If you were told that you could only have ONE lens from now until the end of days, what would it be?
Would it be a zoom?
A wide angle?
Or a telephoto lens?
Hmmm….there are so many choices and so many decisions.
For me, the choice is an easy one. I would pick a 50mm lens or the normal lens for a 35mm (full size) digital sensor camera.
The reason I love this focal length is because it can do so much and do it so well, and it’s a really low profile and low impact (meaning, it won’t scream “PRO PHOTOGRAPHER” )lens.
If you have a large aperture and come in fairly close to your subject, you can get a lot of out of focus effects, but you’ll still have a sense of the environment. That is to say, it won’t “blow out” the background into a swirling ball of bokeh (though sometimes that is cool, but we’re talking just one lens here) as a longer focal length lens like a fast 85mm or 70-200 or even a 135mm focal length would do.
Plus if you stand back you can include a lot of the scene and still control the way the viewer experiences your photograph.
The other great thing about this lens, is that it normally doesn’t distort lines as you would get when you move in tight with a wider angle lens.
In fact, doing a head to toe portrait with some space above your subjects can be a beautiful scene is just about perfect for this focal length.
Which 50 to get?
Go to http://keh.com and check out what they have for your particular camera.
The “nifty 50” is the f1.8 version of the lens made by Nikon and Canon and they are often around $200 new and are a superb little lens. They’re usually a bit smaller and lighter than anything in that same focal length, but they’re a great starter lens.
Both Canon and Nikon make 50mm f1.4 lenses and both are good performers, though I would give the edge to the Nikon in terms of overall build quality. The Canon version was originally released in the mid 90s and it’s showing it’s age. Here’s hoping that they’ll redesign that lens and soon.
Canon makes a very high end 50mm lens the 50mm f1.2L lens and it’s a good one. It’s bigger, more $ and is very high quality though it is not for everyone.
Finally, check out the manual focus 50mm f1.4 Zeiss lens for Nikon and Canon. These lenses are superb and have a look that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen out of Nikon and Canon. There’s just a look and feel and character to the out of focus highlights that says “Zeiss”. But again, it’s a manual focus lens and that may not work for everyone.
In 2010 I did a blog called One Camera. One Lens. One Photo A Day and all the images were made with a 50mm focal length. Many were made with that 50mm Zeiss, including this one. This photograph of my daughter Kate, wearing a hand-made Princess Dress at a game park outside of Durban (amidst the giraffes) is one of my favorite photographs ever. The 50mm focal length was perfect for this situation and the aperture (f2) allowed for out of focus elements, but not TOO out of focus so you don’t know what is going on. THAT is the beauty of the 50mm lens!
(You can check out the blog, it’s all still online at: http://onecameraonelensonephotoaday.com )
p.s. for folks using cropped sensor cameras (like the 7d, or the Nikon d300, try out the 35mm focal length on those cameras. That would be the “normal” focal length for that size sensor and gives a look very similar to the look of a 50mm lens on a full frame (35mm size, 24 x 36) sensor.