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50mm30/09/2009 - 4:11 PM
Have you ever used a 50mm lens? Have you ever used 35mm film? I guess the answer may depend on when you were bitten by the photography bug.
Once, the almost prescribed method of starting photography was with a 35mm camera fitted with a 50mm lens. Itís a road I walked down, and 28 years later, I still have that camera and lens combination (though I donít use it much). How did we get to that point and, more importantly, why did we ever leave it behind?
The 50mm lens became known as the standard lens, not because it was standard fitment on 35mm cameras, but because it had neither a telephoto or wide angle effect on the perspective of an image. This occurs when the diagonal dimensions of the image frame match the focal length of the optic used. The mathematicians amongst you are by now scratching your heads as, with vertical height of 24mm, and a horizontal length of 36mm, the Hypotenuse is 43.26mm. Which means the standard lens on a 35mm camera should be 43mm. So where has the extra seven millimetres come from?
The 50mm lens became the standard lens by accident. Oskar Barnack, the man who invented the Leica camera that popularised 35mm photography, found that the only lens available to cover the 35mm format and deliver acceptably sharp images used a 50mm focal length. This established a convention and a rather good one too.
The optical formulation required to produce a good 50mm lens is rather straight forward. This means the lens can delivery high quality and fast apertures economically. Having a rather convenient field of view added to its popularity, and this was cemented by its almost universal adoption amongst 35mm camera manufacturers. Once it was almost impossible to buy a 35mm camera without a 50mm lens.
But by the mid eighties, things were changing. The age of the cheap zoom lens had arrived. In its place came the 35mm~70mm zoom lens. They didnít have the quality of the 50mm lens. Neither could they match it for speed. But when it came to convenience they had it beaten. Convenience ruled, as cameras became more and more like consumer items, and less like exotic tools.
So why would you want to go back to the humble 50mm lens? Almost all 50mm lenses offer outstanding optical quality. Fast examples are not particularly expensive either, facilitating low light photography. And there is that field of view. Walk a few steps forward, or backwards, move to the left or the right. Having the single focal length makes you concentrate more on composition, and your perspective. Use one for a period of time, and your compositions will almost certainly improve.
If you donít already have a 50mm lens, they are a very affordable purchase, especially second hand. Donít dismiss a manual focus example either. It will likely have hyper focal distance markings, be of all metal construction and use pure glass opticsÖ
And cost just a few pounds.