Recently I had a post about the 24mm focal length. Now it’s time for a different, less wide, focal length, namely the classical 50mm focal length.

What makes the 50mm a great focal length? First off, it’s just between the wide angle and the short telephoto lenses. This means that it has a great cover of subjects in the frame, and that things are not distorted drastically, while the background is not compressed due to the long length of other longer telephoto lenses.

In fact, the 50mm is considered to represent what it sees as close to how we ourselves see the world. The sizes of things, relative to each other, fits with what we see. Therefore the lens is very “realistic” in the way it shows the world.

An example is seen in this photo, which I took from the opposite side of the street from the subject. I have cropped it a little, but this is more or less how the photo was shot, besides being turned into black and white, and having some grain added to make it a little timeless.

A man sitting with a bottle of water at a table in southern Tel Aviv

The 50mm I use is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. The wide aperture allows it to take in a lot of light, and creates a great bokeh – the blurry background you often see in portrait photos.

While this is great for portrait photography, there are obviously other uses. Whenever you want a subject to stand out, but also want to give a sense of the subject’s surroundings, opening the aperture on the 50mm is a great solution. Using longer focal lengths will compress the background, making the surroundings harder to see, while using a shorter focal length can distort the subject, depending on how far you are from the subject. But getting too far away from the subject will make the depth of field (DoF) longer, putting more things in focus, and thus risking removing the bokeh effect otherwise desired.

This photo is an example, where I wanted to put the focus on the plant, but also allow the background to appear “normal”, though blurred.

Flowers sticking out between bars on a street in Florentin in Tel Aviv.

The 50mm lens and street photography.

This lens is in my eyes a perfect lens for street photography, since it makes it possible for you to both focus on subject and surroundings at the same time. It is not so wide that you need to get very close to the subject to make it stand out, but it’s still wide enough to include the surroundings for the story telling effect. Also, since it has one of the most open apertures of prime lenses, even for the fifty nifty version, of at least f/1.8, there’s great options for creative shooting with this lens. Do you want to make your subject stand out with blurry background, then that’s an option. Are you into shooting in night, then that’s also an option.

In this photo I managed to add surroundings to the subject, so we’re not only seeing an older man working on his piece of wood, but we can see that he’s working on the street, giving that extra dimension to the story.

A wood cutter preparing his products sitting on the street.

The 50mm and lowlight photography.

So as mentioned previously, one of the great things about the 50mm is that no matter which of the versions you use, the aperture will be very low. The fifty nifty version, that is, the cheapest of the lenses, can be opened to f/1.8. The more expensive Canon versions have f/1.4 and f/1.2.

This makes the lens great for lowlight photography, allowing a lot of light to enter, without having to make the shutter really slow or put the ISO so high so it will create a lot of noise.
Also, though this is a personal preference, using the lowest aperture allows some nice bokeh, which I really love for night life photography, as seen in the example of today.

A female soldier is sitting waiting for her bus to arrive, next to the Azrieli center, with the Azrieli bridge and Afrisquare building in the background.

The 50mm and architectural photography.

This is one of the times, where I feel that the 50mm isn’t great. Architecture is about the whole or the detail, which means that you either need to include the whole thing, or focus on specific details. And the 50mm doesn’t manage to do either.

Of course, you could move out, so you would be able to include the whole building or scene you wish to capture, but often you would have to move very far and loose immediate control over your composition.
You could also move in, in order to focus on the details, but you would have to get very close, and some details would be found places, which would be out of reach.

In the example I have shown the challenge, trying to capture the square tower of the Azrieli center in Tel Aviv, adding the bridge as frame. Even though I’m far away, I’m still too close with the 50mm. Had this been a wide angle lens, I wouldn’t have had a problem getting the shot.

A photo of the square center of the three Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv.

The 50mm as a portrait lens.

As a portrait lens the 50mm works great. On a full frame camera it works best for full body portraits, while it works better for half-body portraits on a crop sensor camera, due to the cropped effect of the 50mm – which obviously also is the case for all the other examples above. As can be seen below on the photo of my son in his kindergarten, the 50mm length manage to have his upper body, while still adding from the surroundings, giving context to the photo.
Of course, it is possible to stand nearer or further away, but keep in mind that this will influence either cause distortion, or how much background you add, making it harder to control your composition. Had I been further away in this example, I would have had parts of other kids added to the photo. You see part of a person in the lower right corner, but in this case she is so blurred because of the bokeh, that she doesn’t disturb the overall composition. Standing further away would have made her more in focus and more visible.

Micha standing with a piece of gift wrap, looking at something going on in front of him.

So this is the 50mm focal length. Is it a focal length you like to use? How do you use it? Let me hear in the comments!