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The 50mm ‘Nifty Fifty’ D-SLR Lens -- Sharp Subjects and Blurred Backgrounds

Updated on November 27, 2012
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"My 2nd prime lens was the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens, and though the build is cheap -- 'the plastic fantastic' -- the images I have gotten with it outweigh that flaw."

There are some lenses that are simply classic in nature, and the 50mm lens is very much one of these. It’s affectionately called the ‘Nifty Fifty’ and is commonly used for sharp portraits with shallow depth of field.

Photographers commonly recommend getting a 50mm prime lens for your D-SLR along with your other lenses. Actually, it may even be a cool idea to get a Nifty Fifty as your first lens!

Primes vs. Zooms

Prime lenses tend to produce images of a higher quality than that of zoom lenses. This is not always the case, but the fixed focal length of a lens gives it the design advantage of creating spectacular shots.

50mm Lens on FF and APS-C

On a full frame (FF) camera, a 50mm lens has an effective focal range of 50mm. On a APS-C camera, 50mm translates to be 75mm -- 80mm. Therefore, the true nature of a 50mm lens can only really be experienced on a full frame camera. With a 50mm lens attached to a crop sensor camera, you will not only get an increased focal length which can be an advantage in particular situations, but a decreased field of view (FOV). To get a more authentic feel of a 50mm on an APS-C camera, you’ll need to get a lens with a 30mm focal length, or a lens of a similar focal length.

The Nifty Fifty is claimed to produce images that resemble how we naturally see the world. Just from seeing such images, you may confirm this fact. This is a reason that the 50mm lens, along with other medium focal length lenses, is often used for natural looking portraits.

Nikon 50mm 1.8D| ƒ4.5 | 1/200s | ISO200
Nikon 50mm 1.8D| ƒ4.5 | 1/200s | ISO200 | Source
1/30 | ƒ/1.7 | ISO 400 | 50 mm Sony Alpha and Konica 50mm f1.7
1/30 | ƒ/1.7 | ISO 400 | 50 mm Sony Alpha and Konica 50mm f1.7 | Source

50mm Lenses and Aperture

The maximum aperture of 50mm lenses is usually one of three: f/1.8, f/1.4 and f/1.2. Smaller (maximum) aperture values (f-stops) mean shallower depth of field. This means that a 50mm at f/1.2 will produce some serious blur outside of the focus range. This blur which is oftentimes spoken of as bokeh is intentionally used by photographers to reduce the noisiness of a background as well as evoking more attention to the subject. Smaller maximum values of a lens will mean a greater price tag, because greater optic consideration is given to the design of a lens which ‘opens wider’.

50mm Lenses Work Well in Low Light Conditions

50mm lenses are ‘fast’ -- meaning they have wide maximum apertures -- and tend to do very well in low light situations. They are great for outdoors, and are loved on the indoors! Image stabilization (IS) on these lenses is not mandatory since they are small, relatively light and very easy to manage. It’s easier to use these ‘short’ lenses at lower shutter speeds while avoiding camera shake. A bit of vibration reduction (VR) or image stabilization is helpful in some situations though.

Autofocus

Autofocus (AF) is also a plus with the 50mm lens. Cutting down on the time taken to focus on a subject is an advantage, but it’s also a great opportunity to use manual focus with a 50mm lens. It’s light and easy to manage, so focusing manually doesn’t have to be a chore. This can actually help you to get back to the basics of photography without being spoilt too much by super speedy AF systems.

Your D-SLR may be able to have several 50mm lens variants attached to it, including third party lenses. Here’s a summary of popular 50mm lenses:

Popular 50mm lenses for D-SLRs

Maximum Aperture
Nikon
Canon
Sigma (for mounts: Sigma, Nikon, Canon, Sony/Minolta, Pentax, FourThirds)
Sony
f/1.8
AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D
EF 50mm f/1.8 II
 
 
 
AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G
 
 
 
f/1.4
AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D NIKKOR
EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
50mm f/1.4
 
50mm f/1.4 AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G
 
 
 
f/1.2
NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2
EF 50mm f/1.2L USM
 
 
This is not an exhaustive list, as there are other great lenses from other brands. Will add them as they are recommended!

Pets, children, couples, products and the list goes on for the kinds of subjects that you can get using a 50mm Nifty Fifty lens. The shallow depth of field and sharp focus tends to mesmerize photographers and viewers. Consider having a 50mm on your D-SLR, and start taking those images with beautiful bokeh.

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