by Alex Wrigley
Decades ago (wow, I feel old), before the days of digital photography, all SLR cameras used to ship with a single prime lens – A nifty fifty lens.
To the uninitiated, a nifty fifty is a 50mm prime lens, typically with a wide aperture such as f/1.8 or f/1.4. It offers a focal length with a similar perspective to what the human eye sees, which is one of the reasons it’s always been a popular choice!
Now, we live in the days of superzoom lenses, blindingly fast prime lenses, and all manner of other incredibly advances pieces of glass.
Yet here I am… Recommending that a nifty fifty lens be the first lens you buy.
Click here to find more must-have lenses (for Nikon)
It doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting Nikon, Canon, Sony, or anything else for that matter – A 50mm prime lens undoubtedly offers the best bang for your buck.
Let’s take the supreme Nikon 50mm f/1.8G as an example – It’s one of the top rated lenses on DxOMark but comes in at a fraction of the price of most of the lenses around it. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM is even cheaper and just as good in the quality department too!
If you search for lenses with a launch price of under $300 on DxOMark guess what you find…
That’s right – the Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 is at the top of the pile, and six of the top eight lenses sub-$300 are variations of the nifty fifty.
Take a look below and you’ll find something to suit your camera. The Sigma and Fuji options are a little more expensive, but the Sigma is a professional quality ART lens with a f/1.4 maximum aperture and the Fuji offering is another top quality lens.
But why are they so cheap?
I mean, look at the price of that Yongnuo nifty fifty. It’s ridiculous!
The reason these 50mm lenses are so cheap is simply because we are very good at making them. The familiar perspective, long history of use, and lack of zoom makes them easy and cheap to manufacture.
Want an upgrade?
We’ll get on to the versatility of the nifty fifty lens in a minute, but if you’ve got some cash burning a hole in your pocket you might be interested in upgrading from the cheapest options on the market.
You can pull that little extra bit of low light performance from your 50mm prime by going for a f/1.4 version instead of the traditional f/1.8. These professional grade lenses often have a better build quality and image quality than their little brothers, but of course you have to pay that bit extra.
Still, for the quality of lens you get they’re still incredibly good value for money. The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM in the table above is in the top 10 of all lenses on DxOMark, and the Sony 55mm Carl Zeiss offering below is the 3rd best lens that DxOMark have tested.
A standard prime lens is perhaps the most versatile lens around. The 50mm focal length can be useful in pretty much every genre of photography going (perhaps wildlife photography is an exception.)
Landscapes? No problem.
Weddings and portraits? It was made for them.
Street photography? Perfect.
I’m serious – A nifty fifty offers the perfect balance in focal length. It’s wide enough to capture the context of a scene, whether it be a landscape or portrait, but long enough to be able to bring focus to your subject.
Also, the perspective a 50mm focal length offers is very similar to that of human vision. That means no distorted faces because of too wide an angle.
Even if you’re a complete beginner in photography and have only taken a brief look into the lens market it’s likely you’ll have noticed something.
Wide maximum apertures come with a hefty price tag. That makes shooting in low light a real issue unless you have some deep pockets to dig in to.
The one exception to this is the standard prime lenses in the 35-85mm range, as we’ve already discussed above.
F/1.8 and f/1.4 are the two most commonly offered maximum apertures on the nifty-fifty market, and that’s a whole world apart from the f/5.6 offered on most kit lenses these days.
To put it into perspective, a cheapo 50mm f/1.8 lens can gather over eight times more light than your 16-55mm kit lens set at 50mm!
This makes them perfect for things such as natural light portraiture, weddings, street photography (where a fast shutter speed is often needed) and general low light photography.
Yes, we do keep banging on about the simple construction of the nifty fifty lenses, but it really is important.
Not only does it make them cheap, but it also makes them nice and compact.
A 50mm f/1.8 lens is tiny compared to all of those zoom lenses you’ve got your eye on. Not only that, but it’s light as well, making it the perfect companion when you’re just wanting to shoot on the move and cover ground quickly and easily.
However, it’s the discretion it offers that is my favourite aspect.
Do you know how many people stare at you when you’re shooting some street photography with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens?
Yep, all of them.
How about when you’ve got a compact 50mm attached to your camera? Not very many at all, it turns out.
Simply put, a giant telephoto zoom makes you stand out like a sore thumb. A compact little prime, on the other hand, lets you blend into the crowd and capture those candid moments needed to tell a real story through your photography.
Even when you take the budget price tag out of the equation, it’s undeniable that the best 50mm lenses are incredibly good quality.
Honestly, compare a shot from a nifty fifty with one from your kit lens and you’ll be staggered at the difference in image quality.
We’ll go back to DxOMark for some cold, hard figures now. The sharpest zoom lens they have tested is the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS with a score of 38. It costs $2600.
The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art below? Well, that scores a mighty 40 on the sharpness scale and costs less than half that of the 70-200mm above.
How about the even cheaper options? The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM comes in at a very respectable 29 in sharpness. Just look at that price difference!
Of course, comparing a 70-200mm telephoto to a couple of standard primes is a simplistic way of looking at things. Sometimes you simply need that extra focal reach, but it’s a telling illustration of just how sharp these lenses are.
I know when I started out in photography I couldn’t understand why anybody would choose to use a lens that didn’t zoom.
As you can see here, I’ve changed my tune somewhat.
Prime lenses are wonderful. Not only are they better value, high quality, small, light, and fast, but they can actually help you to improve your photography.
Read the link above for more on that, or you can just take my word for it.
Many newcomers to the photography world were drawn there in the first place by the tantalising prospect of those creamy and beautiful out-of-focus backgrounds.
The way this background renders is known as Bokeh.
You can read more about that and many other common terms in our Photographer’s Glossary here.
However, some of these newcomers will have been disheartened to learn that you need a wider aperture than the kit lens can provide to get that gorgeous background bokeh.
A nifty fifty lens offers a cost effective and high quality path into the world of bokeh. I mean… Just look at that background!
Make sure to sign up to our newsletter below to get notified about our upcoming article on creative bokeh hacks too!
I think it’s pretty clear to anybody reading that we’re quite in love with our nifty fifty lenses.
They offer an unbeatable balance when it comes to cost, size, weight, and image quality. Not to mention their versatility and the fact that they almost force you to become a better photographer.
However, there’s one more thing we need to address, and that’s sensor size.
You can read a quick guide to sensor size in our Best Cameras for Landscape Photography article, but the gist of it is that your sensor size matters!
For example, a camera such as the Nikon D5300 is an APS-C sensor camera (cropped sensor), and as such the effective focal length is different to that of full-frame cameras.
Here’s all you need to know – A 50mm lens will act more like a 75mm lens on an APS-C camera.
What can you do about this? Easy – Go for a wider focal length if you’re shooting APS-C.
All lens manufacturers offer fantastic quality prime lenses that work beautifully on APS-C cameras. A focal length of 30-40mm is what you want to aim for, so take a look at some of our recommended lenses below.
For what it’s worth, that Nikon 35mm f/1.8G is without a doubt my favourite lens I’ve ever owned and I would recommend it to anyone with a Nikon APS-C camera!
About Alex Wrigley
Alex is the owner and lead writer for Click and Learn Photography. An avid landscape, equine, and pet photographer living and working in the beautiful Lake District, UK, Alex has had his work featured in a number of high profile publications, including the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year, and Amateur Photographer Magazine.