Writer’s Favorite Lens the Nifty Fifty on a Cropped Sensor Camera

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50mm1Growing up, the first letter of my last name was towards the end of the alphabet, which meant that I was one of the last kids who got to choose my electives in high school. It was for this reason that I ended up with strange electives such as Physics, Advanced Placement Composition, Metal Shop, and eventually Black and White Photography. I was less than thrilled about taking Photography – I had SATs to take, colleges to get in to, and certainly did not have time for a photography class taught by the Psychology teacher who was notorious for making kids walking around campus with their hands in the shape of a rectangle, “visualizing” the shot. Despite my best efforts, somewhere between the enlarger and placing my paper in the developer for the first time, I fell in love.

I clung to black and white film photography for a number of years, until husband bought me my first DSLR – a Canon Rebel XS. One of the very first things I noticed was that something was wrong. Even when shooting with some of my favorite focal lengths, something looked off. After consulting Dr. Google, I quickly realized that the difference was that I learned photography in 35mm film format, and that the cropped sensor of the Canon XS made my lenses function in a different way than I was used to. There are plenty of articles that go into great depth explaining the hows and whys of cropped sensors, but what you need to know is that if you own an entry-level DLSR, you probably have one. If you do have a cropped sensor camera, you also need to know that a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor camera doesn’t actually act like a 50mm lens. Rather, APS-C (cropped sensor) cameras have a magnification factor of either 1.6x (Canon) or 1.5x (Sony & Nikon). So, you need to multiply the length of the lens on your camera by the magnification factor above in order to see what focal length that particular lens will function as on your camera. For example, if you put a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor camera, you have to multiply by 1.6x which means that your 50mm lens is actually functioning more like an 80mm lens.

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This is important because when you see reviews of lenses, or even when professional photographers talk about lenses, chances are that the images that they include will be taken with a full frame camera, which does not have a cropped sensor. In other words, even if you buy exactly the same lens, your photos will probably not look similar if you are using a cropped sensor camera. Now, please hear me when I say that this doesn’t mean that your camera is “bad” or that you need to upgrade your gear – you are capable of taking some absolutely amazing photos with a cropped sensor camera and a nifty fifty lens. There is a TON of potential there at a fairly low price point, which is why the 50mm f/1.8 lens is the first upgrade that a lot of new photographers make, and rightfully so! Today, I’d like to showcase a few of my favorite uses of a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor camera. In fact, every photo in this article was taken with a Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens and either a Canon XS or Canon 60D, which are both cropped sensor cameras.

Newborn Photography

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When I’m photographing newborns, I’d say that the 50mm lens is on my camera 90% of the time. I like to go to the new parents rather than have them come to me whenever possible because I tend to find that mom and baby relax a bit faster in their own space, and I like to include a lot of “lifestyle” images in the session as well. However, doing so comes at a trade-off, which is that I don’t have as much control over the light in their home as I would in my space. Yes, I can move furniture if necessary or even shoot in the kitchen if that’s where the best natural light is, but it’s also nice to have a lens that can accommodate lower-light situations if needed, and the 50mm certainly can do just that when I shoot wide open or close to it. I find that the sweet spot in terms of aperture with this lens is around f/2.5, which is typically sufficient, but I like the fact that I can go down even further if I want to bring the focus to little feet, hair, or newborn features.

Nature Photography

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While I have experimented with landscape photography using my 50mm lens, I prefer a wide angle lens (somewhere around 35mm) for that purpose. That said, while the 50mm may not be your best option for capturing waterfalls or beautiful mountain ranges, the 50mm lens shines in capturing the smaller details of nature – think flowers, vegetables, fruit, leaves, snow covered branches, and buds on trees.

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Portraits

Of course, one of the most common uses for the 50mm lens is for standard portraits. I use my 50mm lens most often for portraits of one or two people, but have pulled it out quite frequently for groups of about three to six people as well (any more than six, and I prefer a wider angle lens). When I first purchased the 50mm lens, I was so excited about the ability to create a blurred background in portraits that I almost always shot wide open, with the aperture at f/1.8. It was so exciting to be able to achieve that bokeh!

However, I also created a lot more work for myself and ended up with a lot fewer photos that nailed focus because the depth of field was so shallow, and any small movement of a kid could throw the focus out of whack . Now, I tend to set the aperture around f/2.5 when I’m shooting portraits, which still gives plenty of blur in the background but also makes my life a little easier. This is especially true when it comes to photographing toddlers and young kiddos that are often moving even when they’re “sitting still”. The bottom line? Don’t fall into the trap of shooting wide open all the time just because you can!

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Unexpected Surprises

When I’m out and about, I often toss my camera with the 50mm lens in my purse or in the car. As I’ve mentioned, it’s my favorite lens, and the one that gets the most use, so it’s a generally safe bet. That said, there have been a handful of occasions in which my 50mm lens may not have been my first choice if I had other options with me, but it performed better than expected nonetheless.

One such instance was when we ended up at a ski resort on the day of their high school snowboarding competition. I grabbed my camera just for fun, and was surprised at how well the 50mm lens handled a shot that I’d typically prefer a wider angle for. So, don’t be afraid to experiment with a 50mm lens even beyond the standard portrait applications, there’s a whole lot of potential there!

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Your Thoughts?

Do you own a 50mm lens? What do you find yourself using it for most often? Do you have a cropped sensor or full frame camera?

More Favorite Lenses from our Writers

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Meredith Clark

is a wife, mother, native Oregonian, complete bookworm, Top Chef lover, and new quilting addict. She can also be found blogging at La Buena Vida and Meredith Clark Photography.

  • Michael G

    Trying again to attach photos…

  • Krishna Kumar

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Meredith’s account of the humble 50 mm f/1.4.
    She is really in love with her 50 mm lens ! Madam, I’m no exception either. I romance my Minolta AF 50 mm f/1.4 which is a delight to work with. Sharpness, bouquet, low light capability, light weight … all make it a great lens. I pity those photographers who don’t have one ! … Viva The 50 mm f/1.4 … !!!

  • This was an excellent article, Meredith, and thank you for including the bit about crop vs. full frame too. The 50mm lens is also one of my favorites, and it’s amazing how versatile it is–as your beautiful examples showed!

  • jp grace

    i just bought the canon 50mm f1.8. i’ve used in on my canon 60D three times, so far. and so far, i’m ambivalent! the noise is annoying (at best) and the lack of IS isn’t good for my somewhat shaky hands. so that means i’ll have to resort to a tripod if i’m going to use it further. NOT conducive to puppies and kittens (i do volunteer pet portraits for a local shelter) which was one reason i was led to the nifty fifty to begin with. most, if not all, of my portraits so far are coming up out of focus, which has never been a problem in the past, but all my other lenses have IS too. so… question is… do i return it and go back to my 70-200L (downside: the distance i have to have away from my subject) since it really covers the same mm (i think?) on a crop-sensor, or battle through with the 50 till i get it right? oh the upside: i love the light weight factor and small profile and that i CAN get closer to my subjects. opinions? advice? name of a good therapist? lol

  • jhsvdm

    I agree wholeheartedly with the concept of the fantastic plastic on cropped sensor camera. I make a point of taking a camera along wherever I go. Currently it is an EOS 550 ( Rebel T3 I think elsewhere) with Canon f1.8 50 mm. Camera on mono picture style, shooting Raw files though. It’s small and lightweight and perfect combination to make you think what you’re doing.

  • Dale Mccormick

    the 50mm AF-D does meter with the 3200 etc, it just does not auto focus

  • carpenter11

    Love my old Nikon E series 50mm 1.8 on my D7000. What a super little lens! and so cheap.

  • ChshreCat

    Sorry about the double post. The pics didn’t show up on the first one, so I posted the second. Then when they both showed up, it turns out it posted the second one as “guest” so I can’t delete it.

  • Voret

    Have you considered the sigma 35mm f1.4 Art series lens. I have one on my Canon 7D and get some really fantastic shots out of it.

  • Azusa

    Meredith, I am torn between 50mm f1.8 and 40mm pancake lens. Do you have any thoughts on 40mm pancake lens? I have canon rebel t4i. I mostly shoot my sons (one is 2.5 yr old and the other one is 11 months). I am planning on asking Santa for either of those lens as Christmas gift ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Meredith

    Gorgeous image!

  • Meredith

    Don’t you love finding a lens that’s just a delight to shoot with?! So glad you have a favorite as well, Krishna!

  • Meredith

    Thanks for stopping by, Simon! It really is amazingly versatile!

  • Meredith

    I think that there can definitely be a learning curve with the 50mm lenses (at least there was for me!). I know that personally, I really have to pay attention to settings, keeping my ISO as low as I can, and keeping the shutter speed to what I can hand-hold without IS (about 1/80th or faster for me) to address those issues of noise and hand shake.

    Also, as much as I *intellectually* understood how far away from my subject I should stand with a 50mm lens, it took some practice time for me to really learn to apply that distance in real life. When I first bought this lens, I literally had to take a subject, and take a photo one foot away, two feet away, three feet away, (and so on) while keeping all other settings the same to make the appropriate distance *really* click in my mind. Who knew there could be so much muscle memory in photography?!

    Shooting with a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor will be a little different than shooting with a 70-200 on a cropped sensor (the 50mm will function as about 80mm whereas the 70-200mm will function as about 112-320mm), so if it were me, I’d advise playing around a bit more before giving up on the 50, but everyone is different and really does have different needs and preferences at the end of the day. I’m sorry if I rambled a bit there–I hope there was at least a helpful nugget or two for you!

  • Meredith

    Sounds like you’ve got a great setup! I’m a RAW lover too ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Meredith

    Yes, I really do love the images that the 50mm 1.8 produces for the price!

  • Meredith

    Hi Azusa,

    I have not had the opportunity to get my hands on the pancake lens yet, but have heard great things! Because I haven’t personally used it, I don’t feel like I can give you a real solid recommendation as to one over the other, but one of the other DPS writers recently profiled the 40mm pancake lens as her favorite lens, so I would certainly recommend checking out her post if you haven’t already!

    https://digital-photography-school.com/writers-favorite-lens-the-canon-40mm-pancake-lens/

  • Michael G

    Thanks!

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  • Pj

    sweet article.
    i also have a 50mm 1.8 on a cropped sensor, i use it often with portraits.

  • J Public

    Haha! – I do like the way you describe things, in this case the focal length mystery. Someone could write a comedy about the switch from film to digital. In my case that included astonishment at the ability to change ISO from shot to shot, and an unhealthy obsession with auto exposure bracketing. Relevant to this article was the wholly idiotic initial purchase of a 100mm lens for “portraits”.

  • Abiel rodney
  • Bari Tarmon

    I just recently got a 50mm 1.8 lens for my D7000. It “acts” like a 75mm but that’s fine with me. I typically prefer to rely on zoom lens as a holdover from my video days, but earlier this week I did a shoot of a company holiday lunch and decided ahead of time to start the shoot with my 50mm and see how far I can stay with it before I “gave in” to my mid-range zoom lens. I ended up taking quite a few shots with the 50mm and the results were very pleasing. I used a Gary Fong Lightsphere on my SB700 Speedlight and every shot was sharp and evenly lit. Once I brought the shots on screen for editing, I noticed how noise was not an issue as in past shoots (I do this every year). The close up shots looked like they were done in a studio and even the shots taken at some distance were still lit well. I did switch to my mid range zoom late on since I needed some longer shots, but the 50mm was a winner. It gave me the confidence to use it more often and not limit it only to controled shoots when I know I won’t need long range lens. I too used to shoot years ago with film cameras with prime lens only so it won’t take me long to get used to the fixed lens limitation. The 50mm is beautiful to shoot with.

  • Jeffrey Green

    I have a canon 70d. And I’m looking to get my first prime lens for the nice shallow depth of field and bowkeh effect. However, I feel that 80mm that us cropped sensors get from the 50mm is way too narrow. I don’t want to have to back up so far to get a nice shot. For portraits I’d prefer medium or long shots oppose to close ups just of the head. And I also heard the vignette is pretty noticeable until you get to around 2.8 and anywhere beyond that kind of loses the nice shallow depth of field.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, I just know all that from research and reviews.

    What I’m looking at is the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 which would still be a 30mm on a cropped sensor. Which I heard is very sharp and doesn’t show a lot of vignette.

    Do you have any recommendations or advice.

  • Great lens and the price is just awesome.. .. happy i got it and
    achieved a sharper clicks at 1.8
    don’t hesitate to use wide open ( very few misses only ) ..
    niftyfifty doesn’t have a Vr-stabilizer which also makes it bit difficult …
    but still the best lens i got ..
    personally i got no prob with this lens
    yet to discover more …
    awesome BOKEH , quality everything

    PS : i use NIKON D5200
    For more visit : https://www.facebook.com/C-J-Photography-238015379679072/?ref=bookmarks

    hope u’all njoy it ๐Ÿ˜€ and have good expi

    by the way awesome article sista ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Pat L

    Wouldn’t a 50mm on a Canon crop = 80mm equivalent so to get closer to 50mm I would need a 35mm f1.4?

  • Dawn Heath

    I have the Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. It’s a great little lens, one that I’ve not played around with enough lately. It takes beautifully crisp photos and creates smooth, blurred backgrounds. Thanks for the reminder! I’m going to get mine out and use it more often!!

  • Szigeti Zoltรกn

    what kind of extension tube do you use? I mean in mm. Thanks

  • Marcelo Arce

    Fantastic ! How do you do that ? I mean what kind of “tube’ I should use ? txs !

  • Michael G

    You want to get a set of extension tubes that have the electrical contacts in them. That way you can still adjust aperture and autofocus, although autofocus is less useful than the aperture setting. Amazon has some decent ones that are non-name brand so they’re quite affordable. That’s where I got mine.

  • Marcelo Arce

    Thank you !

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