Using a fixed focal length lens for learning?

19Apr08

In my entry about Technology and the balance between camera and lens, forkboy1965 commented about Ken Rockwell suggesting that beginners to photography should learn how to “see” by starting with a fixed focal 50mm f/1.8 lens.

It’s Mr. Rockwell opinion, so I’m inclined to disagree with him right from the get-go. And I did. Why buy a fixed-focal lens in this day and age of incredible zooms, when you can buy a latter and just use it at 50mm?

Some further thought showed that he’s not all wrong after all.

Why you don’t need a fixed-focal 50mm f/1.8 lens

As I indicated above, just buy a decent standard zoom lens and shoot only at 50mm. You force yourself to learn how to “see” with the 50mm, and build some discipline in the process of not using the zoom. In fact, with the zoom, you can do the same thing with any focal length available on that zoom lens. How about learning the see with a portrait lens focal length of 85mm? You probably got it. How about seeing with a normal wide-angle lens of 24mm? It’s not that wide, but you probably got it with that zoom too. In the longer run, you don’t have to buy a zoom lens with you’re “ready”. You already have it.

Why you need a fixed-focal 50mm f/1.8 lens

The biggest reason I can think of is that the lens provide is a very nice shallow depth-of-field. Zoom lens typically start at f/3.5 or worse, which is 1-1/2 stops less than the 50mm f/1.8 lens. In many situations, having a shallow depth-of-field is crucial to isolating your subject from the background. Depth-of-field is very important for portraits and artistic shots among other things. With a typical zoom, you lose this because of the smaller starting aperture, and most of your image becomes in focus because of that. THis could possibly adding clutter to an otherwise incisive shot. A lesser reason is that once you have that zoom lengths, you’ll likely be zooming all over anyway. Not too many people have the discipline to only use one focal length when there are so many to choose from. “I can only pick ONE candy from the basket???”

A side effect of having the 50mm f/1.8 lens is that there might be a time when you’d actually want to use it when you get better at “seeing”. The large aperture captures more light, and allows you to shoot in lower light situations without tripod or flash. However, this isn’t part of the initial learning, but it’s something you might end up doing down the road.

My story

I started off with a zoom lens with my first Nikon SLR, the F401 (also known as the N4004). I learnt to see with it, albeit not through forcing myself to use any particular focal length. Over the years, I’ve figured out what focal lengths I liked and how to quickly pick the right lens for the situation, although I’m still working on the vision and creativity aspect of photography. I’ve updated several times to better zooms simply because i wanted better depth-of-field control and sharper images. My current standard zoom lens is the excellent (and highly acronym-ed) AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8G ED lens, except that it was missing the VR in the name. It exceptionally sharp and contrasty, and too big and expensive. And yes, along the way, I also got myself a 50mm f/1.4 lens just to shoot low light.

Maybe I should’ve started with the 50mm f/1.8 after all.

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