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Thread: Should a 50mm (or 35 in DX cameras) be your first lens

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    Ausphotography Regular MissionMan's Avatar
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    Should a 50mm (or 35 in DX cameras) be your first lens

    So, I've spent the last month going back to my 50mm. I have some pretty good lenses (240-70 f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8), so it isn't something I have to do but I found myself getting lazy and wanted to challenge myself more. I also like the idea of carrying light for travel because I travel once a week (overnight) for business and it was a way to take my camera along without the bulk of the rest of my gear.

    I guess going back to the 50mm and forcing myself to use it more often hasn't been easy. Whilst the quality is good (particularly compared to a kit lens that most people would have), it's not the easiest lens to create pictures out of because you don't have the advantage of zoom when you need it. It has on the other hand forced me to think a little more about my photos which has been great. On the downside, the focus speed is nothing short of dismal compared to my other lenses.

    Anyway, personal circumstances aside, what are the general thoughts. Should the 50mm (or 35 on DX) be a mandatory purchase for first time photographers?
    Fuji XT-2, Fuji VPB-XT2, Fujinon 16-55 f/2.8, Fujinon 50-140 f/2.8, Fujinon 23 f/2, Fujinon 35 f2, Fujinon 90 f/2, Yongnuo YN560 IV, Yongnuo YN560 TX, Benro C3580T
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    Ausphotography Regular swifty's Avatar
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    In my opinion it's not really a mandatory purchase. But the f1.8 version is usually the cheapest entry into 'fast' lens that it makes a lot of financial sense for new photographers who are perhaps just dipping their toes into the hobby.
    The bang for buck factor is definitely there and learning with a fast lens can emphasize some photographic effects like shallow DOF that may otherwise be harder to induce with kit zooms. Of course we know that shallow DOF is quite easy to obtain even with a kit zoom but it is easier to visualise on a fast prime.

    Similar to your experience I think the 50-ish focal length is not a particularly easy focal length to work with. Because of the normal-ish perspective, things look.. well.. normal. It lacks the vista-like impact of wide-angles or the compression effect of tele's so the photographer has to work harder to create an interesting image. So in that sense I feel the 50-ish focal length is a more advance lens more suitable for post-beginners looking to improve the way they see. But then again, the financial decision comes back again so many beginners make it part of their early purchase but what I've notice anecdotally is the lens often gets forgotten but the interest re-ignites further down their photography path.
    I, myself went through the same thing.
    These days my 'normal' lens is practically glued to my DSLR. I even intentionally did a whole holiday bringing just the one prime lens and it was great.
    Nikon FX

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    Moderately Underexposed I @ M's Avatar
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    I agree with "forcing yourself" to work with a single lens, it can make you think about composition and prespective a lot more and the convenience of size and weight certainly works in your favour when doing non photographic travel. I have the little AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm F/1.8 and it really does punch above its weight for image quality and is small and unobtrusive. Mine seems permanently mounted to a D200 body and the combination can produce very good images in the right conditions. The "normal" focal length is as swifty pointed out so well, sort of uninspiring but therein lies the challenge to make an interesting image from a vanilla perspective.
    I would heartily reccomend the addition of that cheap, light lens to DX Nikon users to make them think more.
    On the FX bodies, 50 mm is an infrequently used focal length even though we do own a AF Nikkor 50mm F/1.8 D that delivers reasonable image quality, is cheap, focusses fast and once again is a very unobtrussive lens. I do prefer 35mm and then 70mm for a few reasons on the FX bodies but with the image quality available from the new AFS-S Nikkor F / 1.8 it would be a yes reccomendation from me for people to buy and use around the limitations that the lens has.

    Yes, focus speed or in these cases, the lack of speed are a hindrance for grab shots with the cheap 35 and 50 but patience is a virtue to be learned ----

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    I'm never too keen on "compulsory" things, like the suggested "first lens" rule here, though it certainly does no harm to suggest it and for many photographers starting out it might work very well. However, I'll take the topic as an invitation to discuss the merits of fixed focus lenses and voluntary lack of choice more broadly.

    I'm quite a fan of a single, fixed-length lens. Yes, yes, I know, me saying that is like Attila the Hun making a speech about the virtues of a quiet, peaceful life at home. I habitually walk around carrying two or even three camera bodies with different zoom lenses on them ready for instant use - typically a 24-105 and a 100-400. I like to have the ranges covered! Nevertheless, every now and then I go for a walk with just one body (nearly always the wonderful 1D IV) and one prime lens (typically the 35/1.4 or the 100/2.8 macro). (On APS-H these are equivalent to full-frame 42mm and 130mm, roughly, or about 28mm and 80mm on crop.)

    Working with just that single length focuses the mind wonderfully. You are no longer looking at everything, you just look at subjects which will suit your lens. Paradoxically, you feel a delightful sense of freedom - I'm not sure that I can explain it, you just do. You think a different way. Perhaps some kind soul will come along and point out why it is so. All I can say is that, by restricting the number of ways in which you can shoot a subject, you see more clearly the ways in which you should shoot it.

    (I can't put it any better than that, it's just the vibe of the thing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJuXIq7OazQ )

    Why 35m and 100mm and not 50mm? One very good reason: I have a nice 35mm lens and a nice 100mm lens. The only 50ish prime lens I own is the wonderful little 60mm Canon macro, which only works on crop bodies, where it acts like a 100, so it's seldom used these days. One day I'll stop procrastinating and buy a good normal length prime. Not that there is anything magic about normal length. People talk about it as if it's some kind of holy grail, but it isn't. If you are going to do the fixed length thing, do it with whichever lens you have to hand and feel like using. Very long lenses (say over 200mm on ff) and very wide lenses (say 20mm and less on ff) are a bit different; it's probably not reasonable to try working with those extreme lengths and no other option, but anywhere between (say) 24mm and 150mm (15mm and 100mm on crop) the lens should be very usable.

    My favourite length for one-lens prime use is just a little bit shorter than normal, just a little bit longer than moderately wide. This is why I have the 35/1.4 (which acts like a 42mm lens on the 1d IV). It's my second 35; I had a Tokina 35mm macro before that. A bit longer than normal is good too. One of these days I'll buy an 85/1.8.
    Tony

    Edit and critique at will. Tokina 10-17 fish, Canon 10-22, 24-105, 100-400, TS-E 24, 35/1.4, 60 macro, 100L macro, 500/4, Wimberley, MT-24EX, 580EX-II, 1D IV, 7D, 5D II, 50D.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MissionMan View Post
    ... Should the 50mm (or 35 on DX) be a mandatory purchase for first time photographers?
    No. It will spoil the photographic experience because it's not as practical as a zoom which can be adjusted to suit their every whim. It's harder to use a single prime and it's certainly very limiting too (you can only step forward or back so far). Although most phones only have a fixed focal length lens and this is most amateurs first camera!

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    I am with John. No a 50mm should not be the first lens and personally, I think a fixed lens of any length should not be the first lens.

    It is all well and good with the hindsight of knowledge and experience as a photographer to know what we like to shoot and what we want, but you are talking first lens here. Most people who buy their first DSLR (or mirrorless) do not even know exactly how aperture, shutter speed and ISO work. Yes they might have read up a bit and think they do, but until they start taking their own photos and experimenting and learning, they dont really understand the whole.

    I am going to go completely the other way and suggest the first lens should be a moderate zoom, or even one of the ubiquitous 18-200mm lenses. The FIRST lens is the one you learn photography with, you learn how to take decent photos, you learn about camera functions, you learn about genre and work out which ones you enjoy. To do that you need to be able to experience a range of lens lengths, cause with all things being the same, aperture, ISO and Shutter speed, once understood are fairly static. What gives you the chance for experiencing more, is being able to zoom in on the kids in the park, when they think you are not watching, or having a go at shooting that seagull in flight, or that wide angle beach sunset/sunrise. Your first lens should let you do all of those. Then, when you have that experience under your belt, you can buy that fixed lens in the focal length that suits the genre you want to shoot. Be it the 50mm, a 150mm macro, a nice 300mm f4 or more.

    So, in my opinion, your first lens should never be a 50mm (or equivalent).
    Last edited by ricktas; 30-05-2015 at 6:06am.
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    Agreed! If I was to purchase equipment again as a beginner, I would go with an 18-55 or 18-200 plus a 50mm. I learnt the hard way (or maybe I learnt quicker), by purchasing a Canon 450D body and a 100mm f2.8 macro lens as my first setup. I struggled for a while and regretted it sometimes, however I did eventually grow into it. Later on I purchased the 18-55 and 50mm and wondered why I didn't do this to start with.
    Canon shooter

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    I like my computer more than my camera farmmax's Avatar
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    As someone who's original SLR came with a fixed 50mm lens, and I didn't even know I could change it , my answer is definitely NOT to begin with a fixed lens. I think that held my photography back more than anything (plus the cost of getting developing done). It wasn't until just before digital camera's were at all affordable, I discovered I could buy a second hand zoom lens to use on the camera, and what a difference! Suddenly the world around me could be viewed differently, and one object could present an incredible variety of photos. For me, 50mm would be one of my more infrequently used focal lengths.

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    Ausphotography Regular Brian500au's Avatar
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    For me I think horses for courses.

    Now a days a 50mm lens is a specialised lens - no different than any other prime lens. The quality of the zoom lenses today in most cases will match all but the very best prime lenses.

    In my opinion I would say if you are starting out then buy yourself a zoom. Once you have bit of experience then buy yourself a prime lens for the purpose you NEED the prime lens. Ie if you particularly want a shallow DOF or you are light challenged then yes you may need a prime lens, but in most cases a zoom lens could suffice.

    In the modern era think of how many prime lenses are sitting at the bottom of camera bags and rarely see the light of day.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Brian500au View Post
    ...In the modern era think of how many prime lenses are sitting at the bottom of camera bags and rarely see the light of day.
    I have a few excellent zooms which sit unused at the bottom of my camera bag. I pretty much only ever use primes these days, mainly because they are faster lenses or because they may have a quality or look that I prefer. The old manual focus lenses, mainly primes, have had a new lease on life since digital, and especially mirror less cameras, so I doubt there are as many sitting in the bottom of bags as there were 5 or 10 years ago.

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    A royal pain in the bum! arthurking83's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by farmmax View Post
    ...... my answer is definitely NOT to begin with a fixed lens. I think that held my photography back more than anything.....
    While everyone will have a different perspective .. mine mimics yours.

    I originally started with a Miranda SLR(my dads), with it's 50. Being a Miranda, finding any alternative lens for it was nigh on impossible(easily).
    My (later) EM made this choice, of trying various other lenses, much easier to deal with(hello! .. Melbourne Trading Post )

    I found that to find what I really like to do(with photography) a zoom lens was much easier to learn with. Once that learning phase was pretty much over and done with, I had no problems with then setting out looking for more fixed focal length lenses that suited what I like.

    I still prefer zoom lenses over primes, but for the occasional challenge I like to stick with a prime lens just to keep myself from getting too lazy.
    Nikon D800E, D300, D70s
    {Nikon} -> 50/1.2 : 500/8(CPU'd) : 105/2.8VR Micro : 180/2.8ais : 105mm f/1.8ais : 24mm/2ais
    {Sigma}; ->10-20/4-5.6 : 50/1.4 : 12-24/4.5-5.6II : 150-600mm|S
    {Tamron}; -> 17-50/2.8 : 28-75/2.8 : 70-200/2.8 : 300/2.8 SP MF : 24-70/2.8VC


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    Ausphotography Regular Hawthy's Avatar
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    I bought a 50mm f1.8 lens after reading articles about "must have" lenses. It is manual focus, which probably deters me a bit. I use it for stuff that one shoots on tripods - still life, landscapes, etc. I actually still prefer the 18-55mm kit lens because it is easier to use with auto focus. Plus it makes framing a hell of a lot easier. My photography is improving but not to the extent where I think that anyone will notice the difference between the kit lens and the prime.

    I think that a lot of the love that people express for 50mm prime lenses is nostalgic. I learned photography (well, they tried to teach me photography) using a Pentax KX with a 50mm lens in a school art class in the 1970's. Maybe prime lenses remind people, who are of a certain vintage, of lost loves, French cigarettes, cheap wine, philosophic discussions and carefree days?
    Andrew




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