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An Old Standby

January 15, 2009 - Dave Hecei
Back in the 70s when I first picked a 35mm camera, most SLRs at the time came with a 50mm lens. This lens was called the normal lens because it was about the same magnification and perspective as the human eye. Over time, the zoom ‘kit’ lens slowly replaced the 50mm lens. Well, the 50mm is back and it has become a very popular lens for digital SLR photographers.

The typical consumer DSLR camera has a sensor that is smaller than the 35mm frame. Because of this, most DSLRs have a built-in magnification factor. Nikons have a 1.5x factor, while Canon, Pentax, Sony, and others have a 1.6x factor. This means that a 50mm lens on a Canon Digital Rebel is equivalent to an 80mm lens on a film camera. This turns the ‘normal’ lens more into a low-power telephoto.

A 50mm lens is a single focal length lens. This type of lens usually performs better – has less distortion and much better sharpness – than a zoom lens. Most 50mm lenses are also very fast. Fast means that it has a very large aperture which lets in more light. Most 50mm lenses are available in a couple different speeds. Common 50mm lenses are: f/2, f/1.8/ f/1.4/ f/1.2, and for those with lots of cash to burn the f/1.0. Faster lenses make focusing easier and more accurate, plus it allows you to shoot in lower light situations.

Another benefit of a large aperture is depth-of-field (DOF) control. Remember that the aperture controls DOF – lower f/stops mean less DOF. By using a 50mm lens and shooting wide open, the lowest f-stop, you can keep the main subject in focus and let the background blur out. Having a pleasantly blurred out background makes a sharp subject just pop. This blurred background is also referred to as Bokeh.


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Blurred background using wide aperture