Ok, this is quite a bold statement and may not be entirely true, but it could do a lot for your photography and maybe even get you out of that slump you’re currently in.
Firstly, I want to just say that I love zooms. As a photographer, I’ve used them extensively both for photo and video. Although people will say that the loss in quality over a good quality prime is significant, this is an entirely subjective standpoint.
I’ve taken great photos with that iffy zoom which is a tad soft in the corners and I’ve taken average photos with the super sharp red ringed beast. We have to agree, that if the subject is strong, then generally so will the image, regardless of MTF tables and resolving power.
So back to the title, what exactly is so good about a 50mm? Well, 50mm to me means 50mm on a full frame body, so it would be a 35mm on a crop sensor, or 25mm on M/43—anything that is called standard/normal.
You could equally go wider if you wish, and I would encourage it. Having a standard prime lens attached to your body allows you to get familiar with what it produces and its distinct characteristics.
While I can fill a head and shoulders within a frame the same with a 50mm as I can with a 28mm, they look different. Depth of field changes, distortion or lack of it becomes apparent. Lenses below 50mm have inherent characteristics that simply “zooming with your feet” can’t change, and understanding what these are, will allow you to understand photography and the impact it can create.
Certain photographers will only use an 85mm lens for their portraiture because they prefer the flatter profile it creates, whereas photographers like Bruce Gilden prefer to get within inches of someone’s face with a 28mm on the Leica because of the intimacy it creates.
So, Bruce Gilden with his 28mm, Cartier Bresson with his 50mm Sonnar—I often wondered why they used these specific lenses and stuck with them.
Was it because they couldn’t afford any others? No, it definitely wasn’t that.
Was it because they were lazy? Unlikely.
I think the camera became an extension of themselves, allowing them to immediately see a scene and know what it would look like frames within the frame lines of their rangefinder. This could have only been facilitated by spending a good deal of time with their chosen lens screwed onto their Leica.
What seemed like a limitation quickly gave way to a freeing vision of the world around them allowing them react without thinking of zooming or any other distractions that would take away from the scene they had composed in their minds.
This is not an anti zoom post, and I hope it hasn’t come across like that. There isn’t a rule as to who should use them and when. Ultimately, we will choose whatever is more convenient for us, what look we want and probably the one that drives most purchases: the cost.
However, there is a lot to be said for becoming one with a prime lens, nurturing your vision and almost instinctively knowing how whatever you choose to photograph will look within those framelines.
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