Nifty Fifty: The Benefits of a Fixed 50 mm Lens

<!– Bubble Chamber exibited at CERN from below. –>

It has been often said, that one way to improve your photography is to restrict yourself gear-wise and to overcome this limitation creatively. A very popular example of restricting yourself to improve is to stick to one particular lens, in particular to a fixed focus length. A good choice, in particular on a full frame camera is to use a 50 mm fixed focus length lens. A nifty fifty has several advantages:

  • There are inexpensive fast F/1.8 versions of this lens available for both Nikon and Canon (and probably also for other brands).
  • On a full frame camera the field of view is like that of the naked eye. This allows you see through the view finder with one eye and keep the other eye open to had have a similar view which is neither enlarged, as with a telephoto lens, nor decrease, as with a wide-angle lens.
  • Of course the sharpness of these lenses are superb and unbeatable for the price.
  • Being fast lenses, it is an excellent way to practice shallow depth of field.

A nice intro on more benefits can be found on the Phototuts+ blog: A first article (Nifty Fifty: The Benefits of a Fixed 50mm Lens | Phototuts+) explains the benefits of a 50 mm lens, whereas a second article (80 Awe-Inspiring Photographs Taken With a “Nifty Fifty”) has a beautiful gallery of examples of using the nifty fifty. – “This lens is soft” and other myths

The blog — actually it more a newsletter — at LensRentals has a beautiful entry (“This lens is soft” and other myths), which debunks the myth often found on photography forums that people have to go through numerous copies before they find the perfect lens. So why is there so much complaining on soft/or front-focusing lenses? The key to the puzzle is the definition of ‘fine’. Most people assume that ‘fine’ means ‘perfectly calibrated’. In reality cameras are like any other manufactured item, calibration is within a given tolerance range. This leads to people choosing lenses and bodies which match in the same direction of production tolerance:The bad thing is many, many people who did this then hopped on their online camera forum and made blanket statements like “I had to try 3 copies before I found one that was calibrated right”. In reality what they should have said was “I had to try 3 copies before I found one that was calibrated right FOR MY CAMERA”. Those other two copies might well have been fine on someone else’s camera.

The solution to the problem is not to switch copies of lenses, but to use the “lens microcallibration” feature. Unfortunately, this feature of course only exists on more professional type bodies. I have it on my Canon 5D Mark II, but not on my Canon 400D.

Still it allows to understand — from someone with access to a lot of lenses — to explain the discrepancy between the number of complaints and the observation from a rental company finding only a few % of bad lenses.