The Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS does well in most of these areas, with pleasing bokeh, very little distortion, minimal chromatic aberration, and extremely sharp performance—especially from f/4 through f/8. It's a bit soft in the corners from f/1.8 to f/2.8, but the center and partway (50% from center) performance is strong throughout.
When Sony's mirrorless system debuted back in 2010, it was ripe with promise. Here we had a new system that squeezed DSLR-sized image sensors into ultra-thin bodies far lighter than anything you could get from Nikon or Canon. The NEX-3 and NEX-5 weren’t perfect, but they showed that “mirrorless” didn't necessarily have to mean “compromise.”
Unfortunately, cameras are just the start; you need the lenses to back them up, and that’s where Sony faltered. It took the company several years to catch up to the competition in terms of lens selection, and even today it continues to lag slightly.
But whatever its limitations, Sony's system includes its fair share of gems. Case in point: The Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS (MSRP $299.99) is the best affordable E-mount prime lens Sony has produced to date, and the only stabilized 50mm f/1.8 on the market. It’s not as cheap as the 50mm f/1.8 lenses you’ll find for Canon or Nikon, but in some ways it’s arguably better.
Since it was designed for use on Sony's NEX and entry-level A-series cameras, the E 50mm f/1.8 OSS lens actually behaves more like a 75mm f/1.8 lens. That makes it an ideal candidate for portraiture, since it will hone in a little tighter on subjects than what your eyes naturally see, but doesn't magnify your subject so much that it will unnaturally compress their features.
The f/1.8 maximum aperture blurs away backgrounds, helping your subject's face stand out from their surroundings. Combined with the built-in optical image stabilization (OSS), it's also makes this lens an excellent choice for shooting in dim light, where you'll be able to use slower shutter speeds and avoid ramping up the ISO sensitivity setting.
Add it all up and you get an excellent portrait lens that's useful in a wide variety of other shooting situations where you want a little extra telephoto reach. It’s not quite long enough for sports and wildlife photography, but the 50mm f/1.8 OSS can grab great shots of distant landscapes, street shots, and impromptu group shots if you have enough room to back up.
While this lens can be mounted on Sony's full-frame A7-series cameras, they will default to the lower-resolution APS-C crop shooting mode to prevent vignetting. While we haven't tested the lens on an A7 body in full-frame mode, everything we've seen suggests that it vignettes heavily on an uncropped full-frame sensor.
A lens's sharpness is its ability to render the finest details in photographs. In testing a lens, we consider sharpness across the entire frame, from the center of your images out to the extreme corners, using an average that gives extra weight to center performance. We quantify sharpness using line widths per picture height (LW/PH) at a contrast of MTF50.
The Sony 50mm f/1.8, like many fast fifties, provides very strong center sharpness right from f/1.8 and through to the diffraction limit. It kicks off at 1,950 lines at f/1.8 and tops out around 2,340 lines at f/4 and f/5.6. The corners hit just 1,075 lines at f/1.8, but quickly improve to around 1,525 lines at f/4 and peak around 1,875 lines at f/5.6 and f/8.
Of course, many lenses are sharp in the center and soft in the corners wide open. But the Sony 50mm f/1.8 is also quite good in the midway sections. At f/1.8, these regions average about 1,510 lines, but by f/2.8 that's up to 1,775 lines. That trend continues, peaking at 2,200 lines at f/5.6. The performance drops across the board at f/11, as sharpness is limited by diffraction from there on out.
We penalize lenses for distortion when they bend or warp images, causing normally straight lines to curve.
There are two primary types of distortion: When the center of the frame seems to bulge outward toward you, that’s barrel distortion. It's typically a result of the challenges inherent in designing wide-angle lenses. When the center of the image looks like it's being sucked in, that’s pincushion distortion. Pincushion is more common in telephoto lenses. A third, less common variety (mustache distortion) produces wavy lines.
Like most 50mm primes, the Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS does a good job of keeping distortion to a minimum. In our lab tests, we only detected about 0.57% of pincushion distortion. That's well below the 2% threshold where it becomes truly problematic, and it's barely visible in most shots.
While it’s a little pricier than the 50mm f/1.8 lenses from Nikon and Canon, Sony’s E-mount 50mm f/1.8 seems to be built to a higher standard. Its all-metal construction feels more durable and substantial, even though the end product is still quite lightweight.
Like most of Sony’s lenses, the 50mm f/1.8 OSS doesn't offer much in the way of physical controls—there’s not even a switch to toggle between manual focus and autofocus. Instead, everything has to be done through the camera’s menu system. One nice side effect, however, is that you get access to Sony’s excellent focus peaking system for manual focus assistance.
Peaking is an absolute necessity, because the manual focus action is extremely loose and light. It’s a focus-by-wire system, which means it should respond to the slightest movement, but it often feels like you have to turn the lens quite a bit before it’ll register changes. This makes manual focus a real chore. Luckily, the autofocus motor is smooth and relatively quiet, and Sony's DMF focus mode lets you override autofocus if you want to make a quick adjustment once it's gotten a lock.
While the Sony 50mm f/1.8 OSS features a lovely all-metal build and reasonable price, that wouldn't mean anything if its images didn't deliver. To figure out how it stacks up, we put it through our usual battery of lab tests and took it out for some quality time in the real world.
In the lab, Sony's 50mm f/1.8 proved itself to be sharp in the center from the get-go, though near the edges fine details are a bit blurred at f/1.8. As you close down the aperture, however, these problem areas begin to improve. By f/4, sharpness is superb across the board—a performance profile similar to what we've seen from 50mm f/1.8 primes in other systems.
Our sample photos bore this out. The level of detail is excellent for the price, and with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 it's easy to get sharp, blur-free images even in dim lighting. At f/1.8 you also get a lovely shallow depth of field effect, which throws your backgrounds out of focus and beautifully isolates your subject.
Even at f/2.8 (as you can see above) the bokeh is quite nice, falling smoothly away from the point of focus and making the motorcycle's speedometer jump out from the suspension and handlebars behind it. The bokeh isn't overly busy or jittery, unlike what you'd get from some similar lenses. Overall, it's a strong performance, making this lens a good choice for portraits and low light photography.
Below you can see sample photos taken with the Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS mounted on a Sony A6000. Click the link below each photo to download the full-resolution image.
Chromatic aberration refers to the various types of “fringing” that can appear around high contrast subjects in photos—like leaves set against a bright sky. The fringing is usually either green, blue, or magenta and while it’s relatively easy to remove the offensive color with software, it can also degrade image sharpness.
Just as it does with distortion, the Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS keeps chromatic aberration to a bare minimum. Though it varies slightly as you move through the aperture range, CA never rises above the "minor" level and hardly ever makes it out of the "insignificant" range. Wherever it does appear (typically toward the corners in high-contrast scenes), it's very easy to correct with photo editing software.
Bokeh refers to the quality of the out of focus areas in a photo. It's important for a lens to render your subject with sharp details, but it's just as important that the background not distract from the focus of your shot.
While some lenses have bokeh that's prized for its unique characteristics, most simply aim to produce extremely smooth backgrounds. In particular, photographers prize lenses that can produce bokeh with circular highlights that are free of aspherical distortion (or “coma”).
Both in and out of the lab, we were impressed by the Sony 50mm f/1.8's bokeh. In most scenes, the combination of the 50mm (75mm effective) focal length and f/1.8 maximum aperture is enough to create marked separation between your subject and the background; the lens renders these areas in a buttery smooth way.
Very busy backgrounds (chain link fence, tree leaves) can give this lens minor fits, but in most shots the background will just melt away. That's what you'd hope for from a good portrait lens, and Sony's delivers. One word of caution, though: If you've got points of light in the background, they'll take on a slightly ovid form if they're located near the edges of the frame.
While Sony has never had a problem producing competitively priced high-performance mirrorless cameras, it has struggled to match the lens selection provided by the likes of Olympus, Panasonic, and Fujifilm. Worse, Sony’s zoom-centric roster—while appealing to graduating point-and-shoot users—doesn't take full advantage of the raw performance its superb mirrorless cameras can offer.
Released a few years back, the Sony E 50mm f/1.8 OSS remains the brand's most affordable path to get at that excellent image quality. Well-built, very sharp, and featuring optical image stabilization, this is the best sub-$500 E-mount lens you can buy. It'll certainly offer substantially better performance than the zoom that came with your camera, albeit with less flexibility.
The only serious drawback here is the finicky focus-by-wire system, which still feels too imprecise for my tastes. It’s also worth noting that while you can mount this on full-frame Sony cameras like the A7 Mark II, it won’t cover the whole sensor, so it’s only truly suited for cameras like the A6000 and A5100. If that's the kind of camera you own, this is the first lens I would buy.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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