The elusive "normal" and the myth of the 50mm lens
A "normal" lens these days is a cheap consumer zoom, ordinarily bundled with a DSLR or mirrorless digital camera. Modern computer-aided design, advanced manufacturing techniques, and highly perfected quality-control strategies have made many of these lenses into minor triumphs of human enterprise, akin to an economy car that doesn't need an oil change for a hundred thousand miles. The fact that they can be "good enough" optically while being so cheap to manufacture and also versatile enough to market easily is a "hat trick" that, within its small sphere, is mighty impressive.
Many such lenses are surprisingly good under a certain percentage of shooting conditions, too. Of course, however good they might be at ƒ/8, on a tripod or on a day with plenty of light, focused sufficiently close to infinity to be optimal, still, few exceed what might be termed a "B+" grade overall. Spend more money, and you can do better. Most people never do. The mere act of purchasing a better lens as a better lens immediately puts you into a minority.
Pursuing the absolute best puts any photographer into a very small minority. For most people it's a matter of chasing diminishing returns at escalating cost.
Thirty years ago, a slow 50mm lens ("slow" meaning within shouting distance of ƒ/2) was "normal," in that it was included with many SLR purchases and was considered to be the most basic lens. Photographers could upgrade to a faster 50mm and/or one with close-focusing capabilities (the so-called macro, which often wasn't; a macro-focusing lens is one which can reach and exceed 1:1 in magnification). Buyers often had fun building up lens "arsenals," "covering" a variety of focal lengths. Emblematic of the centrality of the 50mm in those days, and oft cited, was the fact that Henri Cartier-Bresson used nothing but. (Not strictly true, but close enough. Erich Hartmann, a past President of the Magnum Photos cooperative, showed me Cartier-Bresson's proof books, shelved in rows, and said that although his good friend Henri carried both a 35mm and an 85mm as well as his 50mm, you could go through whole notebooks of his contacts without encountering a single frame not taken with the 50mm.) Now, of course, there are legions of enthusiastic photographers who have never used a 50mm at all. It's more fashionable now to denigrate than it is to praise the 50mm. It's a bit of a throwback.
Still, it remains an interesting focal length. It's just a bit too long on 35mm. The standard is that a "normal" angle of view for any format is the measure of its diagonal, which for 35mm is approximately 42mm. (Making a 28mm on APS-C more normal than normal.) It is often stated that 50mm became the standard because Oskar Barnack chose it arbitrarily for the first Leica. Not true; the "Ur-Leica" had a lens much closer to 40mm, a true normal for the format—according to Malcolm Taylor, the English camera repairman who got to take the Ur-Leica apart once to clean it. (The Ur-Leica—the earliest Leica prototype, hand-made by Oskar Barnack—owned by Leica Camera AG, is literally priceless, but, given the number of fanatical Leica collectors in the world, is surely one of the most valuable cameras extant.)
The slightly long 50mm has two salient visual properties in my opinion (to give credit where credit is due, I heard both ideas articulated first by John Kennerdell, a writer/photographer of travel guides for Asia). First, it has a certain "chameleon" property. That is, it can be made to mimic a slightly telephoto "look" and also a slightly wide-angle look, depending on how the photographer "sees" in any certain situation. Assuming you've learned how to mentally organize pictures as wide-angle compositions and as short-tele compositions, this chameleon property can be endlessly intriguing. Second—and this is impossible to prove—it may be true that, with a 50mm, you get a lower percentage of "acceptable" compositions but a higher percentage of true "hits"—pictures that are really outstanding—than you do when you're using "easier" focal lengths. This is John Kennerdell's thought, anyway, and I've come to agree with the notion, although of course I am—and, I would imagine, John is, too—short of the kind of data that would overcome skepticism.
From a lens-connoisseurship standpoint, there is one truism about 50mm lenses that I think is, in a very subtle way, a myth: and that is that they're almost all of very high quality optically. "Even cheap 50's are great," you'll read on the 'Net. Or words to that effect.
Well—acknowledging that I'm looking at this from a fiercely uncompromising, true-believer optical nitpicker standpoint—I don't agree. It may be that there are a lot more examples of A-minus lenses among 50s than other types, and it may also be that the average is very high, and that the worst ones don't fall below a high C. But overall, I am more likely to be happy with a 35mm or an 85mm design than I am to be truly happy with a 50. A-minus and B-plus 50s are common, but A-plus 50s are rare indeed. There are just not all that many lenses of this focal length that meet my standards. The list of the very best is a very short list.
Originally published February 18th, 2007.
John Kennerdell commented in 2007: "There's an interesting quote in the Photographers at Work book on Bill Allard [I think John meant William Albert Allard: The Photographic Essay in the American Photographer Master Series —Ed.] He's talking about how he's starting to use the 50mm more (his usual lens is a 35mm) and he says something to the effect that with a 50 'you don't need to shoot tighter, but you do need to see tighter.' I think that's the essence of it. Mike, you may remember that at about the same time we talked about 50s (the early '90s?), both you and I had independently come up with the idea of using a 50mm or similar fast prime in conjunction with a normal zoom as a good, all-around lightweight lens kit. Just to let you know—except when there's a specific need for something else, that's been my standard travel kit ever since. I find it just about perfect."
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
No featured comments yet—please check back soon!