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Writer’s Favorite Lens: 50mm f/1.8

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Picking a favorite lens can be tricky, because there are aspects of a variety of lenses that I like. Sometimes I like to use zoom lenses, sometimes prime lenses, and other times specialty lenses like macro or ultra-wide-angle. But despite the variety of options available, at the end of the day I keep coming back to one particular lens as my pick of the litter. The lens that gets the job done no matter what situation I’m in, the one that consistently produces outstanding results more than any other, is my trusty Nikon 50mm f/1.8G. It’s a workhorse that has survived rain, cold, and even being dropped on a concrete garage floor. It’s incredible versatility is why I like to recommend it to photographers – especially those new to the craft who want to expand beyond their kit lens.

yucca

Value and versatility

When I was first exploring digital photography several years ago, I was enticed by the zooming function of a kit lens and could not understand why anyone would want a lens with a fixed focal length. It seemed quite limiting, and since I was just getting my feet wet I did not understand why I would spend over $200 on a non-zooming lens when I could spend less than half that on one that covered a greater variety of focal lengths. The price, I thought, made the lens a waste of money. But nevertheless I listened to the advice of my friends Ryan and Kevin and skipped the kit lens entirely, opting instead to shoot only with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 on my newly-acquired D200. And my, oh my, what a difference that made.

Despite what might seem like a high price tag for new photographers, this lens is quite inexpensive compared to many of its counterparts. Because its focal length is not especially wide, but not all that tight, it can be used in an astonishing variety of situations even on a crop-sensor camera. In fact, the only time I have found myself reaching for a wider lens is when I am shooting multiple people indoors. If I’m using my “Nifty Fifty” during these situations I have to either stand clear across the room or at the other end of the hallway to fit my subjects in the shot.

Other than that it works great for nature, architecture, animal, and especially portrait photography. I have done several portrait sessions with nothing but this 50mm lens, and it produces solid results if you want close-ups with beautiful blurry backgrounds or even whole group shots. While other lenses like the 85mm f/1.8 or 35mm f/1.8 are ideal for tighter or wider shots, this one lens can cover a greater variety of your photographic needs like almost nothing else. The price might seem a bit steep, but it will certainly pay off over time.

portrait

If you’re on a limited budget and want to take nice portraits, look no further than a 50mm lens.

Features

At first glance it might not seem like a non-zooming lens would have much in the way of features, and this particular one doesn’t even have image stabilization that is found on some cheaper kit lenses! But the more I used this lens, the more I realized how many features it did have, and how much they impacted my photography.

For instance, this lens has two focusing modes: Automatic/Manual and Manual. Because I use back-button focusing on my camera, the A/M mode on the 50mm f/1.8 means I don’t have to press any buttons or change any options if I want to quickly shift between Automatic and Manual focusing. On many other lenses I would need to fiddle with a switch on the lens itself in order to change this option. That might not seem like much of a hassle, but I have been in many situations in which I needed to quickly change from Automatic to Manual focusing and back. Not having to flip a switch every time has been an incredible time saver, and resulted in much better photos with much less frustration on my part.

droplet

Being able to switch easily between manual and automatic focus allowed me to get this shot of a precariously-perched water droplet.

Another key feature of this lens is its overall size. While a big zoom lens might seem tempting, and indeed they are certainly useful in a variety of situations, I like the compact size of this lens because it makes it ideal for tossing in a camera bag or carrying around for a day of casual shooting. It only protrudes a few inches from the camera, rendering it quite inconspicuous in a crowd of people. Though it is not ideal for street photography on a crop sensor body, it has allowed me to get plenty of candid shots in a variety of situations because it was simply easy to carry around on my camera.

guitar

While it is a bit on the tight-angle end for casual street photography, the 50mm lens on a crop sensor body can still deliver outstanding results.

Finally, there are a few features of the actual construction of the lens that elevate this lens as my favorite. One of the round glass elements inside the lens is aspherical, which significantly reduces some of the optical oddities caused by a defect called “chromatic aberration” that crops up on photos from time to time. This helps ensure that the photos I take using this lens are tack-sharp and have less of the strange color fringes that can show up on the edges of various elements of a picture.

It helps you learn

tower-flare

Learning to work within the constraints of this lens helped me understand so much more about photography than I would have otherwise.

Noted speaker Martin Villeneuve said that “constraints can actually boost creativity,” and this has certainly been my experience with this non-zooming 50mm lens. Shooting exclusively with it for over a year helped me learn far more about photography than I ever would have otherwise. Its wide aperture unlocked creative photographic opportunities that I would have never experienced with a kit lens Also, the inability to zoom forced me to become more invested in the situations I was photographing, as well as seek out new angles from which to shoot them. This has helped me learn how to use available light much better because I rarely needed to use the on-camera flash or external speedlights, and it helped me understand how the various elements of exposure worked in tandem because there was so much room to experiment with such wide aperture values.

bike

Even in the pouring rain, this lens has never let me down.

To take the idea of working within limits a step further, and help me continually experiment with photography, I started a blog called Weekly Fifty where I post one image each week that was taken with this 50mm lens. After almost two years of doing this I feel like I am just scratching the surface of what it has to offer! Whether you are a new photographer looking for an addition to your gear bag, or a seasoned professional who wants to push new creative boundaries, you can’t go wrong with this simple but powerful piece of glass.

Do you use a 50mm lens? Post your thoughts about it in the comments below, or share any other favorite lenses you might have as well.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him at sringsmuth.

  • I wish you could go see the Shoot Like A Pro Tour; Scott Kelby actually explains very clearly why this not a great idea.

    This is just a great post….
    http://scottkelby.com/2014/if-i-had-1000-to-spend-on-improving-my-portrait-photography-id-get/

    …one more:
    http://www.peachpit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=1842939

  • Michael

    I have read almost all the books published by Scott Kelby and he is my #1 source for digital photography science. However, one might feel that he is pushing what he advises to purchase from B&H photo. Yes, I would say it’s better to have that 85 mm lens he advising for portrait photography but the price was $369.00. I’ve got my Canon Prime 50 mm f/1.8 for only $125.00 from Amazon and still can produce very dissent portraits especially if I post-process them in my Lightroom 5 and I do for all my images anyway as I take them in RAW format only.

  • Never had the 50mm 1.8. I have the Canon 50mm 1.4, which is comparable in price with the 85mm which is why I said if someone were to make a choice, and was in that price range, the 85mm would be a much better choice for portraits. What’s wrong with B & H? That’s where I buy all my gear from…the 85mm 1.2 is like $1800….so, $369 is pretty affordable all things considered. My 50mm 1.4 apparently is listed for $399 on B & H today…

  • ….and that’s great that you do; I am a huge KelbyOne fan…

  • Michael

    I am retired now and as they say, I live on a fix income. I still own my Canon EOS 20D which I love. I am dreaming to own Canon EOS 7D Mark II. Unfortunately, a new lens even for $369.00 is a lot of money for me to spend now. I own Canon kit lens 17 – 85 mm f/4 – f/5.6 and Canon 55 – 250 mm f/4 – f/5.6 plus this prime 50 mm f/1.8. Nothing wrong with B&H outlet, just I think Scott Kelby probably gets his cut from them when he advertises their products and prices. I could be wrong but I like his style of teaching and the way he approaches to digital photography craft and art. Thank you for your replies.

  • Well I can dispute it because I have been a pro for 26 years and I use a 50mm all the time – on full frame!

  • Great discussion you guys. I would add that lens choice isn’t about right or wrong or THE lens for one particular thing, but choosing the right one for the effect that you want. If you want to shoot a CEO and make him look powerful and tall then you shoot low down with a wider lens. You want to shoot a punk rocker and make him look funky and weird on purpose – then super wide might be your choice. You want to make a lady look flattered then you use a longer one slightly above eye level. All depends on the intent. And all of those are portraits – for the record.

    Alexandra we’re currently looking for dPS writers if you are interested in doing some articles for us either as a guest or regularly please apply here: http://jobs.problogger.net/view/8225

  • Hi Darlene,

    Of course it isn’t about right or wrong lens when we speak from the artistic standpoint, and everyone’s personal vision/concept/ideas regarding a portrait, I was speaking solely about head shots(Peter Hurley style), and head and shoulders type portraits where that kind of distortion would be the most visible with certain types of people.

    ‘Lighting the subject’ could totally destroy a portrait even if the 85mm was used. There are so many cases of the opposite where all the equipment is designed for portraiture, but the lighting is so awful that it really doesn’t matter what lens was used. I’ve done both head shots and head and shoulders with the 50mm 1.4 and I am not a fan. Once you “see” that distortion you can’t “un-see it”. I am using it for everything else though, and I’ve even shot fireworks with it. The last part of this post: http://acorner.net/blog/2014/10/epcot-illuminations-of-earth-fireworks

    Thank your Darlene for the invitation, I appreciate that. I just sent it.

  • Great thanks! We’re taking applications for a few weeks but I’ll be going through the applications as I have time and getting back to you.

  • Did you use this form? https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1GfsfaUCoSQb0kK92t1o1dUeYuyzK1ZV5HLdLBTAFafo/viewform – your submission isn’t showing up in there – comment when you’ve done it please and I’ll check.

  • Sounds good. Thank you much! 🙂

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    135mm?

  • That Canon 135mm is a total gem. I don’t have it yet, but it is on my short list of future purchases! LOL I don’t know that I would shoot a group with it though; when I shoot weddings as a second shooter I usually use 24mm for groups. I can do a smaller group with the 50mm, but I like to have crop space, so I usually shoot wider, so I can crop if I want/need to.

  • I know so many people who love this lens, but I just…don’t. I have a 50mm 1.8 that I used on cropped digital and a 1.4 that I use on film and although I love those wide apertures and the superior image quality of the prime over a zoom, I find the focal length an awkward one.

    On crop, I find it’s just too long for most situations. I use it for gig photography and I guess I’d use it for portraits too, if I ever did any. It’s a bit more useful full frame; it covers the middle ground between my 28mm and 135mm quite nicely, but it’s still a neither-here-nor-there length. I find myself using the 28mm far more frequently and when I use the 50mm it’s normally because I want to take advantage of its superior optics rather than for compositional reasons.

  • Yeah, a friend of mine is a very successful pro and uses a 50mm 1.4 on full frame pretty much exclusively. I suspect he likes working with that length and fixes any distortion in post.

  • Ahmad A Sarg

    well , I’m a beginner & bought this lens 2 weeks after buying my 1st crop body.
    hesitated between the 50mm1.8g & 70-300mm vr.
    it’s an amazing lens but not that sharp at f1.8 . so sharp at 5.6

  • yospike

    I added a 50mm for a trip to Italy and used almost exclusively once I started. I started photography in the 1970’s when a 50mm was the standard and all I could afford. Sorry it took so long to get back to the best lens in the bag! Might as well just throw out the cheap kit zooms now, as there inherent abborations and soft focus are no longer acceptable! Get Yourself a 50mm today.

  • Kristine7845
  • Frank Nazario

    dont blink and get either of these 2:
    the Nikon 50mm 1.8
    or the dream machine right now the 50mm 1.4 Art from Sigma…
    You will have tears in your eyes when you see how amazingly beautiful this lens renders your images.

  • Shabbir AZ
  • petervandever

    I am a Samyang believer!

  • Marcy

    My husband just surprised me with this lens for my D3200 and I am excited to get out and shoot all the things (again)!

  • Maria R

    I would like to get one pretty soon for my Nikon D5300. Nifty fifty is cool and great idea re pics taken with 50mm lens

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