January 10

17 comments

Get The Most Out of Your 50mm Lens

By Dan

January 10, 2011

As I look around the web and read some of the photography forums, I see quite a few photographers who are thinking about adding a 50mm lens to their collection.

To me this is a little bit funny to hear, but only because when I got into photography, they didn’t have kits where the camera came with a zoom lens. I bought my Nikon FM2 body and a manual focus 50mm f1.4, and like many a beginning photographer back in the day, that’s what I cut my teeth on.

My 50mm of choice today is the Nikon 50mm f1.8D, although recently Nikon came out with the AF-S 50mm f/1.8G, which has much faster, silent wave autofocus. Both are lighter than the f/1.4 versions, although if want that extra half stop, Nikon has the 50mm f/1.4D and the more expensive AF-S 50mm f/1.4G. Canon also has a 50mm f1.8 lens and a 50mm f/1.4 as well.

It’s true that since the 50 shows the world in a similar perspective and angle of view as the human eye, it often gets the reputation as being ‘the boring lens.’ I’ve certainly gone through periods of time when I didn’t use my 50mm very often, but over the years I’ve come to love it. I find it to be an invaluable lens for shooting a wide variety of outdoor photography subject matter.

One thing to note- if you’re using a Nikon crop sensor DX camera body, then the 50 will effectively become a fast 75mm lens on those cameras. In order to preserve the ‘normal’ view on that type of camera, you’ll want to consider the Nikon 35mm f1.8 lens.

Landscapes

The 50 is great for shooting landscapes, because as I mentioned above, it pretty much shows what you see. It allows you do look at a scene, decide what you like about it and capture it as you perceive it with your own eyes. You don’t have to worry about trying to think about what the subject will look like when you crop with a telephoto or expand the perspective and depth of field with a wide angle. You simply slap that puppy on the front of your camera and shoot, because you already know what it’s going to look like.

People and Travel

Because it has a very shallow depth of field up close, the 50 is a great people lens.

It gives excellent results whether you’re shooting portraiture for paying clients or grabbing shots of your friends just for fun.

It’s also extremely fast, which makes it awesome for low light and inside photography. With speeds in the neighborhood of f.1, it can really come in handy when you find most of your other lenses unusable due to diminishing light.

And combined with the fact that it’s very small, light and compact, the 50 makes an awesome travel photography lens, so don’t leave it at home the next time you go on a trip. Either make room for it in your bag or leave something else behind- you won’t regret it.

Details

The 50 is not always the best lens at medium and long distances. It simply can’t bring the subject in, and when shooting subjects that are far away, it tends to produce rather amateur looking imagery.

However, but if you are able to get close enough, you can take advantage of that shallow depth of field and get pretty creative with your subjects.

Shooting in tight, you’ll have the same soft background effect as if you were shooting with a telephoto, only you can tackle subjects that are much closer than nmost teles can handle.

The 50 can focus on subjects that are about as close as one foot away, and with depth of field diminishing the closer you get, you can really create some dramatic, stylized imagery.

So take that 50mm lens out and give it some much needed attention. Chances are, you’ll the two of you will soon fall in love again, make some stunning photos and live happily every after.

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About the author

Hi, I'm Dan Bailey, a 20+ year pro outdoor and adventure photographer, and official FUJIFILM X-Photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.


As a top rated blogger and author my goal is to help you become a better, more confident and competent photographer, so that you can have as much fun and creative enjoyment as I do.


  • My first “good” lens was a 50mm f/1.4 that really taught me some of the advantages quality glass has over the $100 kit lens that came with my camera. I have recommended the 50mm to others so many times since. Now that I have an expensive zoom lens that covers that range I rarely bring the 50 out anymore. I probably should!

  • Mark, I’d definitely take the 50mm and the 75-300 also sounds like a good choice. Instead of the 24-105, though, what about getting, borrowing or renting a fixed 24? It’s smaller and faster than the 24-105 and more practical, since you already have the 50-105 range covered with the other 2 lenses. I’m a big fan of my 24, it also goes with me just about everywhere.

  • Michael, I agree, that simple 50mm f1.4 is so much better in terms of quality and speed than many of the cheap kit lenses that come with camera bodies today. I always recommend that photographers buy a body only if possible and then build a good arsenal of lenses. I don’t take my 50mm everywhere, but it definitely has a place! Thanks for your comment.

  • Thanks for This post… I agree with you. I think that every photographer should have 50mm lens as part of their gear. It was my only lens for years when my father got me into photography when I was about 10 years old. I had my Practica SLR for about 15 years. First 10 years with 50mm only and then I got 45 wide lens and 200 zoom! 🙂 50mm lens is not called ‘basic’ lens for nothing.

  • All great advice, but don’t forget that 50mm is only a “standard” lens on a “full frame” body. For a 1.5 or 1.6 crop body, a 35mm lens is more like a standard lens. I have a 50/1.8 which is a favourite on my F5, and occasionally as a 75mm equivalent on my DSLR. But I also have a 35/1.8 which is a great standard lens on the DSLR. Another of my favourites is the Voigtlander Nokton 58/1.4 which is manual focus but chipped for full matrix metering on later bodies. It is a great slightly longer than normal lens on my film bodies, and a brilliant short tele on my DSLR.

  • I agree a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera is an excellent combination. Because I’m one of those folks he can’t afford a full-frame digital camera, I invested in a 35mm a few years ago. It’s basically the same thing. You get a light weight, fast lens with a “normal” view. Good choice!

  • Peter and Tom, thanks for your comments. You both have a point about the full frame aspect. Yes, the 35mm f1.8 is a good alternative to the 50 if you’ve got a DX or cropped sensor body, and it’s also a very economical lens, coming in at around $200. That said, on a DX body, the 50 ends up being a very fast 75mm, which can be a really nice for portraiture.

  • Cool look at the landscape shot (and others!) DB, we got our Canon 50 1.4 last summer, and while we get the once in a while intended and usually stumbled upon portrait perfection out of it, it is proving to be a persnickety lil bugger! But then again, I am a digital SLR troglodyte that aspires to beautiful shots without the guess work. That being said, I figured out the best first step to take with this lens was to take images on the aperture priority setting, but that is all I got…

  • There a lot of really good and affordable 50mm lenses out there, it really just comes down to which brand your prefer. They are all quite good.

  • Hi Dan, thanks for your insightful post. I’m a beginning photographer and am gobbling up such articles and information. I LOVE my 50mm lens and use it often as I’m a portrait photographer specializing in babies,children and families. My questions is this, I’ve noticed that I get great creamy photos with nice lighting some of the time and other times, like today shooting in the shade, a lot of my photos turned just slightly blurry, I could fix it in photoshop because I have mad ps skills, lol, but I’m really wanting to get to the point where I spend less time fixing photos. I’m shooting in aperture priority with a nikon D50 (saving up for the D7000) and sometimes I borrow a friends D300. I have a session with a fam tomorrow in the california afternoon fall sunset time, any suggestions?

  • Sally, thanks for the comment. My only idea is that since you say this happens when you’re shooting in the shade where it tends to be darker, maybe your aperture priority mode is taking the shutter speed too low to make crisp, sharp photos. Try increasing your ISO setting and using a higher shutter speed. Good luck! -DB

  • I was going to get a 50mm 1.8 for my D90, but opted for the 35mm 1.8 instead, for the wider field of view. But as you mentioned, it functions like a 50mm on my D90 due to the crop factor of the DX sensor. I’d still like to get a 50mm, but I’ll probably opt for the 60mm macro, or better yet, the new 85mm 1.8 lens.

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    Terry Bourk

    I have read you new book “Behind the Landscape.” I could not “put it down” meaning that I kept at it because each photo you presented/analyzed was interesting and informative. I am trying to develop an eye for composition (both the scene and the light).

    Thank you! The examples you present and the suggestions are very helpful. Purple Mountains, McKinley River and Wonder Lake are fascinating.


    Roger Sinclair

    You have done it again! Another triumph.

    Your generosity to share, the clarity of thought and concise explanation thereof is brilliant. Perhaps I should also mention the beautiful photos and the talent necessary to produce them.

    Thank you, Dan.