Somewhere between the 40 and 60mm focal length lies the unassuming world of the standard lens. Often overlooked for focal lengths providing more drama, a standard lens gives results with a natural perspective. Photography’s history can trace the 50mm lens back through the decades, so it should be no surprise that it became an industry standard. If we look a little closer at the qualities standard lenses provide, there is little wonder they gained favour, becoming one of the most important optics available. Today, their angle of view has been assimilated into that of standard zooms, generally occupying the middle zone of their range and, arguably, something of a detour from the more interesting extremes provided by such lenses.
For the purpose of this article, I will use 50mm as a reference point although there are others such as 43 and 55mm that fall easily into the standard lenses category. Angle of view is, of course, specific to the focal length but the difference between, say, 43 and 55 is subtle. It could be argued that 43mm leans toward semi-wide-angle while 55, conversely is heading slightly toward short telephoto territory. Is this just semantics or does it really matter? Well, it depends on the photographer’s eye and how the subtle differences render the final image. For me, I am very happy with the 47° angle of view provided by a 50mm, as this is close to what a human eye sees (albeit most of us have two!). Others will disagree, preferring an optic that gives a little more in the way of viewing angle, without the distortion that a true wide-angle lens introduces.
I have owned 50mm lenses for decades, starting with a ubiquitous f1.8 version (which I still have). My inexperienced early years as a photographer saw me lusting after optics that provided obvious drama, so I overlooked its true potential for a while. It was only when comparing photographs taken with a selection of lenses did I really notice how beautifully natural the results from the 50mm were. Free of distortion and compressed perspectives, I began to enjoy and understand its properties. Becoming more familiar with depth of field, I discovered the magic of shooting wide open, isolating subject matter in the process. As my skills developed I found I used a 50mm for an increasing amount of work, its purpose often replacing that of my other lenses (albeit having to reimagine my results).
- Standard Zoom or Standard Prime?
So, if you have a standard zoom, is it worth picking up a standard prime? To explore the standard’s world fully, it is hard to ignore aperture. Zooms, while convenient, cannot match the high speed of a prime in this category. Typically, a prime will have a maximum aperture of between f1.7 and f2.0, while a zoom will be at least a stop slower (f2.8). The territory is also occupied by speed demons, marvels of optical engineering that sport maximum apertures of f1.2 or even f0.95 (if you have deep pockets). If it is absolute control over shallow depth of field that is required, a zoom can rarely compete. Given also that a typical prime has a smaller size and weight footprint (speed demons exempt) its value becomes even more attractive, particularly for low and available light photography.
- Standard Macro
Some standard 50mm lenses have macro capabilities and, useful as they are, maximum speed may be compromised by a stop or more to compensate for this. Also, a standard macro lens will be designed to give optimal results at its closest focus, whereby a non-macro version will be optimal at its infinity setting. The question of subject matter has to be considered at this point. If you only need close focus capabilities occasionally, my advice would be to go with a non-macro version and add an extension tube when wanting to get closer. This preserves one of the fundamental properties (its fast speed), at the expense of slightly degraded image quality at close focus.
- Aperture vs Quality
Most lenses produce their best results stopped down. This is true irrespective of their focal length and particularly so where budget versions exist. Open aperture optical correction is costly, involving special and exotic glass types to help overcome distortion and vignetting. Along with realigning optical configuration for improved close focus capability (floating element design), it is easy to see how costs increase exponentially. Taking this into consideration for super-fast standard lenses (i.e. those with 1.4 or 1.2 maximum apertures) and the cost of the lens can be considerable. If you intend to shoot the lens wide open for much of the time, I suggest reviewing the manufacturers MTF data to see if its performance meets your requirements. The data should be correlated with real world example images. This is an important consideration; just because the lens appears technically excellent on paper, the results may not impart the desired effect. My own experience of this points towards a 50mm f1.2 lens I owned; the data suggested less than favourable results at 1.2, which improved significantly at f4 and 5.6 (typically). However, the images produced were really beautiful, exhibiting a dream like softness that I really liked. Bear in mind that there is little depth of field when using a f1.2 aperture at close focus. Again, this was not an issue for me as I like to exploit this quality with some subject matter.
Additionally, fast lenses allow low light shooting to be extended without having to push ISO and reduce the need to support the camera – points worthy of consideration if you like to produce the cleanest image and travel light.
- Aperture vs Size
Be mindful that most 50mm lenses are built for speed and as a basic rule of thumb, consider;
- F2/1.8 – usually smaller and lighter design, appealing to a more cost-conscious or travel photographer.
- F1.4 – a little faster than the above, but may have an increase in size, weight and cost. Good speed compromise.
- F1.2 – larger, but very bright, usually expensive.
- F1.0/0.95 – large, heavy and prohibitively expensive in some cases. Unique wide-open results.
To sum up, it is easy to overlook the role played by standard lenses. To me, they represent quiet amongst the noise, subtle instead of obvious, invisible not pretentious. And results reflect this in many ways, from still life, to street, landscape or environmental photography. Throughout the years, many high-profile photographers have held them in high esteem and, after decades of using different versions myself, it is not hard to see why.
Today, I am using a f1.4 Summilux as my ‘go to’ standard lens. Studying their nuances over the decades has allowed me to compile a list of pre-requisites and the Summilux is what delivers closest to my expectations. Has this resulted in me finding 50mm nirvana? For now, absolutely, but when it comes to an eternal solution, never say never.