Loxia 50mm F2.0 vs Sony 55mm F1.8 (or AF vs MF)

I've recently had a chance to use the Loxia 50mm F2.0 for a few weeks on my A7II.

I've always wondered what the value proposition of this lens was. The Loxia is priced slightly higher than the awesome 55mm F1.8, yet the Loxia is manual focus only, it's slightly slower at F2.0, and slightly heavier too. The claimed advantages are better 3D pop and micro-contrast, yet the bokeh is generally regarded not as good as the 55mm Sony Zeiss (which I agree with, in some situations it appears nervous and distracting).

Having now used both of these lenses for over a few months, I think image quality-wise they're fairly comparable. Both are great lenses and produce fantastic results, when you nail the shot. Sure, the 55 may be slightly sharper wide open, and the Loxia slightly richer color rendition in specific situations, but it's really hard to say one is overall better than the other. Both produce very pleasing photos.

The key point is being able to 'nail the shot', which translates to manual focus vs. auto-focus. This is stating the obvious, but if you're trying to decide between these two lenses (or between any two AF vs. MF mostly equivalent lenses), this is the main thing you need to consider.

Now some will tell you that manual focus on the A7 series is easy, because you have focus peeking and auto magnification. These features do help, but only to some extent.

The auto-magnification can be useful, but it's distracting, because you'll get a 5x zoom on your focus region (defaults to the center of the frame), which means if you're trying to frame anything where the focus point is not in the center, you'll have issues. You'll need to either focus and recompose (which will make you loose the critical focus anyway when shooting wide-open and close), or you can move the focus zoom region to off-center using the d-pad, which takes time. Now it comes down to what you're shooting. If it's static objects or scenes, you can live with this. If it's portraits of people that want their picture taken, you can probably live with this. If it's candid shots, or kids, or anything that won't stay perfectly still for more than 5 seconds, forget about it.

So if you're shooting moving targets where you don't have time to fiddle around with the magnification, you can disable that and just use focus peeking, which is still a pretty useful feature. However, focus peeking has a key disadvantage too: it's contrast detection only. So focus peeking will highlight the high contrast regions that are in focus, but not necessarily the most in-focus part of a scene. For example, if trying to take a portrait, focus peeking may highlight the hairline or ears of your subject, but may not detect the eyes at all, even when the eyes are in focus. So you'll end up having to try and estimate a little: overshoot and get the focus peeking on the ears, then undershoot and get the peeking on the nose or not at all, then rotate again to somewhere in-between those two points and hit the shutter hoping for the best.

This works ok to some extent, and with practice you can probably do it almost as fast as auto-focus on mostly stationary targets. On moving targets... maybe with more practice... and if you get good at zone focusing so you can predict where your target is going to be in advance... and you have a little luck on your side... and stop down a little more to get more of the scene in focus... again it comes down to what you're shooting. If you want to shoot close-up'ish portraits where you nail the eye focus, it will generally be hard, and you need to accept you'll have more misses than you would with a good AF lens.

You could also rely on hyperfocal distance shooting, where you stop-down to say F11 and anything roughly between 2m to infinity is 'acceptably' in-focus. Now 'acceptably' is not really acceptable for me. I tried this for a few days, but for me, I just don't like it when the subject of my photos is not tack sharp: why bother with an awesome lens, awesome camera, etc, just to produce something that looks blurry. I know this method has it's uses in street photography, shoot-from-the-hip, and other artistic endeavors, but it's not my cup of tea. Also, if I'm going to stop-down to F11... then I don't need an F2 lens. There are much better/smaller options for that sort of thing.

Now MF itself is a cool feature in that it makes the shooting experience more rewarding. Having to fight for that good shot, and having to put up with the misses, makes it more exciting when you do finally nail it. This again comes down to what (and why) you're shooting. If the act of taking photos is a significant part of the reward for you, then MF can be a plus. If it's more about the end results, however, then it can be a significant minus.

Another disadvantage of MF is that you'll (probably) be the sole photographer able to wield the camera. What I mean is, if you're at a family event or party or gathering, or even just travelling with your SO, you'll be the only one able to use the camera properly to take good photos. You won't be on the other side where you give the camera to a waiter or uncle or random tourist to take a photo of you + SO. Unless of course you have some spare lenses with you and don't mind swapping all the time, which is another minor inconvenience with the Loxia: the aperture ring is really close to the mount, and it's unnecessarily frustrating to actually remove and mount this lens.

To sum up, if the Loxia was AF, it would be pretty hard to choose between it and the 55mm. Maybe the better build, slight size advantage, and better color rendition would swing it slightly in it's favor, though that's arguable too. Without AF though, the Loxia is just a much much less flexible lens. It can still produce great results, but it requires more dedication, patience and commitment, and more tolerance to missed shots and missed shooting opportunities.

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