3.07.2009

Fifty Millimeters. The Glorious Optics of Yesterday.

Ben Tuck.  Post Swim.  Nikon 50mm 1.2 ais.

My first camera was a Canon QL17 which sported a reasonably good 40mm lens.  It was soon replaced by a Canon TX SLR camera with a Canon 50mm 1.8 lens that seemed to remain locked on the front of my camera for most of its usable life.

When I look through my current equipment I find that I have hoarded a large number of normal lenses including:  Nikon's manual focus 50mm 1.4 and 1.8 lenses, two manual focus Micro lenses (both 55mm),  Nikon's auto focus 50mm 1.4 and 1.8 lenses, a Leica 50mm Summicron and 50mm Summilux for the M cameras and assorted "normal" focal lengths for the Olympus E-1 and the ancient line of Olympus Pen "half frame" film cameras.  I won't even start to recount the number of normal lenses I have for medium format cameras.

All this begs the question, "why?"  Well, first of all, every one of the normal focal length lenses is a superior performer.  One stop down from wide open every single one of them starts to really shine when it comes to sharpness, contrast and intangibles.  Two stops down and they beat every zoom lens on the market.  (We can argue forever about the new top zooms from Nikon).  They sit beautifully on the cameras instead of sticking out like some Freudian flagpole. This enhances the cameras shooting profile and makes the whole ensemble less intimidating.

But all of this would be moot if the angle of view wasn't so compelling.  I love the angle of view that a normal lens gives you.  Shot correctly it can seem wide or narrow.  Shot close at near wide open apertures the 50mm can give you incredibly shallow depth of field as in my shot of Ben.  But the real bottom line is that this is a focal length that matches my residual vision. Meaning that if I distilled everything else out of a shot this is what would be left.  

Those of you who are amateur mental health care professionals will probably wonder what motivates me to own so many different iterations of the 50mm.  Clinically, you might just go with exaggerated fear of loss but in reality I think it's the idea of being like a painter and having multiple brushes, each of which provides a different and distinguishable nuance to the canvas. The 50 1.2 Nikon does shallow depth of field with a sharp "core" better than anything out there.

The 50mm MF 1.8 Nikon does great sharpness across the entire geometry of a full frame better than any of its brethren (except for a few macros), while the Summilux does exquisitely sharp center with soft, happy, mellow edges better than anything else.  Couple that with a little rangefinder focusing and you've got and incredible package.  I bought the normal autofocus lenses around the time when the only cameras you could get from Nikon and Fuji were cropped frames with smaller viewfinders which impeded the focusing of fast manual lenses and I hold on to them because I find the Nikon D300 and the FujiFilm S5 Pro to be really spectacular cameras for different uses.

And, of course the obvious advantage of the fast 50's is their light gathering capability.  A sharp fast lens wide open can be two stop faster than the best zooms.  That equals two full shutter speeds of hand-holdability and action stopping!  Just like having VR in every lens.

The sweetest thing of all for a Nikon shooter like myself (edit: now a Canon shooter!!!)(newer edit: now a Sony photographer)  is that the current generation of Nikon digital cameras, like the D3, D3x, D700 and D300 actually make corrections for the short coming of the lenses attached to them.  I have found the 50mm 1.2 to be much improved in its performance with these four cameras.  The other lenses seem sharper and contrastier as well. One of my favorite new combinations is the old Nikon F4s (film camera) with the new Nikon 60mm Micro AFS.  The lens is impressive on digital cameras and even more impressive on the old film camera.  The combination drives me to shoot more film just so I can marvel at how well it all works together.

Even though I have lots and lot of 50's and related focal lengths I would say that my total financial investment is less than $2,000 or about the price of one 14-24mm Nikon Zoom lens. If great wide angle work is your interest you really only have one compelling choice.  I don't see that way and I'm thrilled to be able to match my optic to my vision of the moment.  I'm just about to buy the new Nikon 50 1.4  AFS just for its center core sharpness.  Stay tuned and I'll get a nice review of its performance together.

Finally, a friend really liked a quote I threw out on his discussion site the other day.  I want to share it with you:

"There is no real magic in photography, just the sloppy intersection of physics and art."
Kirk Tuck,  March 2009

Please help me spread the word about this blog.  I'd really like to open the dialogue to as many people as we can.


Best, Kirk

33 comments:

sirshannon said...

if I didn't already own a 50mm, this would have convinced me to get one.


(and that is a great quote)

Bruce L. Snell said...

I agree with sirshannon's comment. After years of playing with various lenses, oddly I've ended up using the normal lens the most. If I'd only have know that in the beginning I could have saved enough money to buy that new ZTR mower I've been eyeing.

John Sartin said...

I totally agree about 50mm or it's equivalent length. I am trying to get more "normal" as I age. Funny comment about the Freudian flagpole, makes me laugh at push pull long zooms. :)

TC said...

Love my 50mm. It's the one thing that's always either on the camera or in the bag. It's like going back to basics - it forces you (esp at 1.4f) to concentrate on the most important thing in the photo. What do you want sharp? How do you want the background? A few 50mm shots from yesterday

Jonathan Stokes said...

I'm sure that most of us who use medium zooms don't actually make full use of their full focal ranges anyway.

For the advantages in quality and speed, using a 50mm prime instead is a much better idea.

What do you think a 'normal' focal length lens would be on a smaller sensor camera, like the EOS 30-50D or the Nikon D200?

Anonymous said...

Totally agree on the 50s. Started with the D40 and the kit lens, but something was certainly missing. After a few months of that, I added the AF 50mm f/1.8, and what a huge difference.
I'm now looking at the new AF-S 35mm f/1.8G DX for it's more attractive range (I liked the 50mm view on film, but it seems a little "long" for some uses on digital). I'll still keep the 50 for when I want to venture out a little further into the short tele range.
It is still a good range when you want to go light with one lens - the D40+50/1.8 is really a tiny package, yet a versatile one.

Bob Geoghegan said...

Great post about something we should all rediscover. (50mm as the recession revival?) Taking the new Nikon 35/1.8 AF-S as a DX "honorary 50", it got a workout yesterday with kids at the playground. It was simple, fun, balanced on the camera (D200) and relaxing to use. It was almost like high school again ;-) Not that I don't like the 17-5/2.8, but I left that in the bag. Little primes are far easier to get in between the play-scape bars.

wanpakboy said...

Im with you, I cut my teeth on a rokkor 50mm 2.0 on a minolta srt 101 witha busted light meter must have shot everything at f8 1/60. it was a magical time. I got all advanced when I inherited the family Ae1. it had a fs 50mm 1.4. lightmeter worked, but always wanted to overexpose one stop. I then I moved to digital with modern features like zooms, lcds, autofocus, and forgot about the 50 for abut 8 years.
I got an 50mm ef 1.4 about 6 months ago. I cant keep it off my camera (5dmk1) its light, small even with the hood on, opticaly superb and most importantly its just right for the distance I am comfortable shooting at. its not the best choise for all situations but it is my first pick when I dont know what to expect.

Benjamin Reed said...

Excellent post! My friends and I love to shoot with 50mm lenses, using many old ones we find at auction.

Rick Ricozzi said...

I really love my 50mm f1.4. Thats even my license plate tag.It is sharp and a lot easier to carry than the 17-55 2.8, and less intimidating!

Do you have any thoughts on the 35 f1.8?

Crash Taylor said...

Nice one Kirk. Hope you're well buddy. Crash

Mike Murrow said...

Excellent Kirk, really excellent. Summed up my feelings not only regarding the 50mm, but about fixed focal lengths in general. Even when I am shooting with the only zoom I shoot a lot with (17-35) I am either at the 17 end or the 35 end, rarely in between.

And I'm going to use that quote, with attribution of course.

Thanks and I look forward to to more great articles.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the paean to the fast 50mm lens. The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens stays on one of my XSi's for the reasons given. The camera's 1.6 crop factor gives a 48mm focal length -- very near normal. This combo captures neon-lit facades at night with fidelity. It also works well with flash-lit daylight subjects.

Like KT, I own several fast 50mm lenses, and hope one day to buy a FF camera (Canon 5D Mark II) on which to mount these lenses to appreciate their capabilities all the more.

From my reading of photography history, I understand some photographers of yore, using a 35mm camera, walked around with only one lens, a fast 50mm lens. Personally, I take inspiration from their practice, and hope to learn more by following it.

Jim Bass said...

How timely. With the recent birth of my granddaughter I began shooting more natural light images, which got me using my Canon 50 1.8 that I had largely ignored. I loved it so much, I sprang for the Sigma 1.4, a great lens. Bokeh time!

On another note, the Iraq war blogger and photographer Michael Yon shoots just about everything with a 50 mm, including combat. His stuff is here: http://www.michaelyon-online.com/

Mark Bohrer said...

Shoot wide-open with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux or 50mm f/1 Noctilux on 0.58 film Leica M or M8? Get your rangefinder adjusted with the lens you’re using!!

A 1.25X viewfinder magnifier will help your rangefinder focusing accuracy too.

The other thing I’m thinking about is using my 50mm f/1.5 Summarit for its more painterly portrait renditions. Older folks with wrinkles would appreciate this...

Felix H. said...

I own a Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 on a Canon 40D.

However, I also have an old 42mm screw-mount SMC Pentax 50mm f/1.4 from my dad's film days on an adapter. The coatings have yellowed and it's manual focus and manual aperture. On a 40D, with the standard weak focusing screen, MFing through the viewfinder is nigh impossible. I have to use live view, so it's a real pain.

Yet, more and more, at the end of the day, I find I have the 50mm and not the 17-70 mounted. In spite of the hoops I have to jump through to use it, this old lens I got for free gives me photos I just can't get from my $400 zoom.

Anonymous said...

I've just picked up the Nikon 35 1.8 AF-S on the d40, after selling the MF 50mm 1.8; I'm still keeping around my MF 105/2.5, but the d40's prism is pretty rough for manual focus work (the d60's is improved.)

Anyway, the 35/1.8 is a great walkaround lens; perfect for both portraits and group shots (at least for me). And I suppose it's roughly equivalent to your 50mm's on FX/film.

It's a steal for $200. And amazing at f/5.6.

Ryan Slack said...

Good thoughts on the 50, When I travel, Its the D3 and a 50 1.4. The lens' size also make s for a less intimidation set up when shooting portraits. I like to keep it simple, I have feet for zoom!

Anonymous said...

I feel important now since I just bought my first 50 last week. But now I want more!

Cris said...

Good Article Kirk. Funny as it is, i'm finding my 50 1.8 on my Canon 5d more and more these days. It's like, looks great and I can look like a total newb walking around the streets with that setup.

Cris...

Cris said...

Great Article Kirk.
I'm finding my 50 1.8 on my Canon 5D more and more these days. It's light, sharp where it needs to be and allows me to walk the street a little more discreetly than my 70-200 2.8 ;-)

Cris...

Gary Rhodes said...

My two favorite's are my Nikkor AF 50mm 1.8, and my older version 80-200 2.8. I'd only wish that my 50 wasn't a 75 digitally...

joe said...

you've summed it up so well... my sigma 30/1.4 (45 equiv on my crop nikons, practically a 50) has been almost permanently attached since i bought it. if i moved to full frame i'd have a 50 on it in seconds.

Anonymous said...

If you REALLY want more readers, you might want to start by venturing outside the Nikon world occasionally.

kirk tuck said...

Gee. I start off with a Canon QL 17, then a Canon 50 1.8, then some Olympus and then some Leica Above wrote about the Sony R1 as one of my fave cameras, Also the Olympus E-1..........Anonymous, what the heck brand do you want? I only write about the stuff I want to write about and I only write about the stuff I know about.

If you don't like it don't read it.

C Weber said...

Great post. 50mm is where it began and it's nice to see it continuing with such fervor.

Anonymous...
How about we just look at the art, not the brands? Learn for a change.

Ed Z said...

The longer I shoot the more I think that the 50mm (equivalent) lens is just about the only lens I really need. Give me a fast 35 and 135 and I'm a pig in slop :-)

matthew said...

Yeah...What Kirk said.

Jorge Beletti said...

Hi Kirk, I found unusable the 50 mm 1:1,2 nikkor MF, take a peek at the Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM, after long hours of meditating about which lens will be on my new D3, I ended up with this piece of glass.. Could't agree more with you about lens choices.. cheers! Jorge

Jonathon Delacour said...

Wow, it seems I might be the sole naysayer. I don't have a high regard for the 50mm focal length. While I agree with your statement that "shot correctly it can seem wide or narrow", the angle of view of a 50mm lens (on a full frame 35mm or DSLR) has never felt right to me -- perhaps because it doesn't match the diagonal of the frame (43mm), the usual criterion for a normal lens.

On a D700, I use a 40mm Ultron and either a 58mm Nokton or 60mm Micro AF-S, a combination that gives me angles of view slightly wider and slightly longer than a 50mm. On a D300, I get similar angles of view with 28mm and 40mm lenses.

As much as I like the D700, if I could only have one camera and one lens, it would be a 28mm lens on an APS-C body, because I find the extra depth of field and wider spread of focus points so useful. I can't match your collection of 50's but I do have six 28mm lenses (three AF and three MF).

To be honest though, having read your post, I'm almost tempted to try a 50mm. But which 50mm?

If one believes the reviews, the new 50/1.4 AF-S focuses more slowly and isn't as sharp wide open as the venerable 50/1.4 AF-D. Plus it costs half as much again as the older lens. The Sigma 50/1.4 is too big and heavy for a walkaround lens, although its bokeh is admittedly gorgeous. Whereas, from the examples I've seen, the Zeiss 50/1.4 ZF's bokeh is nervous and unattractive. That leaves the Nikkor 50/1.2 AI-S, which has a great reputation (Jorge's comment is the first negative opinion I've seen). Now the only remaining question is: do I really need another lens?

PS Sincere thanks for the Minimalist Lighting books. The Location book is excellent and I expect the Studio book (currently en route from Amazon) to be just as good if not better.

Anonymous said...

Love the 50/1.2 ais. But you have to use it on a full frame camera to get a decent enough focusing system.

Spiny Norman said...

Anon - not true. All one needs is a better focusing screen.

http://www.katzeyeoptics.com/page--Custom-Focusing-Screens--store.html

Don Schulte said...

All I had from when I was 14 to about 30 years old was a Pentax KM and 50mm f/1.8 ...and I was happy and created images I still hang.

I still have the lens but it just sits on the shelf to remind me how simple things can be.