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Archive for January, 2020

There is one of those loaded headlines! That is sure to ruffle some feathers in fact. Well at least until you read a bit more into this post. The title of this article poses a question and the answer in a single word is:

NO

I think the 50mm prime lens is as viable and useful today as it has ever been before. When I got started in SLR photography way back in the Carter Administration the 50mm lens was the lens nearly everyone bought to go with their SLR camera. Back in 1977 I borrowed my friend Andy’s family SLR whilst lending him my custom skateboard. It was a Mamiya 500 DTL with a 50mm F/2 lens. I had a blast with that camera making pictures for quite some time until Andy’s mom wanted the camera back. I took back my skate board and decided it was time to start saving for my own SLR.

Mark, Old Town Photo 1984 Canon A-1 with FD 50/1.8 settings unknown, scanned from Kodachrome 64

Well my $2.25 per hour job sweeping the floors in a cabinet shop provided the opportunity to save some money. It took the better part of a whole year, but finally I had about $300 to throw at a camera. I went into the Camera shop thinking about buying a Nikon FM with a Nikon 50mm F/2 lens. The Nikon was a bit more expensive, and knowing what I know now, it was a better built machine than most of the cameras in the $300 range. I really wanted a camera and so I had to decide between a Canon AE-1 and a Minolta XG-1 as that FM was just too expensive. It was like $375 at the time I think. I went with the AE-1 and so began a long relationship with Canon. Looking back I should have bought the AT-1 which was all manual and worked much better as a native manual camera than the clunky AE-1 manual exposure mode. The camera at $299.95 came with Canon’s rather mediocre FD 50mm f/1.8. I say mediocre because that lens was not sharp at all on the edges wide open. Beyond that however it was solid.

It took me a while to get my second lens which was a cheapy brand 135/2.8 followed by my first wide angle a 28/2.8 from Tokina. In the mean time, I made many pictures with that AE-1 and the 50mm lens. 50’s are just so versatile. It is quite often the fastest lens most people own. It doubles as a shortish portrait lens that can still pull off a well composed landscape shot. In the modern era of auto-focus sometime in the mid to late 1990s the notion of a camera body with a kit 50mm began to wane and cheap kit zooms with 35-80mm ranges began taking over. These lenses were often slow, like 3.5 at 35mm and 4.5 at 80mm. Some were even slower than that. This was still the film era, a max aperture of 4.5 with ISO 200 film was a bit limited.

EOS-R 50/1.4 USM 1600 ISO 1/60th sec @ F/1.4

Those 35-80mm kit lenses started a whole new generation of mediocrity. People just framed the image by zooming, got sloppy with composition, failed to pay attention to the background and struggled to ever isolate the subject from a busy background. I sometimes think the 35-80mm kit lens nearly destroyed film photography.

You see, when you have a single focal length, you have to think about your subject, its placement in the frame, your position, their position, etc. When you start thinking about these things you start noticing other things like the bright green garbage dumpster directly behind the subject that is sharp enough to show some grimy detail. Now you can pop open that 50mm lens to that deliciously wide F/1.8 aperture and presto the background is gone! The prime 50mm makes you think about your shot, because you have to. Don’t get me wrong, the 35-80 lenses which eventually blossomed into some quality lenses with better ranges, like 28-105 provided camera buyers with some focal length flexibility. But at what cost? In the digital era even a pro grade series of lenses from most manufacturers came along with “standard” ranges like the Canon 24-105 L, which I own and it is a solid lens and faster lenses like the 28-70/2.8 L.

My friend’s granddaughters, EOS R EF 50/1.2 L 400 ISO 125th sec @ F/1.4 with studio flash

The basic cheap 50mm how ever is almost certainly faster than any zoom lens you will ever own. Canon recently released the world’s fastest standard zoom lens the RF 28-70mm F2.0 that costs a massive $3,000, yet Canon’s $129 “nifty 50” is faster at F/1.8! The slowest and cheapest 50mm is faster than the world’s fastest zoom! That 28-70/2.0 is an engineering marvel BTW.

Beginners often don’t realize the benefit of a wide aperture beyond taking an available light shot in dark conditions. But it is much more than that. Modern digital cameras don’t “need” lens speed as much since ISO 1600 looks good on almost any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera. The wide opening allows you the freedom to choose how your background behaves. Primes such as a 50mm can teach you how to compose an image, where to place objects in a scene, and most importantly for new photographers, it helps you pay attention to the details. You quickly notice the differences between physically moving closer to your subject and moving back away and how the background and foreground are independently rendered in perspective.

For any new photographer I would definitely recommend a 50mm lens, At one time a couple years ago I owned a dozen and a half different fifties and I still own about a half a dozen today. To any advanced photographer that doesn’t own one, go ahead and get one, even if it is the cheap 1.8 version which is an excellent lens be it Canon or Nikon. 50mm lenses are a compact, fast, and surprisingly versatile prime.

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