Keep Moving Forward… 08.09.10

Do I need, in my kit, a Nifty Fifty?

I never understood the hype around the “Nifty Fifty.” On a full frame (35mm) camera it used to be one of the ‘must have’ prime lenses in your kit. This was back in the day when Zoom Lenses just could not match the image quality of a Prime.

Other ‘must have,’ Prime lenses were 28mm wide angle, 85mm or 135mm medium telephoto, and 200mm or 300mm telephoto. Either end of this spectrum were considered specialized use lenses.

Be that as it may, the 50mm Lens was the all rounder, for street, portrait and social/family shooting, shooting still lifes, etc. Its angle of view is ingrained in our photographic psyche.

However, in this day and age, for the vast majority of shooters (non-professional) the image quality of Zoom lenses is very good. Its when you start getting into situations where you need fast glass for low light applications, or exceptional image quality that the argument for Prime Lenses still renders valid.

To add to this debate, not all comparisons are equal when you change to a different film format. As such “every photographer” doesn’t need a 50mm lens in their kit because it depends on what format the shoot with. Here are the equivalent lenses giving approx. the same field of view based on film-format/sensor-size:.
Medium-format? 85mm;
35mm-format? 50mm;
APS-C format? 35mm.

So when we rave about the “Nifty Fifty,” its bang for its buck and why every photographer needs on in their kit, I have to ask, “Why?”

In portraiture, the 50mm lens has long been abandoned as a recommended goto lens, heck even the 85mm lens has been pushed aside somewhat, due to the compression that longer lenses offer. In this day and age, a 50mm lens is too wide and unflattering to the Sitter. Even though the depth of field and bokeh might be stellar. Even in Photography, there are fashion trends and fads.

As an APS-C format shooter, a 50mm fast prime lens gives me the equivalent of an 85mm lens. I already have a fast, 35mm Prime (Canon) [btw if you haven’t yet got one in your kit, get this] which is the 35mm-format equivalent of a 50mm lens. So, why would I need a fast 85mm prime lens in my kit? What would I use it for? For candid street portraits I prefer a long-ish telephoto.

For studio work with product and still life, fast is not necessary, nor in many cases is shallow depth of field. In the past it only came in handy, for me, with a small portrait studio, and hinged on how far you could move your subject away from the background and still backup to be able to provide a flattering focus on my sitter.

To me, using a fixed prime in a photo studio was a bit like doing math. Length vs width of studio stage, distance from background to subject, distance of subject to camera, working space behind camera, light intensity on subject, on background, blowback etc. Once you have that all dialed in, a few pieces of labeled tape on the floor and a static camera with fixed prime lens and dedicated studio stand can be moved in and out as need be, but: what a waste, locking up money in essentially a single use system. I don’t know anyone who shoots that way anymore.

The small home-base portrait studio, with equipment setup in place in a dedicated room with nothing to move is a lifestyle statement, I know, I used to have my own in a 5x7m ground floor room in Hanoi, but the demands of responding to change on a daily basis for flexibility and versatility means that the, “look at all my fancy gear” in-home studio statement, is nothing more than a self-flagellating, experiment in social preening.

Given the opportunity, would I still set up such a studio? Sure! As a personal, Photography equipment collection and Museum, functional and working, but quaint and wastefully irrelevant, except to possibly a few fellow enthusiasts. Or a minimalist, with lots of storage and a clean, versatile studio stage that can be rapidly tasked to different uses and looks. I can’t can’t decide, not right now anyway.

So, do I need, in my kit, a Nifty Fifty lens? Perhaps we should be saying, “every photographer ought to have a format equivalent 50mm lens in their kit,” but I don’t that such argument is valid any more.

Versatility, flexibility, and rapid responsiveness is the order of, this day and age, which means high quality, well made, zoom lenses are in. Primes still have their place, but they are not a must have item in every photographers kit?

For today, that’s what’s in my
Line of Sight.

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