5 Things to learn from a 50mm lens

Posted by on Oct 13, 2014 in Equipment Guides, Techniques | 4 comments

5 Things to learn from a 50mm lens

“What lens should I buy?” is one of the most common questions I get from students and friends. Recommending equipment to people can be hard, quite often they might be searching for equipment “fixes” to problems when working on their skills or artistic vision might pay better dividend. One piece of equipment I never have any reluctance to recommend is a 50mm lens, obtaining one of these lenses can often be a great way to clear some artistic roadblocks or to help develop general photography skills.


Image from Canon Australia website

You can obtain 50mm lenses from most camera manufactures, Canon and Nikon spring to mind. Third party lens manufactures like Sigma also produce versions of these lens. Taking Canon and Sigma as an example here, you can purchase either a f1.8 or f1.4 version of the lens. The f1.4 version will be significantly higher priced than the f1.8 version, you pay for the fact that the lens can be stepped to one f-stop larger, this allows in more light and gives you a smaller depth of field. I normally recommend the f1.8 version to people.

My desire to recommend this lens comes from the 5 key lessons I was reminded of when I bought one many years ago:

1) Move your feet to Zoom

Given this lens is a fixed focal length (no zoom) , new users quickly learn that you need to move yourself in order to zoom in or out when framing a photo. At first this may feel like a limitation of the lens but very quickly I came to appreciate the fact that  I needed to move in order make my photo. The requirement to move with your feet to zoom very quickly leads to the realisation that you might need other movements too like up or down to make better use of your subject. All of these changes to position help to change the perspective of the image, it is a very rare occasion for us to be in exactly the right place first time when setting up a photo. So the requirement to move our feet in order to zoom quickly becomes a positive fact as we overcome the laziness inertia, increased creativity may well blossom.


Nicky on the steps by Ken Dickson 1/200 sec @ f2.2 Canon 7D with 50mm lens

2) Get your focus point spot on

One the key selling factors for these lenses are their capability to be used at very low f-stop values. These lower values lead to a larger aperture (bigger hole) on your lens, more light gets into the exposure but the depth of field is reduced. It is this reduction in-depth of field tha draws a lot of interest with a 50mm lens. It becomes very easy to separate our subject from the background by making the background out of focus. All of this is very good, especially for portrait pictures where we have the person in focus with a wonderful soft and blurry background. With a 50mm lens though you very quickly learn that at low f-stop values (f1.8 and f1.4) the area of focus can be very small, we are talking the difference between the person’s eye and the end of their nose. So control of your camera and practise will be required to ensure the focus point is in the correct location.

3) Remove the weight (physically and mentally)

A great characteristic of these lenses is their weight. They are incredibly light, the f1.8 version from Canon is actually a plastic construction making it one of the lightest lenses I have ever used. I find snapping this lens onto my camera and walking around a street or market to be a wonderful release. It is great to leave behind the burden of a camera bag or a multitude of heavy lens. From this feeling of release often flows creativity, who can be creative when you are all hot and sweaty from carrying the weight of a small child on your back?


At the booth by Ken Dickson 1/100sec @ f5.0 Canon 7D with 50mm lens

4) Look for a story within your frame

This lesson can be closely tied to number #3. When I am out and about with just the 50mm lens, I restrict myself to that focal length and challenge myself to tell a story with the frame that I have available. This is a great creative exercise, it trains you to look for the subjects and stories that fit your frame. You will be very surprised at what you find when the distractions of lens zoom or lens changes are removed.

5) Not every camera accessory needs to be expensive

We very quickly become used to expensive equipment when we enter photography as a hobby or profession. At around $110 for the f1.8 version, the 50mm lens is the exception to the norm in this case. It might be the cheapest lens you buy but you will not be selling yourself short if you buy it.


Cheeky Lauren by Ken Dickson 1/160sec @ f2.8 Canon 7D with 50mm lens

In summary, I again come back to recommending this lens to people. Not because you need a new piece of equipment to satisfy some gear lust but because having this lens might just give you a new perspective or creative outlook to your photography. At the very least the lens provides a great opportunity (at a reasonable cost) to learn, relearn or practise a number of the key photography fundamentals.

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  1. Great article ken. I have done many shots with 50 1.4 nik lens at. 1.4 and even used a star6 as softener produced beautifully soft shots that brides love. Wonderfully written article

    • Stan,

      Thanks for the positive comments. Yes I enjoy my 50mm lens for portraits as well, lovely soft backgrounds.

      The key is getting the focus spot in the right spot though.


  2. I purchased a 50mm lens a couple of years ago and have rarely used it – Thanks Ken this article has sparked my enthusiasm to “dust it off” and start to use it.


    • Thanks David. Glad that it sparked your enthusiasm, sometimes we just need a push in the right direction.

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