There are so many choices available whilst selecting your photography kit that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. As photographers are an ambitious & creative breed, this naturally means they’d like to take amazing photos of everything; which subsequently makes their desired equipment list quite extensive!
With every piece of photo-gear jostling for position on the ‘to-buy’ list it’s easy to forget an absolute essential: The classic 50mm lens.
If Carlsberg Made Lenses...
They’d probably only make 50mm lenses. Let's put it this way: Not owning a 50mm lens is probably the photographic equivalent of a deadly sin...
The 50mm focal length is simply an absolute classic. It became the standard lens, and a true favourite with photographers, since the first mass-market 35mm film camera was produced (the Leica L in 1925). So, what are the qualities that make 50mm lenses so special?
- ‘Fast’ wide-apertures, usually f1.8 or faster in the modern line-up
- Exceptional sharpness and contrast
- Minimal barrel or pincushion distortion
- Great value for money
Buying a 50mm lens opens up countless creative opportunities, especially for novice photographers when it’s their first prime lens; the standard 18-55mm or 28-80mm kit lens included with most SLRs isn’t necessarily the best option for enhancing your photography skills.
Improve Your Photography
Using a prime lens encourages you to think about composition because you have to rely on foot-zoom. After the initial learning curve (and possible shell-shock) of having no zoom, it becomes routine to head straight for the optimal working-distance & angle, and eventually great compositions become second nature.
The wide-aperture available with a 50mm lens is the second key benefit over kit lenses with a ‘slow’ f3.5-5.6 aperture. Using a wide-aperture allows you to achieve a shallow depth of field, which is perfect for isolating and drawing the viewer’s eye to your intended subject. Wide-apertures gather more light, making fast 50mm lenses perfect for situations where you can’t or don’t wish to use a flash.
Using a 50mm lens offers a huge advantage whilst learning fundamental photography skills. Having said that, even if you’ve owned a 50mm lens for ages, try rediscovering it by heading out for a photo session without any other lenses – it’s a refreshing experience!
50mm Lens Options
Remember the opening gambit about too many choices? Well the same feeling almost rings true about picking a 50mm lens, but luckily it boils down to what maximum aperture you need. If you’re planning to use your 50mm as a learning aid & casual portrait lens then opt for an f1.8 aperture, alternatively if you anticipate plenty of low-light photography then opt for a f1.2 or f1.4 lens.
Canon 50mm Lenses
- Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II Lens (approx £90, 52mm filter thread, weighs 130g)
- Canon EF 50mm f1.4 USM Lens (approx £295, 58mm filter thread, weighs 290g)
- Canon EF 50mm f1.2L USM Lens (approx £1300, 72mm filter thread, weighs 580g)
Nikon 50mm Lenses
- Nikon 50mm f1.8 D AF Lens* (approx £115, 52mm filter thread, weighs 155g)
- Nikon 50mm f1.4 D AF Lens* (approx £220, 52mm filter thread, weighs 230g)
- Nikon 50mm f1.4 G AF-S Lens (approx £290, 58mm filter thread, weighs 290g)
* Manual focus only with the Nikon D40/x, D60, D3000 and D5000. Fine for learning :)
More 50mm Lenses
- Sony 50mm f1.8 DT SAM Lens (approx £135, 49mm filter thread, weighs 170g)
- Sony 50mm f1.4 AF Lens (approx £285, 55mm filter thread, weighs 220g)
- Sigma 50mm f1.4 EX DG HSM Lens for Canon, Nikon, Pentax & Four Thirds
(approx £360, 77mm filter thread, weighs 520g)
50mm Lenses & Small Sensors
Using a 50mm lens on a digital SLR with an APS-C size sensor (a.k.a. cropped sensor) makes the field of view equivalent to approximately 75mm on a full-frame digital SLR or 35mm SLR camera. The crop factor makes a 50mm lens perfect for portraiture or still-life, but the framing might be too tight for group photos or cramped interiors. If you’d like to experience an equivalent 50mm field of view on a cropped-sensor digital SLR then try a 35mm lens.
Nikon photographers with a D40/x, D60, D3000 and D5000 may want to look at the Nikon 35mm f1.8 AF-S DX lens, it costs less than the 50mm AF-S and provides full autofocus (unlike the 50mm f1.8).
Typically 35mm prime lenses have a smaller maximum aperture and greater distortion than 50mm lenses, so don’t worry about picking a 35mm lens over a 50mm lens because of the field of view; the vast majority of photographers still thoroughly enjoy using their 50mm lens on an APS-C sensor digital SLR!
Great Photos taken with 50mm Lenses
Feel free to link to your best photos taken with a 50mm lens. All hail the Nifty Fifty!