How I Grew to Hate the 50mm Focal Length

Chris GampatThe Phoblographer Sigma 50mm f1.4 V2 images (2 of 2)ISO 1001-60 sec at f - 1.4

“Use a 50mm lens! It’s got a normal perspective! It will see just like you see! Taking photos will never be easier! Look at all the glorious bokeh!”

No. Just no. No a thousand times and a million times over that. So long have I heard something preached over and over again to consumers and photographers in general just starting to get into the photography world and too long have I wanted to say that it is nothing else but absolute garbage.

I was just like many of you at one point or another: a photographer that was a total novice and looking to learn about anything while trying to discover myself as a photographer. And in many cases I used the 50mm focal length. It really started with my 5D Mk II and the 50mm f1.8 II–otherwise known to many shooters as the cheapest nifty fifty you can get your hands on. Yes, it’s sharp when stopped down. Yes, you can get beautiful bokeh. And even more so, you can make potential clients look good and deliver beautiful images with one.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer 85mm vs 50mm portrait test Sigma 50mm f1.4 other (1 of 1)ISO 2001-640 sec at f - 2.8

It came with me everywhere: I used to shoot press events with one, portraits, headshots for folks at AOL, weddings, engagements, it was my go to lens for so much. But it could also only do so much and didn’t at all render images even close to what I saw in the scene. Indeed, it was too narrow.

What I started to notice is that my eyes see a wider field of view. If I focused on just what was in front of me, then the 50mm field of view would make sense. But I wanted to capture the world as I saw it.

And like that, the 50mm focal length started to feel so incredibly limiting.

There are entire 365 projects dedicated to only shooting with the 50mm focal length that produce loads and loads of images that look exactly the same. But the point of a 365 project is for you to develop on an idea or build yourself as a photographer including sticking to a dedicated project for an entire year. But with a lens like that, you can only do so much.

My old job at B&H Photo often had me surrounded by people who would give their kidneys and swear by the 50mm. Not necessarily the employees, but folks that I needed to interact with for my job. Mix that in with loads and loads of emails that we used to get here at the Phoblographer talking about how the 50mm lens is like a god that demands oceanic amounts of blood in a sacrifice (not literally) and it will eventually just keep getting to me.

Over and over again, people swore by the 50mm lens: it felt like a really stupid article from Buzzfeed being passed around.

Then I tried the 35mm focal length and for once I had a lens that allowed me to see the world as I saw it. Things were in focus, if I wanted to use bokeh I could, and it presented a scene that looked just like the way that I saw the world. But then for portraits, I started playing with the 85mm focal length, and I loved that too.

The 50mm lens stayed in my bag–often being either too long or too short for much of my work. It became a jack of all trades and master of none. The 50mm was a wrench when what I needed was a screw driver.

That’s not to say that 50mm lenses can’t be good. They can deliver beautiful images that you’ll fall in love with and that many will still fall in love with. But in the end, I realized that I needed to quell my Gear Acquisition Syndrome and just shoot. This lens didn’t help me deliver the vision that I had–only other lenses did.

I think that we need to stop preaching the value of a lens like this and instead start talking about how we should find the focal length that we need to tell our story and capture the world as we see it. But even more importantly, we need to start preaching the benefits of creative visions and how these lenses can help us realize these visions. It would be much more effective and help the future generation of photographers so much more.