Pretty much every professional photographer has has done 50mm photography at some point in their lives – and many of them still use their 50mm glass on a regular basis. In the industry, we often affectionately call this lens the “nifty fifty,” and for good reason.
Why? Because 50mm lenses are incredibly versatile. They can capture great photos in tons of situations, and they offer plenty of other amazing benefits, too. I myself use a 50mm lens all the time, and in this article, I share everything you need to know about 50mm photography, including:
- Key 50mm lens features
- What genres of photography are best suited by a 50mm focal length
- My top reasons for doing 50mm photography
Let’s dive right in.
What is a 50mm lens?
To start, it’s a prime lens, which means it has a fixed focal length. You can’t zoom in or out; what you see is what you get. But trust me, that’s a good thing. It forces you to engage more with your surroundings, making you move to find the perfect shot.
The 50mm lens is often dubbed the “standard lens” because its perspective closely resembles that of human vision. There’s a natural feel to the images it captures. The view is neither distorted nor overly compressed; it’s just like how you’d see the world with your own eyes.
It’s been around for decades, and it’s often the first lens people buy after they decide to upgrade from their kit lens. Why? Because it’s incredibly accessible. Most 50mm lenses are affordable, especially compared to other prime lenses with similar image quality. This makes it an excellent starting point for amateur photographers and a reliable choice for professionals.
Now, the 50mm lens isn’t just for newbies. Even seasoned photographers swear by it. They’ll often have at least one 50mm lens in their kit because of its unmatched combination of quality, portability, and versatility. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, the 50mm lens can be your go-to for a broad range of photography styles and scenarios.
Reasons to do 50mm photography
You’ve likely heard photographers sing praises of the 50mm lens. But why all the love?
Well, the reasons are aplenty. This section will give you a glimpse of what makes the 50mm lens a prized possession in a photographer’s arsenal. We’ll delve into how they excel in creating beautiful bokeh, perform admirably in low-light conditions, and offer incredible versatility. Each of these aspects makes the 50mm a lens you won’t regret adding to your camera bag.
1. 50mm lenses are shockingly cheap (yet the quality is great!)
Most lenses – especially the latest mirrorless lenses from Canon, Nikon, and Sony – cost a pretty penny. You can expect to pay upwards of $500 for each lens you buy, and if you go for wide-aperture lenses, you’ll pay a lot more.
The exception, however, is the humble 50mm lens. Have you looked at the latest 50mm f/1.8 prices? At the time of writing:
- You can buy the Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 STM for just $179
- You can buy the Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G for just $216
- You can buy the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 for just $248
- You can buy the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM for just $125
And despite the low prices, these lenses are impressively capable. You’ll get decently sharp photos, especially if you shoot at f/2.8 and narrower, not to mention all the other 50mm photography benefits I discuss throughout this article!
One caveat: While 50mm f/1.8 lenses tend to be insanely cheap, you’ll pay more for 50mm f/1.4 and 50mm f/1.2 lenses. But many shooters, especially beginners, don’t really need these lenses; in my experience, they’ll be perfectly happy with an excellent 50mm f/1.8 model.
2. 50mm lenses produce gorgeous bokeh
The first thing to catch your eye when shooting with a 50mm lens is often the beautiful, dreamy background blur, known as bokeh. This is not accidental. 50mm lenses are usually designed with wide maximum apertures. Even a budget-friendly 50mm can come with an f/1.8 or an f/2.8 aperture.
A wide aperture is the key to achieving that professional-looking shallow depth of field. When you’re shooting with your aperture wide open, your subject stays sharp and focused, but the background melts into a soft blur. This adds a certain magic to your photos, making them pop and guiding the viewer’s eye directly to the subject.
You’ll find that this bokeh effect is especially compelling in portrait and product photography. A softly blurred background elevates a simple portrait into a poignant capture of character. The same goes for product photos. That tube of lipstick or handmade necklace becomes the uncontested star of the show against a gentle haze of colors in the backdrop.
But bokeh isn’t just for portraits and still life. Imagine a dew-kissed spider web with each droplet crisp and clear, while the garden in the background takes on a painterly quality. Or a bustling street scene where the subject’s face is crystal clear, but the surrounding crowd is an impressionistic blur. The creative possibilities are endless, and that’s just scratching the surface of what a 50mm lens can do for you.
3. 50mm lenses offer impressive close-up capabilities
No, most 50mm lenses don’t offer true macro focusing, but they can get you pretty darn close to your subject. Standard 50mm glass generally offers enough magnification to capture gorgeous flower photos, insect images, still life shots, and more. And you can capture amazing background bokeh by getting up close and widening that aperture to f/1.4 or f/1.8!
Pro tip: If you do decide to shoot at f/1.4 or f/1.8, I’d recommend focusing manually. That way, you can pinpoint the exact portion of the image you want sharp, while the rest is blurred into oblivion. Make sense?
4. 50mm lenses are great for low-light photography
As I mentioned above, 50mm lenses tend to boast a maximum aperture of at least f/1.8 (and more expensive versions widen to f/1.4 or even f/1.2).
Such a wide maximum aperture comes with a few perks, including enhanced background blur and beautiful shallow depth of field effects – yet the biggest benefit for many photographers is the improved low-light prowess.
You see, the wider the lens’s aperture, the more light it lets in, and the better it can handle scenes with weak illumination. Specifically, a wide maximum aperture will let you create a bright, detailed exposure at night and indoors, without forcing you to lower the shutter speed to a ridiculous level or jack up your ISO to noise-inducing heights.
Here are just a few scenarios where a 50mm lens can be a lifesaver:
- When shooting candid portraits indoors
- When shooting on the city streets at night
- When shooting nighttime events
- When shooting indoor concerts and productions
Note that I’m talking about handheld photography. It’s possible to work with any lens in low light if you have a sturdy tripod – but handholding does offer far greater flexibility, especially if you want to photograph at a fast pace. Plus, even if you have a tripod, you’ll need a reasonably fast shutter speed to capture moving subjects.
Will you be able to handhold or shoot moving subjects in pitch-black conditions? No – but as long as you have some sort of nearby illumination, such as a street light, you’ll generally be fine!
5. 50mm lenses are highly portable
Here’s yet another reason why I love 50mm lenses: They’re incredibly small and they’re lightweight, so you can take one pretty much anywhere without issue.
For instance, you can pack a 50mm lens away in a small camera bag and still have plenty of room for cameras, accessories, and other lenses. You can also mount a 50mm lens on your camera, then carry it around as you head out with your kids, go on a street photography walk, and more.
Plenty of travel photographers keep a 50mm lens as their primary glass, and many street photographers use a 50mm lens almost exclusively (including famous street shooters like Henri Cartier-Bresson!).
You can also shoot in certain public areas (such as sports stadiums) with a 50mm lens – whereas a long zoom lens may get you denied entry. And if you like to go for long walks or hikes, a 50mm lens won’t start to feel like a brick after a few hours.
Bottom line: The 50mm lens is the most inconspicuous, travel-ready lens you can buy. If you want a lens for walkaround photography, if you plan to travel frequently, or you simply like the idea of keeping a barely noticeable lens on your camera, then it’s a great pick!
6. 50mm lenses are extraordinarily versatile
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, 50mm lenses are the Swiss Army knives of the photography world. They’re incredibly adaptable, fitting perfectly into a multitude of shooting situations. Portraits are the first genre that usually comes to mind, and rightly so.
A 50mm lens excels at capturing stunning headshots with a beautifully blurred background. But don’t stop there. You can also pull back for an environmental portrait that includes a subject in their natural habitat, whether it’s a bustling kitchen or a serene meadow.
Street photography is another arena where the 50mm lens shines. The natural field of view and quick focus allow you to capture candid moments as they unfold. With the lens’s unobtrusive size, you can blend into the crowd, capturing life as it happens without drawing attention to yourself.
Lastly, let’s not forget nature and landscape photography. While wide-angle lenses are often the go-to for capturing sweeping vistas, a 50mm lens allows you to focus on the details. Think close-ups of flowers, textured bark, or the intricate patterns of a leaf.
The adaptability doesn’t stop there. Planning a trip? Pack a 50mm lens and you’re good for everything from street scenes to nature close-ups. It’s the one lens that you can count on to meet your creative needs in just about any scenario.
What types of photography can you do at 50mm?
So, you’ve heard about the 50mm lens, but what can you actually photograph with it? Good news: its versatility will blow you away.
Firstly, let’s talk about portrait photography. The 50mm lens is a favorite among portrait photographers for good reason. The focal length is incredibly flattering. It doesn’t distort facial features, and the wide aperture options help you isolate your subject from the background. It works great for both close-up shots of the face and environmental portraits. Environmental portraits capture the subject within a context, offering a more rounded depiction of their personality or lifestyle.
Street photography? Absolutely. With a 50mm lens, you can capture the world as your eyes see it. This is wonderful for capturing candid moments. People look natural, not distorted. Street scenes feel alive and dynamic. Plus, its compact size won’t draw attention, allowing you to capture life as it happens.
But wait, can you use it for landscapes? Definitely. While it won’t provide the sweeping vistas that wide-angle lenses can offer, it allows for a unique approach to landscape photography. It lets you focus on smaller, intimate aspects of nature: think a single mountain peak, a close-up of leaves, or a specific bend in a river. It’s about capturing the soul of a place, not just its face.
Event photography? Check. You’ll find the 50mm lens to be your trusted companion, whether you’re covering a wedding, a birthday, or a corporate function. The lens’s adaptability means you can switch from capturing candid moments to snapping quick portraits without missing a beat.
The best 50mm lenses for photographers
Decided you want a 50mm lens? Now, it’s time to choose the right one for you. Believe me, you’ve got options.
First off, let’s consider the beginner-friendly 50mm f/1.8. I can’t recommend this lens enough for those starting out. It’s incredibly affordable but doesn’t skimp on image quality. The wide f/1.8 aperture will let you practice creating dreamy bokeh and excel in low-light situations. It’s an ideal starting point and offers a good taste of what 50mm lenses can deliver.
If you’re ready to invest a little more, the 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.2 could be your next move. These lenses have even wider apertures, which means you can create an even more isolated depth of field. Simply put, if you’re diving into portrait or wedding photography, these lenses are solid gold. But keep in mind, they come with a higher price tag and can be a bit bulkier.
Don’t disregard the used market either. Often, you can find excellent 50mm lenses that are gently used and still in fantastic condition. They’ll deliver the same quality shots but at a fraction of the price. It’s worth a look.
Last but not least, consider third-party lenses. Brands like Sigma and Tamron offer 50mm options that compete with the big names. While you might trade off some features, you often gain in terms of price. It’s a trade-off that might just be worth it if you’re budget-conscious.
Here are a few of our favorites:
- The insanely cheap Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM
- The high-quality Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G
- The impressively sharp Sony FE 50mm f/1.8
- The gorgeous (but pricier) Sigma ART 50mm f/1.4
50mm photography: final words
By now, I hope you’re as enchanted by the 50mm lens as I am.
It’s the kind of lens that adapts to you, rather than forcing you to adapt to it. Whether you’re snapping candid street shots or crafting elegant portraits, this lens won’t let you down.
The versatility of the 50mm lens makes it a tool you can carry in almost any situation. It’s not just a piece of glass; it’s a creative partner.
So, if you’re still wondering whether to invest in a 50mm lens, let me make it easy for you: do it. The sheer flexibility and quality of shots you can get make it worth every penny.
The 50mm lens isn’t just another piece of gear; it’s a game-changer. Don’t miss out on elevating your photography to a new level of creative expression. Happy shooting!
Now over to you:
Which 50mm lens do you plan to buy? What do you plan to photograph? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Note: This article was updated by Jaymes Dempsey in October 2023.