Nifty At 50: How A 50mm F1.8 Prime Lens Changed My Shooting

I have a confession to make. I’m not a professional photographer; I’m a consumer electronics journalist who covers digital cameras. While I’m an expert at the inner workings of digital cameras, when it comes to framing the scene, taking the shot, and masking it all look perfect I’m still an amateur. For the last few years, I’ve been shooting with the kit lens that came with my Canon Rebel XTi. It’s a useful lens, but my reliance upon it has kept me from understanding just how valuable a prime lens with quality glass can be.

About a month ago, I took the plunge and bought my first non-kit lens, the vaunted Canon 50mm F1.8. It’s not only changed my shooting, but the very way I look at photography.

After using zoom lenses the vast majority of the time, I had some trouble getting the hang of using a 50mm prime. I spent so much time standing in one place, relying on the reach of the zoom lens to frame the shot that I almost forgot how to use my arms and feet. With a prime lens, you have to physically move to get the right shot. It forces you to take your shooting much more aggressively, moving around and working with the environment to frame your photo, instead of just standing back and twisting your lens. A prime lens is easily one of the best pieces of equipment for learning good photographic framing techniques. Photography isn’t about sitting back and zooming in, it’s about getting up close or standing back, putting your body into getting the right shot.

Besides helping develop my framing and composition skills, the 50mm F1.8 lens has really shown me the value of a fast lens. Most kit lenses are F3.5-5.6, much slower than F1.8. That wider aperture means a world of difference both in what you can shoot and how you can use depth of field. At F1.8, I could use faster shutter speeds in lighting conditions where my shots with a kit lens would require a blur-inducing 1/40th-of-a-second shutter speed. The more light comes in, the faster you can set the shutter.  Shooting indoors, it can mean the difference between getting all the details afforded by the ambient light and being forced to use a flash.

The wider aperture also means a narrower depth of field, which can produce some amazing shots. While the 50mm F1.8 gave me sharper pictures in general, it also showed me the value of having sections of the picture out of focus. When taking portraits or other pictures of very prominent subjects, the greater the contrast in sharpness between the subject and the background, the more the subject “pops” out of the picture. At F1.8, I can take head shots of people where their faces are amazingly clear, but the backgrounds are little more than amorphous blobs of color. It’s a fantastic effect, and it really breathes life into your shooting.

Finally, nicer glass just makes better pictures. It’s a truism, but I only appreciated it after shooting with the 50mm F1.8. Kit lenses tend to use mediocre glass, which can mean softness in details. When you use better glass, details come in sharper and everything simply looks better. For years, I thought that all that mattered in a lens was focal length and aperture range. After working with my 50mm F1.8, I understand that there’s a lot more to photo quality than the hard numbers of the lens.