In Praise of the 50mm 1.8 Lens

In Praise of the 50mm 1.8 LensWhen I was your age, we did not have no fancy zoom lenses, we used to zoom by walking. In the snow. Barefoot. Uphill.

OK, OK, I am just as young as you and my first lens was a Sigma 28-300 so I can’t really say what I just said and mean it. But is sure felt good to write it down :) And since I am going to talk about a prime lens – the 50mm 1.8 (AKA the nifty fifty) it had to be said.

My welded-to-the-chassis lens nowadays is the 24-70mm/2.8 Nikon lens which really rocks for most of the things I do (indoor portraits). And when it comes off, it is usually replace with the 50mm/1.8 prime. Here is why:

1. It is exceptionally sharp

Most lenses are sharp (or at least sharpish) at f/8. The nifty fifty is sharp right from f1.8 all the way to f22. It is probably sharper than a lot of other high dollar lenses, at least the ones I have in my arsenal.

2. It has great depth of field

Prag market

The minimal aperture of f1.8 the nifty fifty allows great control over depth of field. At 1.8 you can experience and appreciate very shallow depth of field. This is great for attraction attentions to a single detail in a photograph and particularly useful for separating the eyes on portraits.

3. It does well in low light conditions

Shooting The Team - Yossi the Boss

The large maximal aperture works great where zooms fail. Even before video SLRs, the nifty fifty was ideal for low light situations like concert photography, or days of heavy clouds. It’s not just a matter of shutter speeds (which can be higher) but also of ability to focus. Combine this with the better noise treatment of the new DSLRs and shooting at night suddenly becomes an option.

4. It provides great value for money

Nikon sell theirs for $119.95 and Canon sells it for $105.85. Compared to the 50mm 1.4 which sell for about $320, or to the 85mm 1.8 which sells for about $350 it is a very good deal. It becomes an even better deal when compared with wide aperture zooms.

It is light, well built and probably the first lens you should own (if you don’t go for the kit lens).

My guess is that there is a secret contest going between the big names on who makes the best 50 f/1.8 on a $100 budget.

5. It has a wonderful bokeh

Described as creamy, smooth and other words usually used to describe mash potatoes. Really it has a great Bokeh.

6. It has great focal length for portraits

The Guys Who Built My House - Haim

It is rated 50mm, but on an APS-C sensor the crop factor makes it 75mm for Nikon or even better 80mm on Canon. This is a great focal length for personal portraits; not too far as to eliminate the intimacy, but far enough for having good non distorted perspective.

7. It hones your photography skills / boost your creativity

Coming from the world of zoom lenses (bye-bye rant at the beginning of the post), it was a great experience to shoot prime. A constant focal length (not necessarily 50mm,  I shoot a lot with the Nikon 85mm 1.8 too) forces you to rethink your frame, it forces you to move with your feet and explore, rather than ‘just’ move a ring on the lens. Not that ring-moving is bad, it is just a different experience.

Personally, I carry this lens at all times. The combination of its small size, great optics and focal length makes it a sin to have to have it the bag, at least as a back lens.

Are there any downsides?

As Rick pointed out on the comments, the Nikon version of the Nifty fifty, does not work well with most of the newer camera bodies (e.g. D40, D60, D5000, D3000, D3100, etc) because the lens doesn’t have an internal focus motor. To get something close, you need to go with the 35mm AF-S otherwise you’re looking at a much more expensive 50mm f/1.4. On an APS-C body, the 35mm looks like 50mm.


Nifty Fifty for Canon: Amazon | B&H

Nifty Fifty for Nikon: Amazon | B&H

Nifty Fifty for Sony: Amazon | B&H