Periodically, you hear me, or any of an additional million photographers and photo instructors, say that your next lens should probably a 50mm. Why? Whether you are shooting larger sensor cameras like 24x36mm, or smaller sensors like the APS-C or Micro 4/3, the 50mm lens does some amazing things few other lenses can. Why?
- 50mm is about two inches, so lenses around this focal length are, in human terms and scales of economy, easy and cheap to build, and as a result…
- There are millions and millions of them in the world, mostly very affordable or even in your possession already, since this lens was sold with most cameras during the end of the film era, from the 1960s to the early 2000s.
- Many 50mm lenses feature a large maximum aperture compared to kits lenses of today. Even the least expensive of them typically open up to f/1.8, and some older ones are f/1.4. Both are very large when compared to 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lenses.
- That large aperture translates into easier focusing, better low-light performance, and, the biggest one, shallow depth of field.
Because of it’s human-scale build-ability, the 50mm class of lenses also tends to be a satisfyingly sharp lens. But I recently bought a lens in this class, a 58mm, at an estate sale that I found a bit disappointing: the MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4.
Why? The reason we like these lenses is their ability to shoot at that large aperture. f/1.4 is an almost magical aperture setting for a lot of photography. It can render backgrounds as satisfying washes of color and light, it makes for a good working distance for pictures of people, and some of these lenses create an almost dream-like quality to an image by introducing unique flare, ghosting, or other aberrations that add an almost antique quality to our images.
This 58mm fell short in early efforts to use it.
The big disappointment for this lens is the bokeh. For those who don’t understand this subtle concept (about 90% of all photographers, a topic for another day), bokeh is a word used to describe the quality of the out-of-focus areas of an image. As you can see, bokeh for this lens is cluttered, linear and distracting, or, as I like to say, ratty.
So while I won’t throw this lens in the trash, it’s disappointing performance combines with a slow, heavy, inconvenient build, rendering it a place on display on a shelf, not in my camera bag.