How I Learned to Hate and Fall Back in Love with the 50mm Lens

The nifty 50mm lens is the one everyone tells you to start out with.

Depending on who you ask, the 50mm lens is either well loved or seriously hated. There is no in between; photographers tend to be on one side of the battle or the other. When you start out, everyone tells you to go ahead and try a nifty 50. Why? Well, 50mm f1.4 lenses tend to be pretty affordable and you don’t want to spend a whole lot of money when you’re getting started. It’s a fantastic learning tool to figure out how to do more with less. With that said, it’s often the route to other prime lenses as well: some go on to a 35mm, some a 85mm, and yet others for a higher end 50mm lens.

Like many of you who started out shooting, you were told to go for a nifty 50, but probably outgrew it very fast. When I started to change and develop as a photographer, I found that I either needed to be wider or more telephoto. For that reason, 35mm and 85mm lenses became my primary options. There wasn’t anything in between. I hated the 50mm lens but I kept it around just in case. Combine this with the fact that I’m a blogger first and foremost, and because of the amount of content I needed to write about the nifty 50, I started to grow even more weary of it.

To me, the 50mm lens was an in-between. It wasn’t that wide, it’s wasn’t that telephoto, it was right in-between. Right in-between is close, but it’s not the thing. Sometimes you need a mom and pop shop’s NY pizza slice or a Coney Island Nathan’s Dog and not some imitation offering from Florida or the New York, New York hotel in Vegas. In the same way, I needed 35mm for stuff like environmental portraits and 85mm for tighter shoots. There wasn’t a need for the 50mm; and so it helped me find my identity as a photographer in some ways. It helped me realize I’m a portrait and street photographer; a 50mm lens can do a decent job most of the time, but it isn’t at all essential to the way I create. Like many of you, I see the world like this:

  • 28mm is my full field of view
  • 35mm is most of my vision
  • 50mm is what I tend to concentrate on

One night, I decided to just go out and shoot. I blindly picked a lens that happened to be Sony’s 55mm f1.8 (leaps and bounds better than the experience that I have with their 50mm f1.8 by the way). So I went out shooting and ended up thinking and having to adjust to the way I saw the world. I liked it. It challenged me again, and in a way that I didn’t feel was too difficult to become frustrating. This enjoyment grew into to me using it in a studio for candid work, etc. But another reason why is perhaps because of the closer focusing design, speed, size, etc.

For years I swore by 35mm and 85mm until the industry started to create what I’d like to call odd 50mm lenses. We’ve rounded up a number of them on this website over the years and they’re focal lengths that are just a bit longer or shorter than 50mm. I mean, a 40mm f2 lens is fantastic; especially the legendary one made by Leica. The Sony 55mm f1.8 lens remains one of my most used optics. And then there are 56mm, 58mm, and a number of other options out there. They’re all nice in that they let you work just a bit longer or just a bit shorter. They’re either closer to 85mm or 35mm–and the in-between nature of these focal lengths helps your mind think in almost the same way but gives you an advantage of a closer or wider perspective depending on how you’re using them.

Sony’s 55mm f1.8 was a gateway of some sort. I hate to admit it because it’s a 50mm lens (sort of), but it’s also one of their very best. Today, one of my other most used lenses is the 7Artistans 50mm f1.1. It’s more or less glued to my Leica M4P. Sometimes I use it on the Sony a7r III. But this lens is special because of the rendition and the super fast aperture. I like to say that it is a fast aperture lens that slows me down to do more careful and thorough work. That results in me getting better images. I’ve said this over and over again about manual focus lenses. You’ll get better images simply because they make you think more about your scene vs just trying to react to what’s going on. Generally speaking, I still tend to find them superior.

So would I say that I’m in love with the 50mm lens again? Not really. But I also just accept that gear is gear. You need the right lens for the right job in the same way that you won’t use a screwdriver when you need a wrench.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.