Way back when I got my first SLR my dad told me I should get a 50mm lens and that despite it being a fixed prime lens it had some beneficial advantages over my regular 17-85mm variable lens. Born in the age of these amazing variable lenses I bought the 50mm and kept it pretty much as a quirky souvenir on my shelf never giving it the proper time and place as it made no sense to ever use it. Until now.
Over the last month I have virtually glued it to my camera since I came across a need to produce a lower depth of field image and realised my regular variable lenses were clearly not up to the job. The project I had in mind was simply a bit of fun to create more dream-like images in an upcoming photo-shoot. What I arrived at was a whole different direction and the result is now to create a new project starting with writing a light primer on what a 50mm can actually do, why it is now my favourite lens of all time and what results I can achieve with it in various photographic scenarios.
Limitations are still limitless limits!
50mm, the cheapest lens you can actually buy is in fact one of the most powerful you could ever own even though initially you may not believe this if you have only ever looked through a variable lens. When you first look through a 50mm you will notice what feels like a negative in its ability. “Dam everything is too close”! Well thats probably because your sitting down and only looking around you indoors (i’m guessing) whilst “Crying out to zoom out”. Do not panic your anxiety will soon fade when you get up and turn your feet into your new zoom. Don’t be nervous its like taking your first steps and you won’t be crawling long. Right, now we have your zoom limitations beaten lets get down to the next revelation, Clarity. You may not see it at first but a fixed focal length lens does seem to have more clarity. This is due to less of the moving parts found in variable zooms and less lenses within the unit. The quality of image is also improved by the fact the 50mm is lighter than any other lens so camera shake drops in my opinion quite dramatically too.
The other great thing about the little 50mm is the power of Aperture, with a fixed lens you have a wider aperture of f1.8 and you can now rid yourself of higher ISO and throw in some faster shutter speed which means a better shot in the noise department plus it will also give you a better “Bokeh” which can if used effectively bring you an amazing dreamlike image.
No i am not speaking Japanese, or am I?
Bokeh is (according to wikipedia) “the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens”. Bokeh has been defined as “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light.” And with a 50mm you get lots of Bokeh! The lens is not macro but you can get a lot closer and the blur can make an object feel smaller like a normal car looking like a toy car. Portraits can become stronger and more emotive ranging from romantic to haunting with the reduction of Depth of Field and f1.8 can make it almost as thin as Rizla. If you happen to have someone with eyes in their head near by take a shot at f1.8 getting only the eyes in focus. You will be blown away as the rest of the face softens away beautifully.
But surely no zoom will rob me of a good shot?
This is simply not the case. Your composition will improve with a fixed lens and it will also make you a better photographer. “A better photographer! How?” you ask? Having a fixed focal length means you have to really take your time in composing an image. You will after some practice find yourself really taking away all that is not important in the image. Think of it as cropping on the go if you must but do not mistake it with digital cropping it is far from the same thing when you apply it. For example many of us photographers will invariable zoom out a little when taking a photo with the idea of cropping later on in Photoshop which to most of us is simply a way of taking a safer shot should the image need framing in a specific dimension. The kind of cropping I am referring to with a fixed lens is the actual consideration for the subject and its space in time. You will start to get the idea when you realise you are looking for the perfect shape in respects to subject(s) and background. Once you get the feel for that you will almost if not completely forget zoom ever existed and really begin to engage with your subject. Over all taking shots with a fixed lens will simply improve your skill to compose your perfect image. Trust me.
Lastly on the so called limitations of fixed lenses I’d also mention that once you use it for a whole session without changing you will find quickly that “Zooming-with-your-feet” will teach you new angles and help you see compositions you may have never considered prior. To be honest I think the best thing about this lens is that it taught me to be a more engaging photographer and I think its lessons are worth others experiencing for themselves.
The 50mm Project.
Ok so with all that primer cleared up I recently took only the 50mm out with me to a market place one very early Sunday morning to vanish into the crowd and catch the ambience in black and white. I will be doing several updates demonstrating the various styles and scenarios I will use this lens for. So far there are two more updates planned but I intend to post more as we go along. Starting here with Part 1: Street photography, followed soon by a portraiture update and after that in part 3 we will be doing still life. The result will be a blog series focussing on what I can accomplish with Bokeh through the 50mm lens.
PART 1: Street Photography
The Marketplace. Fast paced and ever changing as smiling traders set up and drink their hot coffees in the cold morning, lots of shouting lots of laughter as people arrive to haggle and barter.
Patterns of products lined or stacked as many a character passes them by. You have to be really on your feet to get that good shot and sometimes that really good shot finds you as someone smiles and poses against the background of the masses.
Here one can move about to zoom as much as they wish as the traffic of buyers carry you along the aisles of stalls.
My camera settings for the shoot were mainly ISO 400 Aperture priority f1.8 Camera Raw monochrome. I tried to get near and far shots to get an idea of what Bokeh I could create and found myself really enjoying the possibilities.
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