The Lens Every Beginner Photographer Should Buy

When you're first starting out in photography, the veritable plethora of pieces of equipment and specs lists can certainly be a bit overwhelming. Of all the options, you should absolutely consider picking up one of these lenses, however.

Coming to you from Adorama TV, this helpful video talks about low and mid-tier 50mm prime lenses, commonly referred to as "nifty fifties." If you just bought your first advanced camera, you might have gotten a kit that came with a lens like a 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 or something similar. And while, yes, that is a plastic barrel that houses a series of glasses elements that bring light to a focus and create an image, it has some serious limitations related to maximum aperture and image quality, as well as lacking the educational component of a prime lens. The nifty fifty is so popular because it's quite cheap compared to lenses of similar maximum aperture at other focal lengths, it's a good step up in image quality from a kit lens, it enables low light and shallow depth of field capabilities you wouldn't have otherwise, and it'll teach you a lot more about photography. Watch the video above for more on why they're held in such esteem. 

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Simon Patterson's picture

I bought a nifty fifty (ie 50mm f/1.8) some time after getting my entry level DSLR with kit lenses, and absolutely loved it. I've never had a mid range zoom since; I simply keep a 50mm f/1.4 lens instead, and forgo all other focal lengths between 35mm and 75mm.

However, I do tend to find the 50mm a little limiting when shooting candid family shots indoors on APS-C bodies. So now I recommend beginners go for a 35mm f/1.8 lens as their next lens after they buy their APS-C body with kit lenses.

Colin Shawhan's picture

Yes! Assuming you buy a 35 mm built for a full-frame the crop factor makes it 50-ish, close enough.

Simon Patterson's picture

I actually use a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 ("contemporary" version) on my APS-C travel camera, which achieves similar. I do like the slightly wider angle of the 30mm compared to 35mm, and the faster aperture.

But of course it costs twice as much as a 35mm f/1.8, so I tend not to recommend it to beginners so much.

Tony Clark's picture

The nifty 50 was my first lens and I upgraded to the 1.4 and then the L as my career grew. I suspect the 50L is my most used lens.

Jorge Cevallos's picture

I was very disappointed with my Nikon 50mm 1.4G, not becase of the angle of view, but because of sharpening issues. I received my NIKON 85mm 1.4G last saturday, and I couldn't be happier. This lens makes photography so easy, and my first clients with this lens were amazed at how good they looked. This lens has changed my perception of photography forever.

John Dawson's picture

Buy a vintage Nikkor 50mm f2 (yes f/2.0) AI-S MF. It's great!

Jorge Cevallos's picture

Thanks for the advice.

I have one of the vintage Nikkor 50mm f2's, not sure if it's the same one you mention, 45 years old, bought it in 1973 along with my Nikkormat. I used the Nikkormat for 26 years, using the 50mm for most of the pictures I took; it truly was a great lens, and I still have both it and the Nikkormat. One question, though, before I try mounting it on my D90 — can a manual-focus lens of that vintage be mounted directly onto a modern autofocus DSLR, or does it have to first be modified (I vaguely remember reading something several years back about a pin on the lens that possibly had to be filed off)? Also, as a couple others have posted, on a DX-format camera (such as my D90), you don't get the same experience with the 50mm as you would on a vintage SLR or a modern FX-format camera because of the 1.5 DX multiplier, which essentially makes my 50mm equivalent to a 75mm lens, possibly good for portraits, but much more limited otherwise, certainly much less than what the human eye sees. That's why, instead of a 50mm lens, I use a 35mm f1.8, which gives me a 52.5mm equivalent, much closer to the old 50mm.

John Dawson's picture

If it's an AI or AI-S it will fit fine, but non-AI lenses will damage your camera.

John Dawson's picture

Sounds like the same lens that I have. I use mine on my D750.

tiago tagawa's picture

I just hate 50mm. On FF and APS-C(works nice in 6X7). For an entry level gear, I guess people will be using a crop camera, so that 50mm will become something like a 75-80mm lens, which is I think is too narrow for most uses. A 24-35mm would be better for this scenario. I only have the 50mm f1.8, just in case all the others fail.

John Dawson's picture

You do know that 50mm is pretty much what the human eye sees, right?

On full frame, yes it replicates our perception pretty well. Some people find it can be a bit boring and stiff looking compared to 35 or 85mm.

No doubt it's a great lens for beginners on APS-C for the price though. It's on the wide end of what's typically used for portraiture but it really gets the job done. Compared to kit zooms, it's so much sharper and actually allows you to learn to use depth of field as a creative tool. I learned so much when I got a 50mm.

The way the human eye sees isn't directly analogous to any focal length for traditional photography, but if it was it wouldn't be 50mm it'd be 42mm... to which 50mm and 35mm are about equally close and have the same claim to equivalence, or at least would if your eye worked like a camera and you didn't have two of them. You can only see in high resolution anything in your fovea which covers around the same view as a 135mm lens per eye, but the 43mm measurement is based on a 'area of visual attention' which is a fuzzy measurement because outside of that 135mm sharp focus we're aware of movement out to almost 155 degrees for each eye - 4mm on full frame! If we accept that the somewhat arbitrary area of visual attention is that 43mm, then you still have two of those next to each other - so you'd have two /square/ 43mm images (taken with a 36mm x 36mm sensor / film area) placed next to each other and not completely overlapping depending on how close the subject is - if it's at infinity they should almost completely overlap, very close, they won't overlap much at all.. Regardless, this means the area of visual attention at most non-landscape distances should be wider than 43mm for a 'standard human' field of attention.

TLDR; No, 50mm is not 'pretty much what the human eye sees'

Simon Patterson's picture

Speak for yourself! 50mm on FF is closer to what my eyes/brain ordinarily take in than 35mm. My peripheral vision goes to almost 170 degrees though, which is very handy on the basketball court.

But I did find your comment very interesting and well written.

tiago tagawa's picture

Actually 50mm is the cheapest lens to make, and that's the reason why they shipped with old cameras kit.
By the way, human vision is not 50mm. This lens is considered a normal lens, because the sensor's diagonal is 43.27, and 50mm is the closest and cheapes to make.
135 film is based on cimema film, a APS-C type of frame, which the "normal" is about 28mm.
For me normal lenses are boring: no compression, no wide perspective.

John Dawson's picture

Amen! If you really want to save some serious jack, create great pics and learn a lot, go buy a vintage 50mm manual focus.

Ryan Mense's picture

50mm are the most boring, uninspiring lenses made. If you’re new, don’t feel like you need a one. I don’t know why there’s so much pressure in getting beginners to buy a 50mm. I was attracted to photography because I could create something interesting and different looking than the plain view world seen with my eyes. Nifty fifties work against that idea.

Simon Patterson's picture

I half agree with you and also vehemently disagree with you!

I agree with the aim of creating something interesting and different looking than the plain view of the world that my eye sees. My two favourite lenses are the 14-24 and the 150-600, which both naturally aid that aim.

But the third lens I commonly use is the 50mm.

I agree with you that 50mm on FF doesn't inherently provide any of the added interest that the other lenses do, over and above what our eyes can see. This is a given, because the 50mm focal length on a full frame body most closely replicates the field of view that our eyes naturally see (actually 45mm would be even closer but nifty 45 doesn't have the same ring to it).

However, my knowledge of that fact about the 50mm lens only serves to inspire me to use all the other photographic tools at my disposal, such as composition, position, observation, lighting, posing, timing etc. If I ever start to use my extreme angle lenses as a crutch to overcome my lack of composition, posing etc skills, then the 50mm lens removes the crutch and forces me to build my other photographic skills.

So not only do I find that the 50mm lens inspires and challenges me to become a better photographer, I love the fact it is a superb fast, sharp lens, all at a great price!

It is on that basis that I both use it and recommend it.

My first DSLR was/is a Nikon D7000 (small sensor). They didn’t make a good 24 (35 equivalent) so I splurged on the full frame f1.4 for my first lens forgoing the kit lens altogether. This lens is heavy and I’m paying for a lot of thrown away light (full lens on a small sensor camera). Now that I have the 10-24mm (15-36 equiv) I don’t use the 24 (35) often but when I do group portraits… they are ¡ amazing ! The soft backgrounds are wonderful. This was an extreme 1st lens purchase.

John Dawson's picture

For a beginner a good 50mm, if nothing else, serves as a serious inexpensive lightbulb.moment. It lets one see what is possible.

I remember my first shot with a "nifty fifty" after shooting with a crap kit lens. It was an epiphany. People had told me to invest in one, but i blew it off until "someday". After the epiphany I quickly started kicking myself for not doing it sooner.

Alex Cooke's picture

The "inexpensive lightbulb moment" is the perfect way to put it. It opens up a huge world of photographic capabilities, but I also think the focal length forces one to develop strong fundamentals before moving on to more exotic glass as it's devoid of the added compositional complexity of a nonstandard focal length. The educational scaffolding it enables makes it the perfect learning lens in my opinion.

John Dawson's picture

Preach it, brotha! ;-)

The most important thing is that it should be a manual lens only.

Simon Patterson's picture

More important than whether it succeeds in say transmitting light or if it fits to the camera body?! Hmmm...

David Keeth's picture

I would argue that lens manufacturers need to re-think this entry-level fixed focal length concept and update it for the modern market. The "nifty fifty" budget-minded 50mm f/1.8 should be replaced on APS-C bodies by the "thrifty thirty-five", a budget-minded 35mm f/1.4 to get roughly the same performance parameters.