I know, I know, the 50mm again. There isn’t much more for me to add really. The attributes of this focal length have been lauded many times in many articles, including on this site. A (usually) cheap and light prime, very sharp with a fast aperture and beautiful bokeh. A useful portrait length on APS-C sensors (75mm – 80mm equivalent field of view), and on full frame it’s supposedly close to how the human eye sees (don’t know about you, but my human eyes see the almost 180 degrees stereoscopic vision they were designed for). Still, the 50mm is often claimed as a classic and an essential addition to our kit.
A Photography Life reader recently asked me to write about using a 50mm lens, so rather than rehash its technical aspects, which have been expertly and amply covered on this site alone, I’ll simply share my own experience of its versatility, with all the shots here made with a 50mm.
I have to admit to not using my DSLR much in the last year, and I don’t have an equivalent prime lens for my m4/3 kit, but the 50mm had always been a staple part of my DSLR gear. Like many people, it was the first prime lens I bought, and served me particularly well capturing scenes on my travels or freezing action in low light.
It can be a tricky focal length to get used to on APS-C sized sensors, tightening the frame and limiting your field of view, especially indoors. But this can also be its strength, making it very effective for portraits and individual items or details. Having the tighter frame helps to de-clutter it and focus the viewer’s attention on the subject.
The longer equivalent field of view on APS-C sensors also made this lens very useful to me as a nature lens, with the wide aperture isolating the subject against an out-of-focus background. Naturally, being a prime lens, the details were sharp, even zoomed into the picture.
Furthermore, it has proved useful capturing wildlife too, as being shorter than typical telephoto means I can place the subject in more of its environment.
Like any lens, it is only through experience that one gets used to the focal length and becomes able to judge when to use it, particularly with the short telephoto effect on APS-C sensors. Your eye learns to ‘see’ with that focal length, and for any given situation you can decide whether it’s appropriate.
(Cropped off the top and bottom of this shot.)
It’s tempting to use it at the widest aperture all the time, but remember that depth of field is very shallow here (especially on a full frame camera), so if you are close to your subject and it isn’t completely perpendicular to you then some of it will be out of focus. It’s worth stopping down a little to ensure your whole subject is in focus while still maintaining a nicely out of focus background. Using a single point AF means you can determine exactly where the focus will be. Some photographers even manually focus for more control.
Shooting scenic views or landscapes, you might stop down further still to narrow the depth of field and even use a tripod to ensure the shot is sharp, especially when shooting at night.
I personally found the 50mm particularly effective for scenic shots. Most people want to go wide to get as much into the frame as possible, but this ironically ends up disconnecting you from individual features. With a tighter frame you can focus more on what you really want inside it, and hopefully lead the eye into the shot.
As sharp as these primes are stopped down, the fast aperture is undoubtedly very useful in low light. You may still need to raise your ISO, but combined with the widest aperture the 50mm lets you use faster shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible. I found this particularly useful shooting events indoors, and more recently capturing some swallow chicks under the roof of a very dark boathouse. (Both these shots below were taken at F/1.8)
On full frame I have used my 50mm for shooting food and fireworks with pleasing results (at least pleasing to me, anyway!).
I may not have anything original to offer with respect to this lens, but that is hardly surprising since it has been a favourite of photographers since long before I hatched onto the planet’s surface. Still, hopefully I have demonstrated how versatile this lens can be in capturing all kinds of subjects, and perhaps reinforce its use in preference to more convenient zooms. Enjoy.
If you would like to explore more 50mm photos, please see Roman’s excellent post on using a 50mm prime for creativity.