The 50mm Lens; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Let The Camera Teach Me
Ah, the faithful 50mm lens, or for beginners the fantastic-plastic nifty-fifty. This essay will explain what it is, and why I consider this lens to be the best teacher in photography.
The Atlantic published an excellent article about its history, here. It has a “normal” perspective that is very close to how the human eye perceives space; in other words, it doesn’t have a wide angle view or a zoomed in one, but rather if you were to hold up a medium-sized empty picture frame at arms-length and look at a scene in front of you, the part of the scene contained in that frame would be roughly how it would appear in a photograph taken with a 50mm lens.
On a side note, there is a unique benefit of having a SLR with a large prism viewfinder, or a Rangefinder camera like a Leica with a magnifier on the viewfinder: the image that you see in the viewfinder will perfectly match the world in front of you, allowing you to open both eyes and shoot as if the camera itself is transparent. It’s a liberating experience, like learning how to swim without needing goggles.
But what’s the big deal about a lens which by its definition is “normal”? You rarely get all the scene you want in a landscape photo, and you are constantly walking back and forth to adjust your framing and composition. Sure, there are some high end ones with impressive light gathering ability or sharpness, such as the Leica’s Noctilux and Apo-Summicron, respectively, but for the most part these are literally the most common and inexpensive lenses available to photographers. Again, why should anyone get a lens that’s so basic?
The lens teaches you how to see.
It lacks zoom, which means as the photographer, you need to become creative to figure out how you can get the shot you want. We will do a thought experiment to explore this idea.
Imagine you’re walking down a quiet street in Los Angeles, and you notice an unusual tree on the opposite side, with a large flower and familiar fruit— a banana tree! In February no less! You’ve got two lenses in your kit, a zoom lens that covers wide angle to telephoto, 28-135 mm, and a normal fixed 50mm. You could easily stop right where you are standing, make use of the zoom to crop the scene to focus on the banana flower pod, snap a shot and be on your way. Seems like a good idea, and it works! It does the job, quick and easy! But let’s imagine what happens if you use the 50 instead?
If you shoot from where you are, you’ll certainly get the neighbors cars in the frame and the banana flower will look pretty unimpressive in the center of the frame. Since you want to isolate that one element, you’ll need to use your feet to get closer, which in turn changes the framing of the scene entirely, forcinging you to make more decisions about what looks best. Do you want to have a shallow depth of field so only the pod is in focus? Or keep everything sharp? Do you want the sidewalk in the background, or the sky? Where’s that light coming from? Each one of those new decisions your are faced with is giving you agency. Anybody could take a photo from across the street— hell, Google Maps’ cars take photos like that autonomously around the world. But maybe you decide to get close, and focus on the shape of the new green fruit, or the glint of sunlight on waxy purple petals. Slowly this snapshot of a strange plant on a neighborhood walk becomes a photograph that reveals what you are interested in, and how you perceive the world.
You could have avoided all of this by taking a photo from across the street with that 28-135mm zoom lens that came in the box with the camera.
But you wouldn’t have had to work for it at all, and that working for it is what makes the photograph yours.
There are a few other reasons I like the 50mm focal length, in addition to what was above.
Firstly, they are very common, and as such, very affordable on the used market. There have been many many excellent models released by all the major camera companies in the past century of photography, and truth be told, most of them are still excellent lenses today. One lens I still use is a Canon FD mount 50mm 1.4, which needs an adapter to fit on to modern Canon cameras, but due to some haze in the lens and the cheap adapter, it provides an appealing soft focus glow. I also have old 1960’s Pentax Spotmatic and Minolta Hi-Matic cameras with 50 or 55mm lenses, which are tack sharp and result in great prints even at 16”x24” size. These lenses can be found in great condition for as little as $50, or less if you have luck hunting in thrift-stores.
Another benefit is that they often have faster apertures, which is to say they let more light in. In that hypothetical comparison above, the basic 50mm lens is probably an f/2 or f/1.4 lens, and the typical kit zoom lens like that 28-135mm lens would probably have an f/stop of around f/3.5 to f/5.6 depending on the zoom used. In English, that means that the 50mm lens would let in about 2.5x to 16x as much light as the zoom, giving you much more freedom to decide your camera settings, including whether the background is in crisp focus or blurred, or whether its possible to shoot by streetlight in the evening. That alone makes it useful to have as part of your kit, even if you prefer wide angle lenses or zooms.
To close things off, here’s a tune that’s been stuck in my head lately. It might be familiar to followers of a Tribe Called Quest.
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