Life at 50: The Nifty 50 Millimeter Lens

50 millimeter lens
The 50mm lens used to be the standard “kit” lens with many film SLR cameras.

The “Nifty” 50 Millimeter Lens

When I got my first SLR camera, it came with a 50 millimeter lens. For many years, this was the only lens I had, and so I used it for just about everything. I photographed people, sports, and stuff around my backyard with that 50mm lens. Nowadays, the 50mm prime is often an afterthought, as zoom lenses dominate photography. If you could add just one lens to your bag for a creative spark, you should consider giving the  “nifty fifty” another look.

Benefits of the 50 millimeter lens

There are many reasons to own a 50 millimeter lens. These lenses are sharp, fast, and inexpensive. Consider the 50mm f/1.8 AFS G Nikkor lens. It costs about $200 and delivers exceptional performance. You can, of course, spend more to get a faster (f/1.4 or f/1.2) but in most cases you’ll find the 50mm f/1.8  perfect for enthusiasts.

The 50 millimeter lens is great for events and photojournalism.
The 50mm lens is great for events and photojournalism.
Fast aperture for low-light

The size, speed, and close-focus capability of the 50mm prime make it an exceptionally versatile lens. Use it to shoot indoors, or in low-light conditions without the need for a flash. This feature can be handy in places like museums where flash photography is prohibited.

Use a fifty millimeter lens when flash photography isn't allowed, such as in museums.
Use a 50mm lens when flash photography isn’t allowed, such as in museums.
A 50 millimeter lens is perfect for low-light travel photography.
A 50mm lens is perfect for low-light travel photography.
Get bokeh

The fast aperture of the 50mm prime also makes it ideal for rendering backgrounds out of focus. 50 millimeter lenses create excellent bokeh, and render out of focus point sources of light as soft circles. Most 50mm lenses will allow you to focus quite close to your subject, which enhances that effect. Get close to your subject and shoot at f/2.8 or wider to create wonderfully smooth out of focus backgrounds.

Use a 50 millimeter lens to create soft backgrounds in your travel photos by getting close to your subject.
Use a 50mm lens to create soft backgrounds in your travel photos by getting close to your subject.
The 50 millimeter lens in portrait photography

The 50 millimeter prime makes a great portrait lens. True, it’s not the same a the classic portrait lens, the 85mm prime, but  for the price, you can get a fast lens that delivers nice out of focus backgrounds in both indoor and outdoor portraits. In fact, if you use it on a crop-sensor camera, the 50 millimeter lens delivers great portraits, Moreover, you can’t get this look with your kit lens or your smartphone!

A 50 millimeter lens is suitable for portraits, because it creates soft out of focus backgrounds.
A 50mm lens is suitable for portraits, because it creates soft out of focus backgrounds.

Because most 50mm primes have a close minimum focus distance, you can use them as (almost) macro lenses. Here’s a trick: Simply add a short extension tube to your 50mm lens, you’ll be able to focus on subjects just a few inches away. I use the Kenko auto extension tube set with my 50mm lens. The 12mm ad 20mm extension tubes are enough to allow me to get really close-up shots.

Transform your 50 millimeter lens into a competent macro lens by using an extension tube.
Transform your 50mm lens into a competent macro lens by using an extension tube.

Although I use zoom lenses all the time, I will often pack my 50mm lens to provide me with another creative option while I’m traveling. Because the 50mm is a relatively small lens, it packs easily and doesn’t add a significant amount of weight to my kit.

Lastly, when I get in a creative rut, I’ll walk around with only my 50 millimeter lens on my camera. Using it forces me to look for different compositions and to find situations where shallow depth of field creates unique images.

50mm lens options for Nikon enthusiasts
50mm lens options for Canon enthusiasts
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2 thoughts on “Life at 50: The Nifty 50 Millimeter Lens”

  1. hmmm I turn 50 next year. Maybe I should have a project to try to get at least one photo for each month using my nifty fifty to mark the occasion. thanks for the prompt!

  2. It is a suprise how good the Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D is as an “old” workhorse. Thanks Jason for advising to keep this lens.

    Forget the DxOMark overall scores below. The detailed scores on sharpness etc. are more important and show even more how this lens still beats newer more expensive lenses; and one does not need always VR.

    http://www.dxomark.com/lenses/brand-nikon/launched-between-1987-and-2016/mount_type-Nikon_F_FX/lens_use_case-lens_medium/sensor_brand-Nikon#hideAdvancedOptions=false&viewMode=list&yDataType=global

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