What do Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ralph Gibson have in common? They're both famous photographers - yes. But something else - they both used a 50mm prime lens for much of their photography.
Why is this interesting? Well, if you're like most contemporary photographers your first SLR came with a kit zoom lens in the range of around 18-55mm. These are useful lenses, but most photographers find as their experience grows that they soon outgrow the kit zoom lens and need something else. This brings us to a question that every photographer faces at some point - what second (or third or fourth...) lens would be most useful to me?
The Benefits of a 50mm Lens
This is tricky - everybody's needs are different. If you're interested in sports or nature photography, for example, you'll need a long telephoto lens. But what if you just want a lens that will help you take better photos? Is this possible? Yes it is - and that's where the 50mm prime lens comes in (used to take all the photos in this article).
Most likely you already own a zoom lens that covers the 50mm focal length. So why would you buy a 50mm prime lens? Kit zooms are a great introductory lens to photography. But there are some crucial differences that mean a 50mm prime lens is very different from the 50mm focal length setting on a kit zoom.
Kit zooms have their limitations. Some of these limitations are physical. One is the maximum aperture, around f4 to f5.6 depending on the lens and the focal length you use it at. This slow maximum aperture makes it difficult to take photos in low light. It means you have to resort to using a tripod, flash or a high ISO setting to give you a fast enough shutter speed to hand hold the camera properly.
50mm prime lenses, on the other hand, have a maximum aperture of somewhere between f1.2 and f2, letting you hand hold photos in much lower light levels (they also give you a much brighter viewfinder, making it easier to see the subject in low light).
For example, this landscape was taken with a 50mm prime lens by the light of the setting sun. The light was very low and I wouldn't have been able to hand-hold the camera if the maximum aperture was limited to f4 or f5.6.
Another limitation of the standard zoom is the optical quality. They're normally not bad - but they're not great either. Compare the quality of your standard zoom to a professional quality optic and you'll see a dramatic difference. The images from pro lenses are sharp and crisp, with far less flare and almost no chromatic aberrations.
But pro lenses are expensive, you say. And you're right. Wouldn't it be great if there was an pro quality lens that retailed for £100 pounds or so (or dollars or euro, depending on where you live). Well, there is - you've probably guessed it already - the 50mm prime lens. 50mm lenses have been around for decades and the optical design is pretty simple (they're neither a telephoto nor a wide angle lens, which have more complex optical designs). They're cheap to make and the optical quality is superb.
Depth of Field
The wide maximum aperture has another advantage - depth of field, or lack of it. At f2 (or f1.8 or f1.4 and so on) you'll be amazed at how little depth of field there is. You can use this creatively to blur the backgrounds in your photos. It works beautifully with portraits, giving a creamy background blur. This portrait was taken at f1.8, as was the introductory portrait to this article:
And this the beautiful thing about 50mm prime lenses - they enhance your creativity. You can hand hold the camera in low light, taking advantage of the wonderful evening light for longer, without resorting to flash. Learning to use natural light increases your creativity and photographic skills.
You can use the narrow depth of field for all sorts of creative focusing effects. Again, you're learning to see and think creatively. Keep doing this and one day you'll find that you're using the lens to 'see' - that is to take photos that represent your artistic and creative vision. This is a great moment for all photographers.
Lack of Zoom
The biggest disadvantage of zoom lenses is that they zoom. This isn't a contradiction - zooming encourages photographers to be lazy. Not close enough to your subject? Then just zoom in. Too close? Zoom out. It's convenient, but it doesn't teach you anything about focal lengths.
With a 50mm prime lens, you can't zoom. You have to physically get closer (or further away) from your subject. The perspective doesn't change. You become intimately acquainted with the physical characteristics of your lens.
This portrait is a good example, I had to position myself in the right place to make this composition:
Another advantage of 50mm prime lenses is that they are very light. This makes a big difference if you're walking around all day with your camera gear. I've made the mistake of taking too many lenses at one time and then being too tired at the end of the day to enjoy taking photos.
When I used film cameras I was perfectly happy to use just two lightweight bodies - one with a 24mm prime lens and the other with a 50mm prime lens. I carried these around all day and never got too tired to take photos. It was a great combination and I never felt the need for more lenses. This photo was taken with a 50mm prime lens on a trip to Argentina:
50mm prime lenses also have a very pleasing perspective that matches the field-of-view of the human eye. They take photos that don't have the sweeping lines or distorted perspective of images taken with wide angle lenses, or the compressed perspective created by telephoto lenses. This street photo is a good example:
Did I mention that 50mm prime lenses are inexpensive? They certainly can be. The Canon 'nifty fifty' - its 50mm f1.8 lens - is a great example. It retails for less than a hundred pounds (or dollars or euros) and has superb optical quality. In fact, I recently took a photo with this lens and an EOS 5D Mark II (Canon's 21.1 megapixel semi-professional full frame camera) and I was amazed at the quality when I enlarged it to one hundred percent.
There are trade-offs; the auto-focus isn't as good as more expensive lenses and it has a plastic, not a metal mount. But you can't argue with the price, or the quality, and the important thing is that it brings the experience of high quality optics within just about anyone's reach.
This is the photo taken with the nifty fifty:
And this is a 100 per cent enlargement. You won't get this quality with a kit zoom lens!
For more information about buying your own 50mm prime, be sure to read our article on The Benefits of Wide Aperture (And Choosing a Lens for Under $500).
50mm Prime Lenses and Digital SLRs
A lot of articles about 50mm prime lenses refer to them as standard lenses. I've avoided doing that because it's no longer always the case. A standard lens is a lens that roughly matches the field-of-view of the human eye. It's neither wide angle nor telephoto. If you have a 35mm film camera, a lens with a focal length of 50mm is a standard lens. 35mm film cameras were the norm for many decades, so 50mm prime lenses became known as standard lenses.
However, now the game has changed. If you're lucky enough to own a full frame digital camera, then a 50mm prime lens is still a standard lens. But full frame digital cameras are expensive, and most photographers own cameras with smaller sensors.
A 50mm lens on one of these cameras is a short telephoto lens. Should you worry about this? Not at all. It's still the same 50mm prime lens, it's just that you get to use it as a short telephoto rather than a normal lens. For some photographers this is an advantage, because this focal length is ideal for portraits. Portrait and fashion photographers love this focal length. You can photograph someone's face, throwing the background out of focus - wonderful!
This photo was taken on an EOS 40D with a 50mm prime lens. The lens is a short telephoto on this camera and, combined with a wide aperture, makes it easy to throw the background out of focus:
And if you'd like a normal lens for your cropped sensor camera, not a short telephoto lens, they're still available. It just means that you should buy a 28mm or a 35mm prime lens, not a 50mm prime lens.
50mm Prime Lenses on Flickr
These are some of my favourite photographers on Flickr that use 50mm prime lenses in their work. Their work is inspirational and will give you an idea of the potential of 50mm prime lenses:
50mm Prime Lens Flickr Groups
Find out more about the world of 50mm prime lens photography by exploring these Flickr groups for 50mm prime lens users:
A group for photographers who use 50mm prime lenses to record the everyday details of their lives.
Photos taken exclusively with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens - the 'nifty-fifty'.
This group is for photos taken with any of Nikon's Nikkor 50mm 1.8 lenses.
This is a group for photographers using 50mm f/1.4 lenses, regardless of make.
A group for photos taken with the extraordinary Canon 50mm f/0.95 lens - one of the fastest 50mm primes ever made.
An unusual but imaginative project that caught my eye, the photographers in this group took photos for 50 days with their 50mm lenses between September and October 2009.
Pictures taken with 50mm prime lenses of any brand.