Photography studio, gallery and training complex

When To Get Nifty With A Fifty

One of the questions I’m most often asked by my students is “What’s the next bit of kit I should buy?”. I (almost) invariably answer, “A 50mm prime lens”.

Why? Well, firstly it’s one of the cheapest lenses you can add to your kit bag – £90-110 usually for Canon/Nikon. And secondly its one of the most versatile lenses you can add to your kit bag. 

The f1.8 maximum aperture gives you an affordable way in to feasible low light photography.

Mezzotonic, shot on a 50mm during a Fotofilia Live Music workshop.

My fifty’s always along with me whenever I’m shooting weddings, natural light portraits, live music, and even sport. It’s certainly the most useful lens for my “Night Photo Safari”, “Portraiture Using Natural Light”, and “Live Music” workshops.

Not only does the humungous aperture mean you can shave a few stops off your ISO or shoot at the kind of shutter speeds you can only dream of with your kit lens or most budget-end zooms, but it also means you can work with some very funky shallow depth-of-field. For instance, get in close for a low-light portrait and with the eyes in sharp focus, the ears and end of the nose will already be slipping into blur.

Of course this can also be a problem in itself – you’re going to have to be spot-on with your focussing to make sure you get what you want in focus, erm, in focus, when using the lens‘s maximum aperture.

And then there’s the problem of too much light. Yes, too much light (not a phrase you hear much in photography). If you want to use the maximum aperture to get that lovely shallow depth-of-field and it’s a bright day, even at 100 ISO and with your shutter at its fastest speed, you still might not be able to open up to f1.8 without over-exposing. The only real way around this is to fit a neutral density (ND) filter or two. Not ideal.

When I bought my first (film) SLR, it came with a 50mm f1.8 lens: no “kit lenses” back then. This meant that until I could afford my first zoom, which was a while later, I got used to working within the confines of a fixed focal length (or prime) lens. A prime lens is a great way to practice getting into the right position for a shot rather than letting the zoom do all the work – you get a bit more exercise that’s for sure.

If you’ve only ever previously used zooms, you might also be pleasantly surprised by the optical quality of this simple, and let’s face it, cheap lens. PLUS, it’s teeny-weeny and so could even slip into your pocket.

And so I still whole-heartedly recommend you make a 50mm the next lens you buy. It may have its limitations but you will come to wonder what you ever did without it.

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One response

  1. Scott Bytheway

    I’ll second that. My Canon 50mm was about £70 from Amazon and it’s my favourite lens, the quality is amazing.

    December 15, 2010 at 11:48 pm

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