50mm – The Lens You MUST Own!

All of the major digital SLR manufactures have a special little piece of glass that seems to possess magical properties, and that piece of glass carries with it an almost impossibly low price tag. It is a lens that, as a d/slr owner, you cannot afford NOT to own.  It is the “standard” or “normal” lens that used to come with many film camera bodies:  the 50mm prime lens.

For Canon, Nikon, and Sony camera bodies, you can purchase a 50mm f/.8 lens for less than $150.  This is a lens that you will go out of your way to find uses for:  dark rides at Disney, birthday parties, nature and flower photography, photos of your pets, and many other uses.  As a Canon shooter, their 50mm f/1.8 lens(affectionately referred to as the Nifty Fifty) weighs only 0.3 pounds and costs less than $100.  You cannot afford to NOT have this lens if you have a Canon d/slr camera body.  Nikon’s version clocks in at 0.34 lbs and costs $120.  Are you starting to see why this should be a no-brainer?


The key here is the speed of the lens.  At f/1.8, you are shooting at 2 1/3 stops faster than a typical f/4.0 lens.  For example, if one of your lenses is no “faster” than f/4.0, and your fastest possible shutter speed given your shooting scenario is 1/60 second, that same scene at f/1.8 would give you a shutter speed of 1/320 second.  To put this another way, a 50mm f/1.8 lens may be able to produce a shutter speed of 1/60 second on a dark ride but your other, slower lenses might only be capable of producing an aperture of f/4.5.  In that case, your shutter speed would only be 1/10 second.  You cannot get a sharp photo on a moving dark ride at that speed, and you cannot hand-hold your camera with getting camera shake (blur) either.

Lenses this fast nearly allow you to shoot in available DARKNESS in stead of available light.  As we have discussed before, APERTURE refers to the opening inside of the lens that allows a controlled amount of light through the lens.  The smaller the f/ number, the larger the aperture and thus more light is passed through the lens and into the camera.  When you hear that a lens is “slow”, that means the maximum aperture is fairly small, such as f/4.5, f/5.6, etc.  A “fast” lens will provide apertures of f/2.8 or faster.  Generally speaking, fast lenses are much bigger and faster than their slower counterparts, but the 50mm f/1.8 lens takes a major deviation from that convention.

On an off-topic note, Canon does make upgraded versions of the 50mm lens however the price jumps dramatically, up to a whopping $1500 for the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L lens.  Not only does the price jump, but so does the weight:  the 50mm f/1.2L weighs a whopping 1.2 pounds.  Canon even used to make a 50mm f/1.0L lens, but that is long discontinued and fetches updwards of $5,000 on the USED market.  I had the opportunity to rent the 50mm f/1.0L lens last November for a trip to Walt Disney World and I can tell you that it has so much glass inside of it, that it weighs about a ton and focuses very slowly.  The lens allows so much light to pass through it, however, that you can get pretty much anything your camera will focus on.  But I digress.

An added bonus of using a 50mm lens is the fact that since it is a “prime” or “non-zooming” lens, meaning that you need to use your feet to zoom in or out on your subject.  This will help you to train your eye critically and start thinking about composition and setting up your shot from the start, rather than relying on zooming to compose your scene.  If you want to really learn how to compose a scene, use nothing but a 50mm prime lens for about two weeks straight and compare your shots from day 1 to day 14 and you will be amazed at the difference.  Two more important bonuses when using a 50mm f/1.8 lens are the ability to significantly blur your background and an increase in sharpness in your images (primes are sharper than zooms).  If you recall, the larger your aperture (smaller f/number), the more shallow the depth of field.  If you want really shallow depth of field, get right up close to your subject and open up to f/1.8 and watch that background go bye-bye.

Simply put, if you own a Canon, Nikon, or Sony d/slr, you NEED to own the 50mm f/1.8 lens for your particular system.  You will be glad you did!

For a listing of all 50mm lenses for all camera makers, please check the great folks at B&H Photo, trusted supplier of The Magic in Pixels.  Go check them out today!

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