Benefits of the Fixed Normal Lens

Around the time I started photographing more than 50 years ago, the kit lens that came with virtually very SLR was a 50 mm lens. (My first SLR, by the way, was a Mamiya 35 mm body with a Canon 50 mm F 1.8 lens.) For years a “good system” consisted of a 35 mm camera with three lenses: a 35 mm, a 50 mm, and a 135 mm. All three of these lenses are considered “fixed” lenses which means they do not zoom.  To change focal length you put on a different lens.  When zoom lenses first hit the market some time later, they were of subpar quality; in fact, most professionals preferred fixed normal lenses and didn’t even carry a zoom. Today it’s quite the opposite, the quality of  zooms have greatly improved.  Most amateurs only use zoom lenses, and most pros have at least one in their collection. Given the popularity of these versatile lenses, many people who are new to photography have never used a fixed normal lens. I think everyone should have—or at least try— one, as there are many virtues of this compact lens.

On a full frame sensor a 50 mm lens is considered a normal lens. While on a smaller APS-C sensor camera a 35 mm lens will give you the same apparent perspective as a 50 mm due to the 1.5x or 1.6x crop factor inherent in those sensors.

While most photographers today carry zoom lenses that have the same focal length as a normal fixed lens (50 mm), I still believe there’s merit to carrying a normal fixed lens in addition to your zoom for the following reasons:

  • Most normal fixed lenses are pretty inexpensive yet have high optimal quality because they are fairly easy to design and manufacture.
  • A fixed normal lens is usually quite fast (i.e. it allows more light into your image), so in most cases it is easy to use without a flash or tripod. You can shoot in very low light with a lens wide open by raising your ISO. The most inexpensive normal lenses are usually F 1.8, which is fast; then comes the F 1.4, which is even faster; followed by the fastest, the F 1.2 for very low light. Because of the extreme speed of the latter, it is heavier and more expensive. There are also macro/micro normal lenses, usually F 2.8, which can be used for close-up work. I am not covering these in this list, however, because they are slower and, in my opinion, not as appropriate for macro photography as the longer Macro/Micro lenses (90 mm, 100 mm, 105 mm). A fixed normal lens, on the other hand, is usually lightweight and a great lens to keep on your camera because you can work without a flash or tripod in low light.
  • A fixed lens may make photographers work a little harder to achieve the composition they seek. For most, this challenges us to become more adept and creative. Years ago, I gave an assignment to my students to shoot an entire roll exclusively using a fixed normal lens. They all deemed the exercise a challenge, but also a great learning experience. As such, if you purchase one (which I recommend), take it out for a full day of shooting—no other lenses allowed. Notice the ways in which you are stretched technically and artistically.
  • For people photography, especially documentary or photojournalism, a fixed normal lens is useful because it is small and therefore less conspicuous than larger lenses. This is an excellent attribute, as people are less intimidated and therefore more willing to have their pictures taken, which allows shots otherwise impossible with larger, more obtrusive lenses.

When using my SLR, no matter what other lens I have with me, I always have my fixed normal lens (a 50 mm F 1.4). If you have never used a fixed normal lens, you will probably be amazed at how seldom you’ll need a flash for informal get-togethers such as holidays and family gatherings. In these settings, natural light (window light, ceiling light, lamps, campfire) is preferable to the light cast from a flash. To try shooting in these conditions, raise your ISO to 400 or higher and put your exposure mode to “aperture preferred”; then go to your largest aperature (smallest number, like F. 1.4 or 1.8) and I promise, you’ll be amazed by your shutter speed, which will be high enough to eliminate the need for a flash. For all these reasons, the fixed normal lens is a good bet, and there’s a good chance it will change the way you shoot for the better!

The following is a current list of fixed normal lenses for the most common camera brands.

BrandLength & SpeedSensor SizeFilter SizeLens Hood IncludedStreet Price
Canon50 mm F 1.2 *1x72 mmYes$1480
50 mm F 1.41x58 mmNo$350
50 mm F 1.81x52 mmNo$100
Nikon50 mm F 1.4 G *1x58 mmYes$485
50 mm F 1.4 D1x52 mmNo$360
50 mm F 1.41x52 mmNo$135
35 mm F 1.81.5x52 mmYes$200
Sigma50 mm F 1.4 *1x77 mmYes$500
30mm  F 1.4 *1.5/1.6x62 mmYes$440

NOTES:

All lenses you own should have a hood to decrease lens flare and to protect the lens from damage should it be dropped or hit.

All of these lenses will fit APS-C size sensors, but with the 50 mm lenses the image will be cropped so the lens will appear longer than it is. These lenses will still have normal perspective and a depth of field of a 50 mm lens. The 35 and 30 mm lenses listed will only fit an APS-C sensor, not a full-frame sensor. For those accustomed to shooting a 35 mm camera, these lenses will give you approximately the same angle of view as a 50 mm lens on a full frame sensor—a benefit if you want a wider field of view and more depth of field with a smaller sensor.

If buying a sigma lens, specify the brand of camera on which it will be used.

*  These four lenses have a newer optical design and are likely to have higher resolution, especially when fully open.

These are B&H Photo’s current prices.

7 thoughts on “Benefits of the Fixed Normal Lens

Kate Cooper

I have just invested in a 135mm fixed lens and I’m delighted with it for all the reasons you mentioned, lighter weight, incredibly fast shutterspeed when opened up and no need for a tripod and such soft backgrounds when using a shallow depth of field.

Dennis

I have a question about this sentence: “All of these lenses will fit APS-C size sensors, but with the 50 mm lenses the image will be cropped…”
I’ve seen the word “cropped” used in that context in other places. Unless I’m misinformed, the image one sees through a DSLR viewfinder is no different from the image that’s recorded, right? By saying it’s cropped, it leads me to think the viewfinder will show more than what is recorded in the final image.
It would be like saying using a 200 mm lens on a 35 mmm film camera “crops” the image.
Not trying to be picky here; just trying to make sure I’m understanding things correctly.

BTW, my first 35 mm SLR was a Mamiya-Secor. But the lens was a Mamiya lens.

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Page Orb Pedde

Dennis,
Depending on the camera you have your viewfinder may or may not show you 100% of what will be recorded by the sensor. Most cameras that have the APS-C sensor do not have a 100% viewfinder but more like 95%, meaning that there is about 5% of the captured image that you did not see when composing your shot. This is a little different from the cropping that happens with an ASP-C sensor and a lens.
ASP-C sensors are smaller than a 35mm frame or a full size sensor. When you use a regular lens on a camera with a smaller sensor, a certain amount of the outside or edge of the image is cropped out. However, what you see through the view finder is what the sensor sees (with the exception of the viewfinder’s accuracy) and what you will ultimately capture. The cropping gives the image that you are viewing the appearance of being taken with a longer lens, this is the crop factor. You will probably not even notice the crop factor because of the fact that what you see in the viewfinder is pretty much what you will get. What is meant by the statement, “All of these lenses will fit APS-C size sensors, but with the 50 mm lenses the image will be cropped…” is that a 50mm lens normally does not magnify an image on a full size sensor whereas the crop factor, or sometimes called multiplication factor, of the ASP-C sensor will appear to magnify the final image by cropping it. For example, if you are using a 50mm lens on a Canon camera with the ASP-C sensor the image appears to have been taken with an 80mm lens due to the 1.6x crop or magnification factor. To figure out how the resulting image will be affected, multiply the lens length by the crop factor. If you are using a Nikon with the ASP-C sensor the crop factor is 1.5x. This is why you won’t get the full effect of wide angle lenses on a ASP-C camera. Even if you use a super wide angle 16mm lens your image will appear to be taken with approximately a 24mm lens.

Michael Moore

I recently got a Zeiss 50mm 1.4 for my Canon 7D, and love it. To the point it’s almost the only lens I use any more. In one other respect it also forces you to be more careful – it’s a manual focus lens.

Bob Wilson

FYI Nikon also offers a 50mm in a 1.2 – a little pricey, but from the comments on the B&H website worth it.

mandie

I recently purchased a 50mm 1.4 for my Sony 850 merely because of the lecture I heard by Neil while at Basic Photog class this past summer and its benefits to shooting people in low light (the example he used was kids around a christmas tree – typically using the flash gets rid of the lights on the tree, and not using the flash doesn’t have enough light). I haven’t tried it for the holidays yet, but am excited to! It was the ONLY lens I took to our Interstate Fair last weekend and in shooting the kids and the animals and the scenery, I must say I LOVED the outcome. It made me stretch my skills to get better composition, but the shots that came from this exercise where well worth it and much better than had I had my standard zoom lens…

Well worth the investment & very pleased with the “shoot all day” exercise…looking forward to using it more regularly now that I know it’s (and mine) hidden potential! :-)

camera digital slr

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