Crop-sensor cameras see the focal length increase, giving the shooter a pretty excellent portrait lens with a decently fast aperture for relatively good subject isolation. Again, it’s not the best available, but it’s certainly the best available in this price point.

It’s also worth noting that the 50mm ƒ/1.8 has become a cult favorite among videographers. Enjoyed for its lightness, smooth focus throw, and decent-enough specs, it’s become one of the lenses with which many video shooters first experiment and hone their skills. Often it’s a lens that stays for the long-haul. If it’s not broken, why fix it?

Canon FD 50mm F1.8 Lens Review 4


[Video used with permission from Christian Nelson]

The FD legacy is one of those well-known standbys in the photography world. Similar in proliferation to Nikon’s F mount and Leica’s M mount lens ranges, Canon’s range may not share the same stratospheric reputation as those of its lofty contemporaries. Still, there’s nothing wrong with the FDs. Generally speaking, they’re perfectly capable at a far lower price than shooters are used to. If a photographer can get over a few niggling caveats, that photographer is in for some amazing photos at a low, low price.

Coupled with any Canon FD mount camera, the FD 50mm ƒ/1.8 creates a package capable of making an unbelievable variety of images in a nearly limitless variety of shooting environments. Fast enough for decent low-light shots, sharp enough for the OCD-free, and light enough for any traveler, this lens is the exemplification of the original nifty-fifty. While there may be plenty of other lenses to want, the FD 50mm ƒ/1.8 may just be the only lens a photophile really needs.

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  • Reply
    December 21, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    I’ve the s.c. version with the chrome thread. It’s very nice. With a bit of post-processing it can get the perfect amount of contrast (or perhaps was the film I used with it, or the lab that gives me very neutral scans), and well, the bokeh is not so soft but in this focal length it’s more ideal to photograph persons or objects with context to tell a story. When I need to compose with bokeh I use a third party FD lens with 135mm and 2.8 as maximum aperture.
    The BMW looks amazing!

    • Reply
      December 21, 2014 at 10:50 pm

      You must use that on your EF?

      • Reply
        December 21, 2014 at 10:53 pm

        Yes, I do. But I’m studying to “scan” with the X-E1 to give more justice to the lens and the camera (designed to just be a step lower than the F-1). The best lab I found gives me scans with zero contrast and scratches for the processing.

        • Reply
          December 21, 2014 at 10:56 pm

          You should write a post explaining your process when you’ve gotten it down.

          • Francis.R.
            December 21, 2014 at 11:05 pm

            I’ll do James, thanks for your support, your reviews gave me ground and data for my (sadly still scarce) film photography.

  • Reply
    Rob Moses Photography
    December 22, 2014 at 4:59 am

    Looks pretty good! I want that Olympics lens cap! 😀

    • Reply
      December 22, 2014 at 5:01 am

      The’yre pretty cool! I’d like to collect all the different years. They’re for sale on etsy.

  • Reply
    Randle P. McMurphy
    January 8, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    I start my career with a budget Canon AE 1 and some FD primes
    30 years ago. Sold all the Canon stuff and change to Nikon F3.
    Today all that gear is easy to get for a few bugs on Ebay and so
    I get a old Canon F1 with some of these beautiful build Canon FL
    lenses. Wow this is real workmanship like I used to know from Leica
    or these old Nikkor Pre-AI glass !!

    • Reply
      January 8, 2015 at 2:09 pm

      They really knew what they were doing, didn’t they? I’m glad you have reacquired those old gems.

  • Reply
    Randle P. McMurphy
    January 9, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Me too. I had some bad Times and I get fed up with taking pictures.
    Seems like I had lost something on the Way while my Profession.
    Then I remember my old Gear and reactivated film.
    Pictures now are out-of-Camera again and look real and not like
    a Photoshop Creation………..

  • Reply
    March 21, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    Very interesting post! I happen to own two cameras with this lens, the second being bought for spare parts. That second one has the lens with silver breech-lock ring and goes up to f/16, while my main one has the newer version. Which one would you say is likely to perform the best (assuming the older one is in working condition, of course)? I’d love to hear your opinion on this!

    • Reply
      March 21, 2015 at 4:33 pm

      Hi Julia! Thanks for the positive response.

      Both of your FD lenses will be about the same as far as optical performance is concerned.

      I should specify that some of the earlier FD lenses received a higher grade of optical coating (Super Spectra Coating) with some receiving only Spectra Coating.

      On the earlier lenses the coating used was sometimes specified on the front bezel, so if you look at the front of your lens it might say S.C. or S.S.C. If your earlier lens says S.C. it will have the same coating as the later lens, but if it says S.S.C. it will have an incrementally better optical coating. In this case, I’d say the earlier S.S.C. lens is of higher quality.

      The biggest difference between the two will be in their physical construction. The older lens will be heavier and larger, so if size is a concern it will probably be best to use the FDn as long as the earlier one isn’t an S.S.C. lens.

      The f16 vs f22 minimum aperture might be worth considering for some people, though in my experience these lenses are sharpest between f8 and f16, so I’m not sure f22 really means anything. Of course there are special situations where this extremely small aperture might be useful, but I’m not sure how common those situations will be.

      Hope I’ve been of some help!

      • Reply
        March 23, 2015 at 7:06 pm

        Hello again!

        The older lens is marked only with S.C. Though upon further inspection I found that it seems to be in a slightly better condition than my original one. The difference in weight really is noticeable, though! Like you, I find that I could do without the f22, and not miss it. I think I’ll have to shoot a film with each lens before I decide which one to keep and which one to sell off. Thank you so much for taking time to explain to someone less informed! You definitely were of help.

        All the best to you.

        • Reply
          March 23, 2015 at 7:41 pm

          My pleasure. Happy shooting!

  • Reply
    January 13, 2016 at 9:57 pm

    Hi hello, sorry for bumping this so late. Happy new year!

    I had found this gem of a post some months ago, and since then I bought myself a used e510 which I love, but I also noticed that I my dad kep some old fd lenses. I recently bought an adaptor to work with it, so please let me copy paste a message for another forum, in case you can help me! Again, thanx for the post!

    “Hello every1, and sorry to nag you with a true noobish question.

    I recently purchased a pixco adapter for canon FD to olympus 4/3 lenses, specifically

    It was a low cost investment so im not worried about what im asking you, since it didnt hit me hard on the wallet.

    In any case, I can clearly see that the lens is supposed to be macro only, but I was hoping (after reading a LOT of stuff on legacy lens, as well as after checking the no1 comment on amazon reviews on the same page), that I could use this adapter on an old canon FD 50mm f1.8 lens to my (newly purchased, second hand) e510, as a prime lens so I could take some nice bokeh protrait/close scene pics. Like a person 10 meters away from me.

    Now I now it’s not supposed to focus to infinity, but I was hoping that Id be able to use for 10m distance at least. I dont care about broad scene pics. I just mounted the adapter and then the lens, but unfortunately, I wasnt able to manually focus to a distance more than half a meter.

    On top of that, i am not sure how to adjust the aperture size on the lens’s ring. I try adjusting it to 1.8, taking a pic, then 22 and taking another pic, but they provide the same underexposed result. As is the aperture is not differentiating. Is it something I have to adjust pre-mounting? Cant I adjust it like manual focus does?

    Thanks for any feedback, Im clearly new to photography but I was hoping I could save some bucks and use the old lenses rather than buy “new” 4/3 primes.”

  • Reply
    March 20, 2016 at 4:15 am

    If the aperature won’t adjust you might have to play around with the little pins one engages the lock and it won’t adjust if its not touching the lock pin on the adapter. Try holding the spring loaded one and moving the other one and you will hear a little click and it should work properly again. You have to turn the adapter ring to “lock” too if it won’t work. If im confusing u I did see a you tube vid on reseting a fd lens

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