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Nifty Fifty, or Camera Con-job?


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

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Nifty Fifty, or Camera Con-job?

28 Jul 2020 7:38AM   Views : 579 Unique : 386


Phil Taylor and I have been talking about lenses and stuff ever since I interviewed him for EPZ last year. He let slip his contempt for the way that 50mm lenses are advocated as a must-have: while I rate them, and only feel slightly guilty about the number of them that I own. So weíve conducted an email debate on the subjectÖ

John: Iím a fan of both fixed focal lengths and in particular the bog-standard 50mm lens. Itís a chameleon on full frame, allowing both wide and tele lenses to stay in the bag, and on a crop frame, itís an absolute delight, giving a short tele perspective that I love Ė ideal for portraits! So Iíd encourage every camera owner to consider getting a Nifty Fifty Ė as their first accessory lens if, as so many people have, theyíve bought an APS-C format camera with a kit 18-55mm zoom. It will rock your world!


Phil: Sorry, the 50mm is no chameleon for me, itís more like a leopard that canít change its spots. It just sits there, neither wide nor narrow, its only trick being that itís just 3 stops brighter than the average kit lens, doesnít usually have the build quality of a yoghurt pot, and can pull off a decent shallow depth of field (donít call it Bokeh, thatís something else).

Now, John mentions the 18 to 55 kit zoom on APS C, and I think thatís the origin of the worship of the nifty fifty. Way back in the 60s and 70s the standard lens was a well-established construction. 6 elements, good close up performance, because of its design one of the sharpest lenses in the set, f/2 aperture. Colour film at 400 ASA (yes ASA, too early for ISO) appeared in 1978, so until then f/2 was really handy. Of course, these plus points, and the ease of manufacture made it the natural choice to bundle with a camera.


John: Well, on APS-C the 50mm makes a handy portrait lens, too. And Ė as itís around 70mm equivalent, anything thatís a bit longer is even better Ė and there were a few 55mm and even 58mm standard lensesÖ

Phil: I was coming to that! Of course, the exception to the rule was the 58mm Helios 44, much loved by hipsters, but then it came with the Zenith, a camera that may have been built in the same factory as the T-34 tank, and pays homage to that in styling as well as durability. And weight.

In the 80s, manufacturers started to offer 28-70, 35-70, 35-80 lenses of varying quality, that seemed to become the norm, you didnít need to buy a new lens immediately to go wider or to get a bit closer. The drawback of these Ďkit lensesí was that they were usually f/3.5 to 4.5, and some even darker; of course that meant that for available light you needed something brighter. Then Digital came along, the bodies had eye watering prices, so anything that cut the price of a starter kit was welcome, enter the 18 to 55 f/4 to f/5.6. The quality was low, aperture so dark, it was like the camera had a cataract.


John: Well said! Unfortunately, when I took the first one it was my misfortune to own Ė it cost an extra £10 compared with the body on its own (which wasnít in stock). Iíve given a couple of these away over the years: though I should have given them to my enemies rather than people I wanted to keep as friendsÖ

Phil: Of course, in the 2000s, somebody noticed that the 50mm lens was exceptionally sharp, especially compared to the plastic 18-55 or similar. It was a 75/80mm f/1.8 equivalent on crop sensor, and thus far from an ideal all-rounder. People bought into it for the aperture, and that is a great idea, but others simply bought it because it was sharp. They then wondered why this Ďstandard lensí was now a telephoto with a narrow angle (not making it up, I know someone who actually bought that as their first travel lens!)

John: in the years when my digital camera wasnít full frame (up to 2008 and my lovely Alpha 900) I did tend to keep my 50mm on the camera most of the time. But I do love portraits and studio workÖ

Phil: The standard lens CAN be very useful. In my 16 years of wedding photography, I used it as the main lens on both medium format and 35mm It allowed you to communicate with the couple without shouting, work hand held in low light, open up the aperture and separate stuff from backgrounds, even allow you to move further back for group shots whilst pushing guests with 35mm lenses on compacts behind you.


John: Thatís sneaky: and a really good tip for anyone shooting weddings! Though my limited experience is that thereís always someone who tries to sneak in front of me to get their own shot of the formal groups. The first wedding I ever shot it was the groomís Dad with a twin lens reflex. So what would you do, Phil, rather than packing a Helios? After all, weíre in the Roaring Twenties now, and digital magic has touched us allÖ

Phil: Funny you should ask that! Iím going to recommend a more unconventional alternative to the Nifty Fifty, the 18-50 f2.8 or 17-50 f/2.8. Various manufacturers churn these out. The build quality is superior to the kit lenses, they are a mere one stop darker than a typical 50, usually have image stabilisation built in, and sometimes excellent macro capabilities. They have that portrait capability, as well as being able to zoom out to about 28mm-equivalent, making it a pretty good default lens to keep on the camera at all times. If you REALLY need f/1.8 Sigma does a lovely 18-35.

John: so you reckon thatís all sorted, then? I know youíve referred to a Ďholy trinityí of zooms for press workÖ


Phil: Unfortunately, the situation isnít so happy on full frame. I canít really see why Canon made their Ďkit lensí a 24-105 f/4 (f/4, you did read that correctly, and itís an L lens!!!). To get the 24-70 or 28-70 f/2.8 equivalent of the 17- 50 f/2.8 requires a small mortgage, and I reckon you could get a 28, 50 and 85 f/1.8 for less, and that idea is actually tempting me as I type. We are of course in a different age with modern sensors, I shot a bomb disposal scene at 102,000 ISO last year, and it was useable (you donít want a sudden flash in a situation like this). 6,400 ASA is perfectly useable for press work, so, maybe we donít need the wide apertures any longer?

John: As it goes, my walkabout kit these days is a Sony Alpha 7 body with an 85mm f/1.8 Sony lens on it, and Samyang 24mm f/2.8 and 45mm f/1.8 in my pocket. I entirely agree that you donít need really wide apertures to gather light these days in the vast majority of situations: and Iím happy to sacrifice a further stop with the wideangle lens, as it doesnít need such high shutter speeds for stability. And the whole lot weighs in, I reckon, below an EOS 5D with that hefty 24-105.


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dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
28 Jul 2020 7:41AM
All pictures of Bolton emerging from lockdown by Phil Taylor: portraits of 50mm lenses (rather than shot with) are mine.
philtaylorphoto Avatar
philtaylorphoto 22 334 2
28 Jul 2020 9:03AM
Ah, the Dynax9, the best film SLR that there was, apart from maybe the Nikon F5.

I saw an overview of Minolta's over the years, and it would appear the critics said it wasn't a pro camera because of the pop up flash. Normally, I would deride them due to low power, and the lack of bounce capability, however I have used them for landscapes when foreground stuff needs a gentle fill in.

It wasn't for a lack of decent lenses or a system that it didn't gain acceptance. Most professionals at that time would have a decent collection of Nikon lenses, for Minolta users the lens mount was different, so decisions were made about changing to a different manufacturer.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
28 Jul 2020 9:51AM
There's perhaps a whole blog to write about the Dynax 9... I bought mine because I was getting worried about the availability of Contax spares in 2000: but then digital camer along, and it led me into the Sony system.

I rarely use it now: it's much less fun than the Contaxes, though it is lovely in many ways.

There were vulnerabilities: the dials and ancillary switches could get knocked. And I wonder if the ability to hold data on the last few films exposed has EVER been used by anyone? A precursor of EXIF data - or, at least, an attempt to provide an analogue version.
philtaylorphoto Avatar
philtaylorphoto 22 334 2
28 Jul 2020 10:04AM
It's strange how some of the best camera systems never made it. The Contax 645 should have been a worthy Hasselblad rival, the Ill fated Rollei 2000, OK, anything Rollei ever touched after the TLR.

Historical 50mm lenses, just been playing with my shelf piece Olympus OMs. It seems odd looking at that big viewfinder image, and focussing a 50mm so easily by hand. Olympus, another company who lost the plot when we went digital, and have lost it repeatedly since. Stick to endoscopes and Voice recorders eh?
altitude50 Avatar
altitude50 19 23.9k United Kingdom
28 Jul 2020 11:58AM
Seeing the Minolta Dynax 9 reminded me of my Minolta 9000 that I bought new when it first came out. I used the excellent Minolta 35-105 zoom for years and was very happy with the camera except for one occasion.
I was taking some photos at a dinner as some very smarttly dressed people arrived, it was a stressful occasion. I was having to change from holding it for portraits to landscape for individuals couples and groups with a hammerhead flash attached. I had no time to check settings, just ask people to stop briefly or form groups or pose.
What I didn't realise that as I was changing grip my right forefinger was moving the shutter up/down (as described by Minolta) control, so most of the photos were taken above the flash sync. speed. Bad feature on a good camera.
Nearly all the photos that came back later had half the frame black. Very embarrasing.
I also like 50mm lenses!
philtaylorphoto Avatar
philtaylorphoto 22 334 2
28 Jul 2020 12:03PM
That's a real failing with a dedicated flash that allows you to shift beyond the synch speed.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
28 Jul 2020 2:37PM
The 9000 was a really interesting camera, and was what led me to the Dynax 9: I bought a very secondhand one because it was clever and neat. The only manual wind AF camera, with a lovely pantograph rewind knob. Far more fun than a 7000 - and from before clever interlocks were common.
mistere Avatar
mistere Plus
10 37 8 England
28 Jul 2020 2:42PM
In an ideal world there would be a camera/lens combination that did everything perfectly. Everyone would love it and no one would ever have to write another review or make another you-tube video about cameras lenses or the endless array of gadgets that go with them. But, we don't live in an ideal world. So we each have to decide what's best for us. If we all specialised in only one type of photography it would be a lot easier. Dedicated Macro lenses, wide angle lenses, prime lenses, zooms (of all shapes and sizes). All very good (but not perfect) at doing the thing that they were designed for, not so good at doing other things. One size does not fit all.
If two (or more) photographers disagree about the merits of a piece of equipment, who do we believe, how do we decide which kit to buy. It can be an expensive mistake if you get it wrong. Getting back to the main topic of the blog, the nifty 50mm. Given that the vast majority of reviews, articles, photographers, magazines etc, recommend having one in your kit. I think i'll hang on to mine SmileSmile I use it quite a lot. The 18- 55 kit lens...not so much.
Robert51 Avatar
Robert51 14 12 147 United Kingdom
29 Jul 2020 4:14PM
I think the whole idea came about in the 60's and 70's when nearly all DLSR cameras came with one. I sure this was the standard on the Zenith as well as being able to bang nails in with it. When I changed to my Minolta XD7 while friends went with Cannon AE1 at had the 50mm. I have to add I loved my Minolta and had a zoom upto I think was a 80-135 for portaits. The 50mm was also standard on my Nikon D50. It was then people wanted a bigger range and zoom lenes came into their own. More cameras came as body only.
Then we had the APS-C most people got the 35mm as the (50mm), This was one of the best Nikon lenes. Then the 4/3rds came along and the 30 and 60 Sigma DN Art lenses work great for the (50mm) and the 60mm is the portrait lens.
Having had Zenith, Minolta, Nikon, Cannon, Panasonic Linux and Sony cameras it would have been cheaper to stay with just the one. I still own all of these except the Zenith which I gave to my brother in law many years back.

The one thing I have found with all lenses is they all have their sweet spots which is the aperture on a prime and aperture and range distance on a zoom. So for me it's all about understanding your camera and lenses for the best results.

I also see Sigma now have a docking station to adjust your lens auto focus to each camera you use it on.

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