Learning photography: Choose a 50mm lens
We’re starting off with this series with a bit of theory and a recommendation. One of the most important questions from beginners is: „What camera should I buy?“
I am not going to recommend any specific camera, as pretty much any camera will give you the chance to follow this series and to improve your photography. As long as you have any camera with an interchangeable lens, you’re set.
In case you want to follow this series with your Smartphone, you can still do that. In this case, this article might just not be very interesting for you, you might come back later for the challenges.
In a nut shell, these are the major reasons why I would recommend a 50mm lens instead of any specific camera:
- The 50mm F1.8 or similar lenses are available for every interchangeable lens system, and they are the cheapest you can get, while still getting some quality.
- The angle of the lens is pretty close to what we see with our own eyes.
- With a so called prime lens, you learn how to frame your image without a zoom.
That might seem confusing in the first place, so let’s dive into details here.
50mm lenses are cheap.
Without spending much time in the overall architecture, 50mm lenses are very easy to make. They are so called symmetric lenses in most cases, they don’t have a lot of glass in it, they’re small and light. That means that if you open a lens like that you would find similar individual lenses on either side. Zoom lenses, telephoto lenses or wide-angle lenses are all much more complex in their architecture. These are the reasons why they are so cheap. You can even easily get used lenses on eBay or similar platforms and you’re set.
Sometimes you find them referred as Nifty Fifty or Plastic Fantastic. While the first nickname is rather charming, the second referred to its plastic / cheap nature. But that is not important, all what counts is what you get out of it.
50mm lenses are close to our own perspective
We will need to work out the difference in view angles in much more detail later on, so we’ll try to keep it simple for now.
A lot of things in photography use strange names, which are sometimes just strange without any excuse, sometimes they originate in past times when things worked differently but they’re kept as people got used to it.
Describing lenses by their focal point is one of these things, which have a very technical nature. What we really want to know is the angle of the lens. Try this: if you have a zoom lens around, you can zoom out and see a lot of the environment around you. Now if you zoom in, you see a much closer area of your field of view.
Related to our lens, the 50mm has a pretty similar view angle than what our own eyes have. So, if we look at photos taken with the 50mm, it’s about how we would expect it if we just look at it, the perspective is very similar.
There is one exception related to the sensor size: If you don't have a full frame camera (or even an analog camera), you will have a smaller sensor, which is often an APS-C size sensor or even smaller. In those cases, a crop factor will change your perspective. You should be able to figure out what the crop factor is, for APS-C it often is around 1.5 / 1.6. So you would rather choose a 35mm instead of a 50mm, they're pretty similar (35 * 1.5 = ~52). To keep things simple: Even if you use a 50mm on a camera with a smaller sensor, the learnings in these articles are the same, so don't worry. Note: This is rather simplified, there is much more to it, which is not relevant for now.
The 50mm is a good walk around lens
By walk around lens I don’t necessarily mean having it always with you, but I would suggest that as well. I am referring to image composition here.
Imagine you want to frame a photo, you will quickly figure out that you are either too close to it, or too far away. With a zoom camera, you would probably just zoom in or out, which is very convenient. On the other side, you don’t reflect much on your relation as a photographer to the subject. The closer you get, the more intimate you get, the further you are away, the more you lose connection to your subject. Don’t worry, we’ll discuss that later and do some challenges to understand how it works.
For now, all you need to know is: Try framing your shot by moving, not by zooming. Get closer to a subject if you want it to take an important part in your image, or move away if you want to get more context around your subject.
If you come across "zoom with your feet", the idea is right, but technically it's two totally different things. If you walk closer to your subject you get a much different perspective than just zooming into it. Not good or bad, just different. We'll figure out that part later.
The 50mm is small and light
People might feel intimidated by photographers if they get too close. But also, the size of the camera has an impression on people. By using a 50mm lens, you have such a small setup, so you might feel as well more comfortable taking photos in public, as people might not notice you as a photographer right away.
The 50mm is a fast lens
Fast lenses also refer to strange photography names. The lens itself doesn’t have any speed. If people talk about fast lenses, they are talking about the amount of light it lets in.
Comparing zoom lenses
In almost any case, the 50mm is a faster lens compared to zoom lenses, larger telephoto lenses and such. It lets in more light the most others without paying a fortune for it.
If you got a camera with a kit lens, it is probably a zoom lens. In most cases, the aperture of the lens is around F5.6 (lets in less light), which makes the kit lens cheaper.
Comparing a kit lens at F5.6 to a 50mm prime lens at F1.8, you get 3 stops more light onto your photo, which is exactly 8 times as much (2 * 2 * 2). This makes a world of a difference for taking photos in the dark. If you should a lot in low light, you might want a low light lens / a faster lens.
Shallow depth of field
One of the benefits of such a fast lens is, that you get a very shallow depth of fields, which is another strange photographic term which doesn’t make much sense. In simple words: Often you want to have a small area which is in focus to lead the viewer to a certain subject on your photo. The faster the lens is, the more light it lets in, the smaller is the area which is in focus.
In portrait photography, people try to get a very close depth of field (DOF). That means the face of the person is in focus, while the background is very blurry. In landscape photography you would rather want a large amount in focus, the the depth of field is very large, and the speed of the lens is not as important.
Directly related to the shallow depth of field is the so called Bokeh. It describes how the background blurs out, which is especially important for light sources, which result in blurry blobs in the background.
If you have a 50mm, make use of it. Just go out and start shooting. If you don’t have one yet, but an interchangeable lens camera, try to get hold of one.