Nifty Fifty: The Most Overrated Lens


There isn’t a camera brand that doesn’t make a nifty fifty. There also almost isn’t a camera blog or advice resource that hasn’t recommended the nifty fifty. Thousands of photographers are led to believe that they absolutely must have this lens. I was one of them. Here is why I think that the nifty fifty is vastly overrated and why you probably don’t need one.

It all started with a younger me watching a ton of YouTube and saving pocket money. At that time, all I had was a film camera and a half-working 70-300mm lens. The low-light capabilities of such a setup left a lot to be desired. Having read and watched a lot about the nifty fifty, I decided that I want one desperately. Looking at as many reviews and comparisons as possible, while saving up approximately $70 to buy a used nifty fifty, took longer than I expected. But by the end, I could tell you exactly why a $70 lens is as good as a $1,000. It wasn’t, but I believed it was, and that was all that mattered.

How the Nifty Fifty Made Me Worse

I really thought that this nifty fifty would be the lens that took my photography to the next level. Just think of all the images I could capture at f/1.8, all the happy clients, and all the smiling faces.

The dream world came crashing down as soon as I put it on my camera. What seemed like an excellent lens began to look very boring. We will come back to that. Let’s see how I shot with the lens.

When you buy a new lens, especially one with a wide aperture, you become a worse photographer. If before you captured darker images that had more grain, now you capture less grain but half of the image is out of focus. I shot everything at f/1.8 in fear that as soon as I stopped down even half a stop, I will lose the magical qualities of the lens. Rather than having a positive effect on my work, it made me worse because more and more of my images became out of focus.

Made for portraits, the nifty fifty is a lens that makes it extra hard to nail focus on the eye. This is an important thing to consider, as you need to understand the depth of field and plane of focus before using wide apertures. Long story short, the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field is, and the harder it is to nail focus if the subject moves. This is particularly true for older cameras or cameras with limited focusing capabilities such as beginner DSLRs. Before you learn all the nitty-gritty of the plane of focus and depth of field, you would’ve captured a ton of sub-par work, which has made your images, on average, worse. If before you nailed focus, now, you are probably not.

Let me tell you how I shot every single image at 200mm f/2.8. When I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a 70-200mm lens, I immediately went for the obvious “get as shallow of a depth of field as humanly possible.” There were a series of jobs that were literally shot at f/2.8 only. 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?

Well, how silly I was. Now, the tables have turned, and I get worried if I go f/4 instead of f/8. That is why I recommend photographers get used to working with a closed aperture. That way, you will get a subject that is fully in focus. The super-creamy background is an overused technique anyways.

Another reason to avoid the 50mm, especially if you’re a beginner, is that it really restricts the focal lengths you can use. As a beginner, it is more fun to get a rubbish super-zoom and get to know how the image changes depending on the focal length you shoot at. As someone who owns the holy trinity, I fully obey the principle of experimentation with focal length. Something that looks bad at 50mm may look awesome at 16mm or 200mm.

The 50mm is a focal length that essentially is like the human eye, which makes one think it is the most appealing one. Quite on the contrary: being a normal focal length, it takes out the technical “funk” from the image and puts the focus on the content of said picture. While beneficial for situations where there is a lot happening already, it is almost certain to highlight and blow out of proportion a boring setting. What this means for you as a photographer is that you need to really make sure that the setting is interesting, but sometimes, it isn’t. As someone who shot in boring or sub-par fashion, I tend to go extra weird with light, angle, or something else. This helps me put focus on the technical aspect of the photograph, as opposed to the design or fashion aspect. Nonetheless, I prefer taking the time to make the content interesting and then shooting it. There is no rush.

So, to sum up the story of me using the nifty fifty, I shot images that were pretty exclusively at f/1.8. Instead of focusing on education and creating messages with my images, I focused on getting the creamiest bokeh possible. Instead of experimenting with different focal lengths, I became fixed on shooting the “correct and accurate” 50mm.

The Obvious Pros, But Are They Worth It?

There are obvious pros to having a nifty fifty, as many reviews and articles would suggest. In order to be objective and paint a full picture of owning such a lens, here are some clear benefits of the nifty fifty.

Size

The lens is perhaps as small as lenses get. If we don’t count the f/1.2 option, the nifty fifty is easily a no-brainer if space is of the essence. The lens is often praised for how discrete it can be. A few photographers have come out and said that their subjects feel less intimidated when they are shot by a nifty fifty, as opposed to a large zoom or a medium format camera. While this may be a valid reason for some shooters, it is by no means significant enough to change your spending habits. The comfort of your subject is determined by how you behave. You can’t expect the subject to immediately be comfortable around you just because you got out a small camera. If anything, a bigger lens can imply more “professionalism.”

Weight

This is a very valid one, also for me. As I shoot day-in, day-out, my wrists inevitably get tired, and I am only in my early 20s, with a largely healthy lifestyle. I started using the tripod on some occasions because it alleviates the stress from my hands. Although, inevitably, I do resort to handholding the camera as I find the process less restricting. While I won’t be buying a 50mm anytime soon, I did have the thought of revisiting the lens once or twice. It makes the setup much lighter, which will certainly enable more photographers to create the work they want.

Price

If you are looking at the low-end 50mm lenses, you will see a lot of decent, inexpensive, options. As far as I know, the EF 50mm f/1.8 is the cheapest lens to buy new from Canon. It is almost aimed at beginners as something professional, yet inexpensive. It can very well be the only option for someone who does, let’s say, party photography. While this does depend on your shooting style, I found the 50mm focal length to be quite boring in event photography. If I am doing work at 50mm, it is likely to fashion or beauty in the studio, at which point I am using a zoom lens at f/8, and I don’t need the f/1.8. For party and event photography something like a 35mm, or even a 24mm is more helpful.

Closing Thoughts

As you can clearly see, the nifty fifty is not a versatile all-around lens that every beginner should own. Quite on the contrary: it is a niche product that is useful if used correctly. I would stay away from getting the 50mm f/1.8 if you are a beginner photographer because this lens will inhibit you from experimenting with focal length, as well as make your images slightly more boring as a result. The 50mm is also a lens that you need to start using after you developed an understanding of the depth of field, focusing distance, and other factors that affect the sharpness of the image. If, however, you enjoy the look, and you are confident that you can use the 50mm f/1.8 to its full potential, go for it, but only after you went through the rounds of using zooms, and not primes.





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