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Rediscovering my 50mm lens

Rediscovering my 50mm lens

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Getting back to basics

February 22, 2011

With all the recent comparison tests pitting 50mm lenses against zooms and each other, it was only a matter of time before I’d reach for my own 50 and take it out for a spin.

In recent months, the Adorama Learning Center has published articles comparing 50mm f/1.8 to 50mm f/1.4 lenses, and standard zooms vs. 50mm primes. A recent product review the Adorama Learning Center published of the new Nikon 35mm f/1.4 lens showed how a “normal” lens for APS sensor cameras is surprisingly useful.

And so, when I took my family to Florida for a week last month, there was no question but that I would bring along my old, rarely-used Canon 50mm f/1.4 along with my recently-acquired Canon EOS 7D. Yes, I also brought along a  Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 zoom lens, but only used it for a few hours. During the rest of the trip, it was all 50mm, all the time, and I used the week in the warmth to get reacquainted with it.

I could have taken a 50mm f/1.8 Canon lens, and if I'd had a Nikon I would have brought either a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 or 50mm f/1.8. Both lenses are outstanding.

It was a valuable lesson for me. When I teach intermediate-level photography classes, I tell my students to choose one lens and use it exclusively for a month. This will allow them to really get to know the lens’s strengths and weaknesses. Learning to work within a lens’s limits is valuable in helping to fine-tune compositional skills.

Besides, the lens was small and light when compared to the relatively bulky zoom lens I'd brought with me.

 

On the prowl for tighter compositions: I became more aware of where the edges of the frame fell and when I came across this confrontation (the squirrel escaped unharmed) I quickly moved around to capture the hunter and the hunted, eliminating the clutter. Exposure note: This was shot under a shady tree and heavy clouds so the exposure was 1/250 at f/2, ISO 1,250.


When used on an APS sensor DSLR such as the 7D, the 50mm covers the same field of view as a 75mm lens on a 35mm or full-frame sensor camera. This means the lens is well-suited for portrait photography. Indeed, in a recent informal poll of Adorama’s Facebook friends, most responded that they shot portraits with the 50mm as either their primary or secondary portrait lens.

My normally camera-shy daughter reacted more naturally to my smaller, less intimidating lens at this rest stop on the way to Cape Canaveral, Florida.


This 35mm equivalent angle of coverage means this lens is well-suited for portrait photography as well as for journalism and reportage. Its lack of linear distortion meant I could photograph architecture or incorporate lines into the image in a more formal style.

 

Sunset, Delray, Florida: I composed this sunset by zooming with my feet, working within the limits of my lens.



The fixed focal length also meant I had to zoom with my feet. If the subject was too far, I had to walk closer. Too close? I backed up. No room to do that? I circled around to find a better way to capture the subject. I found myself dancing around the subjects and not standing in one place and zooming. This forced me to be more aware of the background and foreground, making sure lines, color and brightness guided the viewer's eye and didn't distract.

I patiently waited as this rescued fella came to a few feet from my camera at a bird sanctuary. Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens at 1/250 sec at f/2.


But the biggest draw of the 50mm lens was its big f/1.4 aperture, and its narrow depth of field. OK, so it's not the sharpest lens in the bag (according to DxOMark tests when compared with an f/1.8). But the smooth Bokeh and very shallow depth of field allowed me to think—and shoot—differently. I thought differently when shooting portraits, wildlife in a bird sanctuary in south Florida, when photographing palm trees, and even when photographing something as mundane as a highway rest stop that was drenched in golden late afternoon sunlight.

 

Something as mundane as a rest stop, when captured with the right lens at the right time of day, can lead to a dynamic composition. The 50mm's lack of linear distortion meant I could get truer lines and shoot more formal compositons.


Part of the joy of rediscovering this lens is that, when paired with a modern DSLR that can produce high-quality images at high ISOs, I had a low-light monster on my hands. I was able to pump the ISO to 2000, even 3200, with acceptable levels of noise, and with the lens set at f/1.4, got some nice, usable results while exploring the minimal depth of field.

This came in handy at the bird sanctuary. Although it was outdoors, heavy, threatening clouds forced me to use a higher ISO. With the capabilities of my Canon 7D's sensor, this was no problem and I took home some cool shots.

 

As storm clouds gathered and light diminished, I really wanted to get a shot of my daughter feeding the birds at Flamingo Gardens in Davies, Florida, documentary-style. I dialed the ISO up to 1250 and shot away. I captured this at a manageable 1/250 sec at f/5.6.

And so, for now, the 50mm f/1.4 lens has become my default lens when I'm not running lens tests.

Do you have a 50mm lens hiding at the bottom of your gadget bag? Take it out and rediscover it! You may discover a new/old way of seeing.

 

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