I recently updated my equipment page — see What’s in the Camera Bag? — and it struck me that I had given short shrift to one of my most cherished pieces of equipment, the 50mm f/1.4. This is a lens that I don’t often use in my professional work but that nevertheless serves as a wonderful all-purpose everyday lens. In fact, I consider it essential to my photography and rarely leave home without it.
My love affair with the 50mm f/1.4 traces back to my earliest days as a photographer. The first camera I ever owned, a Pentax MV-1, came with a 50mm f/1.4 attached. For years it was the only lens I ever used.
As almost any photographer will tell you, the 50mm focal length represents a “normal” field of view on a 35mm film camera or full-frame digital SLR. It’s very close to how the human eye takes in the world. A 50mm is not exactly wide, but often wide enough if you take a step back. It’s not long, but long enough for most kinds of shooting—and certainly for making portraits.
When I bought my first digital SLR, I picked up a Canon 50mm f/1.4 to go with it. That was ten years ago and I still use the lens all the time.
Canon makes the the very same 50mm today, and it still sells for under $400. In the often pricey world of digital photography, I consider that a bargain. And, as I’ll explain in a moment, if you’re considering a 50mm this might be an especially good time to get one.
Meditation Mount in Ojai (50mm, f/5.6, 1/200, ISO 100)
I carry the lens around with me almost everywhere I go. It fits on my Canon 6D, just as it used to fit on my original 5D some years ago, and, before that, the 20D and Digital Rebel. Many times it’s the only lens in the bag. For street photography, casual portraits, and just about anything else that catches my eye, it’s simply the best choice.
Let’s be clear, the 50mm f/1.4 is not the best lens in any particular category. But because it does so many things so well, it happens to be one of the most versatile lenses in Canon’s extensive lineup. And because it excels in low-light conditions—from dimly lit rooms to dark concert halls to parties that carry on late into the night—it’s also happens to be one of the most useful lenses for everyday photography.
Fire Fingers (50mm, f/2.2, 1/500, ISO 400)
Among Canon lenses, the 50mm f/1.4 is not the sharpest tool in the shed. But it’s still very sharp, especially stopped down to, say, f/5.6 or f/8.
It doesn’t have the widest aperture and therefore doesn’t let in the most light or create the most dramatic out-of-focus areas. But close enough.
And it doesn’t have the same rugged build quality and smooth and precise auto-focusing that its more expensive counterpart has. But never mind. It’s plenty good.
Here’s the key point: it does all these things while weighing a mere ten ounces, fitting snugly into the palm of your hand, and costing a fraction of what other lenses cost.
Harper the cat (50mm, f/1.4, 1/1250, ISO 100)
I think the days of the big, heavy SLR are over. Cameras are shrinking. Today it simply doesn’t make sense to carry around a camera unless it’s light, compact and portable. Unfortunately, the most versatile zoom lenses are often the biggest and heaviest.
For me, the 50mm f/1.4 is a better alternative in most situations. It’s tiny and it’s light. You can take it anywhere and (provided you have it mounted on a smaller camera like the 6D) be as inconspicuous as ever.
Rumors have been circulating in recent months that Canon is about to revamp its line of 50mm lenses, perhaps doing away with the 50mm f/1.4 altogether. That would be a shame. And it means there might not be a better time to get one if you don’t already own it.