When I got my first SLR camera, it came with a 50mm f/2 prime 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 creative fun, you should consider giving the “nifty fifty” another look.
There are many reasons to own a 50mm prime lens. They are relatively inexpensive, have minimal distortion, and are sharp and fast. Consider the 50mm f/1.8 AFS G Nikkor lens. It costs about $200 new, and delivers exceptional performance. You can find the earlier version of this lens (AF-D) on the used market for under $100. 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 size, speed, and close-focus capability of the 50mm prime make it an exceptionally versatile lens. You can 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.
The fast aperture of the 50mm prime also makes it ideal for rendering backgrounds out of focus. Most 50mm primes deliver excellent bokeh, and render out of focus point sources of light as soft circles. Most 50mm lenses have a fairly close minimum focusing distance. For a really nice effect, get close to your subject and shoot at f/2.8 or wider to create wonderfully smooth out of focus backgrounds.
The 50mm prime is also a great portrait lens. Sure, it’s wider than an 85mm prime, but again, for the price, you can get a fast lens that delivers nice out of focus backgrounds in both indoor and outdoor portraits.
Because most 50mm primes have a close minimum focus distance, you can even use them as inexpensive macro lenses. By simply adding 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.
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 it’s a relatively small lens, it packs easily and doesn’t add a significant amount of weight to my kit. When I get in a creative rut, I’ll sometimes just walk around with only the 50mm 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.