Five Reasons You Should be Photographing with a 50mm Lens

But wait a minute, I Have a small sensor DSLR camera

I initially wrote this article for 35mm film camera photographers but also applies to "full frame sensor" DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera owners.

Just about all DSLRs that will accept interchangeable lenses feature smaller sensors than a customary 35mm film camera frame. Photographs created using these cameras are typically cropped from the core of one if it were shot using a full frame film image. Consequently this results in what is known as a "focal length multiplier", 1.5x for Nikon and 1.6x for Canon. For instance, when a 50mm lens is mounted on a Nikon DSLR delivers a photo equivalent to a 75mm short telephoto lens when used on a film camera.

While a 50mm lenses mounted on DSLR cameras are still very useful, especially for candid portrait work, the focal length most comparable to being a "normal" lens when mounted on an APS-C camera is 35mm, effectively turning into 53-56mm lens when mounted on a conventional digital camera. Canon, Nikon, make fast 35mm f/1.8 and 1.4 autofocus lens that work very well as a standard lens. Canon, Leica, Nikon and a others even manufacture fast f/1.4 35mm lenses, at correspondingly increased prices of course. A few makers have adopted what's called a "Four Thirds" format (Panasonic, Olympus and Samsung) which are smaller yet, resulting in a 2x multiplier.

Betty Family

So why go to all this bother?, I'll just use the 18-55mm zoom lens that came with my camera. Well, consider this scenario you're, the proud grandparents of a delightful new baby girl, and you can barely contain the excitement as you whip out your 6 month old 35mm camera with it's 18-55mm kit lens you acquired, partially to document your grandchild's formative years. Although you've used a point & shoot camera for some time, you wanted to move up to a "for real" camera to create those quality images you've seen in the widespread media and on the brochures of the camera maker's. You fumble somewhat as you are mounting the 18-55 zoom lens. When your daughter proudly holds granddaughter up you bring the camera up to your eye. Your viewfinder appears a little murky because of the room light, although hopeful for the best shot, you lightly press the shutter button and...

Hold on just a minute... while the auto focusing system hunts, the on-board flash unit pops up and sets up a charge, the camera's "red eye reduction" mode fires off a succession of strobe bursts right into your baby granddaughter's face, until at last the camera acquires the image. Naturally, by then the smile on your daughter's face has faded, the baby's become fussy, and the pictures result in that deer-caught-in-the-headlights (on-board-camera-flash) effect you were so trying to avoid... So what went wrong with this scenario ? Well, partially, you're using the wrong lens.

Betty Family

Zoom Zoom

Like many photographers getting started with a brand new 35mm DSLR, odds are it included one of those omnipresent 18-55mm "consume grader" zoom lenses. Over the last decade these cheap lenses have all taken the place of the normal 50mm prime as today's starter 35mm camera lens. The 50mm lens, at one time the mainstay for 35mm photography, has all but been abandoned by the photographers of today.

Perhaps this trend began when the third party lens manufacturers started promoting zoom lenses as an alternative to the 50mm "standard" lens, which was initial lens most photographers acquired with their 35mm cameras. Retailers promoted these lenses as they discovered they made larger margins of profit. A few large chains outfits even introduced their very own house-brand editions. The camera makers retaliated with their own less expensive offerings, and the zoom lens soon became the current fashion of any new camera acquisition.

Naturally, people like zoom lenses. They're really handy while their shortcomings are not readily evident when casually used. "Consumer" zooms most definitely have their uses, for instance in travel and vacation photography, a great deal of which occurs out of doors. Although, I believe they are poor choices for numerous beginning DSLR users who are excided by the thought of capturing high quality images of their family and kids.

Looking past their at times imprecise optical performances, my biggest criticism of these zoom lenses is their painfully slow apertures. A great deal of the most evocative and better known images in the world were created using natural light and fast lenses with film. Acquiring comparable images is next to impossible using "slow" zooms, which are more difficult to focus and nearly inadequate for indoors use without requiring flash. Nor can they without difficulty render out of focus backgrounds. In fact, the technological limitations of these zoom lenses are predisposed to delivering to the exact snapshots the photographer most likely bought a DSLR to avoid.

A Renaissance Appreciation for the "Standard" Lens

Read the Prime Lens Renaissance article

Revised Nov 9, 2014

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Five Reasons You Should be Photographing with a 50mm Lens Reviewed by Gene Wright on . Rating: 4.5