Rediscovering the 50 – Working To Know My Least Favorite Lens Better

I am not a ‘normal’ lens kind of guy. Never have been. My Hasselblad has two lenses – the 250MM and the 50MM. Yeah, I’d like an 80 Planar for it someday, but there are a lot of things ahead of that. My favorite 8×10 lens is my 375MM, and when working with 4×5 you would find a 75MM or a 210MM before a 150MM. Actually, I don’t own a 150 – sold it decades ago.

In my 35MM Film days it was mostly the 24MM f2.0 or the 180MM f2.8 Nikkors that lived on my camera. I probably made half a million bucks with that 180MM over a couple of decades.

I didn’t own a 50 for a long time, but ended up getting a nice used one on a camera deal.

Didn’t use it much at all. Gave it to an assistant a long time ago

So now I have a beautiful 50MM 1.4 Canon that sits in the bag for months at a time, I decided it and I should become friends. This was a challenge for me. Getting the most out of a lens means knowing all about how it works within your vision. Sure, I have used it on occasion, but I really wanted to take it out into an element that would also challenge me as a photographer.

I used my trips to the zoo this week to help bring me and the 50 closer together. My daughter is taking horsemanship lessons at the Phoenix Zoo and dad got to take her three times last week. I thought that the zoo would be an element I am not familiar with and provide a challenging place to make photographs with the 50.

Usually when I go to the zoo it is Telephoto land. Not this time. These treks found me working with no kit… only the 50 and the camera. This camera is a crop sensor so the lens is a little tighter than it would be on the full-frame cameras, but that is of no consequence. It is still a 50MM and I rarely use it.

Alissa and I got there at 7:45 each day and she went off to groom horses and I took to the pathways of the zoo. The first day began slowly. I saw too many images that I would have shot with a wide or tele. I started looking through the viewfinder to find those shots that this little lens would appreciate.

And there they were. As I became more and more involved with the lens’ ability to isolate and frame the photograph, it was becoming easier to find the shots I wanted.

I try to turn the filters off in my mind. The “no one will get that photo” and the “oh, that shot again” and the ever present “what will you do with that… it won’t be a ‘book’ shot” crap. Turned off and put away.

I have some shots to share, but before we hit the jump I have a few things to go over.

First: Kirk and I have had to reschedule the workshop planned for August to October 1, 2, 3. Better hotel rates, better weather, and better access to locations.

Second: Please take time to read the interview with Kurt Markus that Rob did over at APE. It is a wonderful discussion by a consummate photographer and an intelligent interviewer. Part One and Part Two. You wont be disappointed in the read.

Third: I would like to take this moment to tell you all that my book is now available at Amazon. I am pretty proud of it, and excited that it is finally hitting the marketplace. You can find it here.


The Agave Plant in early morning light.
This Agave Plant was being lit with some subtle sunlight coming through the trees above me and to the right. I love patterns and shapes, so I found some patterns and made the exposure at a very wide aperture. Look – I paid extra for the damn f1.4 so I try to use that aspect as much as possible. In this image, the razor sharp DOF allowed me to pick the pattern and present it against an abstract background.

(click it to see it larger.)
They are doing some contruction on one of the walkways and these two piles of ‘assets’ were side by side. I shot them as individual and then put them side by side. It is very interesting to see how the light works differently on the round rocks than it dows on the squared off bricks. Same light, different result. Almost like the subject has something to do with the rendering of light… sort of “subject Centric”. Someone should write a book about that.

I liked the arms and shadows that this tree presented. The 50MM allowed me to get the shot without the flattening that a longer lens would have provided, and without the distortion of the wider lenses. It was a simple crop for a simple subject. Light, shadow and form.

The peeling sign on rusting siding was a chance to play textures off of each other. The fifty allowed me to get in close and make a shot of the part of the sign that was most interesting to me. When I shoot this kind of detail, I like to make a composition that will be interesting to others. Scale is difficult to determine, so it brings the viewer into the image in order to decipher the subject. A diffuse sunlight provided a welcome ‘softbox’ to the shot.

The morning sun provided a nice, sculpting backlight to these palm fronds. Shape and texture and light – all that I need to make a photograph. This time the 50 gave me a working distance that allowed the image to not be overly flattened, and the angle of view presents pretty much what I saw at the moment.

The umbrellas at the snack bar were pretty un-interesting until one stepped under one. The warm, soft, diffused light presented an opportunity to make something from nothing. I used the flat color and the wooden rods to create a design – a light painting so to speak. I love the highlight running along the wood, and the overall softness of the orange canvas. A wide aperture on the 50 allowed me to compose the DOF into being an integral part of the image.

This leaf in dappled sunlight seemed to call me for a photograph. The warm colors and interesting light drew me in, and that one leaf atop the chaos gave the 50MM something to focus in on. The limited DOF along with the classical ‘centered’ composition makes the solo leaf our hero. Again the angle of view is so similar to what I saw without the extraneous surroundings encroaching the quiet still life.

The carousel is somewhat new there, but not a new carousel. They have been working on it for quite some time. I love the colors and the designs of carousels and this detail really caught my eye. Light, color, graphics and a bit of whimsical fun make the shot for me. The 50 worked flawlessly to bring this shot, the one I was seeing in my head, to life. I finally was starting to see like the 50… and that is a good thing. I now have another tool in my arsenal, and not one I only go to for those low light situations.

Cactus and spider web present a mysterious look at at detail very likely overlooked by most. This tiny cactus had a bit of light being bounced into it from a bright area behind me. I moved in close and let a few strands of spider web go far out of focus. A razor thin DOF kept the focus on the single sharp spine, while the rest of the image became a soft, subtle pallete for the sharp cactus to sit above.

In all, I made 24 photographs that I liked over the 3 days I hiked around the zoo waiting for Alissa. I had fun, made some photographs and learned more about my seldom used lens. I don’t think it will be as neglected as it has been. We are good buds now.

As always, follow me on Twitter, visit the Facebook Page, learn more about the workshops at Learn to Light, and find out more About.Me here.

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  1. Welcome to the cult. Your picture collection makes a nice mini-introduction to the virtues of the 50, so should help introduce it to newcomers. Me? I already own more 50s than I do cameras to put them on (why? because they have different “signatures”) so I’m already over the edge…

    • Yes, the fifty is growing on me.

      I love so many other photographers work that use the fifty, but haven’t used it myself.

      For some reason, I find it a very ‘honest’ lens. And that is intriguing to me.

  2. I’m new here but I’ve gotta say that your pictures with the 50 totally pop…donno if you realise it but most of your pcis with this lens have a geometric bent to them.

    I use a 50 1.8 almost exclusively and while it is a joy to use…I think I’m gonna pony up and get me a 1.4.

    • Thanks Avinash.
      I use a lot of ‘graphics’ in my composition. I like the purity of geometrical approaches.

      Hope you enjoy the site.

  3. Yeah, I have to say that the 50 is my least favorite focal length. For me, it just rests in a kind of purgatory even though I keep giving it a chance to change my mind.

  4. i love love love my canon 50 f1.4, like you said there is just something about it.

  5. So the 50 on a crop sensor is a 50, but the 50 on the Hasselblad is not?

    • No.

      I statted in the piece that a 50 on a crop sensor is, well, cropped to about a 75 or 80.

      On a 35MM full frame camera, the 50MM lens is considered the ‘normal’ lens. That is an angle of view that closely represents what the eye sees,

      On a Hasselblad (I have a film camera) the normal lens is an 80MM. The 50MM lens is a wide angle lens on a 6×6 camera. The size of the film is so much larger than the 35MM film that the longer lens is needed to cover the same angle of view.

      The Bronica and Mamiya 6×4.5 cameras have normal lenses of 75MM to compensate for the smaller film coverage size.

      On a 6×7 camera, like and RZ or a Bronica GTS, the normal lens angle of view is a 90MM. Again due to the slightly larger film size.

      A 4×5 has a normal lens of 150MM (6 inch lens) to cover the much larger film plane.

      An 8×10 has a normal lens of 300MM because of its huge film size.

      On an 11×14 camera, the 150MM lens is a super wide.

      Remember – the lens remains the same, The resolution remains the same, The size of the film to cover becomes larger.

  6. The 50mm is the perfect portrait lens. I used to have the ‘nifty’ fifty £70 one for my crop sensor canon (before I broke the poor lens…) and it became my favorite in terms of portability, focal length and the general effect of the wide aperture. It gave me some beautiful shots of my friends. And it taught me a lot about the camera and framing because I couldn’t rely on a zoom. It makes me smile, I’m gonna have to replace mine!

    I love the crooked branches from the tree, and the colour under the umbrella. It hits you like an anvil!

    • Thanks Anne. Yep, I am using it more and more these days. Seems the tele is the one that is now getting a bit neglected. Heh.