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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.