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Nifty Fifty: The Benefits of a Fixed 50mm Lens

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This post is part of a series called Lenses.
Getting Phenomenal Nature Shots With a Wide Angle Lens
80 Awe-Inspiring Photographs Taken With a "Nifty Fifty"

Can't figure out why your photos are not tack sharp? Overheard people talking about prime lenses but don't know what the big deal is all about? This article will help you learn all about prime lenses and how they compare to zoom lenses. Also, you'll discover a few great techniques for achieving a wonderfully sharp, crisp finish to your photos.

50mm lens tips benefits

1. Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

When I was just getting into photography, all I was exposed to was zoom, zoom, zoom. Everyone had one, and it was said to be a photographers must-have. I was a studying film production, and all I heard about getting a better looking image with more depth was to push back and zoom in. I took some photography classes over the years, and thought I knew everything there was to know about the topic.

When I first discovered the notion of a fixed, 50mm lens, my world was flipped upside down. I didn't realize that I was hindering myself and holding back possibilities. I would look around the web to gather research and inspiration and wonder why everybody else's photos looked more clean and crisp.


2. Introducing the 50mm Prime Lens

I thought my shots to be well composed and well lit, but they didn't seem to stand up to other photographer's work. One day, my friend and I were talking about photography techniques and she said that a must-have in a photographers arsenal is a prime lens. She had just purchased a 50mm prime with a maximum aperture of 1.8 and couldn't put it down.

I was a little skeptical when I first heard this, but decided to take that challenge for myself. The next day I called her up and said, "I want to borrow your nifty fifty and see if it lives up to your praise." I put it on my camera and for the next several hours I was just looking around my room to find stuff to take pictures of. It was amazing. I would take a picture of the most unusual things, but the picture would still look sweet and crisp. My eyes were opened to all of the possibilities.

So much more light was let into the camera with an f1.8. My roommate was sleeping in the room so I couldn't turn on any lights, but found that even with minimal light creeping through the window, images were outstanding.

50mm lens tips benefits

3. Prime vs. Zoom

Most people these days are scared of the word "Prime" or "Fixed," meaning the lens is manufactured at a specific focal length and does not move or zoom. We have been too accustomed to being behind a camera with a zoom lens.

Yes, a zoom lens is more versatile when trying to capture a candid moment. It can adjust to different focal lengths in good speed to capture multiple compositions quickly but there are downsides. Some cons of using a zoom lens are:

  • Lack of sharpness
  • Poorer depth of field
  • In low-light situations, it is almost impossible to shoot without sacrificing image quality by raising the ISO

4. Fast Lens Pricing

50mm lens tips benefits

For most indoor photography and late evening shoots, you need to be equipped with a "fast lens". Fast refers to the maximum aperture your lens will open up to (wide aperture equals more light). These fast lenses are a big advantage when you need a fast shutter speed in low light conditions. For a high quality zoom lens that has a decent aperture you can find yourself paying close to two thousand dollars for a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Nikkor Wide Angle Zoom Lens, or a little over twenty four hundred dollars for a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II AF-S NIKKOR Lens.

50mm lens tips benefits

These zoom lenses would be a little more useful in low-light situations than your regular zoom lens that usually only opens up to 3.5-5.6, because these have a maximum aperture of 2.8.

Compare the prices of a fast zoom lens to a fast prime lens. A Nikon 50mm f/1.4G SIC SW Prime Nikkor Lens can be found for little over four hundred dollars here, or you can pick up a Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor Lens for just over one hundred dollars!

50mm lens tips benefits

The price difference is staggering. Although zoom lenses are great with our new technologies in this last decade, it would be a shame not to have a prime around when you need it. Especially when you can pick one up for a fraction of the price of a fast zoom lens.


5. Better Sharpness and Depth of Field

50mm lens tips benefits

You truly haven't experienced a tack sharp image until you have shot with a prime lens, especially for the price. The way zoom lenses have to be made (more moving parts) causes them to have more variations or possibility for variations.

Prime lenses, on the other hand, are set at a certain focal length (no moving parts besides the focus ring) and have the luxury of being able to offer a wider aperture. As a result of having a bigger aperture, the blessings are twofold. Firstly, you are able to capture more light without sacrificing shutter speed, and secondly, a wide aperture means more depth of field for isolating your subject from the background.


6. ISO & Sharpness

ISO is the term used in reference to how sensitive the film or sensor is toward light. Many people may not realize that ISO plays a big role in the sharpness of your image.

Low ISO (slow film) produces a nice clear and crisp image but needs more light. On the other hand, High ISO (fast film) is more sensitive to light. They don't need as much light, but you pay the price with grainy photos.

Today, Digital SLRs have become a great deal better at dealing with grain, though it's still difficult to beat the benefits of using a low ISO. Here are two images taken at different ISO. The first one was taken at 200 ISO with an aperture of 1.8 and the second one was taken at 3200 with an aperture of 1.8.

50mm lens tips benefits
50mm lens tips benefits

As you can see in these photos, there is a big sacrifice in quality when you have to resort to a higher ISO. A prime lens means this is rarely the case, and again - this contributes to sharper, higher quality images.


7. Working Against Yourself

50mm lens tips benefits

People sometimes forget that good equipment doesn't directly lead to good photos. Of course, the better the equipment, usually the easier it is to get good photos - but sometimes that is not the case. Understanding how and why your equipment works the way it does is by far more important. Here are a few tips to ensure you come out with tack sharp focus:

  1. Use a high enough shutter speed to reduce motion blur.
  2. Brace your arm against something sturdy like a wall or tree. If that fails, hold your elbow against your side.
  3. Breathe out and hold while taking your shot.
  4. Use the burst or continuous shot feature to increase the chance of one shot being perfect.
  5. Use a sandbag or beanbag as a cushion.
  6. If convenient, use a tripod to keep your camera perfectly steady.
  7. Use a cable release to ensure pressing the shutter isn't jolting your camera.
  8. If using a tripod, turn off your VR or IS.

8. Conclusion

A general rule for prime lenses is that they have better sharpness than a zoom, they have been found to have better bokeh (or the way the lens blurs out of focus areas), and have wider apertures. I also appreciate knowing exactly how the lens will perform, so I can plan accordingly.

50mm lens tips benefits

Although a zoom lens gives me greater versatility, I prefer the way in which a fixed lens makes me really consider each shot.

Each lens in your arsenal obviously has it's own purpose and uses. Figure out what you need and what type of lens would suit your content and purchase the best quality you can afford. I like the prime 50mm so much that I still haven't taken it off my camera ever since putting it on.

I have talked to many photographers, and they have come to the same conclusion; a prime lens is a must have in a photographers bag of tricks. They are inexpensive, produce clear, crisp photos and perform great in lowlight situations without resorting to a high ISO.

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