When you bought your first DSLR, it likely came with what we call a “kit lens.” This is usually a mid-range zoom that will let you shoot both reasonably wide-angle photos and some longer shots. With your kit lens, you have a lot of versatility in focal length and can probably get some pretty good wide-angle images of larger buildings and groups of people, and some decent zoomed-in shots of your kids running around on the beach or playing sports.
I also think it’s a pretty safe bet that over the weeks and months, you’ve come to depend on this versatility. After all, it lets you shoot all different sorts of events and activities without the need to change lenses. So it’s time, I’m afraid, to let go of that dependence and learn how to get the most out of a single, much more powerful lens—the 50mm prime.
But wait, I can hear you saying, how can a lens with a single focal length possibly be more powerful than my super-versatile kit lens? Read on to find out.
Power is not just in zoom
The problem with those kit lenses is that they lack something that the 50mm prime does not. First, they tend to be made with a poorer quality glass than even an inexpensive 50mm prime, which means you may end up with images that have anomalies such as softening in the corners or chromatic aberration. But the most profound limitation of kit lenses is not the quality of the image but the limitations of aperture.
Cup of tea.. Ingredients for daily life.. [highest Explored # 27] by Flickr user dpbirds
Your kit lens probably doesn’t give you an aperture much larger than f/3.5, and what’s more, it’s also probably a variable aperture lens, which means that the maximum available aperture changes as you zoom in and out. The reason why this happens is a function of lens mechanics, coupled with the expense of manufacturing a zoom lens that doesn’t have a variable aperture—to keep the cost of that kit lens low, your lens’s manufacturer had to make some sacrifices.
Here’s why this happens: as your lens lengthens, the physical aperture itself actually stays the same, but because of the distance that light has to travel across that longer focal length, less light overall will reach your camera’s sensor. So what you get is an effective reduction in the size of the aperture. So while you can shoot at f/3.5 at 70mm, at 300mm you’re getting an effective aperture of f/6.3.
This is really only a problem in cases where you actually need that larger aperture—the most obvious of course being low light situations. When the light is low, you may not be able to get a good shot at f/3.5, because it’s not quite wide enough to allow you to use a shutter speed that will freeze the action. You need something even wider—enter the 50mm prime.
If I had to recommend one lens for every new DSLR owner, this would be it. The 50mm prime lens is an essential piece of equipment, and the great news is that it’s not expensive. A good 50mm prime with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 will only set you back around $100—if you have a larger budget you can even get one that goes as wide as f/1.4 (f/1.2 50mm prime lenses are available too, but the price jumps up pretty high for that extra boost).
What that large aperture will do for you is allow you to shoot images in very low light situations without the use of a flash. Now, there’s a price to pay of course (isn’t there always) and that’s in your depth of field. When you’re shooting people at large apertures, you may run into some situations where you’ll have a subject with a tack-sharp eye and a blurry nose, because there’s just not enough depth of field to keep the whole face in focus. But when the alternative is adding a bright, glaring flash to their face and wrecking the ambiance of the setting, I think the right choice is pretty clear.
189.365 i know why you can't see straight, by Flickr user ashley rose,
Another benefit to the 50mm prime lens is that it gives you a field of view that’s most like the field of view given to you by your own eyes. So when you walk into a scene, you can get a photo of that scene that looks pretty much exactly the same as the scene looked to you while you were standing there in person. Plus, a 50mm focal length is non-distorting. While you may get some crazy distortion at very wide focal lengths (big noses, large foreheads etc.) and a strange flattening effect at very long focal lengths, a human face is going to reproduce pretty naturally when you shoot it at 50mm.
So now we’re getting to the scary part—the challenge. If you already own a 50mm prime lens, you’ve got no excuses. If not, see if you have a friend who would be willing to loan you one for a day or better still, for a week. Put that lens on your camera and vow not to take it off until the week is over.
So where does that get you? Well first of all, you’re going to find yourself popping up that awful built-in flash a lot less frequently. Even indoors you’ll be able to take some great photos using just the available light. And although you may still have to use a higher ISO when the light is very low, you won’t have to resort to those super high ISO numbers that can add unwanted digital noise to your photograph (digital noise is that sandy or gritty appearance that can make your photos look softer than they actually are). And in addition, you can use that very shallow depth of field to your advantage—try shooting some artsy photos with a very large aperture and you’ll get some really otherworldly looking photos with beautiful bokeh and extreme isolation between subject and background.
Photographers see the world differently by Flickr user Peter Ras
The awkward part, of course, is the part you’re going to have to get used to. Throughout the day (or week) you’re probably going to find yourself trying to rotate that lens to make it zoom, and you may feel slightly annoyed when it fails to comply. So you’ll have to “zoom” the old fashioned way: with your feet. That means if you need to get optically closer to your subject, you’ll need to get physically closer. Walk towards your subject instead of relying on your zoom lens to do it for you.
Now I won’t go so far as to say that this is without drawbacks. Sometimes you just can’t physically get any closer—maybe there’s a barrier between you and your subject, or maybe you’re shooting from assigned seating in the grandstands of a sporting event. Maybe your subject is a wild bird and you know he’s going to take off as soon as you get close to him. Those are all very good arguments for zoom, so for the purposes of this experiment you’ll just have to avoid these subjects. Instead, look for shots that are compatible with your 50mm lens—people, animals, action shots, low light events—these are all going to benefit from the subtle advantages of your prime lens.
Jump by Flickr user existentialism
At the end of the week, open up your shots and take a good look at the details. What were you able to accomplish with your 50mm prime lens that you couldn’t have accomplished with your kit lens? Pay particular attention to depth of field and to the quality of those low light photographs. Now think about how you’ve coped with these situations in the past—were you able to get that super-shallow depth of field when you really wanted it? Were you able to get sharp photos in low light without your flash? Now ask yourself whether giving a 50mm prime lens a permanent place in your camera bag wouldn’t be a good idea. They’re small, light and inexpensive—and great to have on hand when you need them.
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