You may have heard the term “Nifty Fifty“ before. If you haven’t, it is usually a reference to the Canon 50mm f1.8 lens. But for the purpose of this article I’m going to use it synonymously with any prime 50mm lens.
What’s the best “next” lens to buy?
I get asked all the time by my students about what lens they should buy next after the basic kit lens that came with the camera. I almost always recommend picking up a simple 50mm prime lens. Let’s look at some reasons . . .
Reasons why this lens should be in your bag
GREAT FOR LOW LOW PHOTOGRAPHY – with the wide aperture of f1.8, especially going from your typical kit lens which is usually f5.6, this lens gives you 3 stops or EIGHT times (2x2x2) more light coming through the lens opening. This allows you to use either a faster shutter speed and avoid camera shake, or a lower ISO and avoid the noise you get from higher ISOs, or a combination of both.
Shot at ISO 1600, 1/50th a f1.8. Without the 1.8 aperture I would have needed a much slower shutter speed or even higher ISO.
GREAT VALUE, LOW COST – at a price range of $100-200 for most popular brands this lens’ low price tag makes it affordable as a good first lens investment
LIGHT WEIGHT – ranging from only 4.3 oz to 6 oz (Pentax, Canon, Nikon, Sony in order of lightest to heaviest) there is no reason to leave this lens at home. That means even when you don’t want to haul a whole bag full of stuff around, you can easily grab your camera and the Nifty Fifty and go. No excuses!
KILLER BOKEH – prime lenses typically produce nicer bokeh (how the lens renders out of focus areas) than most zooms, and with the f1.8 aperture you can make some really nice bokeh. Bright lights, off in the background, twinkle with this little lens!
SUPER SHARPNESS – prime or fixed focal length lenses are usually inherently sharper than zoom lenses, partly due to there being less moving parts inside the lens, and less lens elements. You will also experience increased sharpness due to the wider aperture which allows, as I mentioned above, being able to shoot at faster shutter speeds and lower ISO. Being able to get a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate camera shake, or freeze a moving subject has a lot to do with getting sharper images as does minimizing noise.
IT’S VERSATILE – the 50mm lens is a great street shooting lens, not too wide, not too long. On a cropped or APS-C sensor (any non full frame camera body) it is also a great portrait lens, just long enough to remove distortion from your subject’s face and flatter them a bit more, not so long you need to stand across the street.
GREAT FOR TRAVELING – because it’s light weight, and is a fast lens (big aperture f1.8) the 50mm is a great addition to your bag for trips. Usually I take along a good wide zoom lens (my 17-35mm), a good long zoom (70-200mm) but I never forgot my little Nifty Fifty. Even if you have two kit lenses that cover that focal length, say an 18-55mm and a 55-200mm, the 50 f1.8 fills the bill for low light photograph that the other two can’t because of their aperture limitations. Plus it weighs practically nothing, you don’t even know it’s in there.
HELPS MAKE YOU A BETTER PHOTOGRAPHER – whoa, what?!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “the good old days” when I all my lenses were prime or fixed focal length, and how we’ve come to be dependant on using zoom lenses for convenience. They absolutely have a place in photography especially if you’re photographing things like sports or weddings. However, I also think they can make us lazy as photographers. Instead of walking two feet to get the crop we want, we can just zoom in. But what if that angle of view two feet closer makes for a better image? We’ll never know because we have our feet planted, so use your feet and walk around your subject and see different views. I believe using a prime lens challenges you to think more about composition before you press the shutter, which often makes for better photos in the end. If you want more challenges, you might want to read my free ebook 10 Challenges to help you take better photos without buying any new gear.
Fun bokeh at a wedding using ambient light. Almost impossible to get this shot without the big aperture.
Summary and action plan
Like I tell most of my students, I highly recommend you have a 50mm lens in your bag. If you can afford a fancier one go for the f1.4 or even the f1.2. However they do come with much bigger price tags, and are a lot heavier. So keep that mind if you go shopping for a 50.
Here’s some of these 50mm lenses listed on Amazon:
Then think outside the zoom lens box and see what other prime lenses might be perfect for the kind of photography you do. I love my 85mm f1.8 as well, it’s great for portraits (I use a full frame camera so will be similar to the 50 on a cropped sensor). If you like macro work perhaps a 60mm macro or 100mm will do the trick for you. Either can also double as a nice portrait lens.
Lastly – show me your Nifty Fifty photos! Share some images you’ve done with your little 50mm lens. Let’s see what it can do!