There isn’t a camera brand that doesn’t make a good fifty. There is also almost no camera blog or guide that hasn’t recommended the Nifty Fifty. Thousands of photographers believe that this is a must-have lens. I was one of them. Here’s why I think the nifty fifty is grossly overrated and why you probably don’t need one.
It all started when I was younger watching tons of YouTube and saving pocket money. At that time I only had a film camera and a halfway working 70-300mm lens. The low-light capabilities of such a setup left a lot to be desired. After reading and seeing a lot about the Fancy Fifty, I decided I really wanted one. It took longer than I expected to look through as many reviews and comparisons as possible while saving about $70 on a used Nifty Fifty purchase. But in the end I was able to tell you exactly why a $70 lens is as good as a $1,000 lens. It wasn’t, but I believed it, and that was all that mattered.
How the Nifty Fifty made me worse
I really thought this nifty Fifty would be the lens that would take my photography to the next level. Just think of all the pictures I was able to take at f/1.8, all the happy customers and all the smiling faces.
The dream world collapsed as soon as I put it on my camera. What looked like an excellent lens was starting to look very boring. We’ll come back to that. Let’s see how I shot with the lens.
Buying a new lens, especially one with a wide aperture, will make you a worse photographer. If you previously captured darker images with more grain, now capture less grain, but half of the image will be out of focus. I shot everything at f/1.8 for fear that once I stopped down even half a stop I would lose the lens’ magic. Instead of having a positive effect on my work, it made me worse because more and more of my images became blurry.
Designed for portraits, the Nifty Fifty is a lens that makes it particularly difficult to get focus on the eye. This is an important thing to consider as you need to understand depth of field and plane of focus before using large apertures. In short, the larger the aperture, the shallower the depth of field and the more difficult it is to lock focus when the subject is moving. This is especially true for older cameras or cameras with limited focusing capabilities like entry-level DSLRs. Before you learned the basics about plane of focus and depth of field, you would have picked up a lot of subpar work that made your images worse on average. If you nailed focus before, you probably aren’t now.
Let me tell you how I captured each and every frame at 200mm f/2.8. When I was lucky enough to get my hands on a 70-200mm lens, I immediately went with the obvious “as shallow depth of field as possible”. There have been a number of jobs that have literally only been shot at f/2.8. I didn’t even understand the purpose of other apertures when f/2.8 was available. Why would anyone ever shoot at f/8, let alone f/13?
Now how stupid I was. Now the tide has turned and I worry about using f/4 instead of f/8. That’s why I recommend photographers to get used to working with a closed aperture. This way you get a fully focused subject. The super creamy background is an overused technique anyway.
Another reason to avoid the 50mm lens, especially if you’re a beginner, is that it really limits the focal lengths you can use. As a beginner, it’s more fun to grab a junk super zoom and see how the image changes depending on the focal length you’re shooting at. As the owner of the Holy Trinity, I fully adhere to the principle of experimenting with the focal length. Something that looks bad at 50mm can look fantastic at 16mm or 200mm.
50mm is a focal length that is essentially like the human eye, giving the impression that it is the most attractive. On the contrary: As a normal focal length, it takes the technical “funk” out of the picture and puts the picture content alone in the center. While it’s beneficial for situations where a lot is already happening, it’ll almost certainly highlight a dull environment and blow it out of proportion. For you as a photographer, this means you really need to make sure the setting is interesting, but sometimes it’s not. As someone who has photographed in a boring or sub-par way, I tend to get particularly weird with the light, the angle, or anything else. This helps me focus on the technical aspect of the photo as opposed to the design or fashion aspect. Still, I prefer to take the time to make the content interesting and then shoot it. No rush.
So, to summarize the history of my use of the Nifty Fifty, I’ve shot images that have been pretty much exclusively f/1.8. Instead of focusing on education and creating messages with my images, I focused on getting the creamiest bokeh possible. Rather than experimenting with different focal lengths, I focused on shooting the “right and accurate” 50mm lens.
The obvious benefits, but are they worth it?
There are obvious benefits to having a fancy fifties, as many reviews and articles suggest. To be objective and paint a complete picture of owning such a lens, here are some clear advantages of the nifty fifties.
The lens is maybe as small as lenses. If we don’t count the f/1.2 option, the snazzy fifty is easily a no-brainer when space is of the essence. The lens is often praised for how discreet it can be. Some photographers have spoken out and said that their subjects feel less intimidated when photographed with a nifty fifties, as opposed to a large zoom or medium format camera. While this might be a valid reason for some shooters, it’s by no means significant enough to change your spending habits. Your subject’s comfort level is determined by your behavior. You can’t expect the subject to immediately feel comfortable around you just because you pulled out a small camera. If anything, a larger lens can mean more “professionalism.”
That is very valid, also for me. As I shoot day in and day out, my wrists inevitably get tired, and I’m only in my early 20s and leading a largely healthy lifestyle. I started using the tripod on a few occasions because it relieves the strain on my hands. Although I inevitably resort to hand-holding the camera as I find the process less restrictive. While I won’t be buying a 50mm anytime soon, I did have thoughts of reconsidering the lens once or twice. It makes setup much easier, which will surely allow more photographers to create the work they want.
If you look at the low-end 50mm lenses, you’ll see a lot of decent, inexpensive options. As far as I know, the EF 50mm f/1.8 is the cheapest lens you can buy new from Canon. It is aimed almost at beginners as something professional but still inexpensive. It may very well be the only option for someone doing, say, party photography. While this depends on your shooting style, I found the 50mm focal length pretty boring in event photography. If I’m working in 50mm it’s probably fashion or beauty in the studio. At this point I’m using an f/8 zoom lens and don’t need the f/1.8. For party and event photography, something like a 35mm or even a 24mm lens is more helpful.
As you can clearly see, the Nifty Fifty is not a versatile, all-round lens that every beginner should own. On the contrary: It is a niche product that makes sense when used correctly. I would refrain from buying the 50mm f/1.8 if you are a beginner photographer as this lens prevents you from experimenting with focal length and makes your images a bit duller as a result. The 50mm lens is also a lens that you must use after gaining an understanding of depth of field, focusing distance, and other factors that affect the sharpness of the image. However, if you like the look and are confident that you can get the full potential of the 50mm f/1.8 then you should do it, but only after you’ve gone through the rounds of using zooms rather than primes to have.