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.
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.
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?
[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.