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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.