A post from 2009. Thought of it today as I reached for my 50mm 1.4 and my NIkon F...


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!!!)  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


  1. You have a Leica Summicron AND a Summilux and yet your investment is under $2,000 ?? See I KNEW I should have bought that Leica gear instead of those shares in 2008 !! (Only said partially in Jest ... it is actually entirely and painfully true).

  2. Hi Kirk,

    A somewhat tangential question I've been meaning to ask for some time... for a guy who's never touched, let alone shot, medium-format equipment, can you make some recommendations for inexpensive but decent starter gear? That includes a normal focal length fast lens, of course.

    I'm looking at Lightroom, at the ridiculous number of frames I've taken so far this year, and an analog learning curve is probably just what I need right now.


    1. Find a Mamyiya 330f, with a set of lenses - 55mm, 80mm, and 180mm. That have been refurbished so that the shutters have been re-lubricated and actually open and close as directed. I have never used a camera that put me so much into a focused state of "photo mind". Hard to explain. Something about the heft of the camera, the reasonably large ground glass viewfinder image, the square format. Just be prepared for the shock of the expense of each click of the shutter. But that, of course, is part of what makes each exposure fully considered.

    2. PS - The "normal" is the 80mm - F2.8 I believe.

    3. Thanks Tony, Wolfgang, and cidereye... I'll go do some further research. Totally agree about the "photo mind" and that's exactly what I need right now.

    4. Yes, Mamiya 330 with 55-80-180 would make a great medium format package. Choose "blue dot" lenses, they are newer and better. For less price you can get 65 and 135mm which are good too. Don't forget to add a prism and left hand grip! They would make the system heavier but much easier to use.

  3. Incredible good shot! Where others need photoshop, you do just your job. Cool!

  4. When I walked into a camera store earlier this year and detected an OM-2N together with its 1:1,4 50mm G.Zuiko "kit" lens, I asked the sales guy if I could see it. Looking through its gorgeous viewfinder, and manually focusing that 1.4 lens, I knew I wanted that camera. Plus the lens. Badly. The sales guy asked for an offer, and I said 100€ - then he sold it to me for 70. Glad if he still made some bucks from that ridiculous low price. Turns out that camera is still light-tight, and takes photos like on its first day, some estimated 35 years ago.

    There's something special when looking through a big and bright optical viewfinder of a 35mm camera with a 50mm lens attached to it - everything just feels right. The picture alone looks nicer than when looking through the (very good) VF-2 on the E-PL1, even with something as nice as the Panasonic 20mm in front of it. Sure, that EVF and newer camera have a lot of tricks and information which make them really useful and good to have. But the picture alone (without all that overlaid information) is better on the older camera without any doubt.

    I had a 1:1,8 50mm Zuiko already, and that one might be a tad sharper over the full image, while the 1,4 lens is a bit "dreamier" when fully open. Could be. Still they both render beautiful photos, even if technically seen, the digital-age 50 macro smokes them both in its pipe, and then sweeps the floor with them. I couldn't care less.

    Tried some BW400CN and some Agfapan 100 first, then some color negative film, but I can hardly wait to get some Ektar 100 and after that some nice low ISO B&W Ilford, Fuji, or Kodak into the machine again. I'm being given back and taught in boot loads. And sometimes, I'm even remembered of the old days, when film and another approach to photography was the norm, not the exception.

    How wonderful that we still can do that.

    To Travis: I'm also contemplating about that, and depending on what you want to do, I'd suggest some Mamiya TLR or Mamiya 645 or Bronica 6x6 SLR - I think that would be good ones for a little less money than you'd have to spend on a Hassy or Rollei...

  5. Just to add to your list, maybe also the Rolleicord Va might be worth looking at too for Travis? I paid only £120 for a mint one a few years back. Way cheaper than a mint Rolleiflex with only a few differences. Can't get a much cheaper introduction to quality MF photography.

  6. Another fine sleeper of a lens is Nikon's Ai 50 F2. Nikon gurus around the web sing praises about it. Not sure why Nikon made a 1.8 and a 2 but the F2 is nice wide open on my Nikon DSLR's. For my money I don't know why folks would spend a lot more money on a Zeiss MF lens when you can get a finely crafted Nikon Ai or AIS for much less.

  7. I never got on with the 50mm. I'm more of a 35-85/90 guy myself.

  8. We're around the same age so, like you, my first cameras were almost mandated to be fitted with a 50mm lens. Not long ago as I struggled to get a reasonable shutter speed with one of my 2.8 zooms at a reasonable ISO, I wondered how I ever managed when shooting Kodachrome 25 all of the time. Then it dawned on me... 1.4! Yes, I took advantage of it's shallow DOF, but more so it's ability to let me use a slow, fine-grained film. This is one of the reasons I'm contemplating a switch to high speed primes. Yes, more effort than the comfort of a zoom. But lower ISO's and/or faster shutter speeds, higher image quality due to simpler lens designs, smaller size and weight, etc. have a strong gravitational pull on me right now. One questions Kirk: shall I assume that your love affair with the Nikon V1 has cooled until a greater lens selection becomes available - especially higher speed primes?

  9. My first camera also had a 50mm attached on the front. I've gone through many other lenses (both primes and zooms) and the 50 is the only one that has not changed over the years. I like the 30mm on my a77 but the 50 still has a special place.

  10. Kirk, we really do not need to excuse, justify, rationalize, apologize for our collections of lenses. I learned about this from my wife and her, to me, inexplicable enjoyment of jewelry, which to me was just overpriced stuff way beyond any utility. Until she said one day, "It just makes me happy". I finally got it.

  11. Kirk, if you may, I'm borrowing that quote from you, because it defines how I (strongly) feel most people (badly) miss the point about photography. I hope you don't mind.


  12. Sweet, sweet shot. Just wanted to say I love the site. I've just found it today.


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