Deal 6: 365 days of training from the world’s best photographers
Understanding Lenses: Part II, and is part of a series of lessons about camera lenses. Links to the others are at the bottom of the article.
Before zoom lenses became the norm most cameras came with a 50mm lens as standard. Since then, the humble 50mm prime has fallen somewhat out of favour. Which is a shame, because 50mm prime lenses can give you high quality and versatility at a low price point. On an APS-C camera it’s one of my favourite focal lengths. Let’s take a look at why.
If you own a kit lens or zoom that covers the 50mm focal length you may be wondering why you would buy a 50mm prime. After all, you already have that focal length covered. The answer is that 50mm lenses have some advantages that kit lenses don’t:
50mm lenses are simple beasts from a design point of view. Lens designers figured out a long time ago how to make a good quality 50mm lens, and the result is that the optical performance of even the least expensive 50mm prime outshines many zooms.
I used a Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II lens (Canon’s cheapest) on a full-frame camera to take the photo below, my first time using it for photographing architecture, and I was amazed at the detail it captured when I enlarged it to 100%.
50mm lenses are simple. They tend to have six to eight elements inside – zoom lenses may have more than double that. That means manufacturing costs are lower. It is likely that the cheapest lens in your camera manufacturer’s range is a 50mm prime. Most 50mm lenses represent excellent value for money.
However, when making a purchase (of any lens, not just a 50mm) it is wise bear in mind that more expensive models of the same lens have better build quality, autofocus performance, weatherproofing and maybe a wider maximum aperture.
Canon, for example, has three 50mm prime lenses (plus a 50mm macro lens) in its current range. You may not notice much difference in image quality between the 50mm f1.8 II and 50mm f1.2L – but you will notice the difference in build quality and autofocus performance. I opted for the middle option and bought the mid-range 50mm f1.4.
For me this is the most exciting aspect of 50mm primes (indeed, any prime lens). If you have a kit lens the long end (around 55mm) has an aperture of f5.6 or thereabouts. A prime 50mm lens has an aperture of f1.8 or wider. That’s over three stops. It makes a difference when shooting in low light as you can open up the lens rather than increasing ISO. It also helps you take photos with shallow depth-of-field.
This photo was taken at f1.8 with a 50mm lens:
Once you have a 50mm prime lens the next step is learning to get the best out of it. These are the things that I use my 50mm lens for:
A 50mm lens is a nice walk-around lens to take on a day out. I took these photos with my 50mm f1.4 lens in China. On a full-frame camera it’s a convenient focal length for this very casual style of photography. On an APS-C camera it will help you close in on interesting details.
On an APS-C camera a 50mm prime lens effectively becomes a short telephoto lens, ideal for portraits. It works well on a full-frame camera as well, as long as you don’t mind a little distortion. The photos below show a couple of portraits taken with an 85mm lens.
You can use a close-up lens or extension tubes with a 50mm lens to take close-up photos. You can also reverse mount it onto another lens to take macro photos (the techniques are covered in detail in the linked articles). This greatly increases the versatility of the lens. If you already own a 50mm lens these are cheaper options than buying a macro lens.
These are the previous articles in the series:
If you liked this article then take a look at my latest eBook, Understanding Lenses: Part II – A guide to Canon normal and telephoto lenses.
July 5, 2013 03:22 am
I do quite a bit of photography with a Minolta AF 50mm f/1.4 lens on a Sony Alpha DSLR A 560.
What I like best with this lens are its capabilities :
1. Wide Aperture
3. Low light capability
4. Life-like verticals and parallels
5. Totally dependable
These qualities make the 50mm lens a 'Great Lens' and totally dependable for photographing any subject .
It is truly the best among the various focal length lenses that I have employed in my photography career of three decades !
June 24, 2013 07:59 pm
(ooops...or even Pigeon)
June 24, 2013 07:53 pm
Thanks for this interesting article Andrew.
A couple of days ago I bought a Canon Prime EF 50mm f1.4 USM for my 650D and I am loving the learning curve with this lens (Even if it does have the 1.6x crop factor). I've already taken some lovely shots but still struggle to focus the areas I would like but I imagine the more I use it the better I will become.
After reading this and some of your other posts with regards conversion to Macro Photography, I am thinking of investing in some Close Up Filters / Lenses for some Macro shots - any recommendations in terms of brands as the most common one I've seen are manufactured by Hoya?
(By the way I am living in HK so instantly recognize the Victoria Harbour and the roast duck! I doubt there is a more photogenic modern city than HK but I am sure someone will disagree).
January 19, 2013 03:15 am
I came to the DPS website because I knew I could find an article on the 50mm. On Monday, Jan.21,2013 I will be volunteering at the Presidential Inauguration in Washington DC. I was told that certain type of cameras with "papparazi" lenses would not be allowed. I do have a nifty 50 that I really appreciate but do not use it often. Thank-you for your article because that is the lens I will be using that day.
December 11, 2012 09:48 pm
So happy to read this article; I absolutely love the 50mm standard lens too. I have been using it 80% of the time on my film camera's (doing press shots, weddings, car reviews) and now I prefer the 25mm pancake on the Olympus line as a standard lens (its extremely small size makes it ideal as walk-around).
What I like the most about the 50mm is that this focal lenght gives a steady, peaceful image. It looks very natural. It is in almost all circumstances the easiest to make compositions. In fact, all you need is a 50mm for everything and a good tele for when you physically can not get close enough - say a 135mm or 180mm.
December 7, 2012 02:04 am
Give me my 50mm or give me death. Or something like that......
November 20, 2012 01:21 am
The big advantage of 50mm lens is the aperture for sure. The clarity with prime lenses are awesome. I recently got a 40 mm Pancake lens and I have been having a lot of fun with it. Have a look at it here.
Though the aperture is a bit smaller on this one, I like my 40 mm Pancake lens.
@tod you can have a look at the sample images and have an impression :)
November 15, 2012 01:25 pm
I just got my fifty today! Felt like it was a right of passage as a photographer lol
November 11, 2012 12:46 pm
What are anyone's thought of the canon 40mm pancake ens on an aps-c sensor?
November 1, 2012 07:55 am
I purchased the 50mm 1.2L about a month ago and I have to say it's taken over as my primary lens. The focal length is great with this lens. I have to be honest though, I rarely use the 1.2 aperture. However, with my experience with other L lenses, I learned over time that the "sweet spot" of L lenses is usually a few stops down from the maximum aperture. With that said, this lens' sweet stop is from about 2.0 to 4.0. Awesome lens!
October 29, 2012 03:18 am
I am looking for advice on purchasing a lense for my Canon T1i. The main purpose of my camera is taking photos of my sons during their basketball season. This has proved to be difficult with lighting and blurred images. I know it is me and not the camera or lense creating these problems, but if someone could offer advice for an inexpensive lense that may help me out in any way, I would appreciate it greatly!!! This is my older sons senior year and my last chance to capture his passion for the game ( I have accumulated too many less than memorable pictures from past seasons). Again, any advice will be appreciated and please keep in mind a limited budget.
October 27, 2012 03:43 am
Thanks, Andrew, for another great article about lenses. I love the series. You said one thing here in this one which got me reconsider my set of glass. I am shooting camera with APS-C sensor, and for me buying a "nifty 50" meant getting the closes equivalent. It was 30 mm lens. I realized just now that it was not the best idea, since I was loosing the "normal" view of the 50 mm lens and getting some wide-angle distortion. If I have bought the 50 mm, I would have effectively longer lens, as you said, 85 mm, and much better for portrait.
October 27, 2012 12:05 am
I also have a 50mm lenses,but is not my favorite, because I am a "nature" man. The quality is exceptioal(zuiko digital 50mm f2)
October 25, 2012 07:38 pm
I love my 50mm lens, for its sharpness!
here's my favourite pic taken with my sony 50mm 1.8:
October 22, 2012 12:44 am
I fell in love with my Pentacon 50mm f1.8 lens with the very first shot it took.
Though full manual, the old 1960 (?) lens captures amazing photos.
October 21, 2012 03:14 am
I use a Sigma 50mm f1.4 on my Canon APS-C a lot. It is not very comfortable for walking around, it is a very heavy lens with lots of glass. The Canon F1.8 is much, much lighter, and a lot smaller, so it looks less intimidating.
Having said that though I would not trade in my Sigma. It is a super sharp lens, spot on every time, very fast focussing and on a APS-C camera it has almost no distortion. It is the lens that for me is the least in the way of me and what I see when shooting.
As a walk around lens on APS-C I would recommend the 30mm Sigma. That is the 50mm full frame equivalent. It is a lot smaller, has a bit more distortion, but for its money it is the most fun. You have to get a lot more creative without a zoom and the 30mm is very versatile in a lot of situations.
October 19, 2012 02:18 am
I have to say that the 50mm is also one of my favourite lenses. I recently traded in the 1.8 for the 1.4. I have to say though that I loved my 1.8 and miss how light it is. It was so affordable and the images were beautiful.
I know the 1.2 is amazing but its weight takes it out of the "walk around" range for me.
I do love my prime lenses and the lack of zoomability makes me a "braver" photographer.
October 18, 2012 03:57 pm
Well, i have only kit lens 18-55mm and 35mm f/1.8g, I use 35mm f/1.8g for everything.. but i find 50mm f/1.8g is a better focal length..
October 18, 2012 06:49 am
You're almost right with your claims. Frame size does not affect depth of field, but focal length doesn't directly affect it either. Aperture and subject distance are what factor into depth of field
October 18, 2012 03:43 am
I love my 50mm. It's lightweight, and produces great images. The lack of zoom can help with getting more creative shots too.
October 17, 2012 07:52 am
I have had my Sigma 50mm f1.4 for about six months and still it surprises me. The image quality is excellent and it is fast becoming my favourite lens.
October 17, 2012 03:26 am
Yes I agree with Mei, I would love to own the f1,2 version, and I will some day. I love my 50mm lens for taking portraits. I too have noticed the difference in quality but then I suppose unless you're a really top professional photographer taking photos for financial gain, the kit lens is a good enough starting point for a newbie.
October 17, 2012 02:53 am
My fat Sigma 50mm f1.4 is always in my camera bag, and quite often on the camera too! I'd love to replace my range of zooms with 4 or 5 primes...
October 17, 2012 02:31 am
I think my next investment will be on a nikkor 50mm I have a few lens in my bag, but not a 50mm.
October 17, 2012 01:18 am
Since this was an article about 50mm lens, why include portrait photos taken with an 85mm lens???
October 16, 2012 09:27 pm
Really love my nikkor 50mm,this lens enough to cover all my work
October 16, 2012 02:54 pm
I just loved my 50mm lens the moment I bought it. At first I thought I had to move around a lot to compose my picture, but discovered that you'll be more creative this way, rather than being static with the zoom lens.
Many times I feel its the perfect lens which can work in most of the situation, be it Street, Portrait, Macro (with extension rings).. Always carry it when I travel ..
Some of my sample images with 50mm f1.8 Canon:
October 16, 2012 02:22 pm
Thanks Andrew! This is just the knowledge that I did not have.
'I love using my 50 mm 1.8 and won't consider a 35 mm just for FOV.
October 16, 2012 01:14 pm
I got the kit lenses when I bought my camera and then eventually bought a 50mm prime lens. I use it a lot now and have noticed the difference in quality compared to the kit lenses.
October 16, 2012 12:16 pm
I get your point about loving 50's, but I think there is some contradiction when compared on a full frame and an APSC. The field if view is different on each, so if you like a 50mm on an APSC, aren't you really saying you like an 85mm on a full frame?? In answer to Jay - yes a 35mm will give you the same field of view on an APSC, but you won't get much background blur (if any). That's why most people prefer a 50mm on an APSC, the field of view is a little narrow for a walk around, but you can actually blur out backgrounds, which is the feature if this lens most people are aiming for. Frame size does not affect DOF, focal length and apature do.
October 16, 2012 11:51 am
I have always loved my 50mm f1.8 lens. If I have the money, I hope to be able to own the f1.2L version.
October 16, 2012 11:08 am
Thank you so much.
On a cropped sensor camera, wouldn't a 35 mm ( or thereabouts) be a better choice as a walk-around lens? If yes (or even if no), how do these wider primes compare to the nifty fifty?
October 16, 2012 10:40 am
My 50mm 1.4 was on top of my list for a very long time (and I do have other AF-S lenses) BUT recently that position got taken by Nikon 28mm f/1.8 G..... just LOVE it ... sharp quick small
(i'm a Nikon user tho)
October 16, 2012 06:06 am
Yes, it is Oxford. The name of the building is Radcliffe Camera.
October 16, 2012 05:38 am
I love the 50 mm lens so much that I not only photograph with it but filmed my Doritos Crash The Super Bowl video on it last year. And guess what? I will use it again.
October 16, 2012 05:14 am
We have both the canon 50 1.2 and the 1.4 and the 1.2 is my most used lens on wedding day, groom and groomsmen, processional and recessional, cocktail hour shooting and even dancing shots at the reception.
October 16, 2012 04:25 am
A great article from a great photographer. I love 50mm so much I saved up and went for a f/1.2 but it literally lasted a week. My favourite has to be the 50mm f/1.4 I just couldn't get the 1.2.
October 16, 2012 02:56 am
Just curious if the first picture is clicked in Oxford UK?
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