Tip for DSLR Beginners: Get a 50mm Lens

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“I’m upgrading to a digital SLR. What camera model and lens should I get?” We get asked this often, and our reply is always the same. It matters little what DSLR you have, so long as you’ve got great lenses. And when you’re starting out, there’s really no need to shell out thousands of dollars on lens (unless you have money that you simply must get rid of). We always, always recommend the 50mm. Some of the world’s best photographers have made careers for themselves with the 50mm.

A BIT OF HISTORY

If you bought a 35mm camera during the 70s or 80s then chances are, it came with a 50mm lens. Even Leica rangefinders were bundled with 50mm lenses. The reason for this is that the 50mm perspective approximates that of the human eye, which is also the reason it is called a “normal” lens. Below is a photo of our Canon AE-1 with its 50mm FD f/1.4 lens (taken with our $20 light box and macro studio).


As time went by, the 50mm was replaced with consumer model zoom lenses like the 18-55mm as the starter optic for 35mm cameras and eventually the DSLR. This shift was a marketing strategy employed by camera manufacturers to entice more people into buying their camera. Their selling point was that zoom lenses made taking photos easier since you can change your focal length without moving from your spot. Little did beginners know that image quality was the real price they were paying for the convenience of not walking a few steps to recompose their shot.

THE 50mm TODAY

There is renewed interest in the 50mm lens mainly due to the its price and its speed. With the price of around $120.00, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II or Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF are one of the cheapest lenses available in the market today. You can see that f/1.8 is the maximum aperture of these entry level lenses. It only gets better from here, you can get variants of these lenses at f/1.4 and f/1.2. Canon even makes a 50mm lens at f/1.0 which is the fastest interchangeable lens today. Most pros also say that the 50mm is the sharpest lens ever made because it has been around so long that lens manufacturers have already perfected the process of producing them.


One important note to remember, if you are using a DSLR with a cropped sensor then the 50mm lens’ focal length will change. For those using a 40D, Digital Rebel series, D40 or a D80 which uses an APS-C sensor with a crop factor of 1.6x then a 50mm lens will effectively become an 80mm lens. If you want to have the same perspective as those using a full frame sensor then you can purchase a 28mm or 35mm lens which is close enough to a full frame 50mm.

A DEFINITE GO-TO LENS

We have other lenses, but we find that our 50mm 1.8 is still our go-to lens. It’s plastic and it doesn’t look like much, but it’s fantastic for portraits (it doesn’t enlarge subjects’ noses the way wide angle lenses do), but it’s still wide enough to be handy when we’re out walking. The 1.8 offers a gorgeous bokeh, and faster shutter speeds. The images are clean and sharp. And the best thing about it is that it’s cheap, and works splendidly with available light.

Related Reading:
Lens 101
Tips on How to Take Better Portraits
How to Create Bokeh in Your Photos

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