Why a 50mm Lens Belongs in Your Camera Bag

By Kristen Duke

Updated October 17, 2017

When you’re shooting with a digital SLR, you can get very different outcomes depending on what lens you use. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed with lens options. There are so many out there, and you have to consider prices, name brands versus “imitation” lenses, the lens “speed,” and more.

Early in my photography journey, I joined a photo forum that opened my eyes to lenses. At the time, I had been using the kit lens (the lens that comes with the camera) and was actually quite happy with my results. Of course, I was also shooting on the camera’s auto settings, and suffering the effects of the automatic pop up flash as well. Even so, it was much better than the slow pocket camera I had been using previously. Someone on the photo forum mentioned a 50mm lens, and I was intrigued. I found out that this kind of lens is often referred to as the “nifty fifty,” so I did a bunch of research to find out more about its niftiness. What could a different lens possibly do for my already fabulous camera, I wondered?

Oh, so little I knew in those days.

{50mm 1.4 shown above}

I bit the bullet and dropped $100 on a 50mm 1.8 lens, somewhat begrudgingly, because I just didn’t see why it was important.

Bottom line: It’s all about the glass. The glass in a kit lens is cloudy. The 50mm lens had better, clearer optics. And fixed lenses — as opposed to the zooms that often come as part of the kit — are tack sharp.

It was initially frustrating to switch to shooting with the 50mm lens, because I was so used to just standing in a single spot and adjusting the lens focal distance when I wanted to zoom in. When I mentioned this to a friend, she said something that has always stuck with me: “YOU ARE THE ZOOM.”

I began the journey of changing my thinking, and moving around more to get great shots. I found that I really liked the close in crop of the 50mm lens. Outdoor portraits were especially great. I did get frustrated when shooting at home because if I was backed up against a wall to get my shot, I couldn’t back up any more if I needed the space. So I changed the angle I was shooting instead.

After shooting with the 50mm 1.8 for a while, I heard others talking about the 50mm 1.4. I was curious how different it could really be, with just a .4 difference in aperture.

In case you aren’t as familiar with aperture, shooting at a 1.8 (verses the kit lens standard 3.5 or 4.0), lets a lot more light in. It also has a much smaller depth of field; a very small section of the image that is in focus, while the rest of the background is blurred.

For me, it turned out that the biggest difference I noticed between the 1.4 and 1.8 is much better clarity. That said, I still recommend starting with the less expensive 50mm 1.8. The price is easier to swallow.

Here is an example with this blue fire hydrant taken with the 50mm lens with the aperture set at 1.8

{actual settings for this image: shutter speed, 1/400 sec; aperture, f/1.4; ISO 250}

Standing in the exact same spot, with the same lens, I adjusted my aperture to 7.1.

{shutter speed: 1/125 sec; aperture: f/7.1; ISO 1000}

You can nsee that the background is less blurred. This is a tricky example because the background is quite a distance behind the mini hydrant, but you get the idea. The lower the aperture number, the less of the image you will have in focus.

If you desire to take your photography to the next level, and are only using the kit lens, I recommend grabbing a 50mm 1.8 lens right away!

Photo credits: Kristen Duke