Rediscover The 50mm Lens
The Joy And Excitement Of Subjective Photography

Image was made in Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia. The 50mm was set at f/8 for good depth of field and 1/250 sec to eliminate any problem with camera shake.
Photos © 1999, Mike Matzkin, All Rights Reserved

The 50mm lens may be the best focal length in 35mm photography. A good 50mm lens is going to be sharper than practically any other focal length and it's going to be free of apparent distortion. It is also generally the fastest available lens with just about all lens manufacturers, making f/1.4s and f/1.8s at prices that won't require a second mortgage. Canon even has a 50mm f/1 at a somewhat pricier level. Another advantage for the 50mm is its ability to focus down to 17" for close-up photography. Fifty millimeter macro lenses even have a broader focusing range--infinity to life size. Macro lenses, from Canon, Minolta, and Nikon, for example, are slower with apertures of f/2.5 or somewhat smaller.

More important, the 50mm lens involves you very subjectively in the image making process. Unlike a zoom lens, you create the framing and the subject to camera distance and angle. You're back in control .
There have been even faster 50mm lenses in the past. Canon, Angenieux, and others produced 50mm f/0.95 lenses and an Amer-ican company, Ferrand Optics (Yonkers, New York), made an f/0.87. At maximum aperture they were adequate enough to be useful in an era of slow film emulsions. There were not a lot of them manufactured so that they have become collector's items.

The bus was shot full frame and then converted in the printing to a panoramic. Lens sharpness and a tripod for maximum sharpness made it possible to make 10" and larger prints. Although it's a good idea to plan the format occasionally, you see the possibility after processing the negative.

The 50mm has long been considered the normal focal length for 35mm cameras for perhaps the wrong reason. It is supposed to match the vision of the human eye. Actually, the eye has a field of view of about 110°, more or less, while the 50mm focal length covers about 60°. The 50mm lens became the standard lens almost by default. When Oskar Barnack invented the first Leica, the 50mm focal length was the only lens that would cover the 35mm format and deliver acceptably sharp images. And so started a convention and a good one. Actually, Barnack was a filmmaker of sorts and he developed the Leica 35mm camera as a means for determining exposure before World War I. It was not marketed until 1925.

It became fashionable to deplore the 50mm lens, labeling it not long or not wide enough, depending on the photographer or editor doing the pontificating. But despite that, the 50mm is the lens a great many photographers depend on in tough shooting situations. What you see is what you get. Look at a lens element diagram of a good 50mm lens and you're liable to see anywhere from five to eight or even 11 elements (Canon 50mm f/1) designed to correct aberrations.

If you can move close enough to record a usable image the 50mm is a great action lens. By not trying to fill the whole frame it was possible to pan with the snowboarder. Fast shutter speeds help with sharpness, making it possible to enlarge even a comparatively small image area.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the greatest photojournalists of this century and certainly one of the photographers to raise photojournalism to the level of high art, reputedly used only the 50mm lens for everything from landscapes to portraiture.

The fast 50mm was arguably the most important lens in an era where available light photography dominated photojournalist thinking. To paraphrase Carl Mydans, a leading photojournalist, who commented that in those days we made whatever light there was work for us.

Once, when you purchased a 35mm camera it was certain to have a 50mm lens. That's no longer true. So what happened? Marketing and a desire to make SLRs attractive to more people. Today, your new camera is likely to have a 35-80mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. Overcoming the simple fact that most zoom lenses are decidedly slower than most comparable single focal length lenses is the relatively inexpensive electronic flash--accessory or built into the camera. In a sense it overcomes the lack of speed of the zoom lens.

Regular 50mm lenses for SLRs allow you to focus as close as 17". With a plus three close-up lens you can shoot with less than 13" between camera and subject with exposure compensation. Extension rings allow 1:1 imaging with a 50mm lens but require exposure compensation.

Combine the zoom, electronic flash, autofocusing, and autoexposure and, according to award winning photojournalist Eddie Adams, everyone's pictures look like everyone else's pictures.

He may have exaggerated a bit but the zoom, by its very nature, can discourage the subjective approach to image making. You zoom-in or out until you achieve a workable framing and press the shutter release. In some cases you never see even a change of expression or the look in the eyes of the subject. The 50mm figuratively forces you find the most effective camera-to-subject distance and angle. Photography becomes a lot more subjective.

The 50mm lens has tremendous flexibility. I once photographed a sports car hill climb race in Man-chester, Vermont using only a 50mm lens. I mounted the camera on a tripod to maximize sharpness. There was no way I could move in close, and at best I was able to fill only about 1/3 of the negative area with the race cars, but it was enough to produce acceptable 8x10 and even a few 11x14 prints.

The 50mm may be the ideal landscape lens. Instead of simply shooting away, you're almost forced to be involved. The result here were two or three images that worked. Focus was on the foreground. Small aperture provided acceptable overall sharpness.

I have to admit that I am not exactly deprived. I own lenses from 17-400mm. Recently, I decided that lugging around a bag full of cameras and lenses was taking the joy out of image making. As a solution I decided to spend six months using only a 50mm f/1.4 lens and only basic accessories--a polarizing filter for color, a yellow filter for black and white, a set of close-up lenses, and an extension tube that would make life-size images possible. All the accessories fit into jacket pockets. I also occasionally carried a small, lightweight tripod when I expected to do close-ups. No camera bag. I photographed sports, portraits, street life, close-ups, landscapes, and nature using only the 50mm. I shot by available light and occasionally when the assignment required, with flash.

The close-up lenses have an obvious advantage over a bellows or extension tube. There's no exposure compensation required. They made things even simpler. On the other hand, you can expect some loss of sharpness when you place another glass element over your regular lens. How much sharpness you lose depends on the quality of the close-up lens. Using more than two close-up lenses can add to the loss of sharpness. However, I made acceptably sharp 8x10 prints using two CU lenses.

No way would flash cover this shot in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. A 50mm lens provided the coverage I needed and depth of field for overall sharpness.

Was I able to shoot everything with the 50mm? Sports sometimes proved a problem. I tried shooting snowboarders jumping off a high knoll. I couldn't move in close enough without risking being hit by a boarder who decided to abandon the jump or lost control. I did manage to shoot snowboarders performing in a half pipe--a downhill section with high walls that looked like a pipe cut in half lengthwise.

The 50mm lens worked for most of the subjects I wanted to photograph. It made me think about the subject in ways that an extreme wide angle or telephoto lens might not have. It was up close and personal. I found myself looking for the best angle, thinking a lot about composition, and watching for changes in expression. There were times when a longer or wider lens might have worked better particularly when I once had to photograph a large group. A wide angle lens would have made it easier but I did manage the shot. For sports, particularly where the action ranged over a wide area, the 50mm didn't work too well no matter how much running I did along the sidelines. I did photograph boxing and wrestling and some tennis. The 50mm worked especially well for street portraits.

There's some previsualization involved in making the most of any lens. On a trip to the Dominican Republic I photographed a street display of paintings hanging outdoors on long walls. I shot with a panoramic format in mind. Back home I made two versions of the panoramic--one with regular print processing by cropping the full negative and a digital print from a slide that I scanned into my computer and cropped. One advantage to shooting panoramics on a full negative is that you determine the ratio--not the camera.

Will I abandon my other lenses? No. There are obviously times when the 50mm won't work. But I will continue to shoot a great deal using only the 50mm when I need to return to photographic subjectivity. It's a lens that gets you involved.