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Photography Question 
Faye Bishop

The Advantage of a 50mm Lens

Please excuse this question from a very rank amateur who still has lots to learn. I keep reading about the benefits of a 50mm lens and wonder what the difference is between a 50mm lens and a lens say 28-80mm that has a 50mm lens mark on it. Do I need a separate 50mm lens and what are the main advantages?
Thanks people

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7/1/2003 7:02:03 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001

First, the definition of lens speed:
This is how much light the lens admits to the film. Film exposure is controlled by two things, lens aperture opening and shutter speed. A "fast" lens can open up its aperture wider to admit more light than a "slow" lens can. Among other things, fast lenses allow shooting in lower light levels, they're easier to accurately focus manually, and the viewfinder image is much brighter.

The 50mm "standard" lens is what used to be bundled with 35mm SLR camera bodies. At the least, it is among the fastest lenses in the entire system, if not the fastest, and is typically among the best in optical performance. For 35mm small format cameras, the 50mm lens also approximates the perspective of the human eye and produces photogaphs that have a natural looking perspective.

Yes, the 28-80mm zooms bundled with today's consumer SLR's include the 50mm focal length, and it's marked on all the ones I've seen, but they are slow and among the poorest optical performers within the system's lens offerings. They're usually the least expensive too. This includes Canon's, Minolta's, Nikon's and Pentax's systems. Optical performance is so poor that it shows in 4x6 prints. It's not only lack of resolution (ability to capture minute detail), it's also aberrations such as pincushion and barrel distortion that make straight lines in real life into curved ones if they're near the edge of a photograph. They also lack durability. I'm completely underwhelmed by both their optical and build quality.

IMHO the lens is the most important part of the camera. It's the only thing between subject and film when taking the picture. Spending more money for a lens than a camera body doesn't phase most professionals. They want the best optical performance possible. It won't create great photographs. The photographer does that. However, poor optics can detract greatly from what could have been a great photograph.

There's not much that can be done in general photography with a 28-80 zoom that cannot be done with a 50mm prime by using a little shoe leather to compose the photograph. There are occasions when a zoom lens is convenient, but for those of us who cut our teeth using nothing but a 50mm prime, they're not that often, and it forced us to think about what we were photographing and why while composing the image with it. For that reason, all four of my 35mm SLR camera bodies has a 50mm lens mounted on it instead of a body cap. It's my most used focal length. In the event it cannot be changed quickly enough for a longer or shorter lens I might prefer to use in making the perfect photograph of a fleeting moment, I know that odds are very high something very good can be done using it.

That's my "rather low opinion" about the 28-80mm zoom lenses bundled with consumer SLR's.

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7/2/2003 2:11:04 AM

doug Nelson   I fully agree with John. It's the best statement on the 50 I've ever read. My 50 is going on vacation with me, for sure.

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7/2/2003 5:59:19 AM

Maynard  McKillen   Dear Faye:
If you were born in Missouri (the Show-me state), or tend towards wanting to see the difference, you can test a 50 and a 28-80 yourself.
Shoot a roll of someone's face using both lenses, use the largest, smallest and several intermediate f/stops, document the lens and f/stop used for each frame (and the focal length if you choose to vary it on the zoom), and inspect the negatives using a strong lupe. You could even borrow a darkroom, place the negatives in the enlarger, and use a grain magnifying focus aid to inspect the negatives. (I suggested a face as a subject so that you could examine the eyes with the loupe or focus aid. Can you clearly distinguish individual eyelashes/freckles/eyebrow hairs?) By the way, you could use slide film instead of negative film.
Such a test might help you decide whether you want one or both of the lenses.
I once borrowed a 28-80 to test it, and found as I attempted (yes, attempted) to focus the negatives in the enlarger that the lens would work quite well as a paperweight. One 28-80 cannot speak for the rest, however.
Just to toss a red hankie in front of the bull, though, you might want to borrow, if not own, a lens of lower quality sometime. Say your assignment calls for images with a "retro", shot-it-with-my-instamatic look. Well then, a ratty aftermarket 28-80 may put you a step closer to creating the images your editor wants.

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7/2/2003 2:23:59 PM

Faye Bishop   Thank you all for your comprehensive replies. Now I feel sick. And disillusioned by that fact that perhaps I have been 'duped' by a so called respectable camera dealer. These lens' including my zoom were purchased on their advice. I knew that the lens was the most important part of the package and they reassured me that they were a good quality. I suppose for the price they were. So taking your advice now I will go and purchase a 50mm lens for my Canon EOS. But will the lens I have already surfice until I have more money and be enough to at least learn the techniques? And which 50mm lens should I consider for my particulare camera. I'm almost scared to hear more on the subject.

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7/2/2003 5:07:59 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
To a very large extent, you get pretty much what you pay for in a lens compared to other lenses at/near the same focal length or zoom range. Several of the reasons for the very high prices on pro grade lenses:
(a) Durability . . . they're made to take what gets dished out to them in pro use, which can be a little abusive at times . . . depends on the user. Regardless, a pro can easily run more film through a camera in a week than even a very active non-pro burns in a year. That's a lot of use.
(b) Faster lenses . . . pros demand faster lenses for a variety of reasons. This means bigger glass, more complex formulation of the optics to make aberration corrections for a faster lens design, and there's more R&D poured into their design.
(c) Manufacturing volume . . . not nearly as large, sometimes only a few percent of that for consumer lenses, and many are made by periodic production runs rather than continuous manufacturing. The cost of the tooling and setup/teardown for production runs must be spread out over the much lower quantity of lenses made.

Some examples in the EOS system:
B&H in NYC lists the EOS 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 at $90. There are other, similar speed zooms with slightly different ranges, but they're all under $100. The pro grade 28-70mm f/2.8 USM lists for $990; likely more than you ever want to spend on a lens. OTOH, the 50mm f/1.4 USM lists for a more affordable $295 (preferable to the $65 50/1.8). Yes, a reputable camera dealer will have knowledgeable employees. However, their first job is to sell you something. If they feel like you might not buy the goods if they hit you with "sticker shock" they'll drop down in price point what they show you.

What you have will suffice as you learn and grow with your photography. While we've been pretty gloomy about how well the typical consumer 28-80 performs (for Maynard's benefit I almost made my own "doorstop" remark), you can still use it, and it should be at least a little better than the zoom lens on an inexpensive P&S. Recognize there are lenses with much better optical performance and that's the point of view from which Maynard and I have posted. The zoom's slow speed may limit how slow a film you can use under lower lighting conditions outdoors (e.g. around dusk or dawn), and you may encounter a few problems with the AF system functioning in very low light (e.g., a wedding reception after the lights are turned down for the dancing). If you photograph much architecture, you may find some pincushion or barrel distortion with straight lines near the edges.

Is it usable? Yes, although you may find some limitations if you use it in lower light levels. Save your $$$ and start building a system of better lenses. If budget is a severe limitation, you can consider buying used equipment . . . but if you do, do it with caution and have someone that **really** knows how to inspect camera gear with you. One of the dealers I've bought used equipment from without any reservation is KEH Camera Brokers in Atlanta, GA, by phone and by ordering over the internet ( Their inspection of equipment is rigorous, they have high grading standards, ship promptly, and their business reputation is impeccable. For all the $$$$$ in gear I've bought from them, there was one problem with an inexpensive accessory that would have been difficult to detect with inspection, and they sent me the wrong item one other time. No business is 100% perfect, but their customer service corrected things very quickly . . . and that counts heavily too. In short, they've got their act together. If you buy something from them, look toward the EX and EX+ equipment. You can get it for about 1/2 to 3/4 the new price depending on what it is and the demand for it. I've gotten a couple EX+ items from them that made me wonder if it was ever used; it looked brand new.

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7/2/2003 7:25:50 PM

Faye Bishop   Just one more thing, the definition of a fast or slow lens. I presume from what you are saying that a 'fast' lens is one that will allow me to open it up to something like f2.8 or more? Is this assumption correct? And what makes a lens 'fast' or 'slow'? I apologise if these questions are basic but at my age it takes longer for things to sink in. Oh, and finally, I read books, take courses on photography, (not enough obviously) and 'make' lots of photos, recording my settings. Which is more important? Reading? Courses? 'Making' pictures? Or a combination of all three?

I really appreciate all your help here and can not thank you enough.

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7/2/2003 7:28:33 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
  Yes, a fast lens opens up to a wider aperture. A "slow" lens cannot open up as far. I believe the terminology relates to exposure time (shutter speed). A "fast" lens opened up allows using a faster shutter speed to make the same exposure. This dates back to the late 1800's when film emulsions were exceedingly slow and exposures were often measured in tens of seconds. You might imagine then, a lens that opened up by even a single f-stop wider would easily be perceived as a "faster" lens if it cut the exposure time in half from 20 to 10 seconds!

"Fast" and "slow" are relative terms, and whether a particular lens falls one way or the other depends on its focal length. For a 50mm prime lens, "fast" is typically f/1.4, with "slow" being f/2.8, and f/2 (close enough to f/1.8 or f/1.9) falling in the middle. However, for a 35-105 zoom lens, f/5.6 would be considered "slow" and an f/2.8 would be considered "very fast." Indeed, it's as fast as they get, and they are quite expensive. For prime lenses shorter and longer than 50mm, f/2 is considered fast and f/4 considered slow until about 200mm telephotos. At about 180mm and longer, f/2.8 becomes the "fast" and "very fast" standard. Similarly, extremely short lenses (21mm and shorter), f/2.8 becomes the definition of "fast." Confusing? Get a catalog, or go on line to a site such as B&H Photo Video in NYC ( and look at the entire lens line for Nikon or Canon. You'll get a feel for what's fast and slow for zooms and primes in various focal lengths.

BTW, "fast" and "slow" also shift around with film format. In medium format which uses 120 and 220 spooled roll film, f/2.8 is considered pretty fast, and the front lens objectives on them are fairly large hunks of glass.

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7/2/2003 8:04:17 PM

Faye Bishop   Thank you for all your help John, I don't feel so bad now. I live in Australia so if your know of any 'reputable' dealers I can trust here it would be appreciated. Other than that I don't think I want to know any more about lenses. I have learned more from this web site than many books. Probably more than I wanted to. Thanks again for all your time.

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7/2/2003 8:20:35 PM

John A. Lind
BetterPhoto Member Since: 9/27/2001
  For the other part of your question:

I've never done much in terms of formal coursework. I have spent a *lot* of time reading, and made thousands of photographs. Early on I recorded what I did, and still do that if performing an experiment to determine performance of something or what its limits are. If courses work for you, that's good. Probably the greatest gain for me was making photographs and either taking notes or remembering what I did, evaluating them afterward, and then doing reading on specific topics to sort out anything I didn't fully understand during the evaluation.

Keep evalutating every photograph you take, even if it's only to think about how its artistic aspects might have been done differently, or how something completely different about the subject material might have been explored. There's something to be learned from every one.

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7/2/2003 8:46:52 PM

Maynard  McKillen   Dear Faye:
I apologize if my comments caused a viceral response. Consider that hundreds of SLRs are sold yearly with similar zooms to people who are tickled with the vacation, family and special occasion photos they get, photos of a quality level that is new and amazing to them. Moving into 35mm SLR photography, to any extent, opens up a world of quality (and potentially, creativity) that was once the realm of specialists and serious hobbyists. Welcome!
Plateaus of quality exist in the equipment, but I hope you consider beginning where you are, with the equipment you have, and let yourself enjoy the process of creating images. I suspect you may still be amazed with some of the images you produce initially, even those that happen more accidentally!
I also suspect your camera vendor made some lens suggestions in good faith, based on information you shared about your interests and experience.
I'd add one more component to your learning strategy (the "reading, courses and making pictures" part of your later response): Dialogue. Talk about photos and photography 'till your blue in the face, find other kooks who talk about it as much or more, and evaluate each others' photos. Start an album of your successful images, and include the exposure data, compositional strategy, and a discussion of what you planned to do, what you got, and what makes the image "work." You can even start an album of "flops", pictures that didn't work. Document the images the same way, except that you explain what makes it a flop. You may find that more deliberate, systematic evaluation makes you a more deliberate, systematic photographer, which is alright sometimes.
You should allow room in this hobby for goofiness, too, like a photographic essay of all your friends' bare feet. You can set up your home as a gallery, send out invitations, and serve hors d'oeuvres as your guests rave about the deeper significance of hangnails, hammertoes, etc.
A camera can be a toy for adults: Play! Toss the doubts, second guesses and regrets to the wind...
(Why yes, my book of inspirational sayings IS coming out soon...)

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7/2/2003 9:01:12 PM

Faye Bishop   Thank you John and Maynard

After all this I am much less depressed. Now if you will all excuse me I have some photos to make, some books to read and some invitations to send out and some albums to make up. I guess you have all confirmed for me - to some extent - what I already knew (except for the part about 50mm fast lens). Again my thanks. Hopefully we will talk again.

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7/2/2003 10:32:30 PM

doug Nelson   If money matters a lot, get the current version of the Canon 1.8 50mm. The earlier metal bodied one also has a good reputation. Canon's 1.4 50mm has, for 30 years, been so good that it is a benchmark for lens designers. There's no reason to think that the EOS version is in any way inferior to the classic FD 1.4's. It is probably even better. Try Their "Bargain" lenses have only cosmetic wear, and are fully operational and optically fine. Your zoom is not junk. Use it for grab shots. Also, people sitting for a portrait may not want every skin pore in sharp focus.

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7/3/2003 6:02:51 AM

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