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.
|Brand||Length & Speed||Sensor Size||Filter Size||Lens Hood Included||Street Price|
|Canon||50 mm F 1.2 *||1x||72 mm||Yes||$1480|
|50 mm F 1.4||1x||58 mm||No||$350|
|50 mm F 1.8||1x||52 mm||No||$100|
|Nikon||50 mm F 1.4 G *||1x||58 mm||Yes||$485|
|50 mm F 1.4 D||1x||52 mm||No||$360|
|50 mm F 1.4||1x||52 mm||No||$135|
|35 mm F 1.8||1.5x||52 mm||Yes||$200|
|Sigma||50 mm F 1.4 *||1x||77 mm||Yes||$500|
|30mm F 1.4 *||1.5/1.6x||62 mm||Yes||$440|
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.