The 50mm (“normal”) focal length lens is: tack-sharp; immediately rewarding; easy to use; harder work; better than a zoom; boring; ideal for low-light work; required for a natural perspective; not really “normal”; good for learning the value of “foot zoom”; obsolete; underrated; cheap; best value; best for a beginner; the only lens you need; too limiting; made in China. At least according to what I’ve read in various internet forums and articles. And from my experience, I can state definitively that all those opinions are precisely right/wrong.
I’m a keen 50mm shooter, but to quibble over some of the views represented above:
- The wide aperture of the 50mm allows it to be used handheld in situations where a tripod would otherwise be required, but remember that wide aperture = shallow depth of field. This can actually be used to advantage in many situations, and may not otherwise be an issue if the subject is a reasonable distance away. However, it’s disappointing to hear people say that they keep a 50mm in their camera bag for low-light situations but “never actually use it”. Why on earth lug it around if you’re not prepared to learn how to use it?
- Best for a beginner
- Maybe. Some beginners, perhaps, who are dedicated and creative self-starters with singular intent. Others may well find it becomes restrictive and discouraging. Raw beginners lacking defined goals like to play around, try different shots, see what wide angle and telephoto viewpoints are like. They’re probably not so aware of the subtleties of subdued lighting and careful composition, and less discerning over image contrast and sharpness (particularly in 6”x4” colour prints). The basic zoom often conforms better to their needs. (On the other hand, beginners also like to avoid using tripods…)
- Better quality than a cheap zoom
- Indeed, but until you’ve put that zoom on a tripod and shot it at f/8 with proper technique, it’s silly to go dashing out and buy a new lens in hope of resolving any dissatisfactions over “image quality”. “Buy a fifty” is the worst answer I’ve seen to early complaints about poor pictures.
- Harder work
- Hard in the sense that you have to concentrate more on the actual image, rather than utilising characteristics of the lens to enhance its representation (e.g. the novel distortions that wide angles can introduce)? Actually, the 50mm is in many ways easy to shoot since What You See Is What You Get. It doesn’t actually show the same view as your own eyes, but it crops out much of the same distracting surround that your mind does, and thus the image is more likely to correspond with what you wanted. Of course, if you don’t see anything exciting then neither will the lens.
- Good for foot-zooming
- …The thesis being that one focal length forces you to move around and deliberately choose your viewpoint instead of standing still and zooming the lens. But, say opponents, there’s nothing to stop you moving around with a zoom. Apart from indisciplined laziness, of course, with which I am amply gifted. Unless you are extremely disciplined (or hyperactive), you probably won’t fully understand this argument until you’re forced to try it for yourself.
- Maybe 50mm simply doesn’t match your personal vision of the world…or maybe you mean that you can only find boring pictures to take with it. Just somethin’ to consider, is all I’m saying.
- Not really “normal”
- Some people claim that 35mm better approximates their own vision. I’ve never come to terms with this focal length myself, but far be it from me to deride the perceptions of others…you freaks. :-)
Some articles on the 50mm or normal lens:
- A classic: The Forgotten Lens by Gary Voth.
- A good lesson by Petteri Sulonen on The Faithful Fifty.
- Curing Lens Envy: why you might never need more than a 50mm. Some good sense (despite some out-dated assumptions about zooms) and a long archive of postings containing the usual pro-normal arguments. (I don’t subscribe to some of the dogma here, but the basic message - one lens is often enough - deserves wider dissemination.)
- Lots of 50mm’s compared, in typically subjective fashion, by Mike Johnston.
- Phillip Greenspun’s totally opinionated advice on What camera should I buy? - note the 50mm recommendation (and the famous “dickless yuppie” comment).
- Why I Like Black and White contains some great examples of imaginative picture opportunities.
- Patrick Hudepohl has some advice on choosing a normal lens.
- Mike Johnston returns to the topic of the elusive “normal” and the myth of the fifty.
The goal of this exercise is to take some “artistic” pictures that demonstrate the isolation, intimacy and low-light capabilities of the normal lens.
- Get a 35mm SLR camera that supports manual operation, and 50mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2. DOF preview and aperture-priority mode are also useful but not essential. If you lack one or other of these items and can’t afford new, many older manual SLR systems are available secondhand at prices low enough to justify buying one as a second system purely for this purpose (the 50mm was once the standard bundled lens so it should be included). (I bought a Nikon EM plus a 50mm Series E lens for £75 from the secondhand shelves of a small camera shop. Its main mode is aperture-priority, which is ideal because that’s the main aspect I need to control. An Olympus OM or Pentax would be good choices too.)
Alternatively, use a short telephoto lens such as an 85mm or 105mm, providing the aperture goes to at least f/2.8. This won’t give the same “normal” viewpoint as the 50mm, but will provide subject isolation.
DSLR users dealing with a 1.5 crop factor will need to either mount a 35mm length lens, which will be more expensive, or live with the cropped view.
As a last resort, you can use a standard consumer zoom at 50mm and widest aperture; this lacks much of the spirit of the normal lens, but is sufficient to give the flavour of using one.
- Get some chromogenic B&W film such as Ilford XP2, Kodak T400CN or Fuji Neopan 400CN. “Chromogenic” means that it can be developed using the standard C41 colour process used by all high street labs, thus avoiding the need to develop it yourself or rely on (usually unsatisfactory) B&W lab processing. They are also all 400ASA speed films, which is usually fast enough to handhold and, being print films, have plenty of exposure latitude to cover any mistakes.
By shooting monochrome, you give yourself a head start on producing appealing images. Our culture and history predisposes us to imbue B&W photographs with “retro” or “artistic” associations (this doesn’t mean that you can’t take a bad B&W picture, of course). You also remove the need to worry about distracting colour contrasts, instead highlighting tones, textures and shapes.
- Stick to apertures of f/4 or wider and go shooting. Look for details or objects with interesting surfaces and shapes, and get in close to eliminate surroundings and perhaps frustrate immediate identification (50mm lenses usually focus down to approximately half a metre). Minimal DOF works well when the subject is either distinct enough to be recognisable even if only partly in focus, or consists of a repeated pattern. Alternatively, use it to produce an attractively blurred background around a sharp subject; this gives an almost three-dimensional quality.
Light is often at its best either side of sunset on a partly cloudly day. I find working under overcast skies the most frustrating, since shadows disappear entirely and there is no directional lighting to pick out details. Nevertheless, the diffuse light helps to prevent strong contrast situations if you can find subject matter that is strong enough on its own.
- Remember that DOF varies with subject distance as well as aperture; you can use an online DOF calculator to see how far the zone of acceptable sharpness extends in various situations.
- Autofocus is fine if you have it, but try manual focusing as well. At the widest aperture, the image in the viewfinder matches what you will get on the print (no need for DOF preview). By rotating the focus ring through its entire movement, you can watch as various parts of the scene come into and go out of focus, and thus judge the optimum placement of the zone of sharpness.
- Try shooting indoors with pets, people and objects, without a flash. You may need some artificial light but at least it won’t give a colour cast.
- By all means use a tripod and cable release when the light is really poor or sharpness is a critical concern, but try to use the camera handheld at other times, since it frees you up to consider different or unusual angles and spaces and be more spontaneous. The goal here is to take more pictures, even if they’re not technically perfect in every aspect. Using the reciprocal rule, you should be safe at shutter speeds of 1/60th or faster, but its worth honing your handholding technique and taking chances at speeds of 1/30th or even 1/15th.
- Blurred subjects in motion? Rushed snapshots? Poor framing? An accident or mistake? Great! Stick it in a frame and call it Art(tm).
To help (because hey, you can do better, right?) here’s a presentation of some of my own 50mm images.