If You Don't Own a 50mm Prime Lens, Go and Spend $50 Right Now

If You Don't Own a 50mm Prime Lens, Go and Spend $50 Right Now

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.

The Yongnuo 50mm is a great affordable option as a first prime lens

Zofia, not happy about me getting excited about the light and asking her to stand still when she's itching to start climbing rocks.

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.

yongnuo portrait 50mm affordable prime lense

ISO 3200, f/2.8, 1/125 sec. Lenses with wider apertures allow you to shoot in limited light without having to crank the ISO as high.

The Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, great for portraits

100 percent crop. As you'd expect, it's slightly easier to hit focus at f/2.8 rather than f/1.8.

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.

yongnuo 50mm prime budget bargain lens

ISO 100, f/1.8 1/400sec. Lots of light bouncing around — tough conditions for a any lens, never mind one that costs $50.

A cheap lens that's worth all the money.

At 100 percent, achieving sharpness can be hit and miss. Right now, I don't need the quality so for $50, it's perfectly acceptable.

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.

Yongnuo 50mm prime, the cheapest prime lens with autofocus

ISO 100, f/1.8, 1/4000.

Violeta posing for my Yongnuo 50mm prime lens. Just $50!

100 percent.

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.

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44 Comments

"For a zoom lens, the widest you will find is f/2.8" Well technically Sigma has the 24-35mm f1.8..

Andy Day's picture

Aha! Wasn't aware of that one. Ta. :)

Tony Tumminello's picture

And the 18-35mm f1.8 ART, and the 50-100mm f1.8 ART.

Bodkin's Best's picture

Seems Andy missed more than a few...

Andy Day's picture

Ha. Indeed. 🤦🏻‍♂️😂

Matthijs Bettman's picture

The sigma is 24-35 F2 ;-)

Tyler Thomas's picture

Canon 28-70 f/2

OK, but I would seriously consider spending your $50 on something like a Minolta 55mm 1.7 (I know, 55mm), or any other nice vintage lens in that price range and focal length. Plus the adapter, of course. Soooo much more fun, and that particular Minolta lens is a gem. And then, you add your orange and teal filter and Bob's your uncle. :)

Edison Castejon's picture

Speaking as a beginner/hobby photographer, I really like this lens. It costs less than half the price of the official canon, but it has taught me a lot of things already. I promise you I'll never try to bring my shutter speed below my focal length again :). Except for being loud and a little slow while autofocusing, it takes decent pictures and any vignette or blur I ever notice on the edges usually gets cropped out anyways.

This kind of article seems like a paid article by the lens manufacturer.

And they are a lot of techniques to get that “shallower depth of field” without using fast 50mm. and it also depends on what is your camera sensor size too. If you use 1.5 crops, you will want to look at 28 or 35 mm so that you can get something close to 50mm on FF, etc.

Seriously, an article like this only ask you to buy the Chinese 50mm and that is all. they are a lot of legacy lenses at a similar price or even cheaper from many manufacturers which has a good build quality, sharper where it need to be sharped, better rendering than the lens in the article above. Do your homework before spending money.
I got a 40+ years old Pentax M50 f1.7 at around 40USD, read that lens review on the internet, its rendering and sharpness can easily beat any modern zoom or kit lenses at a similar focal range from any manufacturer. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Gerald Bertram's picture

I get your point there are a lot of great vintage lens out there. But the author here is talking about getting this lens for the new photog or new to primes. That in mind, suggesting buying one of if not THE cheapest autofocus primes I think it was spot on. When I first started that lens was the first lens I bought after growing out of my kit lens. It was a great, not to mention cheap, way for me to learn about primes. Then once my skills got good enough where it would make a difference I graduated to the Canon branded 50. And now I have gone down the rabbit hole of the huge array of prime lenses. But it all started with that Yongnuo that I got for the price of a dinner at Red Lobster with the wife.

Andy Day's picture

The you from a few years ago is exactly the person I was writing for. Thanks for that. 😊

Jon Dize's picture

I just cannot get past the fact that you find the above illustrated images as acceptable. FOR ANYTHING! I have never said that in my 43 years as a professional photographer, but... DAYHAAAAM! You're worried about Bokeh? DOF? The images look like they were shot through Saran Wrap. Do yourselves a favor and forget about the Bokeh and DOF, get a job cutting grass, doing lawn work, save up and buy a friggin' lens worthy of the minute and a half it took to set up the Saran Wrap used in those photos. I find this entire article unfriggin'believable. Lets buy the crappiest lenses we can, shoot images that look like they were shot through dirty car windows and then sit around and concern ourselves with max aps and Bokeh. LEARN THE CRAFT, can you really, honestly as ADULTS over the age of 17 not afford a $269 used quality prime lens? SERIOUSLY? https://www.adorama.com/us%20%20%201043951.html?gclid=Cj0KCQjw3KzdBRDWAR...

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Relax man, it's just a write up and clearly not meant for seasoned pros. Personally I would spend another $50 and get a used 50mm 1.8 from Canikon. However I can imagine some starving students who are just beginning their photography adventure who will appreciate saving those $50 even if Yongnuo is far from greatness. I assure you there are folks out there who are over 17 and cannot afford a $269 lens. Some people just have different circumstances and financial priorities.

David Robert's picture

John is so Rock n Roll though...... Lmfao. I love seeing comments from people like him. Up on their high horse just because they make money taking pictures. Seems he hasn't heard of the old saying "a good photo doesn't need to be taken with good gear, a good photo is taken by a good photographer". He clearly relies on gear. Oh and John, can't wait for your response.

Jon Dize's picture

David. Country gives me hives. Yeah, that making money thing, having lived a great life based on income generated through my photography... it is a horror nobody should have to endure, I agree. As I have told many young photographers I have met over the years. Yes! I have made a good living, far better than I ever expected from photography, but that is not what I remember most about my career. The ADVENTURES, places I have been, things I was privileged to see... THOSE THINGS are what I have found to be so memorable about my lifetime of photography as a profession. Nothing I would ever have chosen as a profession, would have allowed me to experience the amazing things I have been fortunate to have experienced over the years. MANY, not mentioned in print anywhere, known only to family and friends. Assignments seldom producing AMAZING shots, but images that satisfied the clients' needs and a healthy paycheck I was happy to receive. ------------- No! A good photo does not have to be taken with expensive gear. I agree! But that was not the conversation, nor was that my response. I addressed a horrible photo shot with horrible gear and commented on it being accepted as somehow, something other than a horrible photo taken with horrible gear. I try to take the best photos I can and still screw up and shoot crap sometimes. But to intentionally use a formula that produces more bad photos than good is a mindset I don't think any photographer should strive for. I shoot bad photos with great gear. I have seen excellent photos with bad gear. Sometimes the content is more important than the technical aspects... Man falling from World Trade Center Tower... nobody cares what camera was used, what lens or that it is unsharp. Content is the important factor in that photo, but... Do we strive to create the best photos we can or do we do everything we can go all but ensure ALL BUT ENSURE that the photos are going to be less than they could be? You commented, I responded, I know you will be compelled to spit a few more times, but lets not do this all friggin' week. I know there was nothing could type that would be agreeable with you, so... lets leave it at that.

Jon Dize's picture

David, I have been a professional photographer since 1973. I've heard virtually all of the sayings over the years. I addressed the equipment issue in a previous reply. (Attached link merely a photo of an old fart's nostalgia, but I am sure someone will find a reason to spit and spew on the photo as well. BEST BET IN VEGAS!)

http://dizeman.com/dizeman.1975/dizewho.jpg

Jon Dize's picture

You're funny! Childish, but funny. Clearly you spent some time searching through the images for perhaps the worst low resolution image, but that's okay, I understand your motivation and immature intent. The original image is a tad soft, not as much as it appears in this low res copy, I'd explain to you that it was shot over a friend's shoulder during a class with Playboy photographer David Mecey, who was demonstrating the lighting. I shot over his shoulder using only the 150 watt modeling lights of his strobe. NIKON D700 f/2.8 1/125 140mm ISO 4000 hand-held in which I did not expect to get a shot at all, just documenting the subject of the lesson. I am told there are better shots to choose from at http://dizeman.com but, I understand why you chose that one. Good choice! Immature motivation, but... Good choice! The image does suck, because it wasn't meant to not suck. Under the OBSCENE LIGHTING conditions of the moment, since I was not wired to the strobes, shooting with a long (70-200mm f2.8) lens and hands not all that stable at the time, I did in fact produce a shot that sucks. If my website was created to solicit sales. If I were still taking on commercial clients, I would never post that image on my site. I've had a good life, good career in photography since the age of 18 as described in my bio https://dizeman.myportfolio.com/about-bio, now at age 64, I don't shoot anything I don't want to, money is not an issue... I eat very well on a regular basis, live very well on a regular basis and I am sure if we were to sit down and search through the eight filing cabinets I have filled with nearly 3 million Kr-135 chromes, EPR 120 trans and VPSIII negs we would find a number of photos in there that suck as well. My sucky photos have provided a life I never dreamed possible, a very nice home, the ability to do and go wherever I want and adventures most Chesapeake Bay Watermen (my ancestry) never get to experience. As for FRIENDS? You don't even know what you don't know. My first two weeks on Facebook, I had 2,200 friends, but after a few months I deleted all but 126, because most were there not to friend me, but because I have a lot of celebrity and Rock & Roll friends/clients they wanted to get close to. So, I set them free. I have ZERO interest in FRIENDS, SUBSCRIPTIONS, in fact at 64, I have developed somewhat of an ALLERGY to humans of many flavors. They often give me hives! I am starting to itch typing this reply to you as a matter of fact. So, I will go look for the Benadryl and let you get back to your childish spit and spew. Yes! It would be equally childish of ME to go to your web page and find one of your SOFT and except for the subject matter... SUCKY photos to make a point. All of the imperfections you found in my SUCKY photo can also be attributed to YOUR SUCKY photo, but... hey you went to Brooks, so your SUCKY photos must be intentional, huh?

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/533e84e9e4b0b65c5350f553/5b44f499... Lets enlarge yours to the obscene size you enlarged mine and see how sharp your image appears. Oh, if I was half the DICK you imagine me to be, I would invoice you for downloading and using my photo. But I am not that guy. I can be, but I don't like being that guy. We all have less than perfect photos Capt. Brooks. The difference is, some of us don't know they are sucky and image them to be otherwise. Hell, ALL OF MY PHOTOS SUCK... TO ME! Just ask my wife. http://dizeman.com (A page I created for friends and those I meet along the journey... not a page I use to sell anything. I am retired. I may take some photos of my month in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England in June. They will probably suck as well.)

Fetching image ...
Jon Dize's picture

I should know better than even respond, but I have always been one to attempt to clarify and explain. A virus I caught at a young age. I know any response on my part is just more fodder for kidshit.

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

I didn't read any of that.

Jon Dize's picture

Of course not. That's the person you are. Take my photo down.

Jon Dize's picture

I've lived a very long time and the one thing I know with certainty... you read every word. Every word!

I would have been ecstatic to get any of those shots just starting out, that person being the target this article was aimed at. And for some people, myself of 10 years ago included, a $50 lens IS in target whereas a $300 lens might not be.

Jon Dize's picture

I hope your understanding of what is a quality image has improved as well as your lens budget. Sincerely!

Well yeah.. that's what tends to happen. And if a noob photographer came to me with those pics and asked me what I thought I'd be pretty happy for them.

There's always room to improve.

Duane Klipping's picture

Soft in the corners really? If people are looking in the corners of an image it was composed poorly. See too many pixel peepers doing this. Zoom to 100% and find every flaw possible and missing the image itself.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

Good point actually. There are certainly photos/situations which require corner-to-corner perfection but I also feel like way too many people discuss this aspect of lens declsign. Even if we assume the lens will be used for landscapes this means it will be closed down to f11 or so and this shoul provide plenty of sharpness across the frame.

David Downs's picture

You can buy a fine refurb, used, or vintage nifty-fifty any day for under $100 that will be far better than the Yongnuo and will be worth keeping long after you realize that you wasted $50 on the Yongnuo.

Andy Day's picture

Very true, though I'm not aware of any vintage lenses with AF. And part of opting for the Yongnuo is about the convenience and speed of buying from BH, Amazon, etc.

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