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Happy Anniversary to my Wife
by Jeremy Browning
Sep. 21, 2009 18:06

I've been so excited for the last couple weeks, with terms like "bokeh" and "prime" swimming in my head at night while I imagined you with your anniversary present.

I racked my brain for weeks about what to get you. Lingerie seemed the obvious "Homer" gift, and I know you need a new printer, but you'll get that anyway.

As I thought, I was drawn back to your art -- specifically your eye for art. It is frustrating to watch someone who is so artistic struggle with her camera because it's not being the tool you need it to be, and you're not always able to get the shots you want. I've watched you master quite a bit of it, finding the groove, trying to reign-in the flash and also get that nice blurry background behind your subject. But I keep thinking that this tool could be more...

That's when I remembered the noble, old, forgotten 50mm lens. It's the lens you had if you were a photographer on assignment in Vietnam, if you were a 30-something taking a photography class at your local college in the 80s, the lens that was the standby on 35mm SLR Film Camera's for decades. Untold famous photos were undoubtedly shot with a 50mm lens. I fondly remembered my own first lens. A 50mm Vivitar, the lens I learned photography on.

What happened to the noble 50mm? I wondered. Nowadays, everyone's camera comes with a zoom lens that goes from fish-eye to telescope, but you never see the 50mm anymore.

So I typed in a google search for "the forgotten lens". Voilà! There it was. The very first paragraph on the very first link read:

So there you are, the proud parents of a beautiful new baby, and you can hardly contain your excitement as you unwrap that new 35mm camera kit you bought to document your child's early years. Although you've had a point-and-shoot camera for a while, you wanted to step up to a 'real' camera for the kind of quality pictures you see in the popular media and in the camera maker's brochures. You fumble a little as you mount the 28-80 zoom lens and load the film, but pretty soon everything is ready to go.

As your spouse proudly holds the baby up you raise the camera to your eye. The viewfinder seems a little dim in the room light, but hoping for the best, you gently squeeze the shutter release and...

Wait... while the auto focus system hunts, the built-in flash pops up and charges, the "red eye reduction" feature fires a series of strobe bursts into your subject's face, until—finally—the camera takes the picture. Of course by then your spouse's' smile has faded, the baby has gotten fussy, and the resulting pictures have that deer-in-the-headlights (flash on camera) look you so wanted to avoid...

What's wrong with this picture? Well, in part it's the lens you were using.

Damn. I was on the right track. I read on and found whole communities of people dedicated to the 50mm lens. And I read about how the popularity of zoom has made zoom lenses standard as a substandard "kit" lens on almost all new cameras. Meanwhile, for most of the masses, the 50mm has been forgotten.

What's so great about 50mm. Let me count the ways. First of all, it's the same focal length as your eye, meaning that the perspective you see through a 50mm lens is very close to what you see through your own eyeball -- it's the same zoom ratio. That's why the 50mm is sometimes called the "normal" lens. It's also often called the "prime" lens, which stands for "primary." It got it's name from the way photographers would leave it on their cameras most of the time, as their primary lens.

Next, 50mm lenses usually have HUGE apertures. That means that when the lens is "wide open" the amount of light going through it is enormous...almost always bigger than even the best zoom lens. This allows photographers to take pictures using available light, without annoying flashes always bleaching things out.


The huge aperture has a nice side effect that creates a very narrow depth-of-field, meaning that only a very small area of the photo is in focus and then the background blends into oblivion. This happens because the lens is curved and almost the entire photo is coming through the whole surface of the lens and only part of it can be in perfect focus. On a zoom lens, the aperture cranks way down almost to a pinhole, so the whole photo is coming through the very center of the lens, where it's not curved very much, so the whole photo is in perfect focus.

However, we all know the very hallmark of creative photography, especially photography of people, is created using a narrow depth-of-field. And the part where the photo goes out of focus is called the "bokeh." In photography, especially the kind of photography you do, bokeh is king.


Another great thing about 50mm lenses is that they make you *think* about composition. Since you can't just zoom in and out and compose lazily, you have to decide how to take a photo, put some thought and art into it. Photographers call this, "zooming with your feet."

In my travels, I read some great things photographers had said about the 50mm:

  • I think prime lenses should be the purchasing focus of every serious beginning photographer.

  • Because becoming competent with the 50mm point-of-view was also the single best exercise in my photography education.

  • Before falling to its current level of disfavor, the 50mm lens had a long and distinguished pedigree. For many years the defining documentary instrument of the 20th century was the small format rangefinder camera (Leica, Contax, Nikon, Canon) with 50mm lens. Some of the world's best-known photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ralph Gibson made virtually their entire careers with this combination.

I've even heard photographers advise one another, when their photos are getting stale: go grab your 50mm prime and rediscover your craft.

And so, I present to you, the noble 50mm in all it's glory. (It's actually the widest aperture 50mm lens you can buy for less than $2,000, and even the 2K versions are only barely wider.) This lens is said to "gobble up light". It opens to a full f/1.4 -- compare that to your current zoom lens' meager f/3.5 And the bokeh is orgasmically described by photographers as simply "creamy."

I hope you have fun with this little guy. I hope you can shoot with less flash, creamy bokeh and your natural, artistic eye. Happy 7 Years. I Love you.

Here are some photos taken with the 50mm:







Now I know you're saying, "I hear all this talk about the 50mm, but you got me a 30mm lens." Well, things have changed in the digital world. And digital camera chips are smaller than the piece of film that cameras originally used. And that little square piece of film was the benchmark that cameras have been designed around for decades. But digital camera chips are smaller.

The result is that some of the light that enters the lens misses the chip, falling all around it. This causes a "crop factor," which means that your digital camera is "zooming" into the photography that is coming through the lens. This zoom factor is 1.5 on a Nikon and 1.6 on a Canon. So to get the *true* focal length of your lens on a digital camera, you have to multiply the number printed on your lens by your camera's "crop factor."

digital camera crop factor

So if I had bought you a 50mm lens, it really would have been equivalent to an 80mm lens in old school camera lingo. So I got you a 30mm lens because 30 x 1.6 = 48 -- damn close to 50mm and damn close to "normal," the focal length of the human eye.

Edited Sep. 21, 2009 19:02


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