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50mm: the Nifty Fifty

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Once the standard lens in any photographer’s bag, the 50mm lost favour as newer zooms arrived on the scene Once the standard lens in any photographer’s bag, the 50mm lost favour as newer zooms arrived on the scene
23 Jul
2018
Some may see using the 50mm lens as a regressive step, but in fact there are still some very good reasons for getting the once standard lens out – and more photographers are choosing to do just that

Back in the days when it seemed everyone with a camera was shooting with a single lens reflex (SLR) loaded with 35mm format film, the one lens that you would find in nearly every kitbag was the 50mm fixed focal length, also known as the ‘standard’ lens. In most cases, these lenses were acquired simply because they were sold with the camera. They were cheap to produce, lightweight and compact, and with an angle of view similar to that experienced with our own eyes. These may sound like perfect reasons to stick with such a lens and not be steered to any other, but in reality the opposite happened as the variety of viewing angles offered by the introduction of the ‘standard zoom’ resulted in many people casting their 50mm primes aside.

In many ways, eschewing the 50mm for a 2x or 3x zoom, such as a 35-70mm or 28-70mm proved to be a mistake, as early standard zooms were of inferior optical quality and construction, but many photographers took the 50mm for granted. However, recent years has seen a new-found appreciation for the 50mm and its previously underrated qualities. It was, and remains to this day, one of the most optically refined lenses in photography with fine image resolution and a virtual absence of distortion – the culmination of many decades of engineering and incremental improvements.

Of course, the pro-model standard zoom, now typically a 24-70mm, is a far better lens than its previous incarnations, with outstanding optical quality across its focal length range, including the 50mm setting. So why then, should anyone consider using a 50mm alone? 

 

PRIME ADVANTAGES

Despite the indisputable improvement in the optical performance of the major makes of 24-70mm zoom lenses, the 50mm standard continues to have some noticeable advantages that many photographers find hard to ignore. As a fixed focal length ‘prime’ lens, it has a larger maximum aperture, typically f/1.8, while some, albeit more expensive versions, boast f/1.4, or even f/1.2 for maximum light gathering ability.

The best and most expensive 24-70mm zooms on the other hand have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 throughout their range, a full stop slower than a 50mm f/1.8, which is also much lighter, smaller and considerably cheaper. For a direct price comparison, the current version of Canon’s pro standard 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens retails for around £1,700 while its latest 50mm f/1.4 costs less than £300.

Admittedly, this isn’t exactly comparing like with like, and a 24-70mm zoom gives considerably more compositional and creative options than the fixed focal length 50mm, but with those wider angles comes other considerations, most notably distortion. The shorter the focal length of a lens, say 24mm or 28mm, the wider the angle of view and the more pronounced the curved linear distortion at the edge of the frame. This is also known as barrel distortion and, for obvious reasons, is a characteristic that many portrait and lifestyle photographers try to avoid.

That’s also the case for architectural photographers, whose obsession with straight lines see them use the specialist tilt and shift lenses for correcting distortions and perspective.

This need to keep lines straight and true also obsesses many portrait and lifestyle photographers who are in the business of ensuring their model subjects and backgrounds look natural and true. London-based commercial photographer Holly Wren is someone who wouldn’t part with her Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 for this very reason. ‘I have a real thing about lines, straight lines,’ she says. ‘Any lines in the picture, they have to be straight! So, no distortion, and if you go beyond 50mm you’re distorting it even slightly, and that’s a no go, so 50mm keeps my lines straight.’

This shows background and foreground soft focus and yellow poppies in focus. Notice the soft fluffy bokehThis shows background and foreground soft focus and yellow poppies in focus. Notice the soft, fluffy bokeh. Taken on a Leica M9, Leitz Noctilux 1:1/50 lens, ISO Pull 80, F1.6, 4,000th sec. (Image: John Adderley)

 

STREET LIFE

Even with this endorsement of the 50mm lens, Wren says she still prefers her 85mm f/1.4 prime as her ideal portrait lens, but the 50mm gives her more scope to both move in closer for the typical head and shoulders portrait, as well as to take a step back to include the background or surroundings that defines environmental portraiture. ‘I love my 85mm,’ she adds. ‘To me, that’s quite a close portrait lens, but I can’t really pull back on the 85mm, but with 50mm I can go close if I want to, or if I do street photography.’

Including a person’s surroundings is also a compositional prerequisite for street photography, but many photographers prefer the wider focal lengths provided by a 35mm, or even 28mm lens. However, with these lens choices comes distortion, particularly when the focusing distance is close, resulting in unflattering facial distortions.

Interestingly, the renowned master of street photography, the late great Henri Cartier-Bresson, used a 50mm prime lens rather than a 35mm lens on a Leica rangefinder camera for many of his famous street and reportage pictures taken during the mid-20th Century.

The award-winning fashion photographer John Wright is another who is hooked on the 50mm. When asked which lens he would choose if he could only ever use one for any assignment, he answered: ‘50mm f/1.4. I don’t why that is, it’s just right. A lens I should love is the 85mm f/1.4, but I can’t get on with it. I shout for it, put it on, then find I can’t get a picture with it!’ Clearly, when it comes to photographing people on the street, in the studio or on exotic locations, there are many advantageous as well as inexplicable reasons for making the 50mm lens the photographer’s first choice.

 

A 50MM CHALLENGE

So, if one fairly ordinary fixed focal length lens can have that much of a hold on the way a professional photographer chooses to shoot, how far are some photographers prepared to stake their reputations by it? A few years ago, the British wedding and fashion photographer Carey Sheffield, now based in Florida, was looking for an idea for a personal project to take her out of her comfort zone. She trawled various online forums and decided to buy a secondhand Nikkor 50mm f/1.2, not realising it was a manual focus lens.

‘I thought I had just wasted another £800,’ she recalls, ‘but I thought, “No, I’ll stick with it”, so I went onto Facebook and said, “I’ve just bought this lens, guys, what do you think?” and they all went, “Oh wow, we’re not worthy!” It had this kind of attitude about it, so I had a bit of a play and decided to do 50 portraits in 50 consecutive days with a 50mm lens.’

Without realising it fully at the time, Carey had chosen the ideal lens for such an assignment, but more importantly for her technique. She could no longer use autofocus as she had been accustomed to, and now had to focus accurately by hand. This required more attention than usual, which in turn meant more time engaging with the stranger who was now her subject for the camera. She explains: ‘I just literally went up to people if I liked their face, but I quickly realised I was scanning everyone I laid eyes on! The hardest people to get were the women because they’d say, “Oh, my make-up, my hair!” I wasn’t being flash, I just wanted to take a picture.’

The narrow depth of field resulting from the wide f/1.2 maximum aperture also meant Carey had to be even more considered when focusing to ensure her subject’s eyes weren’t blurred or soft. As a result, she also found that her images looked sharper overall because the narrower plane of focus was accentuated by a greater area of the frame surrounding her subject being defocused.

 

OTHER POSSIBILITIES

The 50mm lens is probably not quite the best choice for frame-filling portraits. Longer focal lengths such as the 70mm end of a 24-70mm zoom or Nikon’s purposely-designed 85mm f/1.4 are better choices for this, but even the 17in (42cm) nearest focusing distance of a 50mm will deliver a close-up portrait capable of revealing every facial detail. Of course, fitting a 50mm onto a cropped sensor (APS-C format) DSLR camera will extend the focal length to 80mm – ideal for portraits.

The closest focusing distance is a key consideration for every lens purchase, and macro lenses are designed specifically to focus closer than any other for the precise purpose of rendering subject details life-size on the frame. Interestingly, true macros are prime lenses of short telephoto focal lengths, most commonly 90mm, 100mm or 150mm, but macro lenses of 50mm and 60mm focal lengths are also widely available. So, for a 50mm standard that offers additional shooting flexibility, from close-ups of flowers to close-up street portraits, you could consider a 50 or 60mm macro as your standard.

Alternatively, compare the closest-focusing distance of 50mm standard lenses made by independent lens makers such as Sigma, Tamron and Zeiss. The Zeiss 50mm f/2 Makro-Planar is not a true macro lens, but it does focus down to nine inches (22.5cm), twice as close other brands’ 50mm lenses, thereby giving even more creative options than its rivals. As the retail experts say, shop widely, choose wisely.

This was published in the July 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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Related items

LENS CHOICES

Sigma 50mm f 1.4 DG Art
SIGMA: 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
For many, this is the best 50mm lens on the market, with an optical performance that few can match. As it’s not made by a specialist camera maker, the Sigma (£700) has the added attraction of being available in mounts for Canon, Nikon, Sony and Sigma’s own brand of cameras. Designed for use with full frame DSLR cameras, the lens includes Sigma’s hypersonic motor (HSM) for silent autofocus operation, but can be manually overridden without changing modes. The 9-blade diaphragm delivers smooth background bokeh and there are three special low dispersion glass elements (SLD) to keep optical aberrations to a minimum.
Click here to purchase via Amazon


Zeiss 50mm f 2 Makro Planar
ZEISS: 50mm f/2 Makro-Planar T* ZE
With its maximum f/2 aperture, this is the fastest 50mm macro lens for full frame digital SLRs. To be precise, the Makro-Planar (£1,000) is a hybrid between a true macro and a standard 50mm lens, with a minimum focusing distance that is twice as close as regular 50mm lenses, but a macro capability that is half, rather than full life-size. Either way, this provides a degree of flexibility that makes this lens stand out from the others. Zeiss lenses are renowned for fine optical precision and this is no exception. Furthermore, the Makro-Planar is made in a choice of Canon, Nikon, Pentax or Sony mounts, so, like the Sigma, is virtually available to all.
Click here to purchase via Amazon


Canon 50mm f 1.4 USM
CANON: EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
The latest incarnation of a design dating back to the 1970s, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM (£300) remains one of the most affordable and high performing lenses in the Canon arsenal. Compared to the Sigma, this has a modest construction and may not quite deliver the same level of resolution, but in the right hands it remains a first-class lens at a far more affordable price.
Click here to purchase via Amazon

DOS and DON’TS

DO...
Check the minimum focusing distance of the lens so you can more ably fine-focus when photographing subjects up close, particularly when near the limit of your lens-to-subject distance.

• Try to work at the maximum aperture of your 50mm lens as the resulting narrow depth of field of a sharply focused subject will be accentuated by the rest of the frame area being rendered as a soft defocused blur.

• Keep your lines straight! The 50mm is a distortion-free lens, so don’t ruin any nice straight lines within the frame by making them crooked through unsteady handling.

DON’T...
• Use autofocus when making close focusing adjustments near the limits of your lens’s focusing distance. Focus manually instead and gently rock forward and back slightly to see how subject areas fall in and out of focus.

• Overlook the background, particularly when making portraits. Even the most precisely focused and perfectly exposed eyes and face can be compromised by a distracting background colour or object, even when out of focus.

• Stick to the same spot. A well-known photography adage is: ‘the best zoom lens is your feet’, so if you need to get closer to, or further away from your subject when using the fixed focal length of a 50mm prime lens, simply take a step forward or back. Your composition will still be distortion-free!

University of Winchester

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