In the world of prime lenses, there is maybe no focal length that is more talked about than 50mm, its popularity arising from its versatility. Being just about wide enough and just about long enough for many different areas of photography. Often a cheap nifty fifty is one of the first lenses in a new photographer's kit bag.
Sony has introduced the new Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 as a replacement for the aging Zeiss Planar T* FE 50mm f/1.4 ZA lens in their medium distance prime lens lineup. Originally released in July 2016, the Zeiss lens is known for its clinical sharpness, bokeh capabilities, and its solid high-quality build. Although the Zeiss wasn't without its flaws, it was a large heavy lens, with a large price tag to match.
The new Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 GM lens joins Sony's growing family of fast f/1.4 prime G Master lenses, which so far includes the FE 24mm f1.4 GM, the FE 35mm f/1.4 GM, and the FE 85mm f/1.4 GM lenses. These lenses share a common build quality, design aesthetic, and technologies, and with the addition of the 50mm, Sony now offers photographers a choice of primes for all common standard focal lengths.
As Sony seemingly moves away from its partnership with Zeiss to make more G Master lenses, can it carry the traits that made the Zeiss 50mm so special into its new form?
Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 GM Specifications
Mount: Sony FE
Full frame: Yes
Image stabilization: No
Lens construction: 14 elements in 11 groups
Diaphragm blades: 11
Aperture: f/1.4 - f/16
Minimum focusing distance: 0.45m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.15x
Filter size: 67mm
Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 GM Key features
The Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 GM uses internal focusing, so the lens dimensions will not change during use, this is especially useful to know if you plan on using filters. The lens autofocus is driven by two linear XD motors, which should achieve fast and silent autofocus. Sony has claimed autofocus is 1.9x faster than the previous Zeiss model.
The lens construction is built using 14 elements in 11 groups. There is one ED element to suppress color aberrations and distortion. There are two XA (extreme aspherical) elements, which suppress onion ring effects in bokeh balls. Finally, a Nano AR II coating works to reflect internal reflections, reducing flares and ghosting.
The lens has been designed with an 11-blade aperture, with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 and the minimum aperture is f/16. This should ensure a very round bokeh and smooth even falloff. The lens also has a 0.45m minimum focus with a 0.15x magnification.
Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 GM Build and handling
The Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 GM makes a significant improvement in size and weight over its predecessor, weighing 516g, it is a third lighter than Zeiss's hefty 780g. Even the Sony FE 50mm f/1.2 GM comes in slightly under the beast of the Zeiss at 778g. And in the world of third-party lenses, the very well-received, but much older Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens weighs a whopping 880g.
The lens is made of a hybrid of metal and plastic, a design seen on the other GM lenses, and continues to be dust and moisture-resistant. This is a great design, it is compact and light, when mounted on the Sony A7R V it is nicely balanced and it does not feel overly front-heavy. It definitely looks like part of the Sony G Master family.
There is the usual array of buttons from a GM lens, with two customizable buttons, and an autofocus and manual focus switch. The focus ring is large, with a nice grippy texture. The lens has an optional manual aperture ring for those that desire it, with a lockable iris, so it doesn't accidentally slip during operation. The aperture dial also has the option to click or not with a separate switch, which is important for videographers maintaining silence during recording.
Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 GM Performance
The autofocus on this lens is exceptional, paired with the Sony A7R V autofocus was instantaneous, I tried to make the lens hunt for focus several times and it beat me every single attempt. The autofocus is also completely silent, so is the perfect companion for event photographers and especially videographers.
The image quality is spectacular, the sharpness in the center of the image is perfect, and this was using all 61MP of the A7R V's sensor. Sharpness does fall off slightly toward the edges of the photo but not severely enough to be an issue. The detail captured in faces especially was really good, although not overly clinical, which is key for portrait work.
Bokeh and falloff are both beautiful for smooth creamy backgrounds, this lens would make an exceptional portrait lens. Chromatic aberrations are nearly nonexistent even in challenging situations like backlit tree branches.
The biggest issue I found was the vignetting was quite significant when the lens was wide open, this was reduced as the lens was stopped down, but was still visible even at around f/4. This is a common issue with wide-aperture lenses like this and is not significantly worse than rival lenses in my experience.
Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 GM Lab results
We run a range of lab tests under controlled conditions, using the Imatest Master testing suite. Photos of test charts are taken across the range of apertures and zooms (where available), then analyzed for sharpness, distortion and chromatic aberrations.
We use Imatest SFR (spatial frequency response) charts and analysis software to plot lens resolution at the center of the image frame, corners and mid-point distances, across the range of aperture settings and, with zoom lenses, at four different focal lengths. The tests also measure distortion and color fringing (chromatic aberration).
As we've come to expect from Sony's G-Master lenses, outright center sharpness is simply spectacular. The FE 50mm f/1.4 GM is one of the sharpest lenses we've ever tested, even wide open at f/1.4 - a stunning optical achievement. The only weak(ish) link if we're nit-picking is corner sharpness, which is a bit more average until you stop down to f/4.
Lateral chromatic aberration is extremely well controlled. You'll be hard pressed to spot any unless you scrutinise the corners of a high-contrast image shot with a narrow aperture.
Disabling in-camera distortion correction reveals a touch of pincushion distortion, but it's minor enough to go unnoticed in almost all photos.
Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 GM Verdict
The Sony FE 50mm f/1.4 GM is an exceptional lens for anyone who enjoys the 50mm perspective but doesn't want the added size, weight, and cost of the FE 50mm f/1.2 GM. With excellent sharpness and fantastic bokeh. There is some vignetting wide open that let down the otherwise glowing report card. There are so many uses for this versatile focal length, and it is definitely a lens that can be left on your camera for a moment's notice.
Unfortunately, the downside is the lens is expensive, with much cheaper options out there that will achieve similar visual results. However, few that share quite the same size and weight, lightning-fast autofocus, and solid moisture-resistant construction that this lens offers.
For more on the latest from Sony, you can check out our guides to the best Sony cameras, the best Sony lenses, and for one of Sony's most enduringly popular cameras, the best lenses for the Sony A7 III.