The 50mm, or ‘standard’ lens, has a long and illustrious history, having been favoured by some iconic names over the years. Now, it’s coming right back into favour in the professional world.
WORDS TERRY HOPE / IMAGES VARIOUS
IF YOU FAVOUR simplicity in your work, you can’t make a more logical choice than a standard lens, since this is the optic that matches the viewpoint of the human eye. Obviously there’s a lot more to it than that (and many would argue the eye’s ability to offer
peripheral vision ensures there’s no lens on the planet that can faithfully replicate its angle of view) but it’s certainly a decent compromise on a number of levels. It’s not too wide and distorting, neither is it so long it compresses perspective, or ends up keeping too big a distance between yourself and your subject.
There are other points in favour of the standard lens – in 35mm terms a 50mm, for medium format a 75mm – not least the fact that it’s often very affordable, even when offering fast apertures such as f/2. Some of the greatest names in photography’s past, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, pretty much established entire careers on the back of such an optic, and few would suggest that doyens such as Henri might have done even better had he mixed up his focal lengths a little more.
Of course it’s the nature of creative types, such as photographers, to constantly challenge established thinking, and lens technology has evolved
almost beyond belief over the years, to the point where zooms can now deliver optical results that are close to those that a prime lens can produce.
This has led many to look at what alternative focal lengths can offer – and all the while zooms have very much been coming into their own, seeming to offer substantial benefits over a fixed lens in terms of the speed, convenience and lower cost per focal length covered.
So why is it, then, that there are still substantial numbers of professional photographers making the choice to work with prime standard lenses, while still more are now looking at their options and choosing to make what might look like a retrograde step away from zooms? What has a dedicated 50mm optic got to offer that a 50mm setting on a zoom (that can also offer you a wide range of extra focal length options) can’t?
To find out, we contacted a range of highly successful pros working in a number of different genres, and their responses make fascinating and thoughtprovoking reading…
BASED IN SYDNEY, Australia, Julia Trotti is a fashion and portrait photographer as well as a regular and widely followed YouTuber. She’s a huge fan of the 50mm and uses both this optic and a selection of other primes in her business, eschewing the use of zooms through preference.
Early on in her career, when money was tight and she had to be careful about equipment purchases, she worked for a year using just a 50mm f/1.4, and the experience taught her a lot about the value of this focal length – but also the fact that it wasn’t necessary to have a bulging gadget bag in order to be successful.
“I’ve always believed that giving yourself limitations in your photography can help you become more creative,” she says. “By only using minimal camera gear, you can really hone your eye and master your skills in photography. Instead of being distracted with different lenses or trying to figure out what lens would work for particular situations, you only have one lens and are forced to use your creative eye and your photographic knowledge to acquire the shot you’re after. In turn, this leads to more creativity in your photography and it’s a very handy skill to have.
“Overall, I believe that the 50mm is a classic focal length that will never go out of style. It’s a
versatile lens that I can use in almost any situation, and I’ve used my current f/1.2 on my Canon 5D Mark IV to capture everything from fashion campaigns and studio look books, right down to street photography and my personal travel images. It really is a perfect focal length for any occasion and, for that reason, it will always have a place in my camera bag.”
In terms of cost, Canon 50mm lenses are highly affordable. The f/1.8 version costs a little over £100 brand new, while the f/1.4 adds more versatility but will stretch the budget rather more, being around £380 in some stores (but can be found for under £200 online). Move to an f/1.2 and the price moves up again, to over £800 brand new, but you’re buying an L lens with all the guarantee of image quality that comes with that marque.
“The f/1.8 and f/1.4 versions of the 50mm are both great lenses,” says Julia, “but I wanted the weather sealing that the f/1.2 offered. This is particularly important during weddings when you don’t have the option to reschedule if the weather is bad, so I needed a lens I could rely on. When it comes to client work I also need to deliver work to the highest standards, and the 50mm f/1.2 is optically excellent – it offers beautiful colour rendition straight out of the camera. If my client is after a more natural look with their final photos, colour grading is a much smoother process.”
COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHER AND educator Karl Taylor is another who appreciates the look and feel of a standard lens, though in his case he’s usually working with a medium format Hasselblad, meaning that the optic employed is an 80mm.
“I use the 80mm on the Hasselblad regularly,” he says, “and also work with the 50mm f/1.2 on a Canon. Both lenses work well for product photography, for me. The focal length that the standard lens provides is similar to the magnification of the human eye, although the field-of-view is different.
“To test this out, simply put your full frame DSLR to your eye
with a 50mm lens on, and open the other eye – you can quite easily navigate your way around as both images produced by the left and right eye will be similar in scale. If you did this with a wide angle or telephoto, you would find it difficult.
“As such, the shooting distance and perspective offered feel similar to what we are used to naturally, and this allows me to stay quite close to my subject and retain a feeling of intimacy. Any wider and distortion would become a problem, and further away with a longer lens often feels too remote.”
FASHION AND BEAUTY photographer Ian Hooton moved back to a 50mm prime three to four years ago and has never looked back, finding it the ideal optic for the way he likes to work. “I’m all about speed,” he says, “and like to shoot at five to six frames-per-second at times, hand held, to get movement and life into my images. If I worked with a longer lens there would be too great a distance between me and my subject, and there would be a higher risk of crucial areas, such as the eyes, not being pin sharp.”
Ian is a great believer in keeping things simple, something that’s come with experience. Often, it can be those just starting out that are looking to overcomplicate things, switching regularly between lenses in a single session, but there is great value to be had in sticking to a particular look that’s working and making it your signature style.
“Clients book me for the type of pictures I produce,” Ian points out, “and that comes from being totally at ease with the gear I’m using. I’ve never got on with Nikon cameras, which is purely a personal preference, and so I work with a Canon EOS 1DX Mark II fitted with a 50mm f/1.4. Once a session starts, after the first three to four minutes I essentially forget that I’m even looking through a camera and just concentrate on achieving the best pictures I can. If I was forever switching between lenses or fiddling with a zoom, that simply wouldn’t happen.”
ORIGINALLY WORKING IN advertising, Steven Carter Hewson ultimately became disillusioned with the artificial nature of the business and longed for something more fulfilling. The lightbulb moment arrived when he came across an image taken by reportage wedding specialist Jeff Ascough: “It reminded me so much of work produced by the great Magnum photographers,” he says. “It was a wedding photo but it wasn’t the typical cheesy picture usually associated with the genre. It was a proper photograph.”
Now an in-demand wedding photographer, Steven has never lost his love of documentarystyle photography, and it’s an approach that lends itself to the classic 50mm prime.
“From my very first wedding, this is the one lens I’ve always carried with me,” he says. “I simply love this focal length. The combination of wide aperture and the field-of-view it offers suits me and my style perfectly. I usually partner this with a wider lens – a 24mm or 28mm – and this pairing allows me to shoot pretty much anything on any given day.
“I’ve used many different 50mm lenses over the years, my favourite being the incredible Canon 50mm f/1.2L. I now shoot with Fujifilm X cameras and still miss this particular optic: while Fujifilm does make a 50mm prime, the fact that the cameras are crop sensored means that this is the equivalent of a 75mm, and so I work with the Fujifilm 35mm lens, which equates to around 52mm on a full frame camera. This offers me a similar view to the one I achieved with full frame cameras.
“I’ve used zoom lenses in the past, and while they’re certainly convenient I’ve never felt the same connection as I do with a prime lens. Primes make me work that little bit harder on the composition, zooming with my feet and exploring angles more, which almost always results in better pictures.”
DERBY-BASED WEDDING specialist Ben Pollard has a long history of being obsessed with his craft, following his father into the profession while gathering qualifications at A Level, BTEC ND and City & Guilds levels.
For many years, Ben’s favoured lens was a 50mm f/1.2 used in tandem with a Canon 5D Mark IV, and it was an optic he loved for its bokeh and controlled flare. “It was gorgeous for portraits, but ultimately I made the choice to move across to a Sony A9 outfit, partially to save on weight but also because I appreciated its impressive AF capabilities.
“I now work extensively with the Sony 55mm f/1.8. It’s not quite as fast as the Canon lens it replaced but I still very much appreciate this
focal length, and the difference you can see between an f/1.2 and an f/1.8 is something that might be spotted by another professional, but it’s subtle enough that most clients would never notice. It’s very different, however, if you employ a zoom at a 50mm setting, since you could be working with an aperture of at least f/2.8 and maybe f/4 or f/5.6, and then the amount of depth-of-field achieved would create a completely different feel.”
One of Ben’s specialities is the use of differential focus, and he works expertly with this to direct the attention of the viewer within a picture. It’s highly effective, but naturally depends on the ability of a lens to open up enough to make the approach viable.
“Since I switched over to the Sony I’ve found it easier to work in this way,” says Ben. “The eye tracking AF facility offered by the a9 is so good. I can concentrate purely on achieving natural-looking portraits and move around looking for the light I need. This means my couples are more in tune with one another, leading to a truer reflection of them as a couple.”
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