Why should you use a 50mm lens for travel photography? And how can you capture beautiful 50mm travel shots?
I’m a huge fan of 50mm lenses and 50mm travel shooting; in fact, for the first two years I owned a camera, my 50mm f/1.4 lens was the only one I used. In this article, I explain five reasons why I recommend a 50mm lens for travel photography. I also include a handful of tips to help you take your 50mm shots to the next level, fast!
Let’s dive right in.
5 reasons you should use a 50mm lens for travel photography
While there are quite a few reasons to do 50mm travel photography, these are my top 5:
1. 50mm lenses are small and lightweight
In travel photography, weight is a big deal. You want to carry a light load; that way, your travels can be as convenient and comfortable as possible.
Of course, the best way to avoid a heavy load is by packing gear that is essential, small, and lightweight. The 50mm lens fits all three of these categories.
Most 50mm lenses weigh only 5.6-6.6 oz (160-190 g). Even short kit lenses are heavier than 50mm lenses, yet they produce lower-quality images and offer narrower maximum apertures.
Plus, a regular 50mm prime lens mounted on a camera will take up far less space than any zoom lens. This makes them easier to pack (plus it makes them less noticeable when you want to capture candid photos). A small camera with a 50mm lens can fit in a jacket pocket or a day bag. That way, you won’t need to carry a dedicated camera bag everywhere when traveling.
2. 50mm lenses offer wide maximum apertures
Most 50mm lenses have a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4. (Some 50mm lenses offer even wider apertures; I’ll address those later in this article.)
A “fast” lens like this allows you to choose a quicker shutter speed, which is hugely helpful when the light is low. If you’re shooting indoors, in a cave, or at night, a fast lens comes in handy. With a 50mm prime lens, you can let in two or three extra stops of light over an average kit zoom. That is a big deal.
Wide apertures also produce lovely background blur (i.e., bokeh). If you want to blur out the background, start by selecting a wide aperture! This effect looks great, and it also allows you to isolate your main subject so they stand out in the frame. I find that, by setting my 50mm lens to f/1.4, I can capture beautiful travel portraits that feature background blur but enough detail to add context.
3. 50mm lenses are cheap
Anyone traveling on a budget – and yes, that’s most of us! – appreciates saving a few dollars when preparing for a trip. Fortunately, adding a 50mm lens to your equipment inventory is not going to break your bank.
You can generally pick up a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens for around $100 to $350, and if you’re willing to buy used, you can go even cheaper. You won’t get the impressive bokeh and extra light offered by an f/1.4 lens, but you’ll still be able to capture some beautiful travel shots.
4. The 50mm focal length is highly versatile
Once you get your hands on a 50mm lens, you’ll understand the impressive versatility of the focal length. You can capture close-ups, medium shots, and even wider scenes.
Really, you can use a 50mm lens to photograph most subjects. It’s great for formal portraits, environmental portraits, architecture, detail shots, and so much more! You can even use it to photograph food, landscapes, and architecture.
5. 50mm prime lenses are sharp
As I mentioned above, 50mm lenses don’t cost very much – yet they offer surprisingly high-quality optics.
If you want to capture sharp travel images (and who doesn’t?), a 50mm lens will do a great job. On the other hand, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a kit zoom that’s as sharp as a 50mm prime. You see, zoom lenses contain lots of glass, which means light has to pass through more elements before it reaches the sensor to create an image. The light becomes more diffracted and the image is less likely to turn out sharp.
50mm travel photography tips
Now that you know why 50mm travel photography is a good idea, it’s time to discuss how you can get great 50mm shots! Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your 50mm lens when traveling.
1. Make sure you purchase a 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 (not an f/1.2)
You might not realize it, but the f/1.8 and f/1.4 versions of a 50mm lens offer a few significant advantages over the f/1.2 or faster varieties.
First, 50mm f/1.8 lenses are much cheaper than f/1.2 lenses, and even 50mm f/1.4 lenses are reasonably priced. But once you step up to f/1.2, you’ll pay a whole lot more!
And you probably won’t want to shoot at f/1.2, anyway. Using an f/1.2 aperture takes a whole lot of practice, as it’s easy to miss the point of focus and ruin the shot. Even at f/1.8 or f/1.4, keeping the right part of the composition in focus is challenging for many photographers.
Finally, f/1.8 and f/1.4 lenses are small compared to most faster 50mm primes. This does depend somewhat on the brand, but in general, if you’re concerned about size and weight, then a faster 50mm prime is best left at home.
2. Move your feet for better compositions
If you’re used to traveling with a zoom lens, then you might be in the habit of zooming to adjust your framing – but with a prime lens, if you want to alter your composition, you need to move.
Really, no matter your lens type, moving is a good thing. It’ll help you find more interesting compositions. When I teach my travel photography workshops, I often have to encourage people to move about more, and this results in much better shots. Your first composition isn’t always the best!
Of course, with a 50mm prime lens on your camera, you’ll be forced to move frequently. In my experience, the more you use a prime lens, the more you’ll automatically begin checking out other perspectives when you find a great subject to photograph – and the more you’ll leave with amazing images.
3. 50mm lenses are great for travel panoramas
If you love to capture majestic, wide-angle images when you travel, you might be worried; after all, if you shoot with a 50mm lens, you’re giving up the wide perspective, right?
Not necessarily! Because while a 50mm lens doesn’t offer a wide-angle field of view, you can expand its focal length capabilities by creating multi-shot panoramas. Bonus: 50mm lenses tend to avoid distortion, which makes it easy to create seamless panoramas.
Simply mount your setup on a tripod, then slowly rotate the camera while taking images. (Aim to overlap each shot by around 30%.) You can quickly stitch together the resulting files in post-processing, and – voila! – you’ll have a beautiful “wide-angle” shot.
4. Use your 50mm lens for a full month
If you want to get good at 50mm travel photography fast, then here’s my recommendation:
Put your 50mm lens on your camera. And don’t take it off for a whole month.
Every day (or as much as you can), head out to shoot. Get a feel for the 50mm field of view. Learn its framing. See its depth of field effects.
By the time the month is up, you’ll be a 50mm expert!
50mm travel photography: final words
Don’t be afraid to travel with a minimal amount of gear. It can actually help you become a more creative photographer! With a lighter camera bag, you’re free to move around, and you won’t feel so tired at the end of the day.
So grab a 50mm lens. Head out. And enjoy your travels!
Now over to you:
Do you plan to use a 50mm lens on your next travel outing? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below!