Why Isn’t My Fifty Nifty?

What's the difference between this $440 50mm and this $80 kit lens? Nothing at f/11.
What’s the difference between this $440 50mm and this $80 kit lens? Nothing at f/11.

There is a saying among gun owners. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people with guns.”

This slogan is an ideal analog to what I often see when people buy a new lens like the marvelous and under-recognized 50mm f/1.8. “Lenses don’t make pictures. People make pictures with lenses.”

For decades almost every SLR camera you saw at camera stores had a 50mm on it, often the cheap, light, forgiving, sharp 50mm f/1.8. To this day, they remain an excellent addition to anyone's camera bag.
For decades almost every SLR camera you saw at camera stores had a 50mm on it, often the cheap, light, forgiving, sharp 50mm f/1.8. To this day, they remain an excellent addition to anyone’s camera bag.

This lens has earned it the nickname “Nifty Fifty” over the years because it is affordable and capable of delivering beautiful results. But…

Any lens is a tool, and if you use a tool wrong, it won’t give you the results you want. All lenses are the same at f/11 in midday sun with your knees locked. A 50mm f/1.8 and an 18-55mm kit lens are the same at f/11. You might as well shoot with your phone or a point-and-shoot.

Taking advantage of tools like large-aperture lenses requires aggressive techniques, including moving yourself and using those large apertures. You didn’t buy an f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens to shoot it in Program mode or worse, green box mode, and have the camera choose every mediocre compromise it can.

So if you find yourself with a nifty little 50mm in your hands, take it to the limits – get close, shoot wide open, see the light. Only then can you discover why a lens like this is a great tool.

This image was made with a 50mm lens at f/16. Calling it lackluster is an understatement.
This image was made with a 50mm lens at f/16. Calling it lackluster is an understatement.
This was made with the same 50mm as the previous image, same position, same light, same ISO, same white balance. The only difference is it was shot at f/1.8. Suddenly the image is interesting.
This was made with the same 50mm as the previous image, same position, same light, same ISO, same white balance. The only difference is it was shot at f/1.8. Suddenly the image is interesting.
1+

1 Comment

  1. I second all of these emotions. I wouldn’t be without my 50mm, and one of the very first things I did with it was to run outside and play with that large aperture. You just can’t go wrong. The only lens that surpasses it in terms of heavy usage is the 35mm f/1.8, which is ideal under all conditions. These lenses stay on our cameras all the time because they are likely the correct choice for whatever we’re doing.

    0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.