JoziFolk - images of everyday life in South Africa


Why every photographer should own a 50mm lens 

Once upon a time, long, long ago, cameras came with 50mm lenses. These were often quickly discarded and replaced with a zoom lens to give the photographer greater versatility.

The truth is, those early zoom lenses were mostly horrible offering image-quality that was iffy at best. But convenience trumped quality.

It was only the die-hards who stuck with the "nifty fifty"; a pity, because the standard 50mm lens offers many advantages and should be in the bag of all serious photographers.

Here are some reasons you should own and use a 50mm lens.

They are cheap - sometimes! If your new, fancy digital camera will accept legacy, manual-focus lenses, you can likely find a premium example for less than $50 (R500) and in many cases, simply putting out the word will net you one that was lying in the back of some cupboard somewhere for free. But don't wait too long, the prices are climbing as 50mm lenses become increasingly popular with videographers.

Quality. 50mm lenses are prime fixed-focal-length lenses that produce superb quality. A 50mm lens makes tack sharp images, especially for its price. The colour rendition a 50mm lens gives is way better than that of a kit lens.

It is a ‘normal’ or ‘standard lens’. By normal, it means the perspective rendered by the 50mm matches the human eye or close to it (some say 42mm matches the perspective of the human eye). So it gives a natural look to the images. 

Compact and light. You're more likely to take your camera with you if it is light and compact and everyone knows, the best camera in the world, is the one you have with you when you come across that once-in-a-lifetime-never-to-be-repeated shot.

It is a fast lens. Fast lenses are those which have f-numbers f2.8 or lower. They are so called because it allows you to use faster shutter speeds since wide apertures let more light into the camera. Kit lenses are opened up to 3.5 – 5.6 range. At 55mm, the widest aperture you can use is f5.6. But in a 50mm f1.8 lens, you can open up to f1.8. That’s a 3 stop difference, or 6 times more than the amount of light a kit lens can let inside a camera. So the advantage is obvious — it helps you in shooting in low light conditions. You don’t need to increase the ISO, which creates noise, as when you use a kit lens, while shooting in low light situations. You can use faster shutter speed in low light situations, thus, taking blurry free images. 50mm comes with various wide apertures – f1.8, f1.4, f2, and even f0.95!

Bokeh. Bokeh is is the creamy, dreamy, out of focus areas in an image that occur when the lens is wide open. A 50mm lens that can be opened to f1.8 or more produces beautiful bokeh that other lenses can only dream of!

Portraits. On a camera with a crop sensor 50mm lens effectively becomes approximately an 80mm f1.8 lens. Wide open, there is no better portrait lens.

Street photography. The "nifty fifty" is a wonderful lens for street photography used by many of the greats in that field.

"But you can't zoom with it!" I hear someone shout from the back. Not so! There is an ancient photographic technique called: "zoom with your feet". If you want a wider angle, move back. If you want the subject tighter, get closer!

One of the biggest advantages of the 50mm is seldom mentioned  and that is: lack of choice. How many times have we missed a shot because we were faffing trying to decide what focal length to use? With the 50mm there's none of that. It's just about getting the shot. Using just a 50mm lens is liberating and will result in better, more carefully thought-out images.

 If you don't yet have a 50 in your bag do yourself a favour and check one out.