Buying Standard Lenses

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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).

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.