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Wednesday, 10 June 2015


I have a few at the moment, I have Rokkor 50mm f1.2 and f1.4, Zuiko f1.4 and f1.8, FD f1.4, a f2.8 macro Sigma in Rokkor fit and a Sony 55mm f1.8. The Sony is fantastic but the old lenses each have their charms.

I also have a Panasonic 20mm f1.8 and an Olympus 25mm f1.8 which I use on my MFT cameras.

I could probably live with anything between 28 and 85mm with 28 and maybe also 35mm being a bit wide and 85mm being a bit long so all in all 50mm seems about right for me.

On 24x36, the look of the 50mm is not lensy*, and can be made to show both deep or shallow depth of field, as Mike has already noted.
Personally, for documentary use, I usually want to see more of the surrounding environment than a 50mm shows.
As for the "normal lens" idea, that is subject to many interpretations.
There was a big article in Pop or Modern Photo**, in the mid-1970's or early 1980's, where they asked a bunch of editors and photo writers to state and explain why a given focal length was "normal". As I recall, coherent arguments were made for everything from a full-frame fisheye, to a 500mm telephoto lens as being normal.
*Neither showing the visual traits of wide angle or long focal length lenses
**If anyone has that old issue, or can direct me to a source or index to locate a copy, I think it'd make amusing reading, even today.

Mike, have you played with the Sigma Art, Zeiss Otus?

Mike, how would I improve my photography to the point that I really need that kind of lens - or even, does it matter? When does it become more of an obsession (a seduction?) than a tool?
Right now, I use an old Leica Macro Elmarit-R 60 mm f/2.8 as a general lens on my Canon 6D (amazing colors), a Canon 35mm f/2 with image stabilization (love it for low light handheld, sharp edge to edge) and two super old 135mm lenses for people (Carl Zeiss Jena MC) and plants (Olympus f/3.5). As for a 50mm proper, I have a Contax Planar 50mm f/1.7 which is ridiculously sharp, ultra constrasty, and very broken :-)

I am desperately trying not to buy anything. I am sure my photography can still improve a lot. But I am curious about THE MASTERS.

The problem with using a 50mm lens isn't the lens focal length, but that the viewfinders almost always crop some of the image.

If I had to express the use of my lenses in stats, I'd say it'd be 65% with my 50mm-f/1.4, 25% with the 28mm and 10% with my 135mm-f/2.8 little bazooka. (These are all Zuiko OM lenses; my m4/3 lens are nothing to write home about.)
It's all a matter of naturalness: perspective just seems more 'right' with the 50mm. Agreed, 50mm is a bit too long for truly 'normal' - although there's still some debate on which is the real 'normal' focal length, it is broadly accepted to be 43mm -, but it is versatile: I can shoot street scenes as well as portraits, or landscapes.
Curiously, despite being the fastest, my OM 50mm-f/1.4 is the least sharp of the three: sharpness is OK, but the 28mm-f/3.5 is simply jaw-dropping in this department. However, due to its depiction of perspective and lack of distortion, the 'standard' 50mm is my favourite lens: sometimes the sense of depth of the 28mm is a bit too much, and I don't always appreciate the way the background collapses to the fore when I shoot with the longer lens.
There are further benefits to be had out of using a 50mm lens: I don't have to get too close to people when I do street photography and - I know I'll never be accepted among the photographic freemasonry for saying this - I get nice out of focus areas, a. k. a. 'bokeh.' (The reverse is that sometimes it is difficult to keep all planes in focus: if I stop down I only get a harder 'bokeh'. This is about the only shortcoming of using a fast standard lens.)
So I am part of a dwindling number of fanatics who cling to prime lenses of the classic focal lengths, and belong to the even more restrict group of people who do most of their photography with a 50mm fast lens. By today's standards (no pun intended) I'm a bigoted, narrow-minded old fart who lives in the past. It's OK. I can handle it. It's far better than using a 18-55-f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens.

I've long admired the 50mm focal length. Given that it is slightly out of favor right now there are no fixed-lens 50mm cameras (several 35mm cameras, a few 28mm cameras, and Sigma has their stable of cameras), but I sure hope we do someday soon!

In my use, 28mm and 50mm make a great pair - they are both "story-telling" lenses. One can get a subject in view, but with a lot of background context, while the 50mm focal length is tighter, but with lots of details.

I was on a commercial assignment yesterday, photographing an event 80 miles from home. When I got there, I realised I'd left my 24-105 behind (don't ask - the joys of having too much work!). I put a 24 1.4 on my 1d MKIV which is 32mm equivalent. Results - FAR better than faffing around with a zoom. Uniform perspective on all the images, no vignetting and no distortion plus nice colour rendering.

"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."

I haven't seen it expressed that way, but what I have read somewhere on the internet (aka source of all information, both true and false) is that it is easier to design and build a good 50mm lens than lenses of other focal lengths.

Is this in any way true?

"Spend more money, and you can do better. Most people never do. "
I assume you are talking about the non-professional, amateur here. I think there are two big reasons why they never get more than a B* lens. First, is for many, the kit lens is adequate. For their choice of images, high resolution and extended gray scale are not a priority. Some may not even recognize the benefits of a better lens. The second reason is economics. Most better lenses cost around $1000 and usually more. And not only Zeiss. Many who would like better simply can't afford it. As you point out, 'kit' level lenses are much better than they were back when we were young. And food on the table has the higher priority.

Of course true 50mm lenses re enjoying a mini revival as the portrait 75/80 equiv. A less complicated equasion for the newbie. In the shop I work, we sell the new age "3 lens kit" and educate to support this. Canons kit goes well, but the Nikon using the 35 as a 50 is not as popular (less Bokeh maybe-another newbie trap).

"Even cheap 50's are great"

I think I recall hearing that, given the flange distance of SLRs, the 50 was the shortest lens that did not need retro-focal elements. That made cheap 50s as good as or better than many of the more expensive wider lenses, with their retro-focal burdens. Any truth to that?

I've probably always owned a 50 (when shooting film) but never really embraced it. Until around 2004 when I was anxiously awaiting the recently announced Konica Minolta 7D and decided to pick up a 50mm lens to use as a portrait prime. Turns out I never got along with 50mm on APS-C (too short or too long for just about everything) but had a blast with it shooting 35mm until the DSLR finally arrived.

I recently upgraded my NEX-5 to an A6000 and plan to get a 'normal' for it very soon. The 35/1.8 is sensible for its image stabilization; the Sigma 30/2.8 for its price (and performance) and the Touit 32/1.8 an outlier (at current prices, not so much an outlier). In preparation for this decision, I scoured through my Lightroom catalog (very easy to sort by lens, BTW). I used a Minolta 28/2 on my Sony A700 (and KM 7D before that). And I use a Nikkor 35/1.8 on my D7000 now. The difference (to my eyes, at least) is profound. The 28 clearly works for me; the 35 not so much. The 35 seems constrained, much more on the "very slightly tele" side of normal than having any chameleon properties (though with a 1.54X crop, it is more like a 55 than a 50). The photos taken with the 28 "breathe". I love the natural look that FOV offers. More importantly, I'm far more successful with it at taking "great" (relative to my own collection !) photos with it. I have more favorite photos taken with that lens than any other.
I also own a HiMatic with a 40/1.7 and loved that lens (now we're getting into another of your classic posts - "Why 40mm".

In any event, the new Sony FE 28/2 looks like the slam dunk choice for my A6000.

And in reply to the inevitable "just zoom with your feet", that's just not a viable option. Perspective is everything.

- Dennis

From what I remember back in the day, the perspective that a 50mm gives you comes close to the field of view of the central portion of the eye. You can see this by leaving your left eye (for right handed people) open and matching the view through the viewfinder on, say, an Olympus OM-1 for stereoscopic viewing: you see the viewfinder on your right eye. Focusing is harder.

On the other hand, 18mm represents, largely, the standard view that you have with peripheral vision, i.e. what you can normally see. Of course, given the fact that your eye is not a flat plane, you don't see any distortion, but that's what I remember...

Excellent little article. If you're looking for a true normal lens then the SMC Pentax-FA 43mm f1.9 Limited lens comes to mind. Designed to be "as good as a Leica lens" by Pentax lens designer who took up the challenge.



I use an ancient 50 on my crop sensor camera, because I love it so. It's heavy, well made, it's sharp as a knife.

After using it for a few years for those reasons it feels right in terms of length as well. I'm used to it. The 35 I also own feels too loose. The 60 is very very snug, to snug, often. But I love the way the 50 looks.

"Making a 28mm on APS-C more normal than normal."

[The sound of two hands clapping vigorously.]

The notion of a "nifty fifty" comes up now and again. I am old enough that my first real camera I bought with my own money came with a 50mm. I won't say I hated it, but I really saved up my pennies for first a n 80-200 zoom and shortly after a 24mm. I have never really been a fan of the 50mm focal length.
Or so I thought. I recently checked my most used focal length in my lightroom catalogue over the last 15 years, and my most used, by a nose, is 57mm ((yes I have had both 35-70 2.8 and 24-85 3.5 as my carry around lenses...) My second most common is 35mm followed by 90mm. This is a bit misleading though, because before a couple of years ago, I was shooting crop sensor, so 35 is close to 50mm equivalent.
If I search by year, I really go in phases, sometimes shooting lots of telephoto (300mm or 90mm) sometimes lots of wide (20mm or 24mm) . but the 50mm focal length is always there playing tortoise and eventually becoming well used.
I guess I need to look at getting a "real" 50mm one of these days...

"you could go through whole notebooks of his contacts without encountering a single frame not taken with the 50mm"

From you who writes so lucidly...usually.

I usually shoot zooms, but when I shoot street and urban subjects I usually use a mirrorless digital camera with the equivalent of the 50mm prime. Partly I just "see" this way — perhaps the residual effect of starting that way many decades ago. But partly it is a component of my style. I'm less fond of the loose framing of 35mm equivalents with the consequent need to take in too much stuff or get uncomfortably close to subjects that I want to allow to be in their own space. And I like to tightly frame things, which is often more easily done with the 50-ish lens.

IN the end, though, it is entirely a matter of personal preference and style — and not a matter of good or bad, right or wrong.

50mm is a focal length I keep coming back to, in spite of imposing a strict sabbatical from using it from time to time.

I still have not been able to put my finger on the exact reason. The possible reasons in the article will get my grey cell kicking.

I have a large collection of 50mm, that I use on a regular basis for B&W photography. My personal favourite would be: Leica Summicron 50 Rigid, Canon LTM 50mm F1.5, Summilux 50 ASPH and the Schneider 50mm on the Retina IIIC.

I had heard (or read) long ago that the 50mm is called a "normal lens" because looking through your viewfinder on your camera gave you a 1x view of the world, no magnification or reduction of your normal vision. You could shoot with both eyes open with one eye looking through the lens, the other eye searching for suitable photographic targets.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

For a whole slew of reasons, too tedious to mention, I am about to offload most of my lenses. One of the three I will be left with is the essential 50mm f1.8 AFS Nikkor - essential because it's very small, very light and very, very sharp even at 1.8; because I will still have one "fast" lens; because with a front or rear attachment it is a passable close-up lens; because it neatly fills the gap between the other two lenses; and because - though I don't use it all that much - when it's the right lens, nothing else will do.

This falls somewhere into the old category of "shoot the subject, not the lens", I heard from an old Nat Geo photographer a long time ago.

I've always been fascinated with the "one camera, one lens" thing, and that's why I think the small twin lens cameras like the Rollei, Yashica, or Autocord (your favorite here), really fits the bill. Near normal lens. I've said on many occasions, if no one was asking me to take pictures for money, I could certainly spend the rest of my life with a Rollei, a tripod, and a light meter.

Speaking of normal lenses, it's always been interesting to me that the Mamiya was sold with either a 90mm or 127mm. I never owned a 90, and learned to worship the 127 as a lens that could "make do" on a lot of images. Head and shoulders? Yes in a pinch...over-all view, Yes.

My most used lens by far in my B&W film days was a 50mm equivalent or slightly longer (mostly a 210mm on 4x5 or a 110mm on 6x7).

When I got my first DSLR, I couldn't seem to get B&W to look right so switched to color for digital (I was still shooting B&W film at the time). I also started playing around with more focal lengths and my 50mm use dropped dramatically. For the last couple of years, I've been mostly using a 35mm lens.

After reading your articles on one camera and one lens, I decided to switch to B&W for a year (mostly one camera and one lens). I pretty quickly discovered that I had to switch to a 50mm. I don't see in B&W with a 35mm even though I'm quite happy with one in color. It was a very surprising discovery.

In my opinion, the proliferation of cheap kit zooms lets many modern photographers think sloppy. One advantage of a single focal length lens was that it made the photographer think about how to frame his view. He had to move back and forth or decide what he wanted to cover in his frame. Many Rolleiflex photographers took some of the most iconic photographs of the mid-20th century using their one 75mm or 80mm lens (equivalent to approx. 45 mm on 35mm format).


...you're somewhat right, I heard that depending on the camera body width and mirror clearance, it might even be 35mm that can be the widest "non-retro-design", certainly true with slimmer 35mm's, like my old Miranda (of course, no mirror, no retro design, up to a point)...but you are certainly correct that retro-focus designs really have to be made perfect to be sharp, and that they have a lot more lens elements and groups involved to "throw" the image back to the focal plane and clear the mirror. You can make a killer sharp normal with 4 or 5 elements, but good luck getting a wide with that few.

As much as I love Zeiss stuff, I've had some real dog wide-angles for the Hasselblad that the American importer said were "within spec". I have a buddy who's a lens fanatic, that claims that Zeiss never knew how to make a decent retro-focus wide angle, but I've had a few Distagons for the Contax RTS system that were better than anything of the same focal length I used with Canon or Nikon; so go figger...

What this article sold me on the first time I read it was having lenses other than the kit lens. So my first year with my G3, even tho the 15mm body cap lens is kinda weird, I spent a lot of time with it. Learned a lot. F8 only is a tricky restriction.

It amuses me that I quite often fall back on a 50mm lens on a m4/3 camera, now that I have brighter lenses. It's the one that's most capable of close ups, and I tend to shoot a lot of stuff up close.

A 50 "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 is very interesting. Can you elaborate? (Or have you done so in the past?)

It seems to me that this concept would apply to any given focal length. I do this all the time with a 21mm (full-frame), though I admit it's mostly subconscious (or just accidental).

As a Canon photographer, film and digital, I find the most satisfying 'normal' lens to be the cheap and delightfully tiny EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens. I agree that 50mm is too long. 40mm seems much more natural.

However, in truth, the best 'normal' lens I've ever used is the 75mm lens on my Rolleiflex 3.5F with its medium format rectangular image that so much more closely resembles what the eye actually sees than any 35mm format lens.

"The list of the very best is a very short list."

Hi Mike,

I thought this would be the first question asked so I waited to see it, but it hasn't come up yet. What lenses are on your short list of 50's?


Every 50mm, fast lens is loaded with Saggital coma flare. Loaded. Ever shoot the night sky, or a street scene or other night scene with pointy sources of light? Wings of flying flare for anything off center. It can be reduced by stopping down, some. BUT the whole point of a fast lens is to shoot it wide open when things are dark. The 50mm makes it impossible to do both. Shoot for the dark, and get Saggital coma. Stop down, and lose the fast lens. What's the point?

A big part of "normal", to me, is the lack of things like barrel and pincushion distortion. I don't even like to see that in the viewfinder. Most 50s for 35mm qualify as normal in that sense.

Micro four thirds is blessed eith two excellent 'A' 50mm lenses in the very stable Olympus f1.8 and more fickle, but occasionally amazing Leica f1.4.
The lens that started it all was a 40 though!

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