The 50mm Focal Length: Boring

For years I have held a strong distain for the 50mm focal length.

Inexplicably, I hitherto had never ranted about it here.

To me, 50mm is an utterly useless and boring focal length, and I do not quite understand why so many people bother with it.

On the 35mm camera system, 50mm is considered a ‘standard’ focal length, meaning that its focal distance is approximately equivalent to the diagonal length of the focal plane (film or sensor).  A 35mm sensor or film frame measures 43.3mm diagonally.

The problem with the 50mm focal length, for me, is that it is neither wide (which I love), or long (which I love).  It doesn’t provide an interesting view in the form of a wide vista of a picturesque scene, and it doesn’t provide a close view of the details of a distant subject (such as the face of a lion or leopard from a distance).

Perhaps what appeals about 50mm to many people is the fact that one can buy a fast prime cheaply.  A 50mm f/1.8 lens is very inexpensive, which gives people an easy and cheap entry point into the world of fast lenses and prime lenses.

Decades ago, 35mm SLR cameras came with 50mm lenses — 50mm was the ‘kit lens’ of the day.  Sure, there are 50mm lenses with wider apertures of f/1.4f/1.2, f/1 and even f/0.95; but the purchase price exponentially rises with each third-, half- or full-stop.

While I find 50mm useless on a 35mm camera system, I also find it useless on an APS-C camera, as the focal length provides a field of view equivalent to 75mm (Nikon) or 80mm (Canon), which for general photography, and indeed many specific types of photography, makes it a ‘no-man’s-land’ focal length, and quite an uninteresting one at that.

It’s good for portraiture in terms of framing, but it is to be remembered that it is still a 50mm lens, so it is not as effective at achieving flattering portraits as an actual 85mm lens.  All an APS-C camera does, when a full-frame (135-format; aka 35mm) lens is mounted on it, is crop the view (ie, the smaller sensor cannot ‘see’ the entire, larger imaging circle of the lens).  The focal length is not magnified.  The only way to get the magnification of a longer lens is to use a longer lens.

Perhaps people who engage in street photography or portraiture (with an APS-C camera) might find 50mm useful, but in my experience, it’s not at all useful for anything I shoot.  I love my 85mm lens, but it tends to get used only for portraits, and it gives me the actual benefits of the focal length, including, but not limited to, the framing.

So there you go: a few thoughts on what I consider to be the most boring focal length in the known universe.


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