Photographic Myths and Platitudes: New DSLR? Why You Do NOT Need a 50mm Prime

Posted on 20 July 2012

(Note: This article has been slightly revised and updated since it was originally posted.)

From time to time I share here my response to a question that I fielded somewhere else. In this case, the subject concerned whether or not a beginner getting a new DSLR should get a “normal” 50mm prime lens. Here is a slightly edited version of what I wrote.

Every so often a beginning photographer buying their first DSLR, typically a cropped sensor model, will be advised to “get a 50mm prime,” either as their only lens or as an adjunct to the “kit zoom” that likely comes with most entry-level DSLRs. Some say you should do this because you must learn to shoot with a prime before you are ready for a zoom. (This is nonsense, in my opinion.) Others suggest that folks should get the prime because good and inexpensive versions are available – which is true, but not a reason to buy one.

I’m here to say that there is little or no good reason for a beginning DSLR shooter to get a 50mm prime with their new camera. Get the kit zoom and start shooting.

The advice to get a 50mm prime comes from a very different set of circumstances and a very different time. When 35mm film SLRs first became available some decades ago, decent zoom lenses were not available at prices that beginners would contemplate paying, if they were even available at all. In fact, photographers generally didn’t use them. “Zoom or prime?” was not the question at all – primes were the only realistic option.

The general feeling was that something in the 50mm focal length range or thereabouts would be the ideal starter “normal” lens on a 35mm film camera. (This was not a universally held viewpoint – some preferred lenses a bit wider and some of the standard primes came in longer focal lengths such as 55mm.) A 50mm +/- prime was the first lens that most folks got with their new film SLR, and there were lots of fine and inexpensive options. You got your camera and you got your 50mm prime. In fact, if you got a “kit,” it was camera plus a 50mm or so prime, probably a f/2 or f/1.8 version. The fact that we still have lenses like Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 at such a low price is an after-effect of this situation.

In reality, the valid advice back then was to “get a 50mm prime and learn to shoot it before buying more lenses.” The source of this advice had nothing at all to do with a zoom versus prime question. Primes were the only option. The implication actually was don’t get sucked into buying a bunch of lenses before you know what you are doing. (We are all aware of how tempting it can be to allow gear acquisition syndrome to supplant photography.) In other words, get that first lens, shoot a lot with it, learn a lot from doing so, and only then start to consider what your experience tells you about the need for (maybe) getting other lenses.

That warning still holds true, but keep in mind that it is a warning against rushing out and buying lots of stuff. Today, the better, and far more likely, first lens choice is going to be a zoom. There are excellent, inexpensive options available today that have supplanted the old-school inexpensive 50mm prime as the logical first lens. Every manufacturer has at least one fine and inexpensive “kit” zoom lens. The more accurate modern update of the old “buy a 50mm prime, learn to shoot before you buy more lenses” is actually:

Get the kit zoom, and learn to shoot before you invest in other lenses.

(The logical extension of the old advice is to shoot a lot with your kit zoom before getting sucked into buying… a 50mm prime!”)

Among those “other lenses” you can wait to acquire are primes. A person starting out with a cropped sensor DSLR almost certainly does not need to get an additional lens at first, any more than the beginning 35mm film SLR buyer needed to buy a set of three primes “back in the day.” It is true that the new photographer may eventually travel a photographic path on which owning a prime is useful, but before that happens he or she can shoot at this same focal length on the 18-55mm kit zoom and find out.

Secondly, and to repeat the obvious, a 50mm prime on a cropped sensor DSLR does not even provide the same functionality as the 50mm prime on the 35mm film SLR. IF you accept the notion that shooting a prime is important at first – though I emphatically do not – it would not be a 50mm prime, but the angle-of-view equivalent for a cropped sensor camera. This would be a roughly 31mm lens for a 1.6x crop factor body. (If this were not the case, 80mm would have been the “normal” prime FL on those early film cameras. It wasn’t.)

So, start out with kit zoom that is available for your new DSLR. Shoot a lot before you start buying a bunch of other lenses. See what happens. If it turns out that the kit lens really limits your photography, you’ll figure that out based on your experience with this lens – and you’ll also begin to more clearly understand the things that you might need in order to overcome any such limitations. Your interests and needs are likely to evolve in ways that you cannot accurately anticipate until you do a lot of shooting – a task for which the kit lens is perfectly suited.

As you do this, one of several things might happen. A very large percentage of those who start with the kit lens find that it is really all the lens they need, and they do not get anything else. Others discover that the kit lens works well but that perhaps they want more “reach” for some subjects, at which point they look for a suitable longer focal length lens. Others might discover that they need something wider. Yet another photographer might discover that he/she is shooting a lot at one particular focal length, needs a larger maximum aperture, and needs a smaller camera/lens package – in which case a prime at that favored focal length might be useful. And there are many other possibilities that I can’t list here.

There’s always time for that prime later on if you discover you need it. I’m betting that most beginners won’t, but that those who do will figure it out soon enough and make a much smarter decision by waiting.

(Note of clarification for those who may read too quickly: A few people have misconstrued this article as being anti-prime or suggesting that there is something wrong with a 50mm lens. A more careful reading of the article will confirm that this is not the case. The context is entirely about the beginning photographers getting his/her first DSLR. Depending upon what sort of photography one eventually ends up doing, primes including the 50mm focal length may turn out to be very useful. As a matter of fact, I own more primes than zooms… though I do use the zooms more than the primes. That is probably a subject for another article. ;-)

© Copyright 2012 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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7 comments to Photographic Myths and Platitudes: New DSLR? Why You Do NOT Need a 50mm Prime

  • A 50mm lens on a cropped sensor would be an equivalent of 80mm not 31mm.
    A 50mm lens and some leg work is great: small and unobtrusive, cheaper, better quality and large apertures no zoom can match.
    Last holiday I took only a 50 and 20mm lens with me to Jordan, and the photos were terrific.
    Herwig

    • Herwig:

      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. The point about the 31mm and 50m lens is that if a cropped sensor camera user was looking to replicate the functionally of the “normal” 50mm prime on the old film 35mm film SLR cameras, he or she would put a lens with a focal length of about 31mm on a cropped sensor camera. You are, indeed, correct to observe that putting a 50mm prime on a cropped sensor body is the angle-of-view equivalent of using a 80mm focal length on the older bodies. (There is a reference to this in my article, too. Perhaps you overlooked it?)

      There are certainly some situations in which a 50mm prime is useful. That’s why I own one. However, the context of my post is not about the general value or usefulness of 50mm primes – it is specifically about the unimportance of such a lens for a typical beginning first-time cropped sensor DSLR purchaser. For these people the prime is not a very good place to start, for reasons including those that I outlined in my post. Besides, any newbie with a typical kit zoom will have the 50mm focal length covered with that lens.

      As for leg work, I hear that a lot. Sometimes it is offered up as if there is some greater moral value in moving closer to the subject by walking, and with a suggestion that those who use zooms do so just so that they can stand in one place and shoot without moving. In reality, those who use zooms with greater understanding of what they do realize that this is rarely the reason for a zoom. In fact, I move around a lot more when I shoot with a zoom than when I shoot with primes – I have an additional variable that I may employ in creating a composition, namely focal length. This has all sorts of powerful uses – compressing (or not) the features of the primarily subject, compressing or expanding the sense of distance, controlling the relative sizes of subject and foreground and background objects, permitting greater control of specifically what is behind the subject, the ability to include or exclude foreground elements, and more. With a given subject size in the frame, a prime does not allow the photographer access to all of these useful or even critical compositional variables.

      But, I digress. Those are subjects for photographers who are a bit further along the path than the people I was writing about, namely beginners purchasing their first cropped sensor DSLR and sort of feeling their way into photography – people who do not yet know their preferences or the reasons for choosing one type of lens over another. And, frankly, people who mostly want to enjoy the fun of making photographs. If that turns out to appeal to them, their interest may well grow beyond the capacities of the kit zoom, but we don’t know that this will happen, and if it does happen we cannot predict the directions in which their photographic interest will expand.

      I don’t doubt that a photographer who has developed an affinity for shooting that way can produce excellent work with a 50mm prime or even with only primes. In fact, for some of my photography, I also go out armed only with a prime or two or three. But that’s me. I’m not a beginner. Nor are you. ;-)

      Dan

  • RENJNo Gravatar says:

    Worth noting that a 50 1.8 lens is much better for indoor portraits than a kit lens. When I first started shooting I loved using a 50mm on my T1i to take pictures of my kids in the house.

  • RobNo Gravatar says:

    I would respectfully disagree.

    On an APS-C a 50mm prime is roughly a 75mm – close to the 85mm that is so good for fashion/portrait photography. Given that people – friends and family – are major subjects for most beginning photographers, this isa great focal length.

    One of the big differences between a DSLR and a P&S/Super Zoom that many people are upgrading from is depth of field. A fast fifty exposes photographers to the magic that happens when you use f/2 to create a beautiful out of focus area behind your subject.

    That same fast lens opens the world of low light photography that is closed to the P&S crowd. Toss in the modern sensors with low noise up to ISO 1600 or more and you can shoot in near darkness without resorting to using a flash.

    Finally, a prime forces you to move to reframe your image. It teaches you to see the picture before you put your eye to the viewfinder.

    Personally I recommend getting a 50mm and a 35mm prime. 50mm as a short tele/portrait lens and 35mm as a “what you se is what you get” lens since is closely matches the human eye.

    JMHO

    • A few commenta:

      First, it is important to keep in mind that my advice is to new, beginning DSLR buyers who either have no real concrete idea yet about what sort of shooting they will do, or who have a general idea that they want a better camera to shoot whatever they will shoot. This is not advice for those who have already learned from experience what their photographic preferences and equipment needs are. Also, this is not generic anti-prime advice. As I wrote earlier, for my own photography and my personal work I have acquired a set of lenses that includes more primes than zooms. your mileage may vary, as they say.

      That brings up another issue about recommendations to new photographers. There is a lot of good advice floating around, but there is some that is less helpful. One species of less-helpful advice is that which simples and uncritically repeats old nostrums because, well, that’s what people have always said. A second sort of problematic advice comes from recommending “what I use” to people whose needs are not at all like yours/mine.

      Arguments about 50mm being a useful focal length are, in and of themselves, essentially irrelevant – the kit lenses I’m recommending to beginners include the 50mm focal length. 50mm is among the focal lengths which can, indeed, be useful – which is why the kits zooms include it! ;-)

      As to the argument that beginners need the larger maximum apertures of the prime alternatives, there is quite a bit to say about that. First, while certain types of portrait photography may eventually make effective use of larger apertures, they are far less necessary overall than some imply, especially at this point and for these photographers. In fact it is somewhat rare to shoot portraits at the very largest apertures given the issues they cause with extremely narrow DOF. Apertures provided by the kit zooms are more common even in more advanced photography.

      The notion that you must shoot with a prime to learn composition is a bizarre one indeed, especially when coupled with the pseudo moral implication that there is something more “serious” or “professional” about using primes. I wont say more about that here since I addressed it in the original article. There are reasons to use primes, but they are not these reasons.

      And keep two other things in mind. A beginner who has a desire to try out single focal length shooting – to see whether or not is is for him/her – can turn the zoom ring to 50mm and leave it there! Secondly, and of perhaps even greater importance, folks buying their first DSLR, for the most part, want to have fun with their new camera, not engage in some restrictive ritual of initiation.

      Take care.

      Dan

  • RobNo Gravatar says:

    I think we are pretty close on most points but I want to be clear that I dont advocate not using a kit zoom, I just think that a 50mm prime and 35mm prime are excellent first/second additions to the standard kit zoom.

    I absolutely agree that the standard 18-55mm kit zoom includes both the 35mm and 50mm lengths of primes I recommend. In fact, every zoom can be a defacto prime doing what you say – leave the zoom alone. I have done personal projects where I forced myself to shoot with just one length on a zoom and I have done “one lens” days to make myself move rather than change lenses.

    On there other hand, unless you crank it to the limits on either side, you dont get the forcing function of learning to take what you see and turn it into an image at a set focal length.

    The kit lenses are almost universally f/3.5-5.6 meaning in the 50-55mm range users are limited to f/5.6. There is ah HGUE difference between f/1.8 and f/5.6. There is also a huge difference in sharpness between a kit zoom and a prime. Consider that most good primes are at their sharpest from ~3.5-5.6 where as a kit zoom i going to be sharpest at around f/8.

    I think you are absolutely right that most new DSLR owners want to have fun with their new toys. And most buy them because they have a more than passing interest in photography or they would stick with a P&S. Having made the jump to a DSLR, I think it would be unfortunate if they stuck to “just” the kit zoom – once they have learned the basics. A 50mm and/or 35mm prime is a good next step to open up new areas.

  • “On there other hand, unless you crank it to the limits on either side, you dont get the forcing function of learning to take what you see and turn it into an image at a set focal length.”

    Why would you want to do that? Choosing focal length is a primary, fundamental compositional tool that has all kinds of value. When I look at a subject and determine a composition, the next decision I most often make is about which focal length will be the best for that composition. There are fine reasons to use primes – and, again, I use them – but forcing someone to think in terms of one arbitrary focal length is not among them. It is as important to learn the effects of focal length on photographs as it is to learn the effects of shutter speed or aperture – and the only way to learn about this is to experiment with different focal lengths.

    I urge you to go back and carefully read my post for the context and primary point that it is making. I have nothing against primes – I own both 35mm and 50mm primes. It is entirely possible that a beginning DSLR shooter may eventually develop an interest in primes or zooms or macro or tilt/shift or another format… or decide that the kit zoom is all they need.

    Cropped sensor shooters are most certainly not limited to f/5.6, though there are aperture limits on cropped sensor bodies that tend to reduce the number of useful smaller apertures as diffraction blur sets in while stopping down. My recommendation is to be cautious about apertures smaller than f/8, though there are situations in which f/11 will be fine… especially in the context of the type of shooting my article focused on.

    And no one, certainly not me, is suggesting that beginners must “stick” to just the initial kit lens. In fact – again a reason to reread my article – one of the very reasons I recommend the kit lens is so that they can gain some experience with this lens that will help them make smarter choices if and when they buy more lenses.

    My article is not about where people will end up – it is about my views of where the most effective place is to start.

    Take care,

    Dan

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