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?
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.’
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.
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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