The 50mm f/1.8
By Ryan Watkins
14 Dec 2010
For decades photographers have carried 50mm f/1.8 Lenses in there camera bags, and there are several good reasons for it. This lens is incredibly sharp, ideal in low light situations, and is one of the least expensive lenses you can buy! I purchased my Nikkor AF-D 50mm f/1.8 lens a year and a half ago for the low price of $130 from a local camera store. Despite it being single focal length, or prime lens, it is incredibly versatile. I've used my 50mm for everything from portraits to macros to abstracts and even for sociable wildlife! The 50mm lenses can give you professional results from your DSLR without having to pay the uncanny prices for high end professional optics.
My Nikkor AF-D 50mm f/1.8 Lens has allowed me to get images in low light situations were even my fast zoom lenses and lenses with vibration reduction wouldn't have allowed me to obtain. Having the option to shoot at f/1.8 opens up an entire new world of shooting to you compared to shooting with slow super zoom lenses which come with most new DSLRs. Like any other lens I wouldn't recommend shooting wide open with the 50mm. These lenses still have extraordinary sharpness when stopped down to f/2.8; which gives me pleasing bokeh, or out of focus part of an image, for senior and candid portraits. It can also allow me to have more ambient light in darker flash light scenes as with this image taken of Bethany Allen in a dark coffee shop booth. Fast prime lenses, like the 50mm f/1.8, can be ideal for shooting in dark places were flash or tripods aren't allowed, or aren't practical, like museums, family get together, or during late night coffee runs.
The 50mm lens has been a favorite for portrait photographers for countless years. Whether you shoot on full frame or APS-C sensor DSLR the 50mm lens makes a great focal length for portraits. On cameras with an APS-C sensor the 50mm is approximately equivalent to a 75mm lens. This lens allows you to shoot close-up head shots but is also wide enough to shoot bust and even full body portraits in somewhat tight spaces. These lenses are also exquisitely sharp around f/5.6 and f/8 which I usually shoot at when taking strobe lit studio portraits as with this conceptual "good vs. evil" composite of Ciara Smith. As stated in the previous paragraph, portrait photographers love the soft even bokeh the 50mm f/1.8 creates when shooting with wider apertures. Cheaper zoom lenses can create ugly, even distracting, shapes in the out of focus parts of a photo but that is definitely not the case with a 50mm f/1.8. This lens makes a smooth consistent blur in the backgrounds of images as in this senior portrait against the fall leaves. If you are a portrait photographer or are thinking about getting into portrait photography a 50mm f/1.8 Lens could be a great addition to your camera bag.
For a few extra dollars you can even turn your new 50mm portrait lens in to an affordable yet dependable macro lens! Most 50mm f/1.8 Lens have smaller filter threads, usually between 52mm and 58mm, compared to zoom lenses which allow you to get high quality filters and accessories for these lenses at lower costs. I purchased a set of three Kenko close-up filters which allow me to get tremendously close to subjects for around $40. Despite most magazines, blogs, and pros saying that you should only use manual focus when doing extreme macros I've found that if you keep the subject parallel to the camera and use a narrower aperture that autofocus can actually be surprisingly accurate. The 50mm also has good quality at f/22, thou not as good as at f/8. I was almost touching this bee when I got this shot of it at f/22 with my camera's built in flash on and all of my Kenko close-up filters stacked on top of my 50mm. I've also obtained these published flash lit frog and eye macro of Taylor Hayes using my 50mm with close-up filters. I even used this combination for much of my avant-garde fine art work like my in-camera double exposures including this image of a flower and the skyline. If you want to change more of your lenses into a macro lens you may prefer using extension tubes which you put in-between the lens and your camera, but there will be light loss which shouldn't be much of an issue because you'll usually be shooting at narrower apertures when doing macros anyway. If you plan on doing a lot of macro work a dedicated macro lens is still your best option, but for the casual macro shooter a 50mm with close up filters can be adequate.
Despite all the pros of using a 50mm f/1.8 fast prime lens there are some cons. The most obvious of which being that it only has one focal length. For street or landscape photographers who need easy access to a wide variety of focal lengths a super zoom, like an 18-200mm or 28-300mm, may be a better option. If you shoot with primes your apt to change lenses more often so there is a higher chance of getting unwanted dust on your camera's image sensor. This lens is far from long enough to use for most sports or wildlife work and is also too long to use in extremely tight spaces, especially when on a camera with an APS-C sized sensor. Although you can shoot at f/1.8 if you have to it will result in soft low quality images. If you find yourself shooting at f/1.8 or near it quit often then an even faster lens like a 50mm f/1.4 or even 50mm f/1.2 lens might be better suited for your style of shooting but this will be a major increase in cost. The Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens sells for under $600 which is still rather affordable compared too many pro lenses. Canon is the only company to currently make a 50mm f/1.2 lens with autofocus and is over $1000. These faster 50mm primes can obtain higher quality images at wider apertures. A 50mm f/1.8 lens is incredibly versatile but it's not for every photographer.
The 50mm f/1.8 is a great lens which can be used for a wide variety of uses. If are a portrait photographer on a budget, shoot frequently in low light conditions, or want an inexpensive lens which can create tack sharp images the 50mm f/1.8 lens can prove to be an irreplaceable addition to your current lens kit. On the other hand if you primarily shoot sports, wildlife, landscapes, or are usually in situations where you need a variety of focal lengths the 50mm f/1.8 isn't worth your while. My Nikkor AF-D 50mm f/1.8 Lens is one of the most used lens in my camera bag and some of my best, and even published, work has been made with it.