No doubt you have heard the term ‘Nifty Fifty’ in your photographic circles or researching about your next lens. I’m here to tell you the Nifty Fifty lens is an essential part of your camera gear, and why you would be lost without it.
To get the best out of this article, you really need to know the difference between lens categories.
There are many different types of lenses to choose from, and what type of photography you do will push you in the right direction.
Fisheye/ultra-wide angle lenses have a focal length of between 4.5 and 14mm, and a field of view of 180° or less.
The wide angle takes over at 14mm all the way to 35mm and has a field of view of 64°-84°.
Standard lenses come in at 50mm and have a 58° field of view.
After that, we have a telephoto and super telephoto lenses. These hit 70-200mm and 200mm+ respectively, and have a field of view of anywhere between 1° and 30°.
On top of these, all lenses are either prime lenses or zoom lenses. Zoom lenses or lenses with a variable focal length allows you can change the focal length without changing lenses. The Canon 70-200mm is a great example of this type.
A prime lens is one with a fixed focal length. This means, if you want to get closer or farther away from a subject, you need to move your feet.
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What Is a ‘Nifty Fifty’ Lens?
A nifty fifty lens is basically a fast 50mm lens. The nifty part comes from a lens having a very wide aperture, such as f/1.4 or f/1.8, and the fifty part refers to the focal length.
A fast 50mm lens is the closest you can get to the human eye, in terms of low amounts of distortion and a similar field of view.
These lenses also tend to be made more from plastic than metal and are available low priced. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II or Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D are the perfect examples.
Why Are ‘Nifty Fifty’ Lenses Important?
Closest to What You See
So now we know about what makes a ‘nifty fifty’ lens, we need to look at what makes them great. As we mentioned before, the nifty fifty lens is the closest replication of your human eye.
When you see a scene you want to capture, the 50mm will capture that as close to how you see it as possible. Using a wider or telephoto lens will give you more or less of the scene, forcing you to move around more.
Shallow Depth of Field
This lens has a very shallow depth of field. Depth of field is created by the size and speed of the aperture of the lens. The Canon or Nikon lenses mentioned above have apertures of f/1.8, meaning they open wider letting in more light.
Perfect for shooting live music or indoor events. Shallow depth of field is also what makes the background blurry in images, singling out the subject and cutting out the distracting elements behind them.
Won’t Break the Bank
The majority of these lenses are affordable. Of course, you can buy the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens with Ultrasonic Motor, but for that price, you could buy 10 Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lenses.
It’s a great deal more expensive, and a lot heavier than the plastic model, but you are getting a few faster stops of aperture and a faster/quieter focus. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II is one of the cheapest, if not THE cheapest lens you can buy.
Looking at the price, this is the most cost-effective prime lenses you can imagine. A prime lens is a necessary item in your camera gear as prime lenses often outweigh zoom lenses in terms of quality and sharpness.
A prime lens needs less glass and motors inside it, so the manufacturers can focus on creating something of superb quality. They have one focal length, which they are the master at.
A zoom lens is the jack of all trades, as it is necessary for it to change its focal length and focus at each step. They are good at every step of their capacity, but not perfect in all of them.
It’s Small and Light
Ergonomics are very important to photographers. Whether you are a travel/street photographer, or you prefer landscapes, no one likes lugging around heavy equipment. This gets more important the longer you carry it.
A zoom lens can be heavy, due to the motors and extra glass inside, wide angle lenses have a lot of heavy glass.
The nifty fifty f/1.8 is mainly built from plastic and you won’t even realise you are carrying it. It weighs just 4.59 ounces (130 grams), which is just over a deck of cards. It is light and will fit anywhere.
It’ll Help Train Your Photography Eye
Training your eye is something photographers are always looking for. A way to get better and better at photographing subjects. The nifty fifty is great for this.
As it is a prime and not zoom lens, you need to move to get closer or further away from your subject. There is no cheating here, so you need to move. Every time to do, you learn more about framing, distance and a workable image.
You will spend more time thinking about each shot, creating instantly better images.
Versatility is the key here. A wide angle lens (35mm or less) is perfect for landscape photography, but not great for portrait photography. Wide angle lenses have more lens distortion and will create strange effects when used at close range.
A telephoto lens (100mm or more) is perfect for deep sky astrophotography, but not great for street photography. Telephoto lenses are huge and will draw attention to yourself, stopping all candid photos in their tracks.
A 50mm, however, is a great all-rounder. You can use this for landscape, portraits and street photography. Only in rare situations will you feel like you needed a different lens.
Best Nifty Fifty Lenses to Choose From
Whether you are using a DSLR or a mirrorless system, there is a range of 50mm lenses to choose from. For DSLRs, our recommendations are the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II or Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D.
They are cheap and cheerful lenses, with a wide aperture for great depth of field and quality. We recommend the f/1.8 over the f/1.4 and the f/1.2 as it is cheaper, and although there is a slight difference in depth of field, the effects are negligible.
The differences for us are not big enough to justify such a huge jump in price. The best thing about the cheaper lens is that it can be abused somewhat, even though it is made mainly from plastic.
For mirrorless systems, you cant go wrong with the Fujifilm 35mm f2 R WR, Sony 50mm f1.8 FE or Olympus 25mm f1.8. The Fujifilm 35mm, when used on the cropped sensor of the X-T1 or X-T2, gives you an equivalent focal length of 53mm.
Thanks to its inner focus system and stepping motor, it achieves an autofocus time of just 0.08 seconds. The Sony 50mm works well with the full-frame Sony A7R II, and it gives you a 7-blade circular aperture for beautiful bokeh effects.
The Olympus 25mm becomes a 50mm equivalent lens, as the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II works on a four-thirds cropped sensor.
We recommend checking out our article on choosing a 35mm or 50mm prime lens too.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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