When it comes down to quality for price, bang for buck, a 50mm 1.8 is one of the best lenses on the market, and an upgrade that I recommend to every new SLR user. For a very small investment of $105 for the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 or slightly more for Nikon, you can have one of the best upgrades that you can make to your camera.
The Right lens for your Camera
If you’re a Canon user, you have only one real choice, and that’s the Canon 50mm f/1.8 which I linked to above, but if you’re a Nikon user, it’s a little bit more complicated. You actually have 3 choices, depending on which camera you have. If you’re not using a Nikon D40, D40X, D60, D3000, D3100, D5000, and D5100, then your camera body will have an autofocus motor and you can buy the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF for $125.
If you have one of the cameras mentioned, then your camera body doesn’t have an autofocus motor built in, which means that you have to buy a lens that does – marked with an ‘AF-S’. Unfortunately for you, this is more expensive at $219 – Nikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S. Now, regardless of whether you have an autofocus motor or not, you can both buy the 35mm f/1.8 for $199, which will provide a better viewing angle on a crop sensor, for which you’ll likely be shooting on – Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S.
There are advantage of buying more expensive lenses, such as the Nikon ones listed above, as they have a better build quality. I used to regularly use my 50mm before I upgraded, and all that use does take its toll on the plastic build (glass inside) and toy-like features. The lenses are very light, small and are ideal if you’re looking to upgrade from your kit lens, but don’t want to carry around a load of extra weight. It’s true that you get what you pay for, but for a couple hundred bucks, you can produce some astounding results from these lenses. When you use a prime lens, which doesn’t zoom, the optics are usually much better quality as they’re not making as many compromises and the price comes down at the same time, so that’s why I endorse them so much.
Having used both the Canon and the Nikon, I can tell you that the focus does tend to suck on the lenses, as they’re slow and inconsistant. The small focus ring on each lens doesn’t do much to help with manual focus either, and the focus can tend to be quite loud, so watch out for that if you shoot video regularly. That being said, I’m looking back on these lenses now, after using much more expensive lenses, so my judgement has changed somewhat; you may not notice the difference so much if you’re using cheaper lenses to begin with.
Because of the crop factor on these lenses, the Canon feels more like a 80mm lens, the Nikon 50mm, is more like a 75mm lens, and the Nikon 35 looks like a 52.50mm lens. If you do choose a 50mm lens and you’re shooting on a crop sensor, then expect it to be quite far zoomed, although this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They make ideal cheap portrait lenses in terms of focal length, but expect to have to walk backwards if someone asks for a group shot.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you should know all there is to know about how perspective changes at different focal lengths, but as I mentioned in my post on the crop factor, putting your full frame lens on a crop sensor body will not change the perspective – only crop it. This is a good thing because the way we see through our own eyes is generally considered to be similar to about 45mm, so by using a 50mm you’re quite accurately representing our natural view, and not compressing the perspective too much.
There are obvious downsides to cheaper lenses, but don’t be put off, because when you put a 50mm f/1.8 on your camera, you’re not going to want to take it off – I know I didn’t. It’s a tool for every photographers arsenal, and I personally don’t know anyone who has regretted the purchase. Enough of all this talk about why it’s so great, let me show you.
The Lens Guide
The very first thing you’ll notice about your new lens, is the ability to shoot in much lower light, without having to use the flash. This is because of the wider aperture, which allows more light in. If you don’t know your aperture scale, then I suggest you learn it, but for now, let me tell you that if your lens went as wide as f/3.5 before, it now lets in four times as much light, at f.1.8. When I say wide, I’m talking about the size of the hole in the lens that the light passes through. The photo below, was taken indoors in a dark room at f/1.8 for 1.200 of a second at ISO 100.
The next thing you’ll notice is that the depth of field (DoF), can go remarkably shallow, and that’s because of the way the light passes through the lens at a wider aperture. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. This can be used for great creative effect, and it works really well, but a common problem with a lot of people who get a 1.8, is that they think it looks so good, it’s all they ever use, so use it sparingly or it’ll lose its appeal. Notice from the photo below that the glasses on the face are in focus, but the end of the hat, and chin, are out of focus. This was also shot at f/1.8.
From the photo above, you may notice the circular shapes of colour in the background, and this is what’s referred to as Bokeh. Simply put, it’s the aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photograph. It relates to how nice the background blur looks when out-of-focus. When you’re shooting at wider apertures, the effect of the bokeh is accentuated, so it will look at lot more prominant than anything you would have seen with your kit lens. Because this is a cheap lens, made to a price, it’s not the highest quality (which you may see from the photo above), but when you use it properly, with distant light, you can produce some really nice effect. Again, the photo below was shot at f/1.8.
Selective focus with a f/1.8 is something that you may not have done too much of in the past. Because the depth of field can be made to look so shallow, it’s even more effective with this lens, and you can focus the viewers attention onto a certain part of the photo, while making them want to explore the rest at the same time. It’s a powerful technique, but like everything, remember not to overdo it.
When you’re shooting wide open, you’re going to produce some very soft photos, so if you want them to be sharper, you need to narrow your aperture a fair bit. I find around f/8 to be the sharpest point on my Canon 50mm f/1.8. The photo below was shot at f/7.1, and manages to keep the whole of the subject in focus, while making sure plenty of detail remained in the background, so that you could make out the burnt down pier. Experiment with wide apertures at first, but you may find that narrower ones suit your style a lot better.
As I mentioned earlier, the crop factor does make this lens appear more zoomed than you may want it to be, but that can’t really be helped, unless you opt for the 35mm – it’s really a matter of personal preference and budget. It’s all about working with the gear that you’ve got at your disposal. When I took the photo below, I had no tripod on me, and just my 50mm lens. Because I knew what effect this would have on my photos, I chose to find a position that would work for me, rather than to simple give up, as I would have typically shot this photo with a wider angle. I found a position on a dock further away, and shot this photo at f/4.5 for 8 seconds and I was very happy with how it came out.
I’ve spoken a lot about f/1.8, but the lens aperture will go as narrow as f/22, which is fairly common. This will give you a much deeper DoF so that you can have your background and foreground in focus. The photo below was shot at f/22 for 4 seconds, and as you can see, the deep foreground is in good focus, and you can still work out all the minor details in the background on the pier. It’s important to remember that the lens does have more uses than just low light photography or shallow depth of field.
Finally, as you start to collect more gear, you can use that to make your photos look even better. A 50mm lens is great, but when you use it in conjunction with an external flash unit (and off camera transmitter for the photo below), you’ll get even better results. Like I said before, it’s about working with what you’ve got, and when you’ve got a little bit more, it can become a lot easier (when you know what you’re doing) to get better shots.