Perhaps you’ll be one of those lucky photographers who’ll open a new camera as a gift this holiday season. Or maybe you’ve decided to buy one for yourself, perhaps as a brand new photographer or maybe as an upgrade to an existing camera. So how much thought have you given to the lens you want to use with your “new baby?” Will you be happy with the “kit lens” that is often bundled with the camera or should you be looking at something else? This is hardly novel advice, but if you’re new to photography you may not have heard the recommendation that a 50mm “prime” lens, (that is, a lens that has a fixed focal length, no zoom), may be your best bet. Or, if you’re an experienced photographer but don’t own a 50mm prime lens, I’d suggest this is definitely one you should be adding to your arsenal.
Before the advent of digital cameras, the most popular choice for serious hobbyists, photojournalists, and those seeking a good combination of portability and quality were 35mm film cameras. Invariably, the “kit lens” that would have been sold with those cameras was a 50mm prime. My first camera which I bought in the early 70’s while still in high school was an East German-made Hanimex Praktica Nova 1B. The lens it came with was a 50mm f/1.8 Meyer-Optik Gorlitz Oreston. For many years, it was the only lens I had. No zoom, that came years later when I purchased the Pentax ME Super I still have. That too came with a 50mm lens, an f/2 Asahi Optics M. The 50mm lens was considered the focal length that, when used on a 35mm camera, to best approximate the average human field of view.
By the time digital came along, people wanted zoom lenses and unless you had a full-frame sensor camera, (“full-frame” meaning the sensor size is the same 35mm as the film camera used), 50mm was now a somewhat “longer” focal length on a crop-sensor camera. So, to speak both to the desire for zoom lenses and accommodate the crop sensor cameras, the typical kit lens sold with entry-level DSLRs is usually an 18-55mm lens and typically with a variable f/stop of f/3.5-5.6. That’s what you’ll get as a kit lens on for instance a Canon Rebel or Nikon D3000-series camera. Lenses with that focal range on crop sensor cameras will give you a range from slightly wide-angle through normal and into slight telephoto. Using the 1.6x “multiplier” for a Canon crop sensor, (1.5 for most Nikons) your 18-55mm lens is more like a 28-88 mm lens on a full-frame camera. So, you’ve gained some focal length versatility with a kit lens zoom, but you’ve also made some sacrifices!
What have you sacrificed?
A camera is only as good as the lens you have attached to it. If you had the choice of an entry-level camera body with a good lens or a high-end camera body with a poor lens the former combination would make a better photo every time. Good glass counts! So why would a 50mm prime lens be better than the 18-55 zoom kit lens that came with your camera? Two primary reasons:
- Prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses. With fewer glass elements, less moving parts, and lenses that can be optically optimized for a fixed focal length, prime lenses are sharper. Your entry-level zoom kit lens will never be as sharp as even a basic prime lens.
- A prime lens will typically be “faster” than a zoom lens. Even a very basic 50mm prime lens will likely be at least an f/1.8 where the 18-55mm kit lenses we discussed starts at f/3.5 and will be down to f 5.6 at full zoom. You will not have nearly the “light-gathering power” with the kit zoom as with the basic 50mm prime. Your low-light shooting capabilities will be greatly reduced with the kit lens.
So what should you get?
I want to say more about the advantages of a 50mm prime lens as well as give some examples of the kinds of images you can make with one. But before I do that, let’s be specific about which lenses you may want for your camera. It will depend on the make of your camera. The examples given here are very basic 50mm prime lenses. They run between $125.00 and $399.00 USD, the prices shown being those at the writing of this article in November of 2018.
For Canon – The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM given the nickname, the “Nifty Fifty” by photographers. – $125.00
For Nikon – AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G – $232.00
For Sony – FE 50mm f/1.8 Lens – $223.00
For Pentax – SMC DA 50mm f/1.8 Lens – $116.00
For Fuji – XF 50mm f/2 R WR – $399.00
These are all the respective manufacturers’ own OEM lenses and with the exception of the Fuji lens, all f/1.8 maximum apertures. There are other 50mm lenses, some at f/1.4 or even f/1.2 but expect those to cost much more. For example, a Canon 50mm f/1.4 is $299.00 and an f/1.2 jumps up to $1,269.00. For the purpose of this article, I’ll be talking about the f/1.8 budget lenses.
There are also other options. Yongnuo, a Chinese company, has produced a virtual clone of the Canon f/1.8 “nifty 50” that sells for about $69.00 and is available in either Canon or Nikon mounts. I have seen various tests for these and depending on the tester, many claim the quality is close to the Canon and Nikon OEM 50mm lenses. On the other hand, I have also seen reports of the Yongnuo 50mm sometimes losing communication with the camera, something my son personally experienced with his lens. We tried the Yongnuo 50mm lens on my older Canon 50D and the communication problem also occurs. On my Canon 6D, everything works fine. Go figure.
Other Advantages of a 50mm prime
We spoke of several advantages of a 50mm prime over a standard “kit lens.” Let’s list these as well as some others:
- As noted, these basic f/1.8 50mm primes can be had for a fraction of many other lenses.
- Most of these lenses are small enough to fit in your pocket. They are lightweight too, making for a very portable combination teamed with your DSLR.
- As discussed, the simple, fixed optics make for very sharp image quality. I shoot Canon cameras and often when I want a very sharp image and the subject matter allows, my “nifty 50” is the lens I will reach for.
- Use on crop and full-frame cameras
- My Canon 50mm uses an EF mount so it is able to be used with either a crop sensor or full-frame camera. At present, my best camera is a Canon 6D, a full frame while my backup camera is an older Canon 50D, a crop sensor. The 50mm lens can be used on either camera with ease. If you have a crop sensor now but expect someday to move up to a full frame sensor camera, your 50mm lens will still be useful.
- Low light friendly
- My Canon f/1.8 50mm, (I own the older version II model, not the current STM model), is the fastest lens in my bag. When I want to shoot in very low light, if the subject permits it is often my “go-to lens.” A distinct advantage of a fast lens is not having to increase the ISO if there is a need for a fast shutter speed. This can be even more important when shooting handheld. At just 50mm, (and keeping the inverse focal length rule in mind where minimal shutter speed for shake-free handheld shooting is 1/focal length,) I can easily shoot at 1/60th second handheld. If I open the 50mm all the way up to f /1.8 and shoot at 1/60th, I can work in some pretty low light conditions without having to increase ISO.
- Good “average” focal length
- It has been said that a 50mm on a full-frame camera approximates the view of the human eye. This has been argued of course, but I would say if you could only have one focal length lens for a variety of applications; portraiture, landscape, still-life, street photography, general shooting, etc., a 50mm may indeed be the “sweet spot.” I checked my 88K+ photos in my Lightroom catalog and over 10K of those were shot at 50mm. Of course, since my Nifty 50 is often the lens I use for portraits (and I’ve done many, many corporate headshot photos with my Nifty 50), that percentage may be skewed a bit. I won’t argue that if you can only have one lens with you, a zoom offers much more versatility. That said, if I had to stick to a single focal length, 50mm might be it.
- Nice Bokeh
- If you’re not familiar with the term, bokeh is defined as “the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens.” It is a derivative of the Japanese word “boke” which roughly translates to the “blur quality” of something. Photographers seeking to create interesting looks in out-of-focus areas, and particularly of specular highlights, will speak of the “Bokeh quality” of lenses. Things like the lens design, number and shape of blades in the iris, and so forth will all affect the Bokeh of a particular lens.
We also know that wider apertures produce less depth of field. An f/1.8 lens wide open will have a very limited depth of field and so if we are after “creamy bokeh” as you will sometimes hear it described, how that out-of-focus area appears can be important. So too is how the number of blades in the iris will impact the appearance of specular highlights. A case in point, my older Canon EF 50mm II has five blades in the iris. The newer Canon EF 50mm STM lens has 7 blades. Note the photo of the candle from my lens shows the highlights as a pentagon shape. The newer Canon 50mm STM lens would have “rounder” specular highlights.
- A prime lens can increase your compositional skills
- Perhaps you’ve heard the term “sneaker zoom?” If not, it refers to the way you must change your framing when using a prime lens, that is to “zoom with your feet” walking closer or further from your subject rather than using a zoom lens. If you use your feet, presumably wearing sneakers, (which for non-native English speakers are casual athletic shoes) to zoom, then that’s a “sneaker zoom.”
Why does that matter? Try this experiment – Look at your subject through the lens and note how it looks in relation to the background. Now, without zooming the lens, walk closer to the subject, paying attention to how it looks in relation to the background. Now repeat the experiment from the same spot at the same focal length. Then, zoom into the subject and pay attention to how the main subject looks in relation to the background.
To compose your shot with a prime lens you will need to move around more and in the process, see different angles that might work better. Planting your tripod, mounting your camera, and zooming to compose isn’t bad, just different. Try a prime lens, a 50mm or otherwise and see if doesn’t change how you see things.
So let’s look at some of the photos I’ve made with my 50mm lens and I’ll explain why I chose that lens for the job.
In the very first article I did for Improve Photography, “A Beginners Guide to High-Speed Photography,” (published in October of 2017), I featured photos of high speed “Splash Photography” done completely in daylight with no flash to freeze the action. I wanted to get the shutter speed to the maximums the camera, (my Canon 50D crop sensor) was capable of, images over 1/2000th of a second. I also wanted the sharpest images I could get. Bring out the 50mm! I had plenty of light, but with such fast shutter speeds, the desire for a mid-range aperture for decent depth of field and also as low an ISO I could have, the 50mm seemed the lens for the job. Check the captions on these photos to see what I used.
Many times when working with table-top set-ups where I can get the camera in close, want shot-to-shot consistency and am working in low light with long exposures, I’ve chosen the Canon 50mm for the job. I have often had to trigger the camera remotely when doing these shots as well and being able to manually focus the lens on the shot desired, compose and forget the framing, and keep things simple have gotten the image I wanted. Of course, let’s take a look at that tack-sharp quality… not bad for a $125.00 lens!
Portraits, be they of people or of animals, in a studio setting are good choices for the 50mm. Probably a little better on a crop sensor where the multiplier gives the look of an 80mm lens, I have also used the lens with my full-frame Canon 6D. I’m able to get at a decent working distance from my subjects, close enough to communicate but not so close as to be intimidating. Often I must crop later if I want a tighter head shot, but the quality has always allowed that.
Another benefit of using the 50mm prime is consistency. Setting the camera on a tripod and marking its spot, put my portrait stool on a spot and marking that, framing my shot and then while making photos not moving anything to maintain camera-to-subject distance, all my shots are consistent. I may not even need to adjust my exposure from subject to subject. Once I did headshots of over 600 people for a yearbook. It was crucial that they all looked very similar, head sizes the same, exposures the same, framing the same. By taking measurements and then replicating that at each of multiple locations where I shot, I was able to maintain consistency. Without the capability to zoom, I took that variable out of the equation. Using a basic 3-point lighting setup, (such as the one discussed in my article – “How to Set up Three-Point Lighting for Portrait Photography”) I was able to set my exposure at 1/80th sec. @ f/8, ISO 200 and everything worked beautifully.
Another job where the 50mm was the right lens was a food photography assignment where I did shots for a cupcake shop. Much like the portraits, being able to maintain consistency and sharpness was key and the lens delivered.
This is much the same when doing other kinds of product photography. Check out the shots of the flip-flops or the police badge, both done with the Canon EF 50mm II.
Outdoors for closeup nature shots, the 50mm is great when limited depth of field is sought to simplify backgrounds. Check out the apertures on these shots to see how depth of field is affected.
I spoke of bokeh earlier. For these holiday shots I wanted the “Bokeh balls” that can be produced when small lights or specular highlights are thrown out of focus. Note the various effects depending on aperture. Also note that with my older five-bladed Canon EF 50mm II the Bokeh produces pentagon-shaped highlights, particularly as the lens is stopped down. A new 7-bladed Canon EF 50mm STM lens would produce rounder highlights.
Of course the lens can be stopped down too when the need calls for it such as for these long-exposure shots. A small aperture and relatively low ISO allowed longer exposures to get these effects, still nice and sharp.
Something else I tried one day was emulating the feel of my old original Praktica. I mounted the 50mm, shot Raw so my images were captured in color but set the Picture Mode to monochrome so the display on the LCD was monochrome. I then did a photo walk shooting handheld and treating the camera much as I did when I shot that old film camera loaded with Kodak Plus-X. I recaptured some of the feel of shooting the film camera, but with all the quality of a modern digital.
So I hope I may have convinced you that whether it’s a better substitute for the kit lens on your new camera or an addition to your existing lens collection, a good basic 50mm prime has a place in your bag. As we approach the holiday season, put one on your list and be sure to tell Santa it will fit quite nicely in your stocking!