The Forgotten Lens: 50mm


When my fifteenth birthday came around, I wanted just one thing: a real camera. My father gave me his treasured Minolta 201 camera body, a handful of filters, and three lenses. The lenses were a 35mm wide-angle, a 50mm "standard" lens, and a 135mm telephoto. "But you're only going to need the 50mm," Dad said. Why? "Because it mimics the human eye. It makes your photos look natural." Of course, I immediately grabbed the 35mm wide-angle, ignoring him. I liked the wide-angle because I could take photos of people without having to back up, or bother composing the frame (walking around to set up a photo? Total bummer!). I shot a lot of expired Agfachrome (on mega-discount at the local camera shop) with that combination, and even picked up a 28mm wider-angle lens, which suffered from chromatic aberration around the edges.

About a year into my teenage camera adventure, I decided to try out the 50mm that had come so highly recommended. And guess what? Dad was right -- that lens made things look "real" in a way that I hadn't expected. It was far better for taking pictures of people, making their faces look natural. Also, the 50mm happened to be a faster lens, which finally allowed me to explore and begin to understand depth of field -- something I hadn't done with my wide-angle, which I kept locked at f/3.5 (the best it could do). I was shocked to look back at my older photos and see how my wide-angle lens (and the f/3.5 aperture) affected the look of the photos -- it was a distinctive look, but I was no longer sure it was a good one.

Photographer Gary Voth has posted a lovely article on the 50mm lens: The Forgotten Lens. Here's a sample:

The 50mm lens is called a "normal" or "standard" lens because the way it renders perspective closely matches that of the human eye. Consequently, images made with a 50mm lens have a natural and uncontrived look. This is the lens that likely would have come with your camera had you bought it 10-15 years ago. Before falling to its current level of disfavor, the 50mm lens had a long and distinguished pedigree. For many years the defining documentary instrument of the 20th century was the small format rangefinder camera (Leica, Contax, Nikon, Canon) with 50mm lens. Some of the world's best-known photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ralph Gibson made virtually their entire careers with this combination.

Check out the rest of the article for a primer on camera lenses, and why you might not want super-zoom or super-wide-angle.

Link via 43 Folders.