Points in Focus Photography

Canon New FD 50mm f/1.8 Lens Review

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In 1979 Canon released the new FD 50mm f/1.8 with a list price of 22,000 yen (somewhere around $100 USD in 1979). It was the smallest, lightest, and cheapest of their 50mm primes, a situation that’s stunningly reminiscent of the current situation for EOS users, and like the current EF situation, the new FD 50mm f/1.8 was designed to be reasonably good at that price point.

I missed the FD cameras; I shot with my dad’s T90 on only a couple of occasions, and overall was never really interested in photography enough at the time to really care. By the time, I was serious about photography, manual focus was essentially dead, and film had been relegated to niche status, and FD lenses were an obsoleted thing of the past.

Compounding matters, manual focus never was something I was interested in, until I started shooting video. I understood the principals, but the lack of good focus aids in DSLRs made the experience kind of crappy. The short focus ring throws of AF lenses didn’t help manually focusing either.

Video of course, changes the game. It very nearly demands manual focusing for any kind of smooth intelligent looking focusing action. Combine that with the short focus throws of modern AF lenses, and you have a situation that while may not demand going back to old manual focus lenses, it certainly makes them worth looking at.

I’ve had access to FD lenses for a while, just nothing to use them on. That problem was solved for me when I finally got my hands on a mirrorless camera. In my case an EOS M, but any of the mirrorless cameras will work, including the new full frame Sony A7 and A7R. With an adaptable mount, and an inexpensive adapter, it’s now possible for me to start going back to look at some of these old lenses and seeing if they’re worth bothering with. First of those on my list is the new Canon FD 50mm f/1.8.

50 mm
f/1.8–22
Canon FD

Build, Controls, and UX

6 oz.
1.38 x 2.48∅ in.
Plastic
Metal

At this point in time, a new FD 50mm f/1.8 will be at least 20 years old, assuming you can find one that hasn’t been used. Mine is used, though it was treated well. The larger point, however, is that the quality of various lenses will be much wider than with currently in production lenses, or even recently out of production ones.

The new FD 50mm f/1.8 is built like a contemporary of its time. Even though majority of the lens is made out of plastic, and more overtly so than some modern lenses, the lens carries a density and heft that’s often missing in today’s AF lenses. A lot of that comes down to the simple fact that there’s no wasted space inside the lens. There’s no AF unit, no image stabilizer, no CPU controlled electronic diaphragm. There’s glass, an aperture, and a focusing helicoid packed into a package that’s 2.5-inches in diameter, and 1.4-inches in length (64mm x 35mm) that weighs in at a mere 6oz (170g).

The overall fit and finish is what you’d expect from what was then, as it’s EF successor is today, the most entry level of entry level lenses. There’s no special finish on the few areas of plastic that aren’t either a knurled ring of some sort or covered in information, nor is there weather sealing, or any other special features.

The front of the lens is threaded for standard 52mm screw in filters. The filter rings are threaded into the inner lens barrel that extends when focusing but doesn’t rotate, so filter alignment is retained.

The inner barrel is also designed to accept a BS-52 lens hood. The BS-52 is a regular circular (not pedal) hood that mounts via a bayonet type arrangement. Of course buying a new BS-52 hood is impossible, and the running prices on Ebay look to be about $43—considering that the lens is only worth about that much, spending that on a hood doesn’t seem like a good deal to me. If you’re sourcing a FD 50mm f/1.8 and want a hood, I would look at the generic rubber screw-in ones that run $5-7 instead.

The largest feature on the exterior of the lens is the focus ring, as expected for a manual focus lens. Overall, the ring is 5/8ths of an inch wide, including 3/8ths inch of knurled grip and the remaining 1/4-inch is the distance scale.

As one would expect form a manual focus lens, the design and function of the focusing ring are superb. The motion is buttery smooth, and the throw is comparably long at almost 180 degrees. Also as to be expected from MF lenses, the infinity and minimum focus distance positions are hard stops not the soft bump and continuous turning of full time manual autofocus lenses.

The distance and depth of field scale is nothing short of what you’d expect from a manual focus lens as well. Distance scales are something of a pet peeve with me. Their functionality has been greatly reduced over the years, as autofocus lenses have become more prevalent. Yet instead of stepping up and either removing them completely, or updating them to regain their old utility though the use of some digital technology, the camera manufactures persist in putting near useless distance scales on their AF lenses.

How so, you might ask. Well let’s take a tour of the distance sale on the FD 50mm f/1.8.

The business side of the new fd 50mm f1.8, showing focus ring, ditsance scale, and aperture ring.
The business side of the new FD 50mm f/1.8, showing the focus ring, ditsance scale, and aperture ring.

The scale consists of two bands; on the focusing ring are the actual measurements in feet (green) and meters (white). Below it is the corresponding focus indicator and depth of field indicators.

If you want to scale focus, you simply align the central mark with the desired distance. If you’re not sure what aperture you need, you can use the aperture marks to see what aperture gets you what distances in focus. If you want to focus at the hyperfocal distance, you simply align the right aperture mark with the infinity stop and you’re done.

Compare that to a modern AF lens, you can still scale focus, but most lenses don’t even have aperture marks on them anymore, and in many cases they’re so close together from the shortened distance scales that they’re unusable anyway.

Anyway, moving along the lens, immediately behind the depth of field marks is the aperture ring. The FD 50/1.8 has click stops at each of the half stop settings. If being used on a FD camera with auto-exposure functionality, the A position puts the lens in auto aperture mode (which results in the camera being effectively in either shutter priority or program AE modes).

The only confusing aspect about the aperture ring is the first 1-1/3 stop position (though this might be simply because I don’t have a manual for the lens). In the first position there’s a 1-1/3 stop difference between the two end-points (f/1.8 and f/2.8), what not clear to me is whether the middle click is at f/2, f/2.2, or f/2.4.

The one complaint I have with the aperture ring is that it’s kind of hard to turn. I don’t know if this is specific to my lens, the way I’m using it (on an EOS M) or something more general with these lenses. There’s not a whole lot of room to grasp the ring, and while it’s ribbed, I find that even with the ribbing my fingers sometimes slip or feel like they’re about to slip while turning the aperture ring. Also I’ve noticed in my lens that there’s a small but distinct difference in tension between stopping down and opening up, with opening up requiring more force.

Optical Performance

The new FD 50mm f/1.8 isn’t the most stellar lens I’ve seen, though it’s solid enough. However, it’s important to remember that it was designed at a time that required different tradeoffs to modern lenses. Absolute resolving power wasn’t nearly as important with film as controlling distortion, chromatic aberrations, and vignetting was. With modern digital systems, most of those problems can be processed out of the images after the fact.

All that said, 50mm double gauss lenses are a very old well understood design, and barring major issues, even a late-70s design should perform relatively good even against modern designs. One place the lens definitely loses out is in the coatings department—not that the EF 50mm f/1.8 II is a bastion of high tech coatings power either. The chemistry and application of even the simpler coatings has definitely advanced since the late 70s and early 80s.

My optical testing is somewhat limited, both due to shooting circumstances, and due to using the lens on a crop body, which removes the most problematic areas of the frame. That said, I did a quick slant SRF resolution test with this lens versus the EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM kit lens at approximately 50mm. I only looked at central resolution. Processing was done with MITRE’s SFR program.

Looking at an SFR at 10% contrast as a comparison point, the FD 50mm f/1.8 put up 88cycles/mm at f/1.8 and 102cycles/mm at f/5, and the EF-M 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM put up 102 cycles/mm at f/5.

Now a word of caution, I’m not using Immatest to generate these numbers and the testing is not nearly as exact or scientific as I’d like it to be. I don’t think they can be reasonably compared to any other lens tests, they’re merely put up as a point of illustration—at least until I sort out a proper resolution testing scheme.

That said, I think one conclusion can be safely drawn from them, which is that the FD 50mm f/1.8 performs about on par with the 18-55mm kit lens at the same aperture, though obviously it can open up 3 stops on the EF-M zoom.

Distortion seems well controlled, though getting that right on a 50mm prime isn’t something that’s especially unexpected. Vignetting isn’t really worth discussing, since I can’t test the full frame corners. Likewise, I’ll have to leave chromatic aberrations until I have a suitable way to test it.

Flare and ghosting performance is okay at best. In my limited testing in studio flares are blue colored and quite noticeable if the source is in the frame. If the source is just out of the frame, it tends to color the opposite corner of the frame bluish.

Bokeh is fairly decent wide open, with out of focus areas being rendered nice enough. Stopping down the 5-bladed aperture starts to turn circular highlights into pentagonal ones, which I don’t find especially nice, though admittedly that’s common on this class of lens.

Video Performance

Breaths

Now we get to the meat of why I’m even bothering with these old lenses, video.

The first optical performance feature I want to look at is breathing. Breathing is caused by changes in the apparent focal length that cause the composition to change as the focus is being pulled. What you want to look for is whether objects near the edges of the frame move towards or away from the edge (or even out of the frame completely) as focus is pulled.

With respect to breathing the FD 50mm f/1.8 does surprisingly well. I suspect this is largely due to the old style overall extension focusing system that doesn’t shuffle elements around to focus. The crop factor doesn’t hurt in this test either, as I’ve noticed the sweet spot effect of crop sensors also helps reduce the magnitude of breathing some.

Breathing test, Canon new FD 50mm f/1.8 on EOS M.

I’ve already spoken at length about the length of throw for the focus ring, at 180° it’s shorter than standard 300° found on almost all cinematography lenses. The hard stops mean that the lens will work with good repeatability with a follow focuses. That said, since it’s a still lens, it’s not geared, so it will need a geared ring to be used with a follow focus.

That said, there’s one special concern with adapting the FD 50mm f/1.8 to a smaller mount, and that’s the precision of the mount adapter. My FD to EOS M mount adapter is slightly shorter than the required 26mm, and as a result, the infinity stop is actually focused past infinity. On a cine-lens like the Zeiss compact primes, or the Canon CN-E primes, the mount is designed to be shimmed to find tune the register, that’s not the case with either the FD still lenses or the cheap mount adapter I’m using. Shimming the mount adapter for the lens is an option if you’re willing to buy a mount adapter for every lens you adapt (not necessarily a bad idea), but can quickly become problematic if the required shimming pushes another lens past the designed register.

The aperture ring could be better as well. The default ring is a still lens design, with click stops at every full and half position from f/1.8 to f/22. The clicks are created using a small metal cylinder under spring pressure rolling over bumps in a plastic ring. The lens can be de-clicked, but doing so does require disassembly of the lens, though you don’t have to muck with any of the optical alignment in the process.

Conclusions

In the end, I think you’d be crazy to buy one of these lenses to use as a fast prime on just about anything modern. As a still lens, it’s nothing to write home about. The image quality has been eclipsed by modern lens designs and materials. Sure the long buttery smooth focus ring is nice, but that and having to shoot stop down metering is more of a strike against the FD lens than the short focus ring is for a AF alternative.

Then there are the questions of mounting it.

Mounting it on an EOS body is possible, though the adapter must have optics to retain infinity focus and between cost of the lens and adapter you’re almost at the price of an EF 50mm f/1.8 II—even though I don’t really care for that lens.

Mounting it on a mirrorless body, such as the EOS M is another option. On a crop camera, body the field of view cropping needs to be considered pushing the lens out to being equivalent to an 80mm lens on a full frame sensor. At the same time, the conversion process can be both a nicety and a liability. The nice side is that if you are so inclined you can shim or otherwise adjust the adapter to be spot on for with the lens. On the other hand, the adapter is the liability.

In the end, the new FD 50mm f/1.8 is not something I’d actively seek out to buy now. The lens is nothing special; it’s neither superbly sharp, nor does it have any outstanding contrast or other rendering characteristics that make for a special image. Never mind it runs used for around $50, and adding an adapter for another $25, puts you most of the way towards a 50mm lens on whatever platform you’re adapting it to.

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