Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I've seen quite a few people recommend the 50mm prime lenses, in particular the sub-$100 50mm/f1.8, as a starting lens for photographers (especially because they're likely to be using cameras with cropped sensors). From my experiences with the 18-55 mm kit lens (on a Canon EOS 550D), it seems that 50mm is not really very suited for indoor flashless group photographs where the wide aperture would be helpful. It is probably a good lens for portraits of one or two persons, and some low light photographs.

So, what are the advantages it offers over the kit zoom lenses (apart from the wider aperture), under what scenarios is it more useful, and why would you recommend it as a starting lens?

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There is an answered question on the 50 mm prime lens as a standard lens, but doesn't answer the question above - photo.stackexchange.com/q/3053/1977 –  ab.aditya Feb 18 '11 at 7:38
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Actually, a wide aperture is quite useless for "group photographs". In a group photo, it is normally desireable to have everybody in the group actually in focus and sharp. This cannot be done at f/1.something. I'd go for f/8 or thereabouts as a starting point personally. For portraits, however, f/1-f/2 can actually be enough; if the eyes are sharp the ears can be as fuzzy as they want. –  Staale S Feb 18 '11 at 9:24
    
My take on the wide aperture was more from the lighting point of view rather than depth of field, but I agree that you'd need a narrower aperture for sharper group photos. –  ab.aditya Feb 18 '11 at 10:07
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The ability to go to f/1.8 gives you extra flexibility, you don't have to shoot everything wide open, you can still shoot your group photos at f/8 –  Matt Grum Feb 18 '11 at 10:40
    
See also What is a normal lens? –  mattdm Jan 19 '12 at 15:13
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9 Answers 9

up vote 51 down vote accepted

What people have generally suggested is to start with a normal lens. On a full-frame 35mm camera, that role was generally filled by the 50mm lens. On a modern crop-frame DSLR, it would be closer to 30mm (for Canon APS-C 1.6x sensors) or 35mm (Nikon, Pentax, Sony) or 25mm (Olympus and Panasonic).

The 50mm is usually suggested these days as the first good supplement to the kit lens. It doesn't really matter whose 50mm lens you're looking at, the design for the f/1.8 (or f/1.7) version has been around forever. They're all sharp to very sharp, lightweight and (most of all) cheap. And as you pointed out, they'll function well as a shortish version of the traditional medium telephoto portrait lens. But as nice as the "nifty fifty" is, it's not a normal lens on a crop-sensor camera.

A normal prime lens is very versatile. You can step back a couple of feet and get a fairly wide image field. Step forward and you can fill the frame with a single subject of interest. Neither picture will be quite what you'd get using a wide angle lens or a short telephoto, but you can get a reasonably good picture either way. The field of view subjectively matches what you tend to think you're seeing in real life, so there are no major surprises or unintentional special effects.

Working with a prime lens, though, helps you to become a better photographer. It forces you to change your point of view to find the best image rather than just standing in the easiest spot and turning a ring. You might get acceptable results using a zoom exclusively, but it's unlikely you'll get a spectacular result until you've forced yourself to take the rocky road for a while. You may decide to stick with primes (I have always had zooms, and shot an average of ten rolls of film a day -- or the equivalent -- for a couple of decades, and I bet I took fewer than two hundred shots with a zoom lens in all that time) but even if you use a zoom lens most of the time, you'll never use it in quite the same way after working exclusively with prime lenses long enough to change your habits.

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Yes, most folks starting out have crop sensor cameras and so the normal lens is not a 50mm. Sadly, the manufacturers don't seem to think that folks with crop sensor cameras are interested in inexpensive normal lenses. Canon has no about 30mm F-faster than 2.0 lens at anything like the $110 that their 50mm F1.8 is. –  Pat Farrell Aug 26 '12 at 4:23
    
Sigma provides a fast 30mm f1.4 lens (They noticed canon didn't, while other manufacturers do offer fast 25mm or 35mm prime lenses for their crop body's). –  Berzemus Aug 27 '12 at 8:24
    
@PatFarrell it's not a marketing problem but a technological problem: as in common DSLRs the flange distance is around 40-50 mm, it's more difficult to produce good lenses with a shorter focal distance. –  clabacchio Apr 16 at 11:12
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  1. Fast (in terms of allowing light in)
  2. Cheap (compared to most other lenses - hence good starter)
  3. Portable (the 50mm is a tiny little beastie that doesn't add much to your SLR)
  4. Sharp (the reduced number of elements and size means this lens is super sharp)
  5. Bokeh (it's well recognised that because of the shallow DOF and the blades, that the 50mm produces superior bokeh to other lenses)
  6. Good Field of View (for portraits and "normal" shots)
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"Better bokeh" isn't about more bokeh, it's about the shape, smoothness, etc. of the bokeh. That cheap 50 f/1.8 isn't going to have horrible bokeh, but it might have pentagonal bokeh. –  Evan Krall Jul 26 '11 at 9:59
    
Interesting. When I "go for bokeh" I tend to go wide open, thereby eliminating the effects of the diaphragm on the out of focus elements. Am I doing something wrong? –  Therealstubot Aug 6 '12 at 21:42
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You're right that 50mm on an APS-c is long for group shots but that's part of the reason I'd recommended it. Being restricted like that forces you to be more creative. If you've come up from compact cameras it can be hard to get over the idea that everything should zoom.

Good photography is all about compromises, you often have to compromise on the convenience of a zoom to work in low light or have a very shallow depth of field.

The 50mm is the only f/1.8 lens you can get for under $100, or for under $200 for that matter! It's good because it's cheap, and very high performance in terms of aperture, and because you can create some really stunning images even when paired to the most basic camera!

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50mm f/1.8 is not the only affordable fixed focal length lens. In fact, there are normal lens for APS-C cameras which do not cost much more: Nikkor 35 f/1.8 is $199, Pentax 35 f/2.4 is $217, Sony 30 f/2.8 is $199, Olympus 25 f/2.8 is $208. –  sastanin Feb 18 '11 at 9:36
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@jextee I didn't say the 50 f/1.8 is the only affordable fixed focus lens, I said it's the only affordable f/1.8 lens. Which it is, the only thing that comes close is the Nikon 35 f/1.8 which is over double the price! –  Matt Grum Feb 18 '11 at 10:33
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I think the advice to specifically use a 50mm lens is a hold over from 35mm film days, one of those things that "has just always been the right answer" for so long that folks don't stop to re-think it. The point is to start with a "normal" lens, of a fixed focal length. so that you learn to move around and reposition yourself to make a better shot. It's all about the mental task of trying to take a better picture before you even release the shutter. I've seen it taught more recently with modern kit zoom lenses that are simply taped to a fixed position with a loop of masking or gaffers tape so the student can't zoom.

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We tend to look at pictures from a distance near the diagonal length of the picture.

So, as for the standard format 36 mm × 24 mm (35mm aka 135 film or "full-frame" digital) , the 50mm lens which corresponds more or less to the diagonal of the format, gives a "natural" view(1).

Hence for the format 50mm (2) is the standard lens. Under 50 mm, we are in large angle lens and over in teleobjective lens.

For other formats a conversion (crop format in the digital world) is needed. For example many DSLR have an APS format with a crop factor of 1.5 and for these camera a 35mm lens is the standard lens (3).

Interestingly and for the same reason, you may prefer for close-up portraits a lens with a focal a bit longer (80mm for example) as you generally look at people from a distance a bit longer.


Notes :

1) Even if the angle of view is near 50° much under the eye angle of view.

2) In fact, every lens in the 45 mm/ 60 mm range can be considered as standard.

3) But the depth of field for a given aperture is different

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A wide aperture is not just about being able to take pictures in low light. It's about controlling the depth of field. Zooms tend to place all the emphasis on framing, and take away nearly everything else -- but the "everything else" is what generally separates a decent snapshot from a great picture.

As others have pointed out, there's also the simple fact that in terms of simple optical quality, a "normal" lens is (by far) the best bang for the buck on the market. Zooms that can even come close to keeping up are not only much more expensive, but also much larger and heavier.

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50mm is just a focal length, like any other (28, 55, 300,etc). The thing is that most manufacturers offer at least a 50mm prime (that doesn't zoom) lens that gives really nice pictures for a really good price. The canon 50mm f1.8 is probably the best example of this. the 50mm focal length is also important because it resembles a lot to the focal length of the human eye, so it makes very attractives pictures, particularly portraits.

For these reasons, having a 50mm lens is very popular. If you have played around with your kit lens (normally a 18-55mm) the 50mm is a very good option. they tend to be fast (1.8 or less) so you can get nice bokehs or take pictures with low light.

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In the film era, the 50mm/1.8 was the kit lens, so any books/instruction from that era may emphasize its use.

In the digital age with crop bodies, a 50mm lens is still relevant for a number of reasons:

  • The Canon 50/1.8 II is super-cheap as dSLR lenses go. It makes an easier blind recommendation than a more expensive lens. If the beginner asking the question forgets to relay relevant information that tells you whether a 50 is a good lens for them or not, a 50/1.8 is still more often useful than not to someone who only has a kit zoom or two (the folks most likely to be asking).

  • It's a lot faster than the f/3.5-5.6 18-55 and 55-250 kit lenses: you can learn about larger apertures, their strengths, and their pitfalls in using one. It can also ground a beginner in the differences between primes and zooms, fast lenses and slow, and the difference IS makes on a lens.

  • 50mm is still 50mm no matter what format sensor is behind it, and the magnification that a 50mm lens offers closely matches that of the human eye. I.e., if you open both of your eyes while you're shooting with one on a dSLR, the view between both eyes will match. Composition then becomes a simpler matter of choosing framing. Your mind's eye doesn't also have to translate for focal length when you're looking at the scene to find a photo without the camera to your face.

  • A prime lens doesn't zoom. So, framing is done completely by camera placement. So, you'll have to move your ass to get the composition you want. And while you're already walking forwards and backwards, it's just that tiny bit easier for you to contemplate going to the left/right, or rising up or lowering the viewpoint of the image as well. Zooms don't remove this ability from you; but for newbs, they can sometimes cut those considerations short.

  • Most folks will use a fast prime as a portrait lens. A 50mm lens does not yield a "normal" FoV on a crop body, but comes close to an 85 fov (50mmx1.6=> 80mm), which is a traditional portrait focal length on full frame.

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For me 50mm on a full frame camera is what you eye see, so if you want something just as you see it and you have the right camera go for the 50mm.

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On this, see photo.stackexchange.com/questions/26295/… –  mattdm Aug 25 '12 at 22:33
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