The one lens every DSLR owner needs

One of the first itches a new SLR owner gets is the one for “another lens!” You know it. You’ve felt it. You may have even scratched that itch once or twice!

I’m going to toss my two cents on the table here – given the relative good quality of the lenses that come with cameras these days (commonly called “kit” lenses) I would first suggest that anyone who gets a new or new to them DSLR go out and shoot a few hundred photos and become familiar with all of the modes on their camera, or at least the M, A (or Av, for Canon users), S (Tv), and P modes. If you only ever use your camera on the full program mode, you’re selling your creativity short. You’ll almost always get generally acceptable pictures, but will miss out on an entire universe of creative possibilities.

Once you know the camera, or before that, there’s that hankering for a “new” lens. Some people like the gear, or the collecting, or even think they’ll take better photos with a different lens…

My suggestion is simple: Get a 50mm f/1.8. Every image in this post was made with the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 that is almost always attached to one of my bodies.

Canon makes one. Nikon makes one. I’m sure the other major brands do as well. I can’t speak for the Canon one, I’m sure there’s plenty of info out on the web. I can speak for the Nikon. It’s a really good lens. Sharp. Fast. Small. I love shooting with the 50.

The 50mm “normal” lens is basically the lens that has come with 35mm cameras as the standard for decades. With that length of time invested, the lens makers have had plenty of time to both get it right and refine the manufacture… that translates to an inherently inexpensive and quality lens. 50’s are also “prime” lenses – one focal length, no zoom. Less glass and gears to mess things up. Single focal length primes are often inherently sharper and faster than zooms – but less convenient if you think on the level that relates to composing with zooms.

The 50mm, when used on a 35mm or full frame digital, has been said to best approximate what your eyes see with respect to the size and distance from the subject. Your eyes of course have a much wider field of view, but the perspective of the 50 on film and FX/full sized sensor cameras is a close match.

Most photo enthusiasts and many advanced shooters use cameras with smaller sensors than the size of 35mm, however.

What does that mean to you in normal language? Well, the 50mm lens doesn’t change what it sees, and was basically designed to cover the entire area of the 35mm film frame. Think of it like this: You may have a faucet or hose that sprays in the kitchen sink. A nice cone of streams of water. If you have a bowl in the sink that catches all of the spray perfectly, think of that like a 50mm lens on a full frame camera. Many of the normal DSLR’s have smaller sensor than that – a smaller bowl, so to speak.

What happens when you put a smaller bowl (sensor) in the same stream of water (light)?

Yep, you get a smaller area. So a 50mm lens on a DX or crop format actually shows less of the scene, effectively making it a medium-ish telephoto length. Many people will tell you that a 50mm lens on a smaller DSLR sensor camera looks like a 75mm on a full frame.

In English all that stuff I just tried to explain means is that you see stuff a little narrower and thus it appears a little bigger in the viewfinder than it used to when we used film, or if you have a high dollar camera… But I had to try to explain it a little.


Not using a zoom lens, for me, forces me to think. It forces me to be creative, to move around – “zoom with my feet.” I like that. If I want to fill the frame, I move closer, and empty it, further away. The fixed focal length makes me more conscious of the edges of my frame as well, and honestly, I believe I compose much more deliberately and thoughtfully with the fixed length.

What about the f/1.8 part? Well, those f/stop numbers are a couple of college photo classes in themselves and with everything being automated anymore we’d be hard pressed to find a manual lens with the f/stop and focus rings but think about it like this:

The lower the number, the less light you need to make an image, or the more light the camera will take in. We’ll talk about that in more detail some time in the future. The bottom line is f/1.8 will let in four times the amount of light that a standard 18-55 f3.5-5.6 will let in when it is at it’s 18mm/widest angle, and more than sixteen times the amount of light that lens would let in at the zoomed 55mm setting.

That’s a BIG deal.

You can hand hold the camera in darker lighting conditions and get awesome results. You also get pretty amazing bokeh as well, yet another future topic, I suppose, but when the subject of the image is clear and the background is blurry, the blur is the bokeh.

I use my 50 for just about anything – if you want to take better natural light portraits, this is the first thing I’d want after getting the camera and kit lens.

You want a new lens. You don’t want to spend a lot of money. Go get a 50mm f/1.8, and let me know how you like it. I promise, if you learn how to use it, you’ll be impressed, and your images will improve as well… Go shoot!


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