It’s Anything But A Normal Lens

Dec 7, 2014

Shaun

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

It’s Anything But A Normal Lens

Dec 7, 2014

Shaun

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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anything-but-normal-09

Right off the bat I have to clear up a misunderstanding some have to what a 50mm ‘standard’ lens actually is. Throughout my teaching career I’ve heard beginner photographers refer to them as prime lenses and, of course, they’re correct. However, as the conversations develop I’ve found that a good number also believe that only a 50mm is a prime lens. In actuality any non-zoom is a prime lens.

With that small but important point out the way let’s move on to why I think the prefix ‘standard’ can be a little misleading and undermine this focal length and the many advantages there are for using one.

Optical quality

We’ve all heard the staying ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, without going in to too much detail, this derogatory statement goes some way in explaining why basic zoom lenses are generally poorer in quality than their prime counterparts. They’re not one lens but, conversely, many rolled in to one. On the other hand the humble 50mm lens is designed purely to carry out one function, to be a 50mm lens. This sole purpose means that the manufacturers can concentrate their efforts on lens and general build quality. As an example, look at photo 1. This is a screen grab of a file being previewed in Camera Raw. The full frame’s being displayed and we should bear in mind that the magnifier shown is enlarging the area circled in red. ‘Level 12’ of the lift shaft can be clearly seen in green, note how incredibly small that area of the image is.

anything-but-normal-01

Photo 2 is a screen grab of a file enlarged to 700%. Naturally we can see the building blocks of the image as this is an exceedingly high level of magnification however, we can still clearly see elements of the spider’s physicality including changes in body colour.

anything-but-normal-02

Photo 3 is the full frame and it’s included to illustrate how small the subject matter was. This is the optical quality of the lens doing most of the work here, a factor we should take in to account when considering our next lens purchase.

anything-but-normal-03

So how does it fare out in the field?

When was the last time you ventured out with just a spare battery, a few memory cards and one lens? If you’ve never tried this before then give it a go, it’s liberating. By nature 50mm lenses are lightweight so you’re agile and unburdened from heavy gear. Ok so we can’t change focal length and that’s not actually a negative factor. We have to explore more plus it’s a great way of aligning how we see the world with that of the camera as a 50mm lens approximately equates to our angle of view. This is one reason a good number of street photographers use them, they produce images with a very natural feel.

London’s Leadenhall Market
London’s Leadenhall Market

When discussing focal length there’s an expression I commonly use to underline how focal length affects our images; certain lenses extend our natural vision, therefore wide angle and telephoto lenses create images that look ‘photographic’. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s helpful to keep this point to the fore during the creative process and value the understated 50mm with its neutral optical characteristics.

City Hall, London from Tower Bridge
City Hall, London from Tower Bridge

How does the 50mm lens handle architecture, a subject matter typically associated with dramatic wide-angle lenses?

With any composition a series of decisions needs to be made including the most important one, the photographer’s viewpoint as this dictates perspective. From a particular location a 24mm lens may include too much detail and dilute the message that’s attempting to be made. Alternatively, a telephoto might crop out necessary detail and lose a degree of context. Photographers continually search for the most effective angles from where to shoot, granted both short and long focal lengths introduce creative possibilities due to their dramatic characteristics. However, there’s nothing stopping us from exploring our options armed with a standard lens.

I’m sure experienced photographers are well aware of that previous point but this article aims to promote a lens that can be easily passed over by beginners due to it’s supposed lack of optical impact.

The Shard, London
The Shard, London

Creative use of depth of field.

There are a good number of 50mm lenses on the market that have very useful maximum apertures such as f1.8. This aspect of their design can be used in a number of practical ways. For instance, look at the great bokeh created in Photo 7, this was achieved by shooting very close in with the aperture wide open. Slight underexposure was used to darken the background and this was complimented by a little light from the built-in flash of the D90 (powered down. Yes, you can do that).

The Millennium Bridge, London
The Millennium Bridge, London

Who’s afraid of the dark?

Another advantage to having such a ‘fast lens’ is when you’re faced with low lighting. Most kit lenses, the one that usually comes with your DSLR, have maximum apertures of either f3.5 or f5.6 depending on the focal length being used. On a good day, let’s say you’re able to utilize f3.5, a photographer with a f1.8 lens has two stops on you. In practical terms this means that in dimly lit environment’s, as an example, there’s a good chance you’ll be forced to shoot at slow shutter speeds and/or raise the ISO.

Borough Market, London. ISO 200, f1.8, 1/50th sec
Borough Market, London. ISO 200, f1.8, 1/50th sec

Summing up, these lenses are more versatile than some may think. Optical quality is usually high, they’re lightweight, relatively inexpensive and you have the option of purchasing a model equipped with a very useful maximum aperture. Definitely a piece of kit worth having in the camera bag.

About The Author

Shaun is a London based professional photographer, tutor and author of the award winning eBook ‘Unravelling the Mysteries of the Little Black Box’. This unique and distinctive publication takes you through the principles of photography in a style he can guarantee you won’t have seen before. More information on this iPad/iMac compatible photo graphic novel can be found by visiting this link.

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31 responses to “It’s Anything But A Normal Lens”

  1. Fred Smith Avatar
    Fred Smith

    Nice article. You students are undoubtedly aware how inexpensive the older manual 50mm lenses are priced, some of which have excellent optical qualities.

    1. shaun_hines Avatar
      shaun_hines

      Very true Fred and awhile back I used an old 50mm and put up with the lack of coupling issues in favour of the results…very, very sharp!

    2. Scott Avatar
      Scott

      I shoot with Pentax for this exact reason-legacy lenses! I have been able to afford a wider variety of lenses because of this. Just a few days ago I purchased a Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f2 lens for $11. It was on impulse because it’s so cheap. I started using it and have become addicted! I love this little lens more than my modern ones. I find it hard to walk around with only one lens but should do it more. This new lens helps!

  2. Renato Murakami Avatar
    Renato Murakami

    I always thought that people who said 50mm were “normal” lenses were reffering more to how, on full frame sensors, it more closely gets to human-like field of view… rather than a derrogatory meaning.
    I can’t agree more with the article though… my first lens purchase was a 50mm f/1.4 prime after all. xD

    1. shaun_hines Avatar
      shaun_hines

      Hi Renato and glad you liked the article. It occurred to me as a tutor that both the terms normal and standard could possibly mislead beginners in to thinking that dramatic wides and telephotos were best due to their optical impact. I often venture out with this one lens and I’m continually surprised at how much I enjoy the experience.

    2. Michal Rosa Avatar
      Michal Rosa

      No, it does not have human-like FOV, it has human-like perspective.

      https://web.archive.org/web/20100402222923/http://www.photofidelity.com/blog/50mm-eye-fov-busted.html

  3. Michal Rosa Avatar
    Michal Rosa

    Wow, amazing how it is possible to cram so many misunderstandings and cliches into a single article.

    A 50 mm lens is called a standard lens or a normal lens because it produces perspective that is very similar to one perceived by the human eye. It is also important to remember that it’s the perspective, not the FOV – human eyes have much wider FOV. 50 mm lens on a FF camera has FOV of approximately 40° by 27°, human eyes can see approximately 150° by 120°. Good visual explanation is here – https://web.archive.org/web/20100402222923/http://www.photofidelity.com/blog/50mm-eye-fov-busted.html

    Sadly the article goes downhill from that misunderstanding. One piece of advise – research before you post anything.

    1. shaun_hines Avatar
      shaun_hines

      Thanks for adding the link and I’m sure those interested will take a visit. Of course the human vision is much more complex than any camera I’m aware of. The article was highlighting the strengths of this focal length…

    2. virtualflyer Avatar
      virtualflyer

      Actually normal means that the diagonal of the sensor is the same size as the focal length of the lens

    3. Andy Avatar
      Andy

      It’s good to see a contribution, although i am not sure you could have been any more condescending if you had tried.

      You should see if DIY photography will post your flawless article on the subject.

      1. Michal Rosa Avatar
        Michal Rosa

        I could have been much more condescending without trying hard at all. I am not going to post any articled on “DIY photography” (as opposed to non-DIT?) simply because I have no illusions of grandeur and see no reason to write on the subject that has been covered to death countless times already. I can offer however one piece of advise for blogging about photography – don’t. Whatever you want to write has been already done and more likely much better anyway.

        1. Andy Avatar
          Andy

          “Whatever you want to write has been already done and more likely much better anyway.”
          Quite defeated view of the world. Without new ideas progress halts, without reiteration you can fail to inspire. Just because it has been written a hundred times before, it does not mean you will not benefit from someone who has a writing technique that rings true with your learning strategies and abilities.

          1. Michal Rosa Avatar
            Michal Rosa

            That’s the point sweety – I am yet to read a “new” idea with all those people simply regurgitating what they have seen elsewhere.

            “Just because it has been written a hundred times before, it does not mean you will not benefit from someone who has a writing technique that rings true with your learning strategies and abilities.” – that’s exactly what it means. It has been said before and none of the Internet only writers I have seen have a decent writing technique. Basically they all (+/- a tiny percentage) suck. Just you like do. Being nice is a lovely thing, I prefer being honest.

          2. Andy Avatar
            Andy

            Sweety? Haha love it.

            I think you need to get out a bit more.

            Have fun trolling.

          3. shaun_hines Avatar
            shaun_hines

            My point exactly Andy…I’m sure you can relate to the opinion that opening gambits such as ‘Wow’ and ‘sweety’ colour and devalue any comment that follows…I think we know what kind of ‘character’ we’re dealing with here.

          4. shaun_hines Avatar
            shaun_hines

            ‘…have a decent writing technique’.
            ‘Just you like do’ ?!
            :-)

        2. shaun_hines Avatar
          shaun_hines

          …and you Sir need to get off your high horse :-)

          1. Michal Rosa Avatar
            Michal Rosa

            You Sir have to learn that honesty trumps being nice. At least in my world.

          2. shaun_hines Avatar
            shaun_hines

            …you aren’t being honest you are being snide and fail to realise that any value that maybe contained within your comments are shrouded by your arrogance and ill manners. I’ve seen your other posts and don’t care for your acerbic tone…

  4. shaun_hines Avatar
    shaun_hines

    To quote Henry Cartier-Bresson ‘It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis’ To achieve this, I reach for the 50mm lens.

  5. Finn Dudaniec Avatar
    Finn Dudaniec

    I live this lens

  6. Lyle Avatar
    Lyle

    If this article is written for beginners, then the 50mm lens is likely not the lens you should be touting in this way. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most DLSR beginners would start with a APS-C-sized sensor camera. Therefore, they would get the FOV you are discussing by using an approximately 35mm lens. On such a camera, the 50mm would equate to a short telephoto focal length and would not be what you are trying to discuss. It’s strange you didn’t even touch on this difference.

    Another lesson on “just because it’s written on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true”.

    1. shaun_hines Avatar
      shaun_hines

      Hi Lyle…this article was to highlight the uses of a focal length that is sometimes overlooked for the reasons I state in the article, on a cropped sensor this would be a 35mm and I’ve made a note of your point.

      Not sure you needed to add the last statement…

  7. Chris Gillard Avatar
    Chris Gillard

    I think you’ve done an excellent article here to encourage shooting with a 50mm equivalent lens, be it 35 on Canon/Nikon crop or even a 25mm on Micro 4/3. I need to get out there with my 25mm f1.8 Olympus lens and get back to basics. Thank you Shaun.

    1. shaun_hines Avatar
      shaun_hines

      Hi Chris and thanks for your comments. When I teach I always cover the cropped sensor issue and it was a little remiss of me to not point that out . My first cameras all came with 50mm lenses and I disticntly remember feeing a little dissatisfied with them (hankering after dramatic wides and powerful telephotos). As I state, there are some great days out to be had plus they make you work a little harder, never a bad thing…

  8. Rod Huff Avatar
    Rod Huff

    I opted for the 1.4…couldn’t live without my 50

  9. blokeinusa Avatar
    blokeinusa

    For the past year I’ve been shooting with primes only (14,24,35,50mm) and I’ve been loving it. It is more challenging in the sense you have to think more of what you want to capture and how your going to capture based on the lens your using. Rather than just taking photos and zooming in and out.

  10. Laurence Brown Avatar
    Laurence Brown

    Nice Article, you’ve done a good job of remembering that not everyone reading a blog called “DIY Photography” will be a pro-sumer or experienced photographer. Equally as likely someone like me fumbling around with their first entry level SLR.

    Nice photos too

    1. shaun_hines Avatar
      shaun_hines

      Hi Laurence and thanks for the feedback. Note the cropped sensor issue.
      I don’t often now venture out burdened with tons of gear…

      1. Laurence Brown Avatar
        Laurence Brown

        The cropped sensor thing is confusing along with the compatibility of lenses:
        – if I have an APS-C camera how do i work out what the focal length is?
        – If I use a lens from an old film camera (with and adapter ring) whats the focal lengh?
        – if I could borrow/buy lenses from someone with a full frame camera would these work with my APS-C camera (Canon 1100d)
        – If I upgraded to a full frame in future would my current lenses be compatible? (5Ds are cheap these days)
        – Are there focal lengths that cant be achieved with APS-C cameras?

        If you understand all the above it could be a good basis for your next article…