Do you notice that despite having a dSLR, your images kind of look like ‘snaps’? Well, maybe it’s time you tried a 50mm prime lens.
When first starting out in photography, having the flexibility of a zoom can be very helpful and feels a lot safer, but it also has many disadvantages:
- Usually poor image quality (not very sharp and poor distortion characteristics)
- Very slow, in the aperture range of f4 –f5.6. Just forget about low-light and indoor photography!
- Slow aperture. You won’t get a lot of separation of your subject from your background.
The only good thing about a kit zoom is its optical range. In essence, you get a modest wide-angle with a normal 50mm and a moderate telephoto lens all-in-one.
As you build your confidence as a photographer at least one prime lens should be in your bag. I think the 50mm prime lens is the obvious choice.
A very simple portrait at 50mm, f5.6, ISO 640 and 1/125
As you can see the background is still distinguishable and is quite distracting. This is the best case scenario at about 1.5 ft distance from subject.
A very simple portrait at 50mm, f1.8, ISO 200 and 1/400.
Even at 1.8 you can see the trees and foliage melt away into a beautiful abstract background. You have to be careful to get your focus point right though, as you can see the more distant eye is out of focus. You need to make the nearer eye the focus point.
The Nifty Fifty – The 50mm f/1.8 Lens
The 50mm ‘nifty fifty’ lens gives the most flexibility to your photography and is probably the easiest focal length to frame well. In fact, a lot of professionals would choose the 50mm lens if it was the only lens they could carry.
The 50mm prime lens is probably the most useful and complete all-round lens. Before the advent of zooms, most cameras were fitted with 50mm lenses.
In fact, possibly the most famous photographer ever – Henri Cartier-Bresson — used the 50mm prime lens for most of his photography.
Here are 8 reasons why you should have the 50mm prime in your bag!
1. A 50mm Prime Will Improve Your Composition
Ironically, not having the flexibility of a zoom, rather than limit your photography, will over time enhance and improve your composition. ‘How can this be?’ you may ask. ‘I can go from wide angle to short telephoto with one twist of my kit zoom!’.
With a 50mm prime lens, instead of zooming with your hand, you will zoom with your feet. You’ll get closer to your subject to isolate it from a distracting background, which will mostly be abstract shapes (especially if you have the f1.4 version).
You’ll also learn to step back from your subject to add context. After a while you’ll be able to pre-visualise the image before you put your camera to your eye. You’ll know what the scene will look like through a 50mm field of view.
And without the temptation to zoom, you’ll become more adventurous with your framing. You will learn to compose with the scene that is in front of you!
2. You Can Shoot in Low Light
What? No flash? That pop up flash on your camera is a real atmosphere killer. If you want subtle, natural light, you need your trusty nifty fifty! (Read this tutorial to learn how to capture great photos in low light.)
With even a modest 1.8 50mm prime lens, you will be able to shoot indoors without the use of flash. The faster the aperture of a lens, the higher the available shutter speed is at any ISO.
A difficult-to-take portrait photograph at 1/15 seconds at f5.6 (the usual aperture at the long end of your kit lens) becomes a comfortable 1/140 at f1.8!
Most basic DSLR’s have a limited ISO range, so having the fast aperture ensures you can shoot in the lower range of ISO indoors, while providing a high shutter speed.
Our little furry friend Frida at 50mm, f5.6, ISO 9000 and 1/80
At extended ISO on my D700, the image is really noisy. A basic cropped sensor DSLR will be really noisy at this ISO if it reaches this high at all. This is right by the window too. Again you can still see the background.
Our little furry friend Frida at 50mm, f1.8, ISO 1100 and 1/100
With a 50mm prime, at a relatively low ISO, we can focus on Frida’s cute little face as the background became soft and smooth.
3. You’ll Achieve Beautiful Bokeh
The faster the aperture, the shallower the depth of field becomes. What this means for your images is real isolation of your subject from its surroundings and beautiful bokeh–blurred backgrounds or foregrounds.
Even the 1.8 50mm has very attractive bokeh and will result in images that will look way more professional and atmospheric!
Flowers at 50mm, f5.6, ISO 100 and 1/500
As they are a large part of the frame, the leaves in the foreground compete for our attention. It is less obvious that the flowers are the intended subject, and our eyes will flick between the two competing elements.
Flowers at 50mm, f1.8, ISO 100 and 1/500
When your foreground or background is out of focus (especially at f1.4), your subject will have a greater impact within your composition. The out-of-focus elements aid the composition (rather than causing distractions), as the eyes focus on the subject in focus. It’s also a lot more pleasing to the eye!
4. 50mm Lenses Are Super Sharp at All Stops
Even at its maximum aperture of 1.8, the 50mm prime lens is much sharper than your kit lens. Stopped down to a smaller aperture like f4 and you are talking tack-sharp!
5. You Can Travel Light
The standard 50mm 1.8 prime lens is smaller and lighter than your kit zoom, which means carrying it around all day is a breeze!
6. You Become Less Visible
Using a fast prime lens allows you to take a different attitude to your photography.
Rather than orchestrating a photograph, you can develop a more candid style and capture your friends and family quietly and unobtrusively.
Even your dinky kit zoom let’s people know you are there, as they usually extend when zooming in, making you more noticeable. And it can be intimidating to some of your shyer subjects .
With the small nifty fifty, you’ll be less obvious and better able to capture that great moment without being noticed or altering the mood!
All you need now is your stealth suit!
7. The 50mm Prime is the Most Versatile Lens
On a full frame camera, the field of view of your trusty 50 mm prime lens looks very similar to how we see with the human eye.
If you put your open hands at the side of your head like side blinders, the edge of your hands is the limit to the frame on a 50mm lens.
The magnification is literally the same. So what you see is what you get with the 50mm. What this means is…
It’s a Great Portrait Lens
With the beautiful shallow depth of field you can get fantastic, naturally lit portraits that will look more like the professional images you see on the web. (Here are some tips for taking interesting portraits.)
It Works with Landscapes
You can also use your 50mm for tighter framed landscapes; you don’t always want a wide angle for this type of shot.
Leaves at 50mm, f1.4, ISO 200 and 1/4000
At f1.4, backgrounds become pure abstract shape and colour. This helps you become more adventurous with your composition. This image has only the two small leaves on the right in focus, but still works as the background is just a beautiful wash of colour and shape.
Your Nifty Fifty is Great for Street Photography
The 50mm prime lens is also a great street photography lens. Since the field of view mimics our eye it’s a great lens to learn street photography. And with the wide aperture you will be able to shoot in streetlight!
8. 50mm Lenses are Not Expensive
The Nikon 50mm 1.8G is relatively cheap. You can also still buy the Nikon 50mm 1.8D, for a less-expensive alternative. If you are willing to buy second-hand or refurbished, you can pick up the old 50mm 1.8D for almost half the price of a new 1.8G.
So you don’t have to fill your piggy bank for very long to get one!
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What Are You Waiting For?
I hope I’ve convinced you to take the plunge and grab yourself the most used lens and focal length of all time!
The 50mm prime lens has a character all of it’s own and it makes for a unique photography experience — shooting could even become a real adventure!
[Now that you’ve seen what this versatile lens is good for, make sure to take a look at our guide to 50mm f/1.8 lenses to decide what kind would suit you best. — Ed.]
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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