A 50mm f/1.8 lens is something every photographer should own…
At some stage during your photography hobby career, you should own a 50mm f/1.8 lens. For me, that stage was about a year into the hobby. The 50mm f/1.8 is arguably the product within the already expensive hobby of photography that offers the best value for money, full stop. You get unbelievably good image quality, light and portable, a super wide aperture, all for a relatively small fee. There’s a reason it’s been nicknamed the Nifty Fifty.
I first picked up a Canon 50mm f/1.8 about 11 years ago for £55 - I broke one, and I bought another. Today, you can buy one brand new for about £100, or £50 secondhand. It is without a doubt my favourite lens to use. Whenever I put it on, I remember just why I like it. On a 35mm/full frame sensor it’s true 50mm (whereas on a crop sensor it will perform closer to 80mm) so it’s about as standard as you can get - they say true 50mm is kind of similar as what the human eye sees, so it’s a great lens for walking around and snapping. When I get the images home, I’m always blown away by just how good the image quality is - pin sharp, nice contrast and colour, few issues with things like distortion, vignetting or chromatic abberation (which I never look too closely at anyway). And to think, this tiny little lens cost me £50.
…But I never use it.
I have 4 lenses covering all I need, in order of most used: Canon 24-70mm f/4 IS USM L, Canon 17-40mm f/4 USM L, Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6 USM IS, and finally the Canon 50mm f/1.8 that, 95% of the time, sits in my bag gathering dust. The only time I use the 50mm lens, is when I want to be discreet, or if I’m not planning on taking too many photographs (a day out with my wife or a day sight-seeing in the city). I unscrew the battery grip, I remove the L-Bracket, I twist off the Canon 24-70mm f/4 IS USM L that is on my camera 85% of the time, and I put on the tiny 50mm. It transforms a Workhorse into a Shetland Pony. But most of the time, I just don’t use it, and there are some good reasons as to why I love it and why I don’t use it.
1 - The Price
It’s a simple reason. The simplest, arguably. This lens offers unbeatable value. Even at £100, it’s still a great purchase.
Most people buy the 50mm f/1.8 relatively early on in the hobby. You’ve just dropped £500 on a camera - it’s an amount of money you never thought you’d spend on a camera, after all - you have one on your phone. You tell people you only spent £400 (because it was £499 and you’re rounding down). After a few months of use, you’ve got to grips with it. You understand aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focal length, their relationship, and you’ve started to grow out of your 18-55mm kit lens. You start eyeing up telephoto lenses, but that’s another £250, and people are recommending you try out the nifty-fifty. So you find one second hand and pick it up, and you’re blown away by the difference in image quality.
By comparison, were you to buy the lenses I own, you’d be looking at:
Canon 24-70mm f/4 IS USM L - New £709 // Used £400
Canon 17-40mm f/4 USM L - New £659 // Used £300
Canon 70-300 f/4-5.6 IS USM - New £449 // Used £250
So for £100/£50 you’re getting a lens that performs amazingly well - as far as value goes, you cannot beat it. You just can’t. There’s nothing.
It’s a slippery slope guys. I started with a second hand Canon 350D years ago, and now I have spent thousands of camera gear over the years. I don’t regret it, not for one second - photography brings me so much joy and memories I wouldn’t trade it - but when your camera gear is worth more than your car you have to wonder…
2 - It forces you to be creative
When you’ve found your style, sometimes you get stuck in a rut. Every composition is the same, every subject is the same, every process is the same. Sometimes that’s a good thing - it gives your images continuity, your style is recognisable, you can get a shot efficiently. But sometimes it’s a bad thing - you can become stagnant, lose inspiration, you begin to be creatively lazy.
The 50mm f/1.8 forces you to be creative! With a set focal length you are required to physically move your body, crouch, get on tip toes, lean over railings, stand in the middle of a clear road (emphasis on clear people). By restricting your sense of smell, your other senses become heightened - I feel like it’s the same with photography. By restricting focal length, you get a burst of energy into your images. I took more images I liked on a day out in Bristol/Bath than I have in ages! Granted, they’re not gallery-worthy and this article is almost just an excuse to show them, but it’s still a great result for me.
I’ve been doing photography for such a long time that I sometimes find that focal length restriction to be less of a creative-boost and more of a lack of tools in the tool box. A carpenter could argue that sanding the wood by hand gives you a better understanding of the wood - you can really feel the wood when you sand by hand. But actually, it’s a pain in the arse and you’d rather a belt sander because it does the same job in a quarter of the time. Would a carpenter say that? I have no idea. The closest I’ve been to a carpenter is using a knife to sharpen sticks to pretend I was a neolithic caveman. I’m talking nonsense. What was my point?
I like the 24-70mm because it works - it is an absolute tank, a workhorse, a jack of all trades and a master, too. I don’t really feel like I need that creative boost most of the time. I see a shot, and I know in my mind’s eye how the final image will look. I don’t need to close my eyes to enjoy music, and I don’t need to restrict my focal length to be creative.
3 - It’s small and discreet, light and portable
I’m a photography nerd. I love the craft of camera, the satisfying cathunk of a shutter, the babeep of my camera finding focus, turning the focus ring and watching the world fade in and out of clarity. If I had the space I would have an old camera display with my grandad’s pentax, his twin lens reflex, and his Super 8. I’d buy a Mamiya and a Bronica, I’d get my AE-1 fixed and I’d dust off my Olympus PEN.
I have a big camera and that is by choice really. Sometimes it’s an absolute nightmare on my shoulders when I carry it around all day, but it’s a burden I choose. When I’m doing a commercial shoot, the battery grip is on because it makes my life and the job easier. I know that if it gets knocked about, it will be okay. It’s got weatherproofing so I know it’s not going to explode in a bit of light rain. But some days, if I’m on a nice day hike with my wife or we’re sightseeing, and I don’t want to bring all the kit, or I want to be discreet, I’ll take it down to the barebones and put the 50mm f/1.8 on and it about halves in size. And that’s a really big deal, especially if I'm not looking to have a photography-day and photography should be the bi-product. I don’t want to lug a giant camera around all day without full intentions of using it, but with the 50mm I can kinda forget it’s there.
Honestly, the 24-70mm isn’t that big, and it’s not that heavy. I originally was going to choose the 24-70mm f/2.8 which is a lot bigger, but chose the 24-70mm f/4 for the smaller lighter size and image stabilisation. I wanted a lens I could carry around all day no problem, and the 24-70mm f/4 fits the bill just fine.
In my opinion, the benefits of the 50mm’s size and weight do not outweigh all the other benefits the 24-70mm f/4 brings to the table.
4 - It’s got a REALLY wide aperture
One of the most exciting things about the 50mm f/1.8 is that aperture. It’s gigantic. Almost 3 full stops of light wider than my next lens. In low light, that is absolutely golden, and likewise for astro photography it’s a pretty big deal too. With an aperture that wide, you can also get a super shallow depth of field, and there are few things sexier as a beginner than getting your subject pin-sharp and blowing the rest of the image out of focus.
Modern technology allows us to fake this technique (think the Google Pixel’s portrait mode that artificially blurs backgrounds behind your portrait), but with your 50mm f/1.8 it’s real and it’s exciting.
Thinking about it, how often do I need an out-of-focus background? How often do I need amazing low-light performance? Not really very often at all. Most of the time, I’m shooting landscapes and I don’t need a shallow depth of field. If I do need a shallow depth of field, then my other lenses usually suffice. I seldom need a whole f/1.8 worth of aperture. And to be frank - light pollution in the majority of England is so bad I’m not doing much astrophotography either.
When your subject is stationary, image stabilisation gives you ‘4 stops worth’ of light, so that’s actually of more value than a wider aperture with no sacrifice in sharpness, and I shoot a lot of video so the image stabilisation is used all the time. If you’re a photojournalist, portrait photographer, or are shooting moving subjects in low light, the wider the aperture the better, but for me… eh. I just don’t need it.
5 - Image Quality
The big one - the image quality is just perfect. I’m not a pixel-peeper by any stretch of the imagination. I care about three things: sharpness, contrast and colour reproduction, and I have no problems. Even though I care about those things, I’m not an expert in the matter. I go by what my eye tells me: if it looks good, it looks good. I don’t zoom in to 200% and moan, nor do I take pictures of texturally rich objects and compare images at different settings to see how well the lens performs, because I don’t take photographs like that. If I get good images, I get good images - it’s really that simple in my mind.
With the 50mm f/1.8, I know that as long as the shutter speed is fast enough and that I’ve nailed the focus, it’s going to be a technically sound image. That’s really big to me, because while I love photography gear, I really don’t like being let down by it.
The images that come from this lens have a certain richness - maybe it’s because I’m in a different mindset with this lens, maybe it’s a placebo effect. I love the photographs this lens can capture.
All of my other lenses perform well too. I’m not let down by any of my lenses. They’re all great. I never say, “Well I want to get a photograph with good image quality, I’d better switch to the 50mm,” - that’s literally not a sentence I have ever said until just now for the purpose of demonstrating why I love the 50mm f/1.8 but that it is seldom the right tool for the job for me.
This isn’t a review, but if it was I would say this: if you have a lens lineup that meets your requirements already, a 50mm f/1.8 will do nothing to benefit you… but if you don’t, buy this lens immediately.