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The 50mm f/1.8 Lens Review & Guide

Important Introduction

When it comes down to quality for price, bang for buck, a 50mm 1.8 is one of the best lenses on the market, and an upgrade that I recommend to every new SLR user. For a very small investment of $105 for the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 or slightly more for Nikon, you can have one of the best upgrades that you can make to your camera.

The Right lens for your Camera

If you’re a Canon user, you have only one real choice, and that’s the Canon 50mm f/1.8 which I linked to above, but if you’re a Nikon user, it’s a little bit more complicated. You actually have 3 choices, depending on which camera you have. If you’re not using a Nikon D40, D40X, D60, D3000, D3100, D5000, and D5100, then your camera body will have an autofocus motor and you can buy the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF for $125.

If you have one of the cameras mentioned, then your camera body doesn’t have an autofocus motor built in, which means that you have to buy a lens that does – marked with an ‘AF-S’. Unfortunately for you, this is more expensive at $219 – Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S. Now, regardless of whether you have an autofocus motor or not, you can both buy the 35mm f/1.8 for $199, which will provide a better viewing angle on a crop sensor, for which you’ll likely be shooting on – Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S.

General Review

There are advantage of buying more expensive lenses, such as the Nikon ones listed above, as they have a better build quality. I used to regularly use my 50mm before I upgraded, and all that use does take its toll on the plastic build (glass inside) and toy-like features. The lenses are very light, small and are ideal if you’re looking to upgrade from your kit lens, but don’t want to carry around a load of extra weight. It’s true that you get what you pay for, but for a couple hundred bucks, you can produce some astounding results from these lenses. When you use a prime lens, which doesn’t zoom, the optics are usually much better quality as they’re not making as many compromises and the price comes down at the same time, so that’s why I endorse them so much.

Having used both the Canon and the Nikon, I can tell you that the focus does tend to suck on the lenses, as they’re slow and inconsistant. The small focus ring on each lens doesn’t do much to help with manual focus either, and the focus can tend to be quite loud, so watch out for that if you shoot video regularly. That being said, I’m looking back on these lenses now, after using much more expensive lenses, so my judgement has changed somewhat; you may not notice the difference so much if you’re using cheaper lenses to begin with.

Because of the crop factor on these lenses, the Canon feels more like a 80mm lens, the Nikon 50mm, is more like a 75mm lens, and the Nikon 35 looks like a 52.50mm lens. If you do choose a 50mm lens and you’re shooting on a crop sensor, then expect it to be quite far zoomed, although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They make ideal cheap portrait lenses in terms of focal length, but expect to have to walk backwards if someone asks for a group shot.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you should know all there is to know about how perspective changes at different focal lengths, but as I mentioned in my post on the crop factor, putting your full frame lens on a crop sensor body will not change the perspective – only crop it. This is a good thing because the way we see through our own eyes is generally considered to be similar to about 45mm, so by using a 50mm you’re quite accurately representing our natural view, and not compressing the perspective too much.

There are obvious downsides to cheaper lenses, but don’t be put off, because when you put a 50mm f/1.8 on your camera, you’re not going to want to take it off – I know I didn’t. It’s a tool for every photographers arsenal, and I personally don’t know anyone who has regretted the purchase. Enough of all this talk about why it’s so great, let me show you.

The Lens Guide

The very first thing you’ll notice about your new lens, is the ability to shoot in much lower light, without having to use the flash. This is because of the wider aperture, which allows more light in. If you don’t know your aperture scale, then I suggest you learn it, but for now, let me tell you that if your lens went as wide as f/3.5 before, it now lets in four times as much light, at f.1.8. When I say wide, I’m talking about the size of the hole in the lens that the light passes through. The photo below, was taken indoors in a dark room at f/1.8 for 1.200 of a second at ISO 100.

The next thing you’ll notice is that the depth of field (DoF), can go remarkably shallow, and that’s because of the way the light passes through the lens at a wider aperture. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. This can be used for great creative effect, and it works really well, but a common problem with a lot of people who get a 1.8, is that they think it looks so good, it’s all they ever use, so use it sparingly or it’ll lose its appeal. Notice from the photo below that the glasses on the face are in focus, but the end of the hat, and chin, are out of focus. This was also shot at f/1.8.

From the photo above, you may notice the circular shapes of colour in the background, and this is what’s referred to as Bokeh. Simply put, it’s the aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photograph. It relates to how nice the background blur looks when out-of-focus. When you’re shooting at wider apertures, the effect of the bokeh is accentuated, so it will look at lot more prominant than anything you would have seen with your kit lens. Because this is a cheap lens, made to a price, it’s not the highest quality (which you may see from the photo above), but when you use it properly, with distant light, you can produce some really nice effect. Again, the photo below was shot at f/1.8.

Selective focus with a f/1.8 is something that you may not have done too much of in the past. Because the depth of field can be made to look so shallow, it’s even more effective with this lens, and you can focus the viewers attention onto a certain part of the photo, while making them want to explore the rest at the same time. It’s a powerful technique, but like everything, remember not to overdo it.

When you’re shooting wide open, you’re going to produce some very soft photos, so if you want them to be sharper, you need to narrow your aperture a fair bit. I find around f/8 to be the sharpest point on my Canon 50mm f/1.8. The photo below was shot at f/7.1, and manages to keep the whole of the subject in focus, while making sure plenty of detail remained in the background, so that you could make out the burnt down pier. Experiment with wide apertures at first, but you may find that narrower ones suit your style a lot better.

As I mentioned earlier, the crop factor does make this lens appear more zoomed than you may want it to be, but that can’t really be helped, unless you opt for the 35mm – it’s really a matter of personal preference and budget. It’s all about working with the gear that you’ve got at your disposal. When I took the photo below, I had no tripod on me, and just my 50mm lens. Because I knew what effect this would have on my photos, I chose to find a position that would work for me, rather than to simple give up, as I would have typically shot this photo with a wider angle. I found a position on a dock further away, and shot this photo at f/4.5 for 8 seconds and I was very happy with how it came out.

I’ve spoken a lot about f/1.8, but the lens aperture will go as narrow as f/22, which is fairly common. This will give you a much deeper DoF so that you can have your background and foreground in focus. The photo below was shot at f/22 for 4 seconds, and as you can see, the deep foreground is in good focus, and you can still work out all the minor details in the background on the pier. It’s important to remember that the lens does have more uses than just low light photography or shallow depth of field.

Finally, as you start to collect more gear, you can use that to make your photos look even better. A 50mm lens is great, but when you use it in conjunction with an external flash unit (and off camera transmitter for the photo below), you’ll get even better results. Like I said before, it’s about working with what you’ve got, and when you’ve got a little bit more, it can become a lot easier (when you know what you’re doing) to get better shots.

— — —

Thank you for reading my post, if you have any questions, please leave a comment below.

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    • Get that 'professionally processed look' in seconds

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40 thoughts on “The 50mm f/1.8 Lens Review & Guide

  1. jen

    I have the 50mm f/1.4 and I get frustrated with it bc I feel it’s so slow to focus. I think I’ll have to play with it some more. thanks for the inspiration.

    1. 9inchnail

      Then you should avoid the 1.8 which has an even slower focus. Especially in low-light situations, it tends to go back and forth without finding a spot to focus on. Really annoying but you get what you pay for.

    1. Josh Post author

      Yeah sure, there’s the 35 1.4, 35 2, 50 1.4, 50 1.2, 85 1.2, to name just a few. Even f/2.8 is pretty good in low light. The more you pay, the better quality you’ll get, but bang for buck, the 50mm 1.8 can’t be beat. Don’t be put off by the build quality, it’s really a great lens, all the photos in the post were taken using it.

    2. Vetman

      Hey guys. I going to order the nikon 59mm 1.8f lens. Yah or nay? I have a nikon d90. im mostly into band photography/live shows. can you help me out here please. can you maybe send me an email back please?

  2. Heidi

    The 50mm 1.8 was my very first lens (I bought a used dslr without the kit lens) and to tell you the truth…I initially regretted buying it. I used to get SO frustrated at the crop factor and whenever I want to take a wider picture (one where it´s impossible to back up) I still feel the need to take out my iphone (I know, right?). Take in mind I don´t know any better, I´ve never used another lens. I´ve grown to love it and I´m still getting used to it, but I´m looking forward to buying a wider one. Anyway…thanks for your great post!

  3. Dave

    You mention in your signature you are self taught. I was wondering if you could write a post on some of the ways you taught yourself (beyond the basics of how to get “correct exposure,” basic composition rules, etc..) so that your readers can use them to learn as well. For example, your favorite books, videos, internet sites, etc… I understand that much of the learning process is experience, but anything you can provide would be helpful.

  4. Francesca

    I am very interested in this lens now, and I would like to know if the fine quality of the light and colors is something that happens with the quality of the glass, or am I imagining it?

    1. Josh Post author

      It’s not so much the glass with this lens, and more about the build. When you compare it to your kit lens, this really has only one job to do, so it can do it well. Less compromises were made when building it.

  5. Daniela

    Hi Josh! I`ve been reading your blog and I`ve learned a lot from your posts, great blog!
    I have a Nikon d3100, and i`m wondering whether to buy the Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S or the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S, which one would you recommend me? thanks a lot!

  6. Yvonne

    Hi Josh, thanks for the post. I’ve a D80 and am buying my first lens apart from my kit lens. I’m thinking of using this lens for portraits, food and low light photos. I’m hesitating now over three choices, 50mm f/1.8 D (since D can focus on D80), 50mm f/1.8G AF-S and the 35mm f/1.8. What would you recommend? Price-performance is an important factor for me. Thank you!

  7. Andres

    I have become interested in photography in the last few months and finally decided to buy a decent camera. I opted for the canon 60d and will buy 2 lenses, the 50mm 1.8 that you recommend and the Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6. Do you think they are good lenses to start off?

    Thanks and I have found your blog very helpful!

  8. George

    Hey your website is absolutely wonderful.. I just read the 50mm lens guide today.. I plan to buy a 50mm lens within 2 days. I have a Nikon D5000. My choices are AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G & AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G. Which among this is better..? So which should I go for..? Thanks in advance..

  9. Lena

    Hi Josh! I’ve a Pentax k-5. I’m wondering whether to buy Sigma 50mm 1.4 or Pentax 50mm 1.4 which one you would recommend to me? Will it be a dramatic difference in terms of quality compare to the price?
    Thanks a lot!

  10. Joey

    Hi Josh, Im just a newbie in photography and I have a Nikon D3100. Just bought the Nikon AF 50mm 1.8D, however, in Manual mode, I tried shooting my son inside our room with 5 flourescent lights on, at 200/F1.8, ISO 400, but the picture came out dark (or underexposed?). I took another picture but have to bump the ISO to 1600 to get a bit of a lighter photo (which is OK to my standard at the moment). Also, having a hard time focusing, even if my son is standing still (and he keeps complaining, due its taking so long to get the focus). Anyway, just want to get some comments from you, it may sound stupid or (I really dont know what Im doing), like I said, I am really new at this and just started taking photography (no formal training, just reading articles). Hope to hear from you. Much appreciated. Thanks!

    1. Keith

      Joey, try not to compromise on your ISO, adjust your shutter speed, you can shoot at ISO400, but come down to 1/60th on your shutter, unless your subject is moving, you really dont need the speed. You’ll find the results far less ‘noisy’ if you can keep the ISO low, even going down to ISO200 + 1/30th if you have a steady hand. The advantage of digital – it only costs you a little time !
      Keep going at it buddy, it’ll all fall into place. K

  11. Elisabeth

    Hi, I’m fairly new to photography and just bought this lens for my Nikon D5000. I wanted a lens that would perform well in low-light conditions, and I’m a sucker for the “Bokeh” effect. I was outside this past weekend trying to photograph a friend, and it was really sunny out. In order to get the Boken effect, I need to have the aperture at a low number (so wide open) at like 1.8 or so, correct? However, since it was light out, it then make the photo incredibly over exposed. I tried to compensate by lowering the ISO and raising the shutter speed, but it still didn’t give it the effect I was looking for. Like I said, I am new..and this might be something obvious, but any insight would be appreciated. Thanks!! :)

  12. Tony Gold

    Really accessible read. Thank you. I’ve just purchased my first new lens for my D60 – the 50mm f/1.8G and love some of the stuff I’ve been getting from it. But as mentioned 1) I’ve maybe been overdoing the whole f/1.8 out of focus/bokeh thing (although that feels like a natural process to go through). And 2) It’s forced me to have to deal with the crop margin which although is frustrating at times, I think it will benefit me in the long run.

  13. DebbieKuhny

    Looks like I’m late to the party, the last post being almost a year ago. I, like many of the other people making comments, am an aspiring photographer. I have a Nikon D40 and have recently purchased the f/1.8 50mm AF lens. According to the reviews I read about this lens, the AF is supposed to work on the D40 in manual only. I am trying my best to not shoot in auto, so I thought getting a lens that would not allow it was a good thing. I’ve only had the lens for a few days and have been trying it out. I’m finding it very difficult to get it in focus, is this the result of buying an AF instead of an AF-S lens, or do I just need to keep working at it?
    I don’t know if I can return a lens, if I can, should I?

  14. amitamitamit

    Now tht you have purchased the lens, there is no need to return it back,
    even if your D40 don’t have an autofocus motor, if you focus it with range finder, focussing using this lens is a cakewalk
    Moreover there is a lot to do with this lens except auto focussing…….. Happy clicking

  15. Sai

    I have canon 650d with l=18-55 kit and Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 Non-VC. Recently I bought canon 50mm f/1.8, most of the people suggesting this lens but the Autofocus part really sucks here… I don’t know how to manage focus when I take my kid photos indoor as by the time I am focusing my kid runs off… If I use manual focus takes time, autofocus does not work.

    Coming to Tamron I have to test it. I have a indoor birthday party next week. Which lens should I use? Please guide me…


  16. Trevor

    Great informative post mate. Bought one in Thailand years ago and it’s given me great joy. It also helps you hone your composition because you zoom with your feet. One of the best lenses for value for it’s price. :)

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