What is So Special about a 50 mm Lens?
A 50 mm lens is a prime lens, which means that it only offers one focal length (50 mm). The benefit is that the entry-level 50 mm lenses are also very 'fast' lens: they have a wide maximum aperture, usually f/1.8. As a comparison, most entry-level zoom lenses and kit lenses have their widest aperture at f/3.5 or up towards f/5.6 as you zoom in with the lens.
A wide aperture, like f/1.8, brings with it a whole host of photographic opportunities that are not as easy to achieve with other apertures. Shooting wide open at f/1.8 creates a very narrow depth of field (area of the photograph in focus) and easily creates 'bokeh,' the colored circles of light and blur created by a deliberately out-of-focus background. This ability to manipulate the depth of field and control the focus to such a narrow area provides infinite photographic possibilities. Read more about What an Aperture of F/1.8 Can Do for You here.
This photograph of a single leaf demonstrates the ability of the 50 mm lens to create bokeh at its widest aperture (f/1.8). Because the depth of field is so narrow at f/1.8, the single leaf and its branch are the only things in focus, and the leaves in the background fall out of focus rapidly. These leaves and the light on them are rendered instead as a collection of colorful circles of light (the bokeh). Bokeh can be very appealing and is highly sought after in art photography, as well as in portraits.
A 50 mm lens is very small and fairly inconspicuous (or at least, as inconspicuous as you can be with a full DSLR body). 50 mm lenses have always been popular with street photographers, people who value the 50 mm's small size and fast shooting. A 50 mm lens is also very light and makes carrying around your whole DSLR a little less onerous. With the 50 mm lens on, I can easily carry my entire DSLR in my purse, which was not designed for photographer and is fairly small as purses go these days. Having a small, portable lens also makes it far more likely that you will consider bringing your camera along with you, and having your camera is the first (and critically important) step towards capturing that once-in-a-lifetime shot.
The 50 mm lens is also a very adaptable focal length. It is considered close to the view and vision of normal eye sight (although the view is more zoomed in on a crop sensor camera than on a full frame one). 50 mm is wide enough for you to capture large sections of a landscape view, like the farm above, or to get close up to something small. It is also a good length because 50 mm does not create noticeable distortion when shooting portraits (which is a common problem at very wide focal lengths).
|Lily shot with 50 mm lens and +4 close up lens|
A 50 mm lens also provides an opportunity to experiment with macro and close-up photography without also investing in a separate (and far more expensive) dedicated macro lens. You can buy a simple reverse ring for less than $10 USD that allows you to mount your 50 mm lens backwards on your camera, creating a microscopic magnification. Read more about the benefits of using a reverse ring here. The 50 mm lens is also ideal for use with extension tubes that make your subject even larger, relative to your sensor, or with close-up lenses that change the minimum focusing distance and allow you to get closer to your subject. Read more about how to use extension tubes here and how to use close-up lenses here.
50 mm lenses have the added benefit of being fairly inexpensive, especially for camera lenses. While lens-envy is the curse of many a photographer, the 50 mm is a lens that is actually within budgetary reach. The entry-level version of the 50 mm lens, the 50 mm f/1.8 is available from Canon for $110 USD (list price), currently retailing for $101 on Amazon; from Nikon for around $110 USD (list price on Amazon), from Sony for around $170 USD (list price on Amazon); and from Pentax for around $180 USD (list price on Amazon). Faster versions of the 50 mm lens, such as the 50 mm f/1.4 or 50 mm f/1.2 rise in cost as the aperture widens but are something to consider if you have had a 50 mm f/1.8 for a while and want to get even wider.
A 50 mm lens is an excellent upgrade, giving you a wide aperture at low cost and providing tack-sharp images with fantastic background bokeh. It is a great lens for any photographer.