Why would anyone spend $50 on a lens that's almost certain to be soft, noisy, and slow to focus? Let me tell you: because it's awesome. If you're new to photography, have a tiny budget, or have never owned a prime lens and want to see what the fuss is about, this is where to start.
Having shot sports, landscapes, and architecture for so long, I never felt the need to buy a 50mm prime, relying on my 24-70mm for occasional portraits, figuring that f/2.8 was probably enough. Then, a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon the Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 (Canon and Nikon mounts available), and given that Canon's 40mm prime has brought me so much joy, I figured I'd give it a punt.
Wow. What a glorious piece of tat. This lens is wonderful. Sometimes you might question whether you actually remembered to peel the protective plastic film from the front element when you first took it out of the box, but it's still fantastic.
For anyone unfamiliar with lenses, apertures and "fast glass," here's a quick explanation. A wider aperture (i.e., a lower number) creates a shallower depth of field. This is often used to separate a subject from the background (the subject is nice and sharp, the background is all blurry), thus removing distractions and creating a cinematic feel. This is why photographers get excited about lenses with really wide apertures, often showing particular enthusiasm for lenses that create pleasing orbs of light from any small highlights in the background that have been thrown wildly out of focus.
Ideally, every photographer would kit themselves with a 24-70mm f/1.2, but sadly, thanks to physics, such a lens doesn't exist. For a zoom lens, the widest you will find is f/2.8 (though Canon has recently announced the 24-70mm f/2.0 for their shiny new EOS R full-frame mirrorless camera), so photographers shooting people tend to keep a selection of fast primes in their bag instead. At one end, a 24mm can be great for environmental portraits (i.e., incorporating a lot of the location) but will distort features if you use it for close-ups, while 135mm is more suited for tighter compositions. In between, you'll typically find 105mm, 85mm, 35mm and, of course, 50mm.
As I'm just discovering, 50mm is a magical length, as detailed in Evan Kane's wonderful article last week. As he wrote about the Canon version, "it's hard to make a case against owning one of these." And if you need even more reasons to bag yourself a 50mm prime, check out this video from portrait and fashion photographer Julia Trotti.
The Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 is a relatively new competitor to Canon's own budget lens of the exact same specifications (perhaps even too close a copy). Budget primes are plentiful, but what makes the Yongnuo so unique is the fact that, despite its bargain-basement price, it offers autofocus, making it infinitely easier to use when opening it up to its widest aperture. When shooting at f/1.8, a lot of photos will be out of focus, and having autofocus dramatically increases the odds of grabbing something sharp (for me, at least!).
What's surprising is how well it performs given the price. Feedback seems to vary, but a couple of reviews suggest that it is as sharp, if not sharper, than Canon's own 50mm f/1.8 which, though still refreshingly affordable, is more than twice the price. That said, the Yongnuo is definitely not a sharp lens, but for $50, what do you expect? Somehow, a few people have still left one and two-star reviews online, mysteriously expecting high performance from a piece of equipment that's the same price as a tank of gas.
So just how soft is it? I've been playing with this lens in the forests of Fontainebleau for the last week and, well, it's pretty soft a lot of the time, especially in the corners and at certain focal lengths. Admittedly I've been shooting almost solely at f/1.8 (shooting anything else seems pointless!) and giving it some pretty tough tests, pointing it directly into afternoon sunlight at every opportunity (though I'm sure my focusing still requires a lot more practice). Like many lenses, the Yongnuo will spend a bit of time searching if there's a lot of light entering the front element, and the autofocus is noisy and slow. Do I care? Not at all.
So who would buy this lens? Firstly, portrait newbies like me who don't own a 50mm prime and want something cheap to play with. I'll keep bugging my friends and family for portraits (an area where I have no real experience), and throwing the occasional shot on social media. Many of them probably not worth printing but the vast majority are more than sharp enough for Instagram.
Secondly, anyone new to photography will have an amazing time learning about apertures by using this lens. Those with their first camera typically start out with a kit lens that features a variable aperture, meaning that the longest end of the lens allows the widest aperture of only f/5.6 — and, as discussed above, this is not what you want for non-studio portraits. Instead, you could be shooting your friends and family at f/1.8, and publishing those photos to Instagram (maybe with a quick orange and teal filter), and making everyone look like movie stars.
So, I beg you, if you don't own a prime, treat yourself to a Yongnuo. When first released, you had to track it down on eBay and wait for it to arrive from China. Three years later, you can now pick up both the Canon mount ($45.97) and the more recent Nikon mount ($66.50) from the likes of B&H Photo. Of course, often with photography, it's a case of buy cheap and buy twice, but sometimes there are good reasons to go for a budget option.
If you own the Yongnuo 50mm, please share some of your favorite shots in the comments and let us know your thoughts. Feel free also to share more of your nifty fifty shots from other affordable lenses. There is a load in last week's 50mm article that I mentioned so be sure to check out the thread for some inspiration.