There isn’t a camera brand that doesn’t make a nifty fifty. There also almost isn’t a camera blog or advice resource that hasn’t recommended the nifty fifty. Thousands of photographers are led to believe that they absolutely must have this lens. I was one of them. Here is why I think that the nifty fifty is vastly overrated and why you probably don’t need one.
It all started with a younger me watching a ton of YouTube and saving pocket money. At that time, all I had was a film camera and a half-working 70-300mm lens. The low-light capabilities of such a setup left a lot to be desired. Having read and watched a lot about the nifty fifty, I decided that I want one desperately. Looking at as many reviews and comparisons as possible, while saving up approximately $70 to buy a used nifty fifty, took longer than I expected. But by the end, I could tell you exactly why a $70 lens is as good as a $1,000. It wasn’t, but I believed it was, and that was all that mattered.
How the Nifty Fifty Made Me Worse
I really thought that this nifty fifty would be the lens that took my photography to the next level. Just think of all the images I could capture at f/1.8, all the happy clients, and all the smiling faces.
The dream world came crashing down as soon as I put it on my camera. What seemed like an excellent lens began to look very boring. We will come back to that. Let’s see how I shot with the lens.
When you buy a new lens, especially one with a wide aperture, you become a worse photographer. If before you captured darker images that had more grain, now you capture less grain but half of the image is out of focus. I shot everything at f/1.8 in fear that as soon as I stopped down even half a stop, I will lose the magical qualities of the lens. Rather than having a positive effect on my work, it made me worse because more and more of my images became out of focus.
Made for portraits, the nifty fifty is a lens that makes it extra hard to nail focus on the eye. This is an important thing to consider, as you need to understand the depth of field and plane of focus before using wide apertures. Long story short, the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field is, and the harder it is to nail focus if the subject moves. This is particularly true for older cameras or cameras with limited focusing capabilities such as beginner DSLRs. Before you learn all the nitty-gritty of the plane of focus and depth of field, you would’ve captured a ton of sub-par work, which has made your images, on average, worse. If before you nailed focus, now, you are probably not.
Let me tell you how I shot every single image at 200mm f/2.8. When I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a 70-200mm lens, I immediately went for the obvious “get as shallow of a depth of field as humanly possible.” There were a series of jobs that were literally shot at f/2.8 only. I didn’t even understand the purpose of other apertures when f/2.8 was available. Why would anyone ever shoot at f/8, let alone f/13?
Well, how silly I was. Now, the tables have turned, and I get worried if I go f/4 instead of f/8. That is why I recommend photographers get used to working with a closed aperture. That way, you will get a subject that is fully in focus. The super-creamy background is an overused technique anyways.
Another reason to avoid the 50mm, especially if you’re a beginner, is that it really restricts the focal lengths you can use. As a beginner, it is more fun to get a rubbish super-zoom and get to know how the image changes depending on the focal length you shoot at. As someone who owns the holy trinity, I fully obey the principle of experimentation with focal length. Something that looks bad at 50mm may look awesome at 16mm or 200mm.
The 50mm is a focal length that essentially is like the human eye, which makes one think it is the most appealing one. Quite on the contrary: being a normal focal length, it takes out the technical “funk” from the image and puts the focus solely on the content of said picture. While beneficial for situations where there is a lot happening already, it is almost certain to highlight and blow out of proportion a boring setting. What this means for you as a photographer is that you need to really make sure that the setting is interesting, but sometimes, it isn’t. As someone who shot in boring or sub-par fashion, I tend to go extra weird with light, angle, or something else. This helps me put focus on the technical aspect of the photograph, as opposed to the design or fashion aspect. Nonetheless, I prefer taking the time to make the content interesting and then shooting it. There is no rush.
So, to sum up the story of me using the nifty fifty, I shot images that were pretty exclusively at f/1.8. Instead of focusing on education and creating messages with my images, I focused on getting the creamiest bokeh possible. Instead of experimenting with different focal lengths, I became fixated on shooting the “correct and accurate” 50mm.
The Obvious Pros, But Are They Worth It?
There are obvious pros to having a nifty fifty, as many reviews and articles would suggest. In order to be objective and paint a full picture of owning such a lens, here are some clear benefits of the nifty fifty.
The lens is perhaps as small as lenses get. If we don’t count the f/1.2 option, the nifty fifty is easily a no-brainer if space is of the essence. The lens is often praised for how discrete it can be. A few photographers have come out and said that their subjects feel less intimidated when they are shot by a nifty fifty, as opposed to a large zoom or a medium format camera. While this may be a valid reason for some shooters, it is by no means significant enough to change your spending habits. The comfort of your subject is determined by how you behave. You can’t expect the subject to immediately be comfortable around you just because you got out a small camera. If anything, a bigger lens can imply more “professionalism.”
This is a very valid one, also for me. As I shoot day-in, day-out, my wrists inevitably get tired, and I am only in my early 20s, with a largely healthy lifestyle. I started using the tripod on some occasions because it alleviates the stress from my hands. Although, inevitably, I do resort to handholding the camera as I find the process less restricting. While I won’t be buying a 50mm anytime soon, I did have the thought of revisiting the lens once or twice. It makes the setup much lighter, which will certainly enable more photographers to create the work they want.
If you are looking at the low-end 50mm lenses, you will see a lot of decent, inexpensive, options. As far as I know, the EF 50mm f/1.8 is the cheapest lens to buy new from Canon. It is almost aimed at beginners as something professional, yet inexpensive. It can very well be the only option for someone who does, let's say, party photography. While this does depend on your shooting style, I found the 50mm focal length to be quite boring in event photography. If I am doing work at 50mm, it is likely to fashion or beauty in the studio, at which point I am using a zoom lens at f/8, and I don’t need the f/1.8. For party and event photography something like a 35mm, or even a 24mm is more helpful.
As you can clearly see, the nifty fifty is not a versatile all-around lens that every beginner should own. Quite on the contrary: it is a niche product that is useful if used correctly. I would stay away from getting the 50mm f/1.8 if you are a beginner photographer because this lens will inhibit you from experimenting with focal length, as well as make your images slightly more boring as a result. The 50mm is also a lens that you need to start using after you developed an understanding of the depth of field, focusing distance, and other factors that affect the sharpness of the image. If, however, you enjoy the look, and you are confident that you can use the 50mm f/1.8 to its full potential, go for it, but only after you went through the rounds of using zooms, and not primes.
Refreshing to see an article that does not sing the praises of bokeh!
I think you'd be happy with µ4/3rds, Illya. You can still get bokeh out of it if you know what you're doing.
I don't understand why people feel the need to justify their decision to choose 4/3. It is kind of like cutting your legs off and then trying to justify why you are short. 4/3rds does not have a narrow DOF like FF.. Sorry that is the facts. Sure you can get close but you can do that with any camera or lens. The problem is if I get too close, I cannot compose the way I want. Or I don't like getting so close to my subject. But if you really knew what you were doing, you could buy a viltrox speed booster and a FF canon EF lens like the nifty fifty and walla, you have similar narrow DOF without getting close. The reason to get 4/3rds is because it is inexpensive, feature packed compared to other mirrorless, it is light weight with lighter weight lenses. I recently bought a dirt cheap used Oly m1ii just so I could try out the light painting feature live composite. I did not buy it for bokeh, and that's ok I don't need to justify my purchase to anyone.
A still in use 50mm of one version or another has been in my bag for a few decades, For a long time, most entry level cameras came with a 50, way before anyone called them "nifty" and "a must have." The nifty moniker is because they are mostly sharp and cheap.
"...thought that this nifty fifty would be the lens that took my photography to the next level."
It's not a "magic lens," it's just a lens.
Great article, Illya! I completely agree that there is far more to be learned from an 18-55mm kit zoom than from any single prime, 50mm f/1.8 included. There is something to be said for the ability to completely isolate your subject using aperture alone, but it can quickly become a crutch we use to avoid finding more purposeful compositions. By extension, your article begs the question as to why full frame is considered superior to APS-C, and to what degree? Most people would immediately state the difference in terms of aperture and equivalent depth of field. That said, and as you have eluded to in your article, it does take a degree of expertise to effectively utilize fast apertures, taking into account subject movement and the plane of focus. Clearly, the benefits of a larger sensor are real, and can make a difference in the quality of images. Is the difference as large as the internet would usually suggest? I would say no.
My take on FF debate is that the aps-c technically looks very much like FF but overall, there's just something better about it - its clarity and just seems more "alive". Or if you are going to do extensive cropping or large prints, 24x36 or larger. If you're just doing social media, aps-c is more than good enough. Few people need more than 24mp raw for the vast majority of the time.
Get a lens of a single focal length and go out into the world and make it work for you. That's how you learn. Challenge yourself. Plenty of successful photographers work for decades with only one lens. For instance photographers who shot with Rollieflex cameras which only have a fixed non removable lens. Yes I know about wide angle and tele Rollies but they were always extremely rare. Avedon owned most of them I think. Hasselblad users had maybe three single focal length lenses as did Leica users. Large format photographers also maybe had two or three lenses, maybe. I used one large format lens for decades and it was the 150mm which for 4x5 is the "boring" standard lens.
If you want to learn photography pick a focal length and use it. Any focal length. 24, 28, 35, 50, whatever. You have to learn how to see and eliminating the complication of zooming is a great place to start. Using a single focal length trains your brain to see in a specific frame and an entirely new world is revealed to you. You don't get the feeling that you're missing something because you only see in frame of that single focal length. Plus you get good at something when you are forced to adapt. Make it work. You aren't missing anything by not having 94.7mm on a zoom. Take a step forward or back or just find something else. How about this, if you find something wonderful out in nature just stand there and look at it. Enjoy it.
Also, good zoom lenses are a relatively new thing. No self respecting photographer used zoom lenses back in the day. For jobs now I only use zooms because they're fantastic for that but for learning, no zooming. Get a lens go out into the world and make it happen. For me it's a 35mm lens. Thanks for the article, I appreciate your views. I'm much older than you. I had a classical education. Cheers.
There is not just one best way to learn. Just as much can be learned by using a zoom lens and experimenting with many different focal lengths.
With a zoom, a new photographer can go around and shoot all kinds of different subjects and scenes at the same focal length.
And then that same photographer can also shoot one thing in one place with many different focal lengths, and from many different perspectives, using the full range of his/her zoom.
You don't learn more, or better, doing it one of those ways than you do by doing it the other of those ways. But you will learn the most by doing both ways with regularity.
Spot on, Steven.
What would I like to have? 35, 50, and 85 f1.2, a 105 f1.4, a 135 f1.8, and a 200 f2, 400 f2.8, and a 600 f4. What does my photo piggy bank let me have? Zooms that cover the above range. I own one prime. Budget wins the day.
Good point, David!
But it's not just budget that drives me towards zooms. It is handiness.
When I am shooting a deer, or BIghorn sheep, or a snake or a bird or turtle or whatever, I usually want to shoot a whole boatload of images of that subject at all different kinds of focal lengths, from many different angles and perspectives.
I mean, when a fashion photographer shoots a model wearing costumes for a one hour session, he comes away with hundreds of photos that look completely different from each other. It looks like several days worth of photos, not just the pics from a one hour session.
That is what I want to come away with when I shoot a wild animal - hundreds of photos that have a great range of aesthetic variety to them. Many different aesthetics of the same subject at the same place at the same time. A gazillion different looks - small in the frame, big in the frame, medium in the frame, from up super close, from a distance, from an even greater distance, frontlit, backlit, sidelit, with certain supporting elements int he background, with those supporting elements in the foreground, with thosee supporting elements on the same plane as the subject, now repeat with a whole different cast of supporting elements, etc., etc., etc.
It is almost impossible to do all of that with primes, because I would have to carry all of those different primes with me into the woods or up into the mountains, and then I would have to waste valuable seconds doing lens swaps when I could be shooting more frames during those seconds.
In short, I prefer zoom lenses because they allow me to be as creative as I want to be, and do not stifle my creativity and vision the way prime lenses do.
Can't argue the point, Tom! The places that I shoot wildlife offer shots that are just right at 150mm and some that are just right at 600mm. If I shot in places that were wide open, then the big primes really come into their own. But, I'm usually in woodlots that are anything but open.
I do like fast primes for portrait work and street photography. I just don't have the budget. Now....where's I put that lottery ticket? :-)
Well said, though the notion of about 50 resembling certain qualities of human sight is meant differently - the about film / sensor diagonal focal length (35 is almost as close to the true normal as 50, btw... - 35 is slightly wider than normal, 50 slightly longer and it actualy slightly "compresses" the perspective, while 35 slightly accentuates it)... so, the 43mm is thought to render perspective similarly to our sight - it renders the dimensional relationships (relative size etc.) of objects depending on their distance from the camera in a similar way as we see them. That depends on viewing distance of - say - the print, of course - but, well, the image diagonal is usualy considered ideal distance for viewing a picture - and therefore the focal length similar to sensor diagonal produces image similar to our viewing angle while admiring a print from distance similar to print's diagonal.
The old slide film frame trick used for determining optimal focal length works similarly. :)
(If you print a photograph shot at about 43mm and view it from the distance corresponding to the print diagonal in the original space where you took the photograph, the print would fit your view exactly.)
it mostly depends on how you shoot. I have a few primes but my most used are TS-E17mm and 50/1.8 STM. One is a go-to for architecture, second one is for anything else.
I have 24L, 35/1.8, 50L, 85/1.8, 85L and 100 macro and yet nifty fifty is one of my best business purchases ever. Great sharpness, decent boke, lightweight, dirt cheap and just fun to use.
You really don't need anything else for shooting people, food or things.
You don't understand apertures, therefore it's a terrible lens. Fascinating.
Hold on a second - that's what these other numbers on the ring mean!
The author may have forgotten the most important reason for owning a 50mm lens .. learning from ones mistakes what really works. It's one thing to read what not to do in an article, it's another to spend time trying to find the perfect setting for the perfect shot and learning by trial and error when to use that 1.8f and when not to.
I don't like to use zooms because I can't afford good ones and I'm never happy with the ones I have. But, through trial and error, I know when to pull out my 50mm. Or 100mm. Or 32mm. Or 28. Or 75. And even the zoom.
Taking bad pictures makes us better photographers by learning not only what not to do, but what happens when we do the wrong thing. That is a much better teacher than quickly reading an article and taking someone's word for it.
The author makes good points. Now go buy a 50mm and figure out how to use it.
I would have to agree. 50 is not a focal length that I use very often or rather much at all.
--- "As you can clearly see, the nifty fifty is not a versatile all-around lens that every beginner should own."
I'd have to disagree. For beginners, they'd need to build confidence and shoot more often. It's more versatile than just a wide angle or tele prime. For indoors, that f1.8 and mid focal length will come in handy.
With today's mirrorless, unless there's something defective with your gear, nailing focus at f1.8 is a non-issue. I think you are attributing your negative experience based on your DSLRs.
--- "I would stay away from getting the 50mm f/1.8 if you are a beginner photographer because this lens will inhibit you from experimenting with focal length,"
That is true with any prime. Except they usually cost more and could be more limiting.
When I first started, I shot with an aps-c and 35mm (equiv 52.5mm) f1.8 was my first prime. Easily one of my most favorite to shoot with compared to my kits 18-55, 55-200.
One if the issues with budget 50mm lenses, is that in the past DSLR days, it was common for them to be paired with entry level DSLR. A budget lens has looser tolerances, entry level DSLRs also have looser tolerances. The end result is it was not uncommon for someone starting out with lower cost gear to experience a camera and lens combo that consistently front or back focused.
To make things worse, the major camera companies thought it would be okay to remove the AF calibration options from within the camera's GUI, thus leading to people getting frustrated and giving up, or replacing both sets of gear with higher end stuff, and being permanently soured on the entry level 50mm.
For APS-C beyond a few basic kit lenses, I ended up getting a 35mm f/1.8 and it took 3 replacements before getting a sample that didn't consistently back or front focus. I later ended up getting a lens that would allow me to use a lens dock to calibrate the focus, and noticed great improvements in quality.
You can always put a piece of duct tape on your kit zoom to hold in in the 50mm position.
Not at f/1.8 or even f2.8.
Unless you own the Tamron 35-150 f2/2.8. ;-)
Beginners should tape the zoom ring on 50mm, aperture to F/8, ISO to 400, and shutter speed on bulb. It's the only and best way to learn. You get shutter and focus. That's it. Also, use a 256MB memory card so you learn to conserve space.
People learn best when they have a wide variety of choices to pick from. People do NOT learn best when their choices are limited. Being "forced" to do something a certain way is NOT conducive to learning, no matter what you and others may think.
Shoot with the lens you have and work it to your advantage! 50! 16! 70-200!
The nifty 50mm 1.8 is like a white Honda Accord.
I don't think anyone regrets getting a white Accord or a nifty 50.
They are both very popular but few people look thru the viewfinder and say"Wow!" when using a 50mm compared to a fisheye or 400mm
My first "real" camera was a Canonet GIII with a 40mm, a length that felt neither long nor wide enough.. but I got used to it over the years and still love that camera. But, when I was handed down an SLR with a 50mm 1.8, I immediately appreciated the extra reach for shots of people. I really prefer 35mm as a general purpose lens.. 50mm always feels too tight for general use but excellent for portraits and candids.
I love my 50mm 1.4 even though it got drawbacks, it's one of my go-to lenses for weddings.
I also find 50mm 1.8 to a fabulous starting lens for what you actually pay for this, huge value performance ratio.
What a load of BS in one article, I don't even know where to start taking this apart.
1) A piece of gear doesn't make you a good or bad photographer and same goes for a certain style of shooting (e.g. bokeh look). Just because you learned you can shoot at higher aperture values and it makes your pictures generally sharper, doesn't mean your pictures are necessarily "better". The thing that makes your photos good is behind the camera, it's called experience. No lens changes your experience, no lens and no camera makes you better or worse.
2) Every beginner in photography (including me ~15 years ago) buys a camera literally for that one thing: Analog bokeh. If they wanted sharpness from front to back, they would stay with their phones. What's your point again why a beginner shouldn't have the tool to get that bokeh? How exactly would it make them a better photographer? That's like saying a piano beginner shouldn't use the black buttons. A prime lens is just another tool you definitely should have in your toolbox rather than not.
3) Also how can a $100 lens be "overrated"? It's literally the cheapest lens you can get, it's a perfect portrait focal length on APS-C. If anything, these lenses are underrated for the sheer amount of creative control they offer you at a very cheap price. They can deliver a blurry picture, they can be tack sharp, they're literally the most versatile prime lens around and can be used for food photography as well as full body portraits or even street photography.
4) On one hand you say the 50mm keeps beginners from experimenting with focal length. But what about experimenting with aperture? A kit lens doesn't give you much of that opportunity. Why should one or the other be ignored? I don't get the logic here.
How can a lens be boring? There are only boring photographers and boring subjects.
I don't think anyone's seriously touted the 50/1.8 as 'versatile', but when you're starting out, usually on a cheap APS-C camera, a 50/1.8 is a fast cheap portrait lens, and the best bang for your buck you can get anywhere.
I still use an EF50/1.8II, which I bought in 2013, on my R6, and I still like it. I don't use it everyday, but it has its uses, and the only thing I'd swap it for is something faster.
This piece reads like a rant.
Seems like someone wanted to try and stir the pot with a controversial article. It is just a lens. It exists so people can get narrow DOF on the cheap and it is pretty sharp at F2 or 2.8 and in the past you had to spend a lot of money to get a sharp 2.8 zoom. The down side to the nifty fifty is manual sneaker zoom. I think you learn more about focal length, FOV and shooting distance with a nifty fifty than you do with a zoom. The nifty fifty is not over rated, it is just inexpensive which makes it easy to buy and easy to suggest. If you can afford a 24-70mm F 1.8 buy one.. Oh wait, they don't make those.