The first lens for
many photographers with older manual SLR cameras is usually
the 50mm. I didn't know what I wanted, so I decided to go
with the 50. Most vintage 50mm lenses come in two main varieties
of maximum aperture: f1.4 and f1.8. I decided to splurge on
the larger f1.4 to gain an extra stop of light. (Click here
for a discussion on what aperture means.) In hindsight, it is not that big of a deal - you will
still have a much faster lens with f1.8 than most people have
with discount zoom lenses. This is one of the biggest advantages
of the prime 50mm lens - the ability to take pictures at low
light and/or film ISO ratings. I have seen many instances
where another photographer is using his new Auto Everything
SLR has a zoom lens attached with a maximum aperture of f5.6.
A 50mm f1.4 will let in 4 times as much light! If we are both
shooting the same speed film, he may be stuck at 1/8 of a
second where I could go down to 1/125 of a second. If no tripod
is available, it could be the difference in getting the shot.
An aperture this large also allows you to use natural light
in more situations where other lenses would force you to use
a flash. There is nothing wrong with flash photography, but
for many it means your photographs begin looking more and
more like they were taken with a point and shoot camera.
The 50mm is said
to offer a "normal" field of view - this is to say
it replicates the way we see the world with our eyes. I have
never understood this to be true. It seems that my vision
can take in more than what I see through a 50mm lens. This
leads me to the biggest problem I have with the 50mm - it
sits right in the middle of two very useful ranges of focal
lengths and doesn't excel at much. It is much too tight a
view to capture most interior views of buildings and homes.
I have found the field of view too small for landscape photography
as well. Detail shots work well but I usually found myself
frustrated with the restricted field of view.
The 50mm lens also
falls too short to be used as a portrait lens. The advantage
of having a large aperture also leads to a downfall: a very
small depth of field at maximum apertures. Portraits usually
require a tight composition of the head and shoulders, which
can be achieved with a 50mm lens. The problem arises when
you try this short focusing distance under low light (and
small aperture) and realize that you can't get your subjects'
entire face in focus. I have been frustrated many times by
seeing a nose in focus and eyes that are not, or a group shot
where the front people are in focus and the people in back
are not. It must be understood that some situations will result
in very shallow depth of field.
Overall, the biggest
strength of the 50mm lens is the performance in low light
while the faults are how it can limit your compositions and
the shallow depth of field at maximum aperture.