The “Nifty Fifty”

My 50mm f/1.8 AF-Nikkor on my Nikon D1H
My 50mm f/1.8 AF-Nikkor on my Nikon D1H

Most of my photography students have the same gear: a digital SLR, the “kit” lens sold with it, and sometimes a telephoto “kit” lens as well.

In the long-ago days of film cameras, SLRs were frequently sold with a 50mm lens, for several reasons. They were cheap to make, they had fast (meaning “large”) maximum apertures, and they gave a “normal” angle of view, meaning that images made with it had a perspective close to that of human vision.

In the transition to digital, the popularity of the 50mm lens waned, also for several reason. On a 15x24mm digital sensor (the so-called “DX” format), 50mm wasn’t a “normal” lens any more, but a short telephoto. There was also the advance in technology that allowed small, light, computer-designed zoom lenses to be made as cheaply as the 50mm was in the film days. These zooms, usually in the range of 18-55mm or 18-70mm, were versatile, but that’s not what made them popular. They got popular because zooming is more fun that just looking through a fixed lens.

I digress. My students have these “kit” zoom lenses, but aren’t always satisfied with the results they are getting. Frequently this is because these lenses are small and cheap at the expense of a significant factor: maximum aperture. Typically, an 18-55mm will be an f/3.5 at 18mm, and darker at longer focal length, ending up at f/5.6 at 55mm. What, they ask me, can I do to get better pictures with these lenses?

The choices are several:

  • Add light. You can bring strobes, move to a brighter spot, etc.
  • Crank up your ISO.
  • Tolerate a lot of blur.
  • Open up your aperture.
Image made with my 50mm at a basketball game last night, f/2, 1/500th of a second, ISO 3200
Image made with my 50mm at a basketball game last night, f/2, 1/500th of a second, ISO 3200

Ah, there’s the rub. With a kit zoom on the long end, there’s no more aperture to open up. That’s fine in blinding sun or with four White Lightning strobes in a studio, but for existing light where you want to stop action, you need bigger glass. For my students, I tell them about the joys of shooting with a 70-200mm f/2.8 or an 85mm f/1.8, but frequently they’re not comfortable dropping $500 to $1500 on a lens they may or may not be able to use regularly. In steps a hidden gem: the “nifty fifty.”

Even lighter and smaller than the kit lenses, and very affordable, the 50mm lenses are a great choice for all kinds of available light shooting. I have an AF-Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, for which I paid about $90, but they come in several flavors, including the marginally brighter f/1.4 version, all the way up to Canon’s absurdly expensive f/1.2.

While it’s true that the 50mm isn’t as versatile in some situations as a short zoom, in the right hands and the right circumstances, it can shine. I’ve been shooting mine more lately, just to reassure myself that I’m not mistaken in giving this advice. The stuff I’m getting is working great; sharp, reasonably tight, clean-looking images.

There’s one last reason I like the 50mm, and this is another reason I’ve been using mine more lately: tendinitis. Now that I’m older, I can’t keep lugging the big glass to every single ball game and theater event without paying for it the next day. My 80-200mm weighs about 60 ounces. The 50mm weighs just 5.5 ounces.


  1. You’re right about Canon’s 50 f/1.2 being absurdly expensive.

    The only real disadvantage I see to the 50mm f/1.8 (both Nikon and Canon) is that on the “crop sensor” (most digital SLRs), they no longer provide the “normal” view, as you mentioned.

    Canon’s 35mm f/2 (I’m sure Nikon has something close) is *closer* to what used to be normal, but isn’t quite as sharp as the 50, and is nearly 3x the price.

    You’d think both manufacturers would have scrambled to create a digital equivalent of the “normal” lens when they came out with the smaller, crop sensors.

  2. The business model dictates what they design and build. The kits zooms are much more popular, and have a way higher profit margin.

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