Even just a few hours ago, I was once again asked by a reader what lenses do I use most for my wedding photography. The answer is and always has been the same for my wedding, family or general photography needs – a classic fifty. I am sure hardly anyone will find this at all surprising, because fast 50mm fixed focal length lenses have become a legend of sorts. Ask any photographer and he will tell you – that is one of the two most versatile fixed focal length lenses you can buy (the other being a 35mm lens). It is time we back up that claim with actual photographs, and plenty of them. Is there a single reason for it being so versatile? No. Rather, it is a combination of various characteristics and generally pleasing manner of “drawing” the photograph that, even today with all the amazing zoom lenses, makes it such a sought-after lens.
Naturally, the Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G is not the only lens I own and use, but I really do feel this particular focal length deserves a separate article just to show how truly special it is. I adore it. More than that, my warm feelings towards such a lens are not dictated by raw technical characteristics, rather how much it resonates with the way I previsualize my work. And that is why, instead of boring you to death with technicalities, I will gladly let photographs do most of the talking for a change.
A side note: all of the photographs in this article were made with a 50mm lens mounted on a full-frame camera. While my lens is a Nikkor, all of these images could have been taken more or less just as successfully with any 50mm f/1.4-1.8 class lens on any full-frame camera (you’d need a ~35mm lens on APS-C sensor camera for similar versatility). Thus, forget the technical stuff. It does not matter. Focal length and maximum aperture is enough to give a good idea on how great such a lens is.
Table of Contents
Small, Light, Cheap and Utterly Brilliant
If you set your mind to it, working around the creative limitations of a fixed focal length lens can be very easy and lead to some great composition and other sorts of discoveries. Whenever I photograph and object or a subject with a 50mm optic that would, at first glance, require a different kind of lens, I feel as if I learned something new. Maybe that is what they mean by saying focal length limitations force you to be creative? Anyway, let’s start with some detail shots.
A sufficiently wide 50mm focal length is great for indoors, as it more often than not leaves enough room should you need to take a few steps back and frame a bigger object. Even for someone like me who prefers to leave lots of negative space or contextual background in the frame, it rarely proves to be too long. At the same time, it makes it easy to capture the same scene very differently. In the photograph shown above I admired the natural window light touching the gown and the sense of simplicity and lightness created by the delicate, graphical chandelier. The following photograph was taken in the same room only minutes apart, but is very, very different.
Naturally, for such an image I could have used a wide-angle lens. However, it wouldn’t have been quite so static and thus calm with a very natural look to it. Too much compression or too wide angle of view would have rid the photograph of that feeling that it has been captured through a gap by a person just passing by, glimpsing. And, as a photographer, that is what I did as I quietly wandered around the house of the bride, observing. It is very neutral, this photograph, and mirrors the calm mood of the day very well. But can we get a little closer? Oh yes.
If the previous photographs were quite static, this next capture has a little more “movement” to it. Not in the true sense of the word, of course, but the choice of object placement (V shape), light and the angle at which the image was taken makes it mildly, but sufficiently different dynamically than the dress photographs above. In this case, focusing close caused a slight amount of distortion to appear, while the placement of one of the shoes slightly at the front of another further emphasized the effect. It almost looks as if the photograph was captured with a wider lens, doesn’t it? In other words, you can make sure photographs captured with a single 50mm lens are still different enough so as to not look boring when viewed together.
Just as importantly, the usual minimum focus distance of 50mm lenses (around 45-50cm from the focal plane) is enough to capture much smaller objects, too.
Rings more often than not require macro lenses and, sure enough, that is what I used for the “safe” capture. Once that was done, however, I mounted my trusty 50mm lens and tried to find a way to use it creatively even for such tiny objects. The result is no masterpiece, but I like it. More than that I like the fact that it has pushed me creatively – I know I could come up with a great ring shot should I ever get stranded on a wedding day without a true macro. That fifty would save my day and allow me to instantly get back to photographing people should such an opportunity arise.
The photograph is also quite dynamic thanks to the lines and angle of capture, despite being taken with what you may think is a somewhat boring focal length.
That covers the detail shots, from large objects all the way to the smallest ones. But we are only just starting. The lens is also great for portraits and general photography. You didn’t think I was only going to show you a couple of gowns and a pair of high-heeled shoes, did you? And since once can easily shoot a wedding dress with a 50mm lens and come up with results restrained only by his own ability to use the gear creatively, it stands to reason photographing people indoors should not be a problem, either.
In this image, I used obstacles – the door and wall that were concealing the room from me – to my creative advantage. The following photograph was taken in the same room with the same lens, but now, unlike with the best man earlier, I deliberately framed the groom much more tightly. The two photographs are very different despite having been taken with the exact same lens and camera combination.
Very similarly, a classic fifty is suitable when shooting in most churches that I’ve come across. On one hand, it allows you to capture the groom at the altar waiting for his bride, but at the same time, after snapping that photograph, I can quickly change my position and photograph him from up close.
When it comes to group portraits outdoors, not only does a 50mm lens offer just the perfect angle of view, but it is also small and inconspicuous enough so as to not make your subjects nervous. Not once did any of the people I photographed feel intimidated by such a small, simple-looking lens, and that has helped them remain at ease without me saying so much as a couple of words of encouragement.
The same fact comes rather useful for street photography, by the way.
But let us get back to the weddings and, more specifically, photographic the bride and groom. After all, the 50mm classic is a lens that stays on my camera for most of the day, and, had I no choice, I could go through a whole 12 hour wedding with it and not feel too restrained creatively. Now, being neither wide nor long, but rather slotting somewhere in between, a 50mm lens is great for environmental captures with lots of context and detail:
As soon as you want to, however, you can move in much closer without fear of losing that nice aesthetic. Surprisingly enough, you can move in quite close to your subjects and frame sufficiently tightly without distorting their figures too much as you would with a wider lens.
If anything, the slight distortion actually draws the viewer in more than a telephoto would, makes one feel as if he is in the scene rather than observing it from far away.
A classic fifty is a staggeringly capable environmental portrait lens. As I enjoy loose framing, perhaps that is why it suits me so damn well.
Mind you, while, as I mentioned, you can frame reasonably tight with it should such a need arise, it is no 85mm or 135mm portrait classic. Get too close and it will distort the faces of your subjects somewhat, and it does not suit everyone. You might pull it off with proper care when framing, a subject on whom the look is not unflattering, as well as good light and overall composition. Still, for novices it is tough, you really need to know what you are doing and why. In this following photograph, you can see how the hands of the bride got emphasized as she was fixing her hair because of the focal length used, light and me standing quite close to her. I think it works in this particular case, but then a 35mm or even 24mm lens might have been an even better choice.
Mixing Work and Personal Photography
They say work and personal life should not mix, but that does not include photography. So far, I’ve only mostly shown you photographs from weddings that I’ve been to which might lead you to believe that is the only time when I actually use my trusty fifty. Far from it! See that first minimalistic photograph at the very beginning of this article? I took it back in October as I was taking a midday walk just to clear my mind after a night of hard work. Before leaving home, I noticed there was a thick fog everywhere I looked. I was not sure if I’d find anything to photograph, but still decided to take my camera as any photographer would in my place. You probably already know which lens I decided to take with me. Just the one, too.
It might be that I’m having it easy when photographic kids, because the boy that you see above – he’s learned how to pose when he was a year and a half old. I hardly ever need to chase him around with a camera just to take a photograph (plenty chasing around when I don’t want to take a picture of him, though). Having said that, I still find a 50mm class lens to often be very suitable for both indoor and outdoor family photography. After all, it is not all that different from the way I shoot weddings, is it?
Finally, we reach a point that is more important than anything I’ve said thus far. Yes. You can use a 50mm lens to photograph pets. Everyone photographs pets, right? So it passes that test, too.
There are plenty of situations where a 50mm lens, despite all its versatility, just won’t cut it for the task at hand. If you need a true macro lens, well, you need a true macro lens. And there is no way around that. It is one thing to try and push your creativity by using just one lens and an entirely different thing to try and make it what it’s not. For this reason, while I can shoot a whole wedding with a fifty, I’d never voluntarily pack just the one lens, no way. I will have a macro with me, I will have something to cover wide-angle for those rare occasions when I need it, I will have my 85mm f/1.4 lens for when I need tighter portraits or more compression.
A classic 50mm lens can handle landscapes, travel photography and all the other tasks you throw at it, as long as it provides you with the desired look and suits your vision for that particular photograph. It is one of Lola’s favorite focal lengths, too – she will gladly use her AF-S 50mm f/1.8G lens for food and wedding photography. But for some photographic applications, it is just not the best option. It can be, but only sometimes (not to mention that prime lenses can be tricky to use in general). Someone other than me might find a 24mm lens the more versatile choice for his work, and in that case a 24mm lens is what he needs. Don’t go trying to force the fifty on yourself just because someone else finds it to be all they need. Simple as that.
I have and will use other lenses than the fifty, of course. I actually believe that, after the last few years, I might enjoy a 35mm f/1.4-2 class lens even more. But, whatever the other lens may be, it is like a vacation. It is fun and exciting, but you always want to come back home eventually, don’t you? It never felt as if I was forced to use the fifty instead of some other lens I would otherwise have chosen. I wanted to use that lens, it was a very deliberate choice. And that is why it has never really been a compromise for me, not something that works, but only so so. No. As long as you do not try to force it to be something that it’s not and embrace it, it just works. It just makes sense. The most important point is, though, that even such a basic lens requires a great deal of practice. You have to know it, learn it, realize when it works at its best and when it doesn’t. Yes, you can shoot a portrait with it, but not the way you would shoot one with a 135mm lens. You can photograph wedding rings with it, but not the way you would with a macro lens. Me, I have been using it for several years now and still haven’t quite nailed it. I’ve messed up using it just as many times as I have been surprised and amazed. There is much more for me to learn and I am definitely planning to do just that.
All Images Copyright ©Romanas Naryškin, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.