Friday Foto Talk: The Fabulous 50 mm. Lens.   4 comments

A small lake one the way to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

A small lake one the way to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

This is an ode to the wonderfully versatile 50 mm. lens.  If you have only one prime lens (i.e., non-zoom, fixed focal length), this is certainly the one to have.  I’m basically a zoom lens person.  With some important exceptions, I think good zoom lenses offer the same quality as good prime lenses.  All that is left to argue for primes is their weight and size.  They are certainly lighter and smaller.  But I believe the advantage of having zoom capability outweighs this factor, if only slightly.

The 50 mm. prime lens, however, is one that makes me reconsider this preference.  What a 50 mm. prime lens provides above all is great flexibility.  You will be able to do more with this single focal length than you can with any other prime lens.

A rocky alcove in Devil's Kitchen, Canyonlands National Park, catches warm sunshine.

A rocky alcove in Devil’s Kitchen, Canyonlands National Park, catches warm sunshine.

Here are a few of the 50’s other advantages: 

      • Lightweight:  If you’re anything like me, you sometimes grow tired of lugging your entire backpack full of gear along, especially if you’re just shooting for a short time.  For example I often like to go light shooting city scenes or on short nature hikes.  The 50 is perfect for this.
      • Inexpensive:  A 50 mm. lens is easy to construct, thus you can get one pretty cheap.  For example, a Canon 50 mm. f/1.8 goes for about $110, while a Canon f/1.4 (which I used to have) goes for $400.  Right now you can get one at B& H Photo for $60 off that price.  I have a Zeiss 50 mm. f/1.4 and really like the quality.  New it goes for just over 700 bucks; I bought it used.  It’s a manual focus only lens, but once I got used to that I came to like it.
I found this beautifully isolated canyon by exploring the Fiery Furnace area of Arches National Park and going light with only my 50 mm. lens.

I found this beautifully isolated canyon in Arches N.P. by exploring the Fiery Furnace area, going light with only my 50 mm. lens.

      • Fast:  A fast lens is one with a large maximum aperture (small f/number).  Since almost any 50 mm. you buy will be fast, it will let in plenty of light.  So you can use it inside where tripods are either not allowed or not a great idea.  How fast should you go?  I’d buy at least an f/1.8 if not f/1.4.  But since you’ll rarely want that shallow of a depth of field, I wouldn’t spend the big bucks for an f/1.2 or faster.
A 50 mm. lens is perfect for capturing this shaded rock art panel, called Newspaper Rock, near Canyonlands N.P.

A 50 mm. lens is perfect for capturing this shaded rock art panel, called Newspaper Rock, near Canyonlands N.P.

      • Easy to Use:  The 50 mm. lens gives you about the same field of view that your eyes give you.  This makes it very easy to look at a scene then shoot.  You don’t have to do a quick mental conversion, comparing the field of view in your proposed composition with the field of view offered by the lenses you happen to have.  As well, because it’s fast, the viewfinder or LCD image on your 50 will be nice and bright.  Another big plus is it’s small size and weight, which will allow you to hold it steady more easily when you’re off the tripod.
Cracks are all that is left from a recently filled pothole in Canyonlands National Park.

Cracks are all that is left from a recently filled pothole in Canyonlands National Park.

      • The 50 as Portrait Lens:  A fast 50 mm. can be used for both candid and more formal portraits.  It allows you to get in close to the person and still get a bit of their surroundings.  Or you can open it up (go to large apertures) and throw the background out of focus.  A bonus: it does not distort the person, even if parts of them are near the edge of the frame.  If you find yourself cropping a lot on the computer, just remember to get closer next time.  Another small downside is the 50 does not “compress” faces as much as a longer lens, so is less flattering in a fashion sense.  But it provides a very natural appearance.
Jasper weathered from a nearby outcrop lies scattered on the desert floor in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Jasper weathered from a nearby outcrop lies scattered on the desert floor in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

      • The 50 as Landscape Lens:  A good quality 50 mm. makes a very nice landscape lens, believe it or not.  I’ve been learning much more about its capabilities on this trip.  Actually I was forced to, as my 24-105 mm. has something wrong with it.  I’ll just grab my camera with the 50 mm. on it, stuff a couple filters in my pockets (polarizer, graduated neutral density filter), and prance around the local landscape unencumbered by gear.  If light is low, I’ll either carry my tripod in one hand or use the tripod sling if I need my hands to scramble.

Here is the important point: You can simulate a wide-angle look with the 50 by simply behaving as if you’re shooting with a wide-angle lens.  Get low, get fairly close to your foreground (though not as close as you’ll get with a wide-angle), point it up, angle it down, try to include as much of the landscape as possible.  You’ll need to exclude more from your composition than you do with a wide-angle.  But that can be a good thing.

The downside comes when you consider the focal length.  At 50 mm. you won’t have as much depth of field as you do with a wide-angle lens.  If your 50 offers an aperture as small as f/22 that helps a lot.  My Zeiss only stops down to f/16 but it has such nice glass that I get decent sharpness from front to back in all but extreme situations.  Note that you will need to focus deeper into the image than with wide-angle lenses in order to get max. sharpness throughout, one half to two thirds into the scene ought to do it.

A different view of North Sixshooter Peak, featured in last Sunday's post.

A different view of North Sixshooter Peak, featured in last Sunday’s post.

      • The 50 as all-around Nature Lens:  If you have a close-up lens (I recommend the Canon 500D) you can use the 50 as a macro lens.  Most 50s already focus fairly close, and the very pocketable close-up lens (which screws onto the end of the lens like a filter) brings you close enough for insects, flowers and more.  If you’re buying a Canon 500D (about $150), get one for the biggest diameter lens you have, then get an adapter ring to step down to the smaller diameter of your 50.
      • The 50 for all-around City-Shooting:  I love wandering around places like harbors and industrial areas, parks, bridges, etc. with just me, my camera and the 50. It is easy to shoot both detailed architecture and broader cityscapes with the 50, though you’ll need to walk around to find the right angle and field of view. Remember with a prime your feet are your zoom!  As with people, distortion is kept to a minimum unless you tilt the lens at steep angles.
      • The 50 as Video Lens:  Because of its normal field of view, light weight and speed this is an excellent lens to use for DSLR video.  It’s best to have one or several neutral density filters to use if conditions are bright.  With video you want to shoot at around 1/60th second.
Rare desert rainfall has temporarily provided this draw in Canyonlands National Park with water.

Rare desert rainfall has temporarily provided this draw in Canyonlands National Park with water.

A clean slot in Arches National Park's Fiery Furnace area is perfectly straight but much too narrow to fit through.

A clean slot in Arches National Park’s Fiery Furnace area is perfectly straight but much too narrow to fit through.

If it sounds like I’m singing the praises of my 50 mm., you’re right.  I am.  The clarity and quality of images I get has been nothing short of excellent.  And my previous Canon 50 mm. f/1.4 was almost as good as my current Zeiss is.  Initially I didn’t use the 50 much, only when light was low; inside temples and such. But now that I have forced myself to become one with it by often carrying only this lens, its true versatility has come through.

So that is what I recommend once you’ve purchased one.  Take only your 50 mm. on all sorts of photo walks, from people to architecture to landscape and nature.  You’ll notice some limitations, especially if you’re used to shooting with zooms, but these are more like parameters than limitations.  They force you to get creative about your position and composition, and so result in an image that is very well thought out.  Try it.  I think you’ll like it.

The rock monoliths and fins of Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park, Utah are bathed in late afternoon sunshine under a threatening sky.

The rock monoliths and fins of Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park, Utah are bathed in late afternoon sunshine under a threatening sky.

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4 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: The Fabulous 50 mm. Lens.

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  1. Your photography is awesome!

  2. Excellent recommendations. I will follow your advice.

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