3 Reasons the “Nifty Fifty” Is the Second Thing to Buy

In Gear, Photo Basics by Jeremiah Gilbert62 Comments

2nd Lens

A 50mm f/1.8 should be a beginner's 2nd lens

So you’ve picked up your first DSRL along with a kit lens. You’ve been playing with the features, getting to know the camera and the lens. Now you’re starting to think about what to buy next. A lot of advice tells you to invest in lenses, but which one should you start with? If you look into many professional photographer’s bags, you’ll come across the answer—a 50mm prime lens.

With all of the choices out there (wide-angle, telephoto, macro), why should you pick up a 50mm and why should it be the second thing you buy? There are several reasons.

Reason #1: Training Your Eye
A 50mm lens comes the closest to capturing what you eye naturally sees, so many beginning photographers find it a good training lens. Keep in mind though, that if you have a crop camera, such as a Nikon D5300 or a Canon 70D, then it is the 35mm lens that is roughly equivalent to 50mm on a full-frame camera (a 50mm lens is still a GREAT choice for a crop). The reason this is a good focal length to train your eye is that there is nothing to get used to. If, without a camera, you need to get closer to something to get a better look at it, you’d do the same with a 50mm lens (or equivalent) mounted on your camera. Likewise, if you need to back up to see something more fully, you’d be doing the same with a 50mm lens. Having a fixed focal length also requires you to spend a little more time composing each shot, which is never a bad thing.

Reason #2: Shallow Depth of Field
When you see a portrait, for instance, that has a softly blurred background behind the subject, this is caused by using a shallow depth of field. This can be achieved by using a low f-stop on the lens. However, your kit lens probably only goes down to about f/3.5, whereas a truly shallow depth of field begins around f/2.8. While you can find lenses out there such as Nikon’s 24-70mm f/2.8, which offers a good focal range and can produce a shallow depth of field, it’s also around $1800. For around $200, you can buy a 50mm f/1.8 lens (or 35mm f/1.8 for crop cameras) that will provide some excellent shallow depth of field. Working with shallow depth of field also requires developing accuracy with focus, which is an added bonus that will benefit all of your photography.

Reason #3: Versatility
A wide-angle lens (less than 35mm) is perfect for landscape photography, but you wouldn’t want to use one for taking portraits as it can cause unwanted distortion. Likewise, telephoto lenses (200-300mm) are excellent choices for photographing wildlife or sporting events, but not so good when shooting street photography where you may not want to draw attention to yourself. A 50mm lens, on the other hand, is excellent at portrait, street, and landscape photography. You can keep this lens on your camera all day and rarely find a situation where you wished you had a different lens. It is also lightweight and fast at focusing, making it an overall pleasurable experience.

Conclusion
A 50mm lens is often referred to as a “nifty fifty” because it is so versatile and easy to use. It is also an inexpensive investment that promises to improve your photography without weighing down your camera or your bag. It is a lens you can shoot with all day or easily keep tucked away when needed.  A 50mm prime (the word photographers use when you are talking about a lens that doesn't change in focal length or “zoom”) is probably the cheapest way to dramatically improve the image quality of your photos – at least compared with the quality from the lens that came with your camera, often called a “kit” lens.  It should be the second major investment you make as you start out with your photography.  Fair warning though, it will be the gateway to wanting good quality zoom lenses that are far more expensive.

Update December 2014: Make sure to check out the comments below for some good questions and answers related to this topic.


About the Author

Jeremiah Gilbert

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Jeremiah Gilbert is a college professor, photographer, and avid traveler. His first love is landscape photography, though he also enjoys urban exploration and street photography. Through his work with models, both in studio and on location, he has been internationally published in both digital and print publications. His blog, photo portfolio, and travel tales can be found at www.jeremiahgilbert.com.

Comments

  1. I have a question for clarification. For a crop sensor camera; D5200, D7100, 70D, T5; should we get a:
    1) 50mm lens
    or
    2) a 35mm that is equivalant to a 55mm on a crop sensor

    1. A 35mm on a crop camera is approx the same as a 50mm on a full frame, so the answer to your question would be a 35mm.

    2. For a crop sensor, you would take the 35mm.
      This will give you more or less the same view as a 50mm on a full frame.
      (This being said, a 50mm on a crop sensor is great to take portrait pictures 😉 )

    3. Yes, according to the article the 35mm on a crop sensor is the equivalent as the 50mm on a full frame.
      You could get the 50mm for your crop sensor camera and still get great photos. Depends on what you’re trying to shoot. When I used the 50mm/crop sensor camera for indoor portraits in a small room there was some difficulty getting good composition. I was in a coffee shop. Lots of tables/patrons to maneuver around.
      It’s still a great lens. It’s worth the $$$. Coming from a kit lens it showed me how much crisper my shots could be.

    4. Hey there Nathan, I am the Hobbyist Editor here at improvephotography.com and wanted to address your question very directly. The purpose of this article was to suggest that as a beginner gets more comfortable with their camera and understanding the exposure triangle, their image quality can only go so far with the kit lens (sometimes two of them) that come with the camera. Therefore, the second thing that a beginner should purchase to really get a feel for what good glass (lenses) can do for image quality would be to invest in a 50mm prime lens. The focal length of 50mm is not the point for the recommendation, it is the quality to price ratio. It is about the most economical way to put a high quality lens on your camera to see the difference. It won’t be the highest of quality possible (takes a lot more investment). It won’t be a solution to every shooting situation. But you can make a very small investment and see significant differences. So yes, I would recommend a 50mm prime for your crop sensor body as well. See what a difference a good lens can make in your shooting. Soon enough you will have $2,500 lenses on your wish list.

    5. Nathan,
      I’d recommend the 35mm if you want the benefit of the focal length matching the eye’s focal length. I find this a good crop lens for street photography, for instance. I’d use a 50mm on a crop camera for portraits, as this gives you an equivalence of 75-80mm.

    6. I think newer photographers are getting very confused in this area. Unless you have shot on a full frame, comparing the full frame field of view to what a particular lens will view as on a crop sensor isn’t really important. I have a crop sensor body with a non crop sensor 50mm 1.8 lens. 50mm on the kit lens is the same view as the non DX AF-S 50mm 1.8G (Nikon) on the crop sensor body. If you want to see what a 50mm lens will view on your crop body, just turn your kit lens to 50mm. Then you can also turn your zoom kit lens to 35 and see what it looks like then as 35mm. A non crop sensor lens has the same field of view on a crop sensor body as a crop sensor lens.

    7. Please, note that 35mm will always be 35mm and either the 50mm.
      When people say that the 50mm is more similar to human eye, They are comparing things like distortions.
      You can find good videos on youtube explaining this. But I can resume as:

      Long lens will enlarge the image and compress the background, making it seen like it’s closer, also the background seems to get bigger and it’s harder to tell whats there when it’s out of focus (bokeh).

      Wide lens will make things seem a bit finner, the background seems to be more distant.

      This is a fast resume. There is a lot talking about it.

      Anyway, 35mm is 35mm and 50mm is 50mm. But 35mm is similar to 50mm, not equal; and the crop factor of the croped sensors crop the image too. So with a 35mm you will have a 35mm with the effects of a 35mm but croped to the center, so the angle of view is similar to a 55mm.

      You can go either with 50mm or 35mm. They are similar,
      The 50mm is more human eye like, but will have a little angle of view.

      1. Natural vision is actually closer to 43mm which is kinda between 35-50 so either one on crop should be just fine. The problem with 50mm on DX though is not always having enough space to back up.

    8. I have a cropped sensor (I shoot with a a57 sony). Nonetheless, with whatever cropped sensor, the 50mm is going to feel like a 75mm and it’s going to be very zoomed in. I find it difficult to use the 50mm and wish I had purchased the 35mm. If any of those cameras are DX, I’d buy the 35mm first. If any of the cameras are FX, I’d still consider buying a 35mm prime lens. I found the 50mm a bit myopic.

  2. You said in this article that you can buy a 35 mm for a crop senser for about $200. Every thing I find is $1000 or better. Am I missing something?

    1. Hey there Mike, thanks for contributing your comment to the improvephotography.com community! I am the Hobbyist Editor here and wanted to share with you that the Canon 50mm f/1.8 II lens (about $100) is my absolute favorite lens for my Canon crop sensor bodies (I currently shoot Canon 60D and Canon T3i). In fact, I love the lens so much I bought a second one so that I can have one on each of my Canon bodies. My wife and I use them in doing family portrait shoots and using this lens alone improved the image quality of our shots significantly. We use it for indoor shooting of our family. As has been mentioned in another comment, composition can be a little difficult because it is a little more “zoom” than I want indoors. I would rather have a 35mm lens so that I could be a little closer to the subject, but the options at that focal length are significantly more expensive. The Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM lens would be pretty great too at a very reasonable $180. But really the point of the article is that if you are starting out and want to get better image quality than the kit lenses can provide, this is an awesome way to see what better glass does to your shooting. That is why it is the second thing you should buy. Hope that helps, and stay tuned for more beginner / hobbyist hardware and other tips.

      1. After reading this article, I went out and got a 50mm prime lens. It has changed my life, I was previously using the 18-55mm kit lens; now the photos I get with the 50mm don’t even compare! So much sharper and well balanced, I couldn’t be happier!

      2. to take family/group pics with a 50mm lens, how do I stop the people in the back from becoming blurry?

  3. Actually a 50 mm is the worst lens for portraits as it distorts the face – soooo much about 120-200 mm is better for head shots at least

    1. Jeremy, thanks for getting engaged in the improvephotography.com community. It may be true that a 50mm lens may distort faces on a full frame sensor, I don’t have any experience shooting this way. However, I have been extremely happy with how both group (family) and individual portrait shots have come out with Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 II lens on my Canon crop sensor bodies where the lens performs a lot more like an 85mm lens on a full frame body.

      But really, even if there was distortion in portrait shooting, this lens can give a beginner a taste for how much better images quality can be with glass that is significantly better than the kit lens that came with their camera. A 50mm prime lens is not ideal for all types of photography. In fact, the cheaper 50mm prime lenses that are being recommended here are not even going to be the best quality at the 50mm focal length. So it isn’t about being the perfect solution, or even close to the last lens a beginner should invest in. I simply think it is the lens that makes the best sense for a new photographer to dip their toes into better optical quality with a minimal investment, making it the second thing they should buy.

  4. I have a Nikon D3200 with the kit lens. If I set the Lens zoom to 50mm, is that what I would get with the 50mm prime or the 35mm prime?

      1. Yes, 50mm on a 50mm prime will give you the same field-of-view as your kit zoom set to 50mm. But you will be able to get a much shallower depth-of-field due to the wider max aperture of F1.8 (n the case of the Canon EF 50/1.8 II).
        I would not bet on a better focusing speed, because the Canon 50/1.8’s AF is pretty slow (and rather noisy).

        And I agree fully, that the a “nifty fifty” is a very good investment (beginner or not). I have mine always with me, alongside my Canon L lenses.

    1. Matt,

      Thanks for contributing the improvephotography.com community! Just as Jeremiah and Holger have said, you can see roughly what the “zoom” of a 50mm prime lens would be like if you use your kit lens at 50mm. However, I think you will be amazed at just how much better the image quality will be with a 50mm prime. The ability to open up the aperture to f/1.8 or even f/1.4 on some of the 50mm prime lenses really changes things with the shallow-depth-of-field helping to bring out the subject of the shot. The optical elements inside the prime lens are higher quality as well, so even if you don’t open up the aperture you can usually see a pretty big difference in sharpness over your kit lens. As a hobbyist photographer my gear budget is very constrained, so I have to really do a lot of research before I invest in any gear. I wish I had bought the 50mm prime right from the beginning, which is why as the Hobbyist Editor here at improvephotography.com I wanted to publish an article recommending that very thing. My understanding of the exposure triangle went much better with a better quality lens, and I was encouraged a lot more by the improved image quality to know that I could get good shots. I am convinced it is an investment you will be glad you made. Good luck and happy shooting!

  5. Just for clarification’s sake, “crop sensor” can also imply a 2x factor, as is the case with my micro four-thirds Panasonic camera (which also can use Olympus MFT lenses). In my case, I use a 25mm fixed lens, which is the 35mm equivalent of a 50mm lens. I have the Olympus 25mm f/1.8, with which you can get very sharp subjects and fairly creamy bokeh. Just my $.02’s worth 🙂

  6. Just for fun, I’ll suggest another way to determine what the first prime should be. Or just which primes one should get. Just go through all pictures you’ve taken and see if some focal length comes up disproportionately often, and then get a prime with roughly that focal length. I did, and found that I often zoomed in to 17mm (equivalent to 34 mm on full frame), so I got myself a 17mm prime.

    By the way, I understand the inexpensive thing and are not suggesting that my way is better, it’s just different. 🙂

  7. Thanks for this article. I’m a novice with a Canon T3i and was happy at the improvement in image quality that the 50mm prime gave me.

    I have a question though. What lens would you recommend after the nifty-fifty for someone on a limited budget who isn’t planning on making photography a profession any time soon?

    I find that, while the 50mm has been great, there are shots that I want to take that it just doesn’t work for. I’m (slowly) saving for an L series, but also wondering if there is a better-than-kit and budget friendly lens to get in the meantime.

    Thanks again!

    1. @Dave,

      Thanks for the question. It is a good one. I didn’t make a recommendation there because I think the answers is the infamous “it depends.” What type of shooting do you want to do? The Canon T3i is a fine camera, I have one, use it a ton. If you need something that is wider but nearly as fast as the 50mm, then try out a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens. Well worth the money, I use it regularly for landscape and indoor shooting. If you want something that reaches further, there are some good lenses from Sigma to check out as well. As Jim has said in the podcast, many of these 3rd party lenses get you 90% of the quality at much better prices. Before you buy one, may be a good idea to rent the lens you are looking at. Take it out for a test and see if you like the results.

    2. For folks like you with a T3i or similar, I absolutely, unhesitatingly recommend the new Canon 24mm f/2.8 pancake lens alongside the Nifty Fifty. It’s a lot wider than the 50, but with a lot of the characteristics of the 50: light weight, light on the wallet, high quality glass. It’s an excellent value, and arguably better for indoor shooting since it’s so much wider; you get a lot more of the action in your frame.

      Once you go longer than 50, in my experience, there just isn’t as much value. There are plenty of great lenses, but they’re all much more expensive, even on the used market.

      For my money, I’d rather have the 24mm f/2.8 on my crop camera than the 50 because of the way I shoot: often indoors, often of groups. Thanks for your attention. 🙂

  8. @Jeff,

    Thanks for the help. As much as I don’t like the “it depends” answer, I totally get it. At this point in my life, I’m a hobbyist who enjoys learning and likes to try all sorts of photography, so I go back and forth between a wide angle zoom, telephoto zoom or fixed 85mm.

    I probably enjoy landscape photography more than anything, so I have seriously considered the Tokina 11-16. It’s good to know that it is something that you regularly use. Renting is something I thought about, though I’ll probably ask around to see if I can borrow from a friend first.

    Thanks again!

  9. Thank you so much for this article. This is exactly where I am right now and loved this article! Let’s just see if I can convince my husband to buy me this lense instead of flowers for valentines day hahaha!!!

  10. Compression when comparing full frame/crop frame? Does a 50mm on crop sensor compress the image about the same as an 85mm on a full frame?

    1. Hi Dustin,

      It’s important to realise that the “properties” of a particular focal length do not change when a lens is on a crop or full-trame camera. For example, the tendency of a 24mm lens to slightly bend verticals will still happen whether it’s on a crop body or a full-trame body. The image looks larger in the viewfinder of the crop camera because you’re seeing a smaller portion from the centre compared to what it would produce on a full frame sensor – it’s as if you’ve “zoomed in” on the image a little, except you haven’t in reality.

      24mm is 24mm, regardless of the camera.

      Conversely, your question is asking about the comparative compression between a 50mm and an 85mm, and they will be different. You will get more compression (foreshortening) with the 85mm lens because it is an 85mm lens, and not because of the body its mounted on. The 50mm lens will give less (and identical) compression whichever body it’s on, but the image will appear enlarged on the crop sensor body when compared to the full-frame.

  11. Just some helpful info – most if not all beginner/basic DSLRs have a crop sensor, affecting the actual effect of prime lenses. My 35mm might as well be a 50mm on my Nikon D3000. If you’re going to purchase a prime (fixed-focal length) lens, I recommend finding out how much your cameras crop sensor is going to affect it, if at all.

    1. @Cate,

      This is absolutely true, but the reason the 50mm is my recommendation as the second lens for a beginner is not because of the focal length exactly. It is the price vs. performance. They are relatively cheap lenses that have significantly better quality than the kit lenses provide. It is much harder to say what the 3rd lens should be, a 35mm prime could be that lens if you are a portrait photographer. Or maybe a good quality 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. If a landscape photographer then you would want something wider. But I think the modest investment to get a 50mm prime allows a beginner to see how much better things can be with better glass.

  12. The 50mm is the only lens that you will find in all three bags. It just FITS almost every need. I shoot local short dirt track races and it is my 2 nd favorite lens to use. ( well actually my first but have to keep safety in mind ) done some great landscape and some pretty good engagement photos with the 50. And AMAZING live band photos

  13. I have a Canon ESO Rebel XT. I don’t know which model that is out now that would be its equivalent. What kind of 1.8 should I buy for it ? I want to do portrait photography. I am not sure if my camera is full or crop frame. Thank you.

    1. @Beginner,

      There is only one Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens. It is an EF lens, which means it can go on either the crop or full frame cameras. Your EOS Rebel XT is a crop sensor by the way, so the lenses made for only crop sensor are called EF-S lenses that you can look out for in the future. But any Canon lens will work on your camera. Happy shooting!

      Jeff

  14. Hi Jeff,

    I came across this site and I must say it’s great information. Not sure what the lens release date compared to the your last comment is, but there is a new Canon 50mm f/1.8. It is the 50mm f/1.8 STM, which has the smoother/quieter focusing motor for about $10 more that the 50mm f/1.8 II.

    Witcha

    1. @Witcha,

      Yes, I should update the article. The STM lens isn’t dramatically different from it’s predecessor, but it’s probably worth the extra $10 to get it for the better lens cap alone 🙂

  15. Hi Jeff,
    Just curious- for my Canon DSLR (I think I have the Rebel XT), should an 18-55mm stock lense suffice since it covers the 50mm range? And second, when is it time to upgrade to a better body? I tried to do long exposure starry sky shots in Moab and this body couldn’t handle it. I needed a wired shutter trigger and would have to manually hold it for hours- ugh. Thoughts?
    Thanks,
    David

    1. Your 18-55mm kit lens can only open up to f/2.5 at 18mm and f/5.6 at 55mm. As the article points out, that is far too narrow to get the shallow depth of field that a 50mm f/1.8 or wider prime can give you. The reason lenses with wider apertures/lower f-numbers are called “fast” lenses is that the wider aperture also allows shorter shutter speeds in low light, which leads directly to your second question.

      There’s nothing wrong with your body for taking night sky photos. You need a faster lens that will allow you to open up the aperture and collect more light in a shorter period of time. Since you will not use autofocus for the night sky (if you try it won’t work on anything dimmer than the moon), the most economical options are fast, wide angle, manually focused prime lenses such as the Rokinon/Samyang/Bower/etc. (they’re all the same lenses just marketed under different names) 24mm f/1.4 or 14mm f/2.8. But a nifty fifty is also usable, it will just give a narrower view of the sky.

      As for keeping the shutter open for long periods, you can get a generic remote cable release for about 10 bucks. Almost every one I’ve seen allows the shutter button to be locked down so that you don’t have to continuously hold it for long exposures. Your camera uses the Canon E3 connector which is basically a 2.5mm stereo plug that fits in the jack under the rubber cover on the left side of your camera’s body. And for just a few dollars more at around $20, you can get a cable release with a built in timer that allows you to set it up to take a series of pictures of at the shutter speeds and intervals you choose.

  16. I own a Canon 70D crop sensor camera. I am looking to make short films with a good quality lens.

    Do you know the best lens for short films? Would a 35mm fixed lens be the best lens or would you recommend a zoom lens? Is there a specific set of lenses you could recommend?

    I’m a beginner Photographer/ cinematographer and would like to avoid spending money on the wrong lenses.

    Thanks Bill

  17. Hi! I have a Canon T3 Rebel and it came with two lenses, one of which says 18-55mm, macro 0.25m/o.8 ft., f/3.5-5.6. Would this lens be considered like a 50 mm due to the range it says (18-55mm)?

    1. @M.Nichols,

      Yes, that 18-55mm kit lens that came with your camera has the same focal length as the 50mm prime, but it is MUCH “faster” – meaning it has the ability to use an aperture setting opened all the way up to 1.8. Plus it is much sharper than the kit lens. It is a really inexpensive way to see what higher quality glass (your lens) can do to improve your photos.

  18. Hi Jeff. I have a Sony a6000 . What lens do you recommend? ( I like to do portrait, kids, scenery)

  19. Hi Jeff!

    Okay, so I am still shooting with the Canon T3i and it looks as though I will be for a while because it will be a minute before I can afford to upgrade. Either way, I am still bouncing around the 50mm vs. 35mm prime debate. At first, people were suggesting to go with the 35mm because it’s more true to what the eye sees. But then, comments were made about the 50mm being better for portraits (that is primarily what I shoot) even on a crop sensor. If I am mainly shooting portraiture and not really shooting indoors where wider views would be an issue, is the 50mm my best bet? What are the pros and cons for each lens on a crop sensor? Also… are there any recommendations for better 35/55mm prime lenses other than Canon that are within a reasonably comparable price range? I really need you to break out the big crayons here before I shell out a couple hundred on a new lens. Thank you so much for your help!

    1. @Tricia,

      So glad you read the article, and yes my advice is to get the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens. I have shot many a portrait session using that lens and it does a great job. It is the price to performance that is so stunning since you get pick the lens up for a fraction of what a 24-70 f/2.8 lens will cost you. I don’t think you have a cheaper option to get that quality with anything else. It is a little dangerous though, once you see how much better the quality is in that lens over a kit lens, you will want to save up money to get more expensive zoom lenses!

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