The very first piece of gear I recommend to everyone is your camera brand’s 50mm f/1.8 prime lens. All of the big brands have one, and they are all relatively similar in build quality, performance and price. Micro 4/3 users will have something in the 25mm range that will be equivalent.
This tip really only applies to those of you that are just getting your feet wet with photography. Experienced users will likely a) already know how awesome these lenses are, and b) already own one! Known by many as the “nifty 50”, this lens has its own niche in the photography world, and every professional I’ve ever talked to has one of these in their bag, or at least did at one point.
All of these lenses are usually just okay build quality, but still tough enough for every day use and some moderately hard usage. However, they are not meant to be dropped, kicked, stepped on, or any of the other things that you can get away with with professional lenses. The body of the lenses are usually made of plastic, and they feel light in the hand. The build quality has improved by a small amount over time on almost all of the brands though. The mounts are sometimes plastic, depending on how long ago it was built, but most are going to a metal mount now which is a huge improvement.
I think this is the best lens for a beginner because you can learn exactly how a camera and lens work together much easier than with a kit lens that zooms. Zoom lenses usually do not have a very large aperture, usually starting somewhere around f/3.5 at the lens’s widest focal length, and tailing off to somewhere around f/6.3 at the longest zoom range. And we are talking about the largest the aperture opens here, meaning that at the longest focal length you may be limited to a MAX of f/6.3 at the largest. Also, with the smaller apertures like that, you are not able to achieve that dreamy shallow depth of field that everyone loves, especially in portraits. With a nifty 50 you can open up to f/1.8 and have just a very small portion of the frame in focus! But what makes that really great is that being able to produce that very shallow depth of field makes learning how aperture works much easier since you can really see how the changes you make to your aperture setting in the camera will effect the image.
There are actually several things about this lens that really make it a must have for a new photographer. It is a “normal” focal length, which means that on a full frame sensor the field of vision very closely resembles what the human eye sees, so for every day walk around shooting you’re going to get a picture that looks a lot like how you actually saw the scene. This changes a little on cropped sensors, where the 50mm acts like a 75mm on Nikon and Sony, and 80mm on Canon. We will talk about the difference between Full Frame and Cropped sensors at a later date, but the reader’s digest version is that Full Frame sensors render an image equal to 35mm film. Most lenses project an image circle large enough to fill the sensor and that is the image that you get when you press the shutter. On a crop sensor, the actual sensor is smaller than a full frame sensor, so it captures a smaller amount of that 35mm image circle, therefore narrowing your overall field of view. This can be a bad thing on the wide end, but a great thing on the long end of lenses. Anyway, more on that another day. Just know that if you have an APS-C sized sensor (crop sensor) your effective focal length is is increased by a factor of 1.5x on Sony and Nikon, and 1.6 on Canon. So a 100mm lens would become a 150mm on Sony/Nikon and a 160mm on Canon. Micro 4/3 users actually have a crop factor of 2x, so whatever the focal length of the lens is, double it to get the effective focal length (25mm shoots the equivalent of a 50mm on a full frame).
These lenses also have a large maximum aperture, meaning they do quite well in low light conditions. Also, with a large maximum aperture comes very shallow depth of field. Some of the best portraits I’ve taken have been with my old nifty 50. If you stop the lens down to about f/2.8 they will really shine. The build quality may be a little lacking, but the optics across all brands are phenomenal. The out of focus area, commonly referred to as bokeh, are also exceptional across all of the brands. You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference in an image shot with these “cheap” lenses when comparing them to their professional counterparts that cost upward of $2000 in some cases. The pro lenses come with many other benefits for that cost though, like an even larger aperture and professional build quality and weathersealing.
The fact that these lenses do not zoom, and always stay at 50mm makes you think more about composing the image properly. You’ve got to zoom with your feet in this case! Prime lenses (lenses that do not zoom) also typically produce sharper images than zoom lenses and usually have an overall better image quality thoughout the frame.
However, the best thing about this crop of lenses is the price! The Canon version can be had for less than $130, and the Sony and Nikon you can get for about $200-$220.
As we talked about before, the build quality isn’t professional level but is just fine for an everyday photographer. A lot of people used to joke that they were disposable lenses because they were so inexpensive that if you broke one you could just run out and replace it. Break a $2000 pro lens and well, you may be waiting a while to get that one back. I’ve had a few of these lenses over the last 10-12 years and have only broken one, and it was from a waist high drop onto concrete.
Another downside is that the focal length will be a little bit too long for some scenes, especially on cropped sensor cameras, most notably with indoor shooting. In a standard sized living room You will likely be shooting from the torso up. You would need a distance of about 10 feet of to shoot a full body in portrait orientation (up and down) on a full frame sensor, and about 16 feet on a cropped sensor. However, if you just want to shoot some headshots or portraits inside you should be plenty good. Outdoor portraits look amazing with this lens though and I’ve shot many families with it.
Overall, the bang for the buck is completely off the charts with all of the 50mm f/1.8 lenses. The image quality is outstanding and the portability and size make it very easy to travel with. You can learn how to use your camera properly much easier with these compared to kit lenses due to the large aperture and making it easier to understand how the aperture setting effects the camera image. If you don’t have one of these lenses, do yourself a huge favor and run out and get one. This is one purchase you absolutely will not regret. Below are links to some of the best ones out there for the big manufactures.
Check out the thread on the POTN forums displaying some awesome pics taken with a 50mm f/1.8 lens. This specific thread is about the Canon version, but you can expect similar results with all brands. Below are links to the Canon/Nikon/Sony versions of this lens if you’d like to check them out for yourself.