Why I Love the 50mm


For years, many photographers shot with almost exclusively with their trusty 50mm. The reason for this is the image quality combined with overall versatility of this focal length. It is often said that the 50mm perspective on 35mm film/digital closely mimics what the human eye sees.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the greatest photojournalists of this century and certainly one of the photographers to raise photojournalism to the level of high art, reputedly used only the 50mm lens for everything from landscapes to portraiture (though he did use others as well.) Here are a couple of reasons why you should love your 50mm.

Human Perspective

The 50mm lens delivers images that appear most natural to what the human eye sees when we look at a scene. This is why they are also called, "normal lenses." Wider lenses tend to distort perception. For example, when shooting portraits with a 28mm lens body parts may look humorously larger than in real-life. In contrast, longer lenses offer a much flatter perspective. This is why they are often preffered for portraits. When a person looks at your images shot with a 50mm lens, they will be viewing something that simulates what they actually would see if they were there. This is why they are so popular with photojournalists and documentary photographers. The perspective is also coupled with the fact that the images can be given more depth by stopping down the aperture or singling out a specific subject by opening it up.

For clarification, this is only for full frame (35mm) camera users like the Canon 5D Mk II, Nikon D700 or Sony A900. On an APS-C sized sensor, the lens is longer (either a 75mm or 80mm field of view is displayed in the viewfinder).

Small Size and Light Weight

In general 50mm lenses are small and fairly light. These lenses are typically between f/2.8 and f/1.4. Once the lenses start having larger apertures they become heavier and larger. Famous examples are the Canon 50mm F/1.2, Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux and others.

Photographers that don't want to be a host to back, neck and shoulder problems will be alleviated by the fact that 50mm lenses are lighter than your 70-200mm F/2.8 or your 24-70mm F/2.8. The lighter weight coupled with the focal length's perspective will also encourage many photographers to keep the lens on their camera because of the versatility—more on this later.

50mm lenses will also take up less space in your camera bag. Even if you aren't lugging a camera bag around, a 50mm lens can be screwed onto your DSLR and taken with you nearly anywhere. Indeed, I used to carry my 5D Mk II and 50mm F/1.8 everywhere. The combination fit easily into a messengar bag with a laptop, flash and extra lens just in case. Finally, some subjects may feel intimidated by longer lenses. This is also one of the reasons why 50mm lenses are so popular with street photography. I have yet to encounter anyone that has faced this problem with a 50mm lens.

Low Light Abilities

In general, prime lenses are known for having larger apertures than zoom lenses. The 50mm lens is no exception. Because of the larger aperture, your camera will be able to capture more balanced photos in low light at lower ISO speeds.

The list can go on and on of the types of photographers that would find the low light abilities invaluable: wedding photographers, photojournalists, concert photographers, documentary photographers, indie cinematographers, event photographers, landscape photographers, street photographers, etc.

Many budding photographers using a 50mm lens usually shoot with it wide open almost exclusively. In photography, this is known as, "The Bokeh Effect" and comes from the fact that the photographer is obsessed with the fact that they can focus on one subject and have everything else out-of-focus in the creamy background. It is a growing pain and users soon realize that the lens becomes significantly sharper when stopped down to around F/4-F/5.6; more on this later on. This typically regulates the wide open shooting to lower light situations; such as a wedding ceremony where flash is not allowed.

As a note to these users, be careful how your lens is focusing. Focusing issues can occur where your camera and lens combination is not actually focusing on the spot where you inteded. To check for this, bring your images into your favorite viewing software and view the spot focused on at 100%.

Image Quality of a Prime Lens

Besides being faster, prime lenses are also known to have exceptional image quality when stopped down (the exception being Leicas which are designed to be sharp at every single aperture and reflect it in their price.) The reason being that prime lenses are easier to manufacture. Because the lens only has to be sharp at one focal length, the optical construction is much simpler. Look at diagrams for the way any lens is constructed and you'll see just how complicated zooms can be. To boot, they are also much more affordable than zoom lenses. To get the image qualtiy of the best prime lenses in a zoom lens, one usually ends up forking over the equivalent of two month's rent or more. Manufacturers also realize just how important 50mm lenses are to photographers, and so they put out different versions to cater to different needs.

Modern zoom lenses have been making quite the splash though as they are becoming more versatile and meet the needs and demands on most working photographers these days. Generally prime lenses are still sharper and can deliver better results. Many photographers prefer to choose prime lenses over zooms as it helps them to compose better images. The 50mm is no excpetion.

The Digital Picture has a lens comparison tool for potential buyers to compare and contrast the sharpness and qualities of various lenses.

Versatility as an Everything Lens

The 50mm lens is extremely versatile and can be used for a variety of situations. A 50mm lens can help a photojournalist create an environmental portrait for a special feature story. Similarly, they can use it to single out important detail shots such as the hands of a very hard worker accomplishing a daily task. It is highly recommended as a wedding reception lens for photographers that do not want a 24-70mm F/2.8. Indeed, F/2.8 is even sometimes too slow an aperture for some concerts I've shot since there wasn't enough light.

Almost any situation that you can name can be shot with a 50mm lens. While it may also become your precious child of a lens, also once again remember how affordable they tend to be. Also coupled with the portable nature, they add so much more convenience to a photographer's tasks. Just remember that you'll need to zoom with your feet to change your perspective.

Challenge yourself to shoot with a 50mm lens exclusively for a day, month or a year and see what you come up with. Many photographers and students that have done this state a noticeable change in their photography habits.

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All of the benefits listed, plus the fact that it's usually one of the cheapest "quality" lens that you'll buy, and it's a no brainer.  Love my 50mm - just wish I could spring for a full-frame body.

While many of the things mentioned here about a 50mm lens are true, one of them is not. A 50mm lens on a 35mm camera does not resemble what your eye sees. An 85mm does. If you would like to do a test look through a 50mm and then move your eye away from the eyepiece and see if it's the same. Then try an 85mm. You will see that the 85mm is more of what your eye sees.


Joe SM3 wrote:

While many of the things mentioned here about a 50mm lens are true, one of them is not. A 50mm lens on a 35mm camera does not resemble what your eye sees. An 85mm does. If you would like to do a test look through a 50mm and then move your eye away from the eyepiece and see if it's the same. Then try an 85mm. You will see that the 85mm is more of what your eye sees.

Joe SM3 wrote:

While many of the things mentioned here about a 50mm lens are true, one of them is not. A 50mm lens on a 35mm camera does not resemble what your eye sees. An 85mm does. If you would like to do a test look through a 50mm and then move your eye away from the eyepiece and see if it's the same. Then try an 85mm. You will see that the 85mm is more of what your eye sees.

Double fail.

First fail: You might not heard something called viewfinder magnification? The reason that 50 isn't projecting an image the same size as naked eye is because most FF cameras have a viewfinder magnification between 0.7x and 0.8x.  Take the viewfinder image and magnify it by 1/0.7x will get you an image 1.43 times larger, which is about the same as what a 85mm at 0.7x magnification will offer.

Second fail: Normal as in normal lens is not defined like that. lol


In regards to the viewfinder--

If a camera with an 85mm lens and .71x viewfinder magnification resembles what your eye sees through the viewfinder (143mm) which I would agree with, and a 50mm with .71x in the viewfinder which doesn't match up with what the eye sees (85.5mm), why wouldn't someone be using an actual 143mm or 135mm lens since that is what is resembled more in the viewfinder??

The viewfinder in these instances is only magnifying what you are seeing, not what you are capturing, and the difference between what is seen and captured is rather nominal on the larger area finders.  

It is also worth noting that magnification for 100% finders has to be made smaller so that viewfinder data can be made to fit inside the finder within the viewable area.  This is why most top tier full-frame DSLR’s sport 100% field of view but only so-so on the magnification. 

zero stars for me.  I hate 50mm and prefer at least a combination of a very wide angle and say a very fast 85mm (which can be just as fast as anything at 50mm and even sharper in a prime)... the whole "human perspective" angle is pure BS.... I would argue your human abgle of view if you look at the area of focus attention is more like angle of view for 85-125mm (on a 35mm sized film or sensor).  Versatility?  I think it is one of the least vaersatile lenses around, and an anacronism to being the std lens you got with an old SLR many many many moons ago

Of course, for those shooting with cropped, DX-sized sensors, a 35mm lens takes on an equivalent 52mm focal length (although the lens' visual characteristics remain 35mm, not 52mm, so there will still be mild body distortion).

 As was said above a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor digital camera (DX) is more like a 75mm lens. Not exactly the "human perspective". Now a fast 35mm on a DX is much better as it get's you to 52mm as stated above. Nikon has a superb 35mm f/1.8g and Pentax just put out a 35mm f/2.4 lens. Both are small and light weight with excellent optical characteristics. So for the consumer and photo enthusiast a 35mm lens might be preferable.  

I love my 50mm 1.8 Nikon lens. I recently was invited to a wedding in NY and my other lens (18-55) broke the day before the wedding. B&H was closed that day so I had to wait till after the wedding. 

I was very, very pleased with the results. Considering another prime now..

I enjoyed reading this article, I find all it mentioned very true... I adore my 50mm and while I have a zoom, rarely ever use it. The 50mm is my go-to lens, it lives on my camera.