If you are stranded on a desert island and can only have one camera lens with you, which lens would you choose? If your answer wasn’t, “A 50mm (or 50mm equivalent lens),” then you might be wrong. The 50mm prime lens, or “Nifty Fifty,” is the one lens every photographer toting an interchangeable-lens camera should own… and use.
Why? Before I tell you all the reasons, I will tell you a sea story. But, before that, know that in the world of different sensor (and film) sizes, there are different focal lengths that produce a field of view equivalent to the 50mm lens on a traditional 35mm film camera. More on that later but, for now, I will be referring to full-frame digital and/or 135 format film. As the reader, please press the “I believe” button and keep on reading.
My Personal Journey
My father is a great photographer. He grew up working in a camera store in New Orleans. He has wielded a Leica rangefinder since long before I was brought to life. When I started my SLR photographic journey, he bought me my first “real” camera, a Nikon N6006, and a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens. He insisted that the 50mm was the best lens with which to learn.
But this 50mm prime lens felt limiting. I wanted to get closer to things without moving my feet. It wasn’t long before I had recycled enough soda cans to buy a cheap 35-70mm zoom lens. And then I got a 70-210mm zoom. Soon, the 50mm f/1.8 was doing nothing but keeping a small circular region of my bookshelf from seeing light.
For decades, the zoom lens served me well. But, years later, when working on my master’s thesis, I rediscovered the lens for many reasons (see below) and have since gravitated back to a battery of prime lenses. Now it is the zoom lenses that are keeping areas of my bookshelves from getting dusty.
So, what makes the 50mm the one single lens every photographer should own (and use)?
Field of View
There is some conjecture on whether it is the 35mm lens or the 50mm lens that closest approximates the field of view of the Mark 1 Mod 0 human eyeball—minus the peripheral vision. If you do the math, the circa 45° field of view of the 50mm lens is a bit narrower than the approximated 55° cone of visual attention and the 35mm lens is a bit wider at about 63°. Basically, both the 50mm and 35mm lenses see the world the way our own eyes do—give or take a few degrees. Because they do not bend light from wide angles, or zoom in to a smaller part of our eye’s image, these lenses provide our photographs with a familiar aesthetic—a realistic representation of the world that we all see when we open our eyes.
Does this mean that the 50mm, because of its familiar perspective, prevents the photographer from exploring the world with creative vision? Definitely not. The 50mm lens allows the photographer to make creative images inside a familiar field of view.
As enamored as many of us are with big cameras and big lenses—the ones just like the pros use—there is something to be said for small and light. If you have been humping a telephoto zoom or a wide-aperture f/2.8 “pro” mid-range zoom lens around your neck or in your camera bag, grab a 50mm lens and watch your chiropractic copays vanish overnight.
Regardless of how big your camera is, snapping a 50mm on to the front of it will change the way your arms and back approach your photographs.
We live in a world where four-figure lenses are becoming commonplace. Ugh.
The 50mm lens, especially ones with f/1.8 or f/2 apertures, can be purchased for the cost of a nice dinner for two in Manhattan (with drinks). On the used market, they can be had for the price of dinner for one—or a few inexpensive New York City lunches.
A superlative lens for a fraction of the cost of a professional zoom? Sign me up!
In general, prime lenses outperform their zoom counterparts in optical quality. Don’t get me wrong, zooms today are incredibly good—good to the point where only the pixel peepers will tell zoom from prime—but it is the prime lens that still has the overall advantage of a more basic optical formula and mechanical simplicity. When it comes to sharpness, chromatic aberrations, and distortion—Advantage: prime. For me, it turned out that the sharpest and least distorted lens I owned was the very first lens I owned, and the one that sat on a bookshelf for years.
Looking for shallow depth of field? Put your f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens on the shelf and mount your 50mm. Open up the aperture and watch the rest of the world melt away.
Is your f/5.6 aperture kit lens not getting you the bokeh you crave? Twist on a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens, go wide open, focus on a close subject, and experience bokeh like you read about.
It’s dark out there. The key to better and less blurry low-light images isn’t only magical low-noise/high ISO cameras, it is a large aperture. Just as your zoom lenses limit the shallowness of your depth of field and restrict your bokeh because of their comparatively narrow aperture openings, the wide-aperture 50mm lens is just the right cure for low-light handheld photography.
Of course, the advantage of a kit lens is versatility. But the prime lens is not a one-trick-pony. Representing the “normal” focal length, the 50mm lens, in seeing—more or less—how we see the world, is perfectly capable of capturing scenic vistas, a moment on a busy sidewalk, a close-up of a spring flower, or a portrait of a beautiful face. The 50mm is a jack-of-all-trades lens and a master of almost everything photographic.
The Anti-Kit Lens
A huge majority of interchangeable-lens cameras are sold with “kit lenses.” There is nothing wrong with this and, to be honest, a pair of quality zoom lenses is the fastest way that new interchangeable-lens photographers can explore the world around them. And, for many photographers, the kit lens or lenses is/are 100% sufficient.
But say you’ve been bitten by the bug and you want to improve your photography, technically and creatively. I believe the single fastest way to get on that track is by shooting a quality prime lens—likely a 50mm.
The HC-B Connection
Take in all the above and add to the argument that Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the greatest street photographers of all time, took the 50mm as his lens of choice.
Let’s Go Shopping
So, grab a 50mm lens and start shooting, right? Not so fast—almost every camera and lens manufacturer has filled the market with multiple 50mm choices. Let’s look at what your options are to get your absolute next favorite lens, regardless of your camera system or sensor size.
The list includes 50mm lenses for full-frame cameras and lenses that have an approximate 50mm equivalent field of view when used with smaller APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras.
Where do you stand on the 50mm lens? Is it a necessity? Do you think it is the best lens for beginners? Has it been made obsolete by zooms? Is it your go-to lens or are you curious to try one? Let us know in the Comments section, below.