Creativity at 50mm
Raj Lalwani reveals the wonders of the multi-purpose 50mm lens, and how you can use it to the fullest for a variety of subjects.
Have you ever wondered why your photographs look so different from the way you usually see things through your eyes? Do you wish to capture photographs exactly as you see them, through the normal perspective of the human eye? Welcome to the world of the 50mm lens. This lens replicates the field of vision of the human eye, which is why it is called a ‘normal’ lens. Due to this unassuming quality, it was a favourite for a number of legendary photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ralph Gibson. While most people believe that a 50mm lens is only good for street photography and portraits, it can be used innovatively to shoot other genres of photography, too!
Let Your Feet Be Your Zoom
Since our eyes cannot zoom, we need to walk two steps ahead or behind to see less or more of a particular scene. A fixed 50mm lens works the same way, but you will need to be a lot more proactive. With your feet playing the role of a zoom, you have complete control over your final composition. Not only will your compositions be stronger, but you will also be more involved in the shooting process and have more fun.
No Need for Wide or Telephoto Lens!
If you do not have enough money to buy a dedicated telephoto or wide lens, do not fret. Your simple 50mm lens can play both roles! The choice of aperture and the distance from where you shoot the subject can simulate the look of different lenses. Use a narrow aperture like f/16 and shoot the subject from a distance, to get a large depth-of-field, almost like a wide-angle lens. Similarly, choose a wide aperture like f/2 and shoot the subject from extremely close to simulate the effect of a telephoto lens.
Use Aperture Creatively
All 50mm fixed lenses available today are extremely fast, despite their low cost. Even the cheapest 50mm lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.8. At such wide apertures, only a tiny part of your frame will be in focus. Rather than considering it as a hindrance, you can selectively focus on an important aspect of the frame.
For example, your main subject can be out of focus in the background, with a subject in the foreground in focus. Alternatively, only the eye of the subject may be in focus, or you may capture repeating patterns using a very shallow depth-of-field. At wider apertures, you will need to be careful about focusing. Switch to Single Point autofocus, and carefully choose your focus point, since the depth-of-field will be extremely shallow.
Extend The DOF With Hyperfocal Distance
The 50mm lens used with 35mm format sensor or film has the huge advantage of having an extensive depth-of-field. Prefocus the lens to a point where the depth-of-field ensures sharp focus from a few feet in front of the lens to infinity. This point of focus is called the hyperfocal distance and it depends on the aperture you select.
Before you start shooting, switch to manual focus and aperture priority mode. Keep the lens focused to the hyperfocal distance of 17.3 feet at f/16. Everything from 8.65 feet to infinity will be in sharp focus. At f/22, the hyperfocal distance is 12.2 feet. This means that everything from 6.1 feet to infinity will be in sharp focus. Now, all you need to concentrate on is the moment being captured. This can be of great use in street photography.
Shoot Without Using the Viewfinder
Once you get used to the 50mm, you will learn to take advantage of the field of view it covers. The frame covered by the lens is exactly what your eyes see when you look straight ahead. Therefore, it is easy to use your judgement to sneak shots when you do not want to be too obvious. If you are shooting on the streets and wish to capture a candid moment without making the subject conscious, it is extremely easy to gauge the frame covered by the 50mm lens. You do not even need to put your eye to the viewfinder! Just ensure that your camera is not tilted and shoot.
Move in Closer
The best photographs come about when there is a close interaction with the subject. Do not hesitate to move in closer to the subject while shooting their mid-shots or closeups. A smaller working distance helps you shoot more intimate photographs and will help you be a part of the scene yourself.
Shoot in Extremely Low Light
The 50mm’s wide aperture range can be your saviour whenever the light levels are low. An aperture of f/2 at ISO 400 gives the same amount of light as f/5.6 at ISO 3200. A fast 50mm lens simply captures the light of your scene without needing a high ISO or long exposure.
You Can Shoot Macros Too
Dedicated macro lenses are quite expensive, but you can use your 50mm lens innovatively to shoot macros too. You will need to buy or make a reversal ring (an inexpensive and easily available attachment) that will allow you to mount your lens in reverse. You may not be able to use autofocus, but this is a great, affordable alternative if you wish to shoot flowers, insects or other tiny subjects.
These techniques will help you make the best use of this lens. Affordable, simple, light and a lens of many talents—the 50mm lens will not only help you enjoy different kinds of photography, but also make you a better photographer!
Why Should I Use a 50mm Lens?
- Learner’s Lens: Due to the amount of control it offers, this fixed lens instills great discipline and helps you improve your skills.
- Cost: At a price starting at Rs. 7000, the 50mm lens is the most affordable one.
- Convenience: It barely takes up space in your camera bag, and is extremely lightweight.
- Optical Quality: Despite its low price, it is optically superb due to its simple design.
- Versatility: From portraits to street, macros to landscapes, the 50mm can be used for a number of subjects.
Normal Lens on a Budget
With most brands having a wide variety of normal lenses, there are some incredible budget options you can buy:
- Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.8D (Rs. 6,950).
- Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8 G (approx. Rs. 9,000).
- Olympus Zuiko Digital 25mm f/2.8 (Rs. 13,455).
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II (Rs. 6,590).
A 50mm Lens on a DX Body
For the 50mm ‘field of view’, you will need to use a 50mm lens on a 35mm film or full-frame camera. For a similar field of view, you need a 30–35mm lens (on DXformat Nikon or Canon bodies) or a 25mm lens (on Olympus Four-Thirds bodies). If using a 50mm lens on a DX body, you will get a focal length of 75–80mm. At this focal length, it may not be wide enough for general use on the streets or in cramped rooms. However, it becomes a great lens for portraiture. Its low-light capabilities ensure that it is an extremely useful lens on any camera body.
This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Better Photography.Tags: Shooting Technique, Raj Lalwani, Macro, Low light, Depth of Field, Creative effects, portrait, May 2009, 50mm, Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.8D, Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8 G, Olympus Zuiko Digital 25mm f/2.8, Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II, shallow depth, hyperfocal distance