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Why the 50mm Focal Length Is Overrated

Why the 50mm Focal Length Is Overrated
I know, I know. I'm likely guilty of photography blasphemy here. The 50mm focal length, often referred to as the "nifty fifty," has long been one of the most commonly used in photography, noted for its versatility and often, its affordability relative to other focal lengths. Despite all that, I am here to argue that the 50mm focal length is overrated and not as useful as it is often touted to be. 

Limited Versatility

I know, 50mm lenses are supposed to be able to jump into a variety of situations with ease and produce competent images, and it is certainly true that they can. However, they are often the jack of all trades and the master of none, living somewhere in between or on either side of the better option(s). For portraiture, they are great for a half-body shot, but if you want to get in for a traditional headshot, it is likely better to bump up to 85mm. For landscapes, they are a bit too long to capture a decent amount of the scene and too short to really isolate single elements. Sports? Nope. Wildlife? Nuh-uh. 

200mm. Give me a 70-200mm for portraits. 

Of course, I am not saying that 50mm lenses are totally unsuited for such genres and applications. Rather, I am saying there are often better, more purpose-specific options. Rare is it that 50mm is the ideal focal length. For landscapes, grab that 24mm or 24-105mm zoom. For portraits, grab an 85mm or 70-200mm if you want to be more versatile. Sports and wildlife? Head to the supertelephoto range. 

Limited Perspective

50mm is often touted as the focal length that is closest to the human eye, giving images a natural look. And while that may be generally true, I would argue that is a deficit, not a boon. If we all see with "50mm" lenses all day, every day, that makes it much harder for a photographer to create images that catch the viewer's eye by virtue of their novelty. People instantly respond to a 24mm or 200mm shot because it is so different than what they are used to seeing, even if the untrained eye can't articulate quite why that is.

17mm was the better choice here. 

Of course, you might argue that it is on the photographer to find other ways to be creative, but to that, I say: why not give yourself a leg up to start? Nor is this to say you can just slap on a more unusual focal length and use that as a crutch; no matter what you use, all the fundamentals of a good photograph — composition, posing, lighting, editing, etc. — must still be present. A bad photo is a bad photo whether it is shot at 10mm, 50mm, or 400mm.

Modern Zoom Lenses or Other Primes Are Often a Better Choice

50mm lenses were once considered a mainstay in almost every photographer's kit. I'm greatly overgeneralizing lens design, but in the simplest terms, the more extreme the focal length, the harder it is to design a lens that produces high-quality images, and the more expensive it will be. That is partially why, for a long time, the "nifty fifty" was so desirable, as one could get a lens with a wide aperture that produced decent images for around $100-200. 

Lens design has advanced by leaps and bounds even in just the last decade, and there are now fantastic options at just about every focal length and price point. No longer is the 50mm the most prominent "cheap but good" option; you can find something that fits your budget almost anywhere in the range. 

Ok, my dog looks really cute at 50mm. He looks cute at all focal lengths, though.

Taking that further: the paradigm used to be that many photographers would carry zooms for versatility and convenience and primes for wide apertures and image quality. However, modern zoom lenses continue to push the bounds of image quality and wide apertures, and that advantage held by primes has largely evaporated, at least in some cases. In particular, I am thinking of my Canon RF 28-70mm f/2 L USM. Is it expensive? Yes and no. In absolute terms, it certainly is. However, when you consider the fact that I no longer own any other lenses between 14mm and 85mm, its value becomes clear. Its image quality easily keeps pace with all but the best primes, its f/2 aperture is more than enough for 99% of situations, and its convenience makes it way more appealing to me than carrying three or four equivalent primes. Even more modest 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses of the world have taken huge strides forward, and the high-ISO capabilities of modern cameras mean that those f/1.4 apertures are not as necessary as they used to be. 

I'm Bad at It

It would be disingenuous to not mention the other reason I don't like the 50mm focal length: I am simply not good at creating compelling images with it. I do not find it inspiring or fun to work with, and it is a constant struggle to find a way to be creative with such a lens for me. Such a lens is functional at best: good for low-light situations where I need a wide aperture maybe, but even then, I will probably reach for that aforementioned 28-70mm f/2. In fact, I don't even own a 50mm lens anymore.

I find myself on either side of 50mm all the time, but almost never at it. (100mm here.)

Of course, the need to be inspired by gear is undoubtedly a deficiency in my own technique and creativity; I will be the first to admit that. However, we all have our weaknesses and blind spots, and it seems no matter how many times I buy a 50mm lens and force myself to shoot with it, I just hate the experience and end up selling it a few months later. Many other photographers will cringe reading that, as they swear by the 50mm. That is the beauty of creative pursuits, though; we all filter the world through our own unique perspectives and strengths. Just don't filter mine through a 50mm lens, please. 

Your Thoughts

Do you like the 50mm focal length? Is it a go-to for you, or has it lost some of its usefulness with the advancements in modern lenses and cameras? Let me know in the comments.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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I'm sure I have written this sentiment in an article before, but for me, the 50mm is a half measure. It doesn't capture enough of the scene like a 35mm does and it isn't quite as pleasing as the 85mm. That said, I think the reason it's so popular, as you say, is its price; It makes for a great first lens.

My thoughts exactly - 50 is great if you can only have one lens, but if you can have the 35 and 85, the 50 is a little too... in between...

your dog has the lipstick out

But not all the way.

He did say "cute"

Did that turn you on? Bwahahahah :-)

Hum... that camera being frown upon on the title picture looks a lot like a Canonet, with a focal length around 38-45mm depending on models. Disappointment for not having been handed a 50mm?
Anyways, I do own quite a few 50mm lens, plus some 55mm and 58mm. Sure, sometimes they are too tight or too wide for the scene. But if you have just one lens for everything, they are a pretty good compromise.

Absolutely a good compromise!

I typically shoot with a 75 and 28 or 35. I needed a middle ground for close quarters but didn't want to shoot with a wide angle. And, didn't really want a 50. So, I went with a 45. It's close enough but still different enough. :D

The Tamron 45mm? Great lens.


how do you like your Samyang lens? I just wrote an article on their glass yesterday

I love them! I have their 75 f1.8 and 45 f1.8. A handful of the images are in my profile, first 3 rows.

At least with my a7iii, the only downside is they don't seem to be good at where the subject is coming towards the camera at a fast pace.

50mm is no better or worse than any other focal length; the 50mm lens, also, no better or worse than any other lens. Like everything, it's either appropriate or not, but then ... you, or someone, has already written the follow-up article on why it's great. Congratulations, you got a click.

A lens is a tool, no more, no less.

Any competent photographer can produce a beautiful image with any focal length.

The issue here is not the focal length.

It's true, thus the self-deprecating last section.

My grandfather was an avid golfer. He once told me, one of the keys to becoming good at golf is to play with one club until you've mastered that club.

I sometimes think about that.

Interesting topic! I purely shoot primes because I like creative limitations. Most of my work is portraits. 92% of my images the past three years are shot with 50mm lenses (or equivalent on other sensor/film sizes). To me it is extremely useful to have a focal length that I know inside out and working WITH that rather than seeing it as a limitation. Using 50mm as my home base is an artistic choice, and at the end of the day it might as well have been 35mm or 75mm for that matter. It is just a choice

Pentax believed the ideal normal was actually 43mm and it's a gem of a lens... 🙂

That really is a fantastic lens.

Some time back, I purchased the Canon 50mm F1.2L, but I didn't buy it for the focal length. I have zooms that cover that range. I bought it for the aperture and it's incredible sharpness that very few lenses approach. I don't consider it a landscape lens but for dim or low-light street scene or casual photography it's 1st on the list. ..and it's not too bad for portraits when it's on the camera. This wasn't a cheap lens and it's not my first lens.


I used to have this Canon 50mm 1.2 lens. Occasionally I'd get amazing images, but its focussing ability let me down far too many times. (It has some design quirks that prevent it from always being accurate). And when it was in focus wide open, it would still be softer than I'd prefer - so the subject would lack a little punch compared to that creamy background.

I did a straight swap with a dealer, for a Sigma 50mm ART 1.4

Wow, what a difference. Suddenly I'm in love with 50mm. Predictable focus, sharp images, great backgrounds... A much more satisfying lens to use than the old Canon.

I failed to mention the 50mm I'm using is the RF 50mm 1.2L not the EF 50mm 1.2L. I don't know which one you were using but I suspect if you swapped for the Sigma (great lens) you are using a DSLR or a mount to fit a mirrorless. In a few reviews of the EF version some say they are a bit soft. I haven't noticed that at all in the RF. It is bigger and heavier (and costs more too) than most 50 mm, if that makes a difference.

The only thing magical about 50mm lenses for 35mm format is how easy they are to make. Simple optical formula with few elements. Decades ago a nifty-fifty was crazy sharp compared to any zoom and much cheaper. Easy upgrade for anyone. Today's optical tech gives us f/2.8 zooms as sharp as primes.
The only limitation with any focal length is your imagination. 40-50mm appears near to natural human visual perspective so it creates a very neutral image. No inherent drama like an ultra wide 14mm or super tele 600mm. "Normal" lenses take a bit more effort to build a composition.

I too agree. I stick with zooms because they are now really good, also because of weight savings and convenience. Decades ago (with film), I only used primes because zooms weren't as good. Somewhat recently, I tried the Samyang 45mm but did and do much prefer other lengths.

Many top level lenses (L, GM etc.) are so large now that a single zoom might just be more practical than carrying around two or three prime lenses.

Historically, the 50 mm was the lens that was automatically included in the original camera kit, this until low-cost zooms came into existence, and for most people who have only used digital the beginner's kit started and still starts with a 18-55 mm f. 3.5-5.6 (APS-C, a format created for film in 1996 by the way) or something of the kind. So most SLR users had a 50 mm in their camera bag by default, now most DSLR or mirrorless camera owners have an 18-55 (APS-C) or equivalent in their bag. Personally I have always resisted it (50 mm in FF), and for decades now have used a 35 mm (FF or equivalent focal lens adapted to format) for 70 % of my photographs. However I have a 50 mm in my camera bag and have relearnt to use it for its smaller field of vision (compared to a 35 mm), its total lack of distorsion, its depth of field at f 1.4 or 2, and its compact size and ... price. It can be quite versatile in fact.

The fact that the eye "sees" with a 50mm makes little sense because when the subject is larger than the coverage of a 50mm, our gaze scans the scene giving the illusion of seeing a larger scene. which can be covered by a wide angle. Moreover, our eye cannot zoom.
I have been photographing for more than 50 years and I have been more open to walking around with an 85mm as my only lens rather than a 50mm. I no longer have 50mm. I have a 24 – 105 f:4 and a 75 – 300 f:4 as well as a 90mm f:2.8 macro and that is more than enough for me.

I used to think like that, but now I think they're not referring to the angle of view, rather the perspective of objects in the scene, longer focal lengths giving the illusion of compression and wider focal lengths giving the illusion of expansion. Maybe.

Longer focal lengths do not compress, and wider focal lengths do not expand. Where you physically take the picture from affects those things.

The beauty of 50 mm in my view is that it doesn't call attention to itself, unlike other focal lengths. It gets out of the way, and therefore makes you more likely to feel that you are there in the scene, not looking apart from it.

I do belive the 50mm have a few benefits historical that have given it the position it have.

1. In old days optical design was done without computers and the 50mm is easy to make good.

2. It is low cost to produce.

3. It have a similar perspective to our vision. Even its strictly 42 mm that is normal.

4 Zoom lenses had a lot of flaws.

Today we have good and fast zoom lenses and I for one have a 50 1.4 but end up using my zoom. Only if I want to shoot wide open I find the 50.

I would be happy with a 42-86 zoom f 2. Nikon actually have made on but f 3.5 I think they choose this range because it is better to stay away from a zoom with wide and tele combined in a zooms optical design So such lens should cost less and be lighter then the spoken Canon lens. Specially if made by third party. The Canon 28-70 f 2 cost a lot. Probably to much for most. And it is only for Canon.

The 50mm is a challenging lens to work with, and it's not the perfect focal length by any means (there isn't one). I started out shooting with a 50mm 1.8 (Olympus OM-Zuiko) in the 1980's, and have since shot with just about every conceivable lens type and film/digital format since then. But, lately I find myself going back to the 50mm for personal work (or its equivalent on other camera formats). It's bare bones, light weight and simple, forcing me to think about what I see, and walk a lot!

Totally agree, I'm experimenting with film, going back to my youth lol, using the 50mm "kit"lens, I find it way to long for landscape photography, much better with 35mm, also with an adaptor i'm using m42 lenses on my z6 with great results, picked up a helios 85-210mm zoom for £40 great lens, will post some photos

I don't use my 50 1.4 very often. But when I do, it's absolutely the best lens for what I need at the time.

I'm totally with you. Maybe my opinion would be different if I shot mostly portraits vs. my usual almost-anything-except-portraits, but IMO 50mm is all compromise with little benefit. It's too narrow for even moderately wide-angle shots (never mind sweeping landscape shots), but its reach is still quite short, and they don't seem to be often built with macro capabilities for really really close shots.

I've found that my favorite walkabout prime lenses are Canon's ~35mm macro lenses. I've used both the RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM and the EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM (~45mm equivalent focal length). They're inexpensive, compact, and relatively lightweight. Their field of view is wide enough for satisfactory wide-angle shots, while still being narrow enough to isolate subjects. Image stabilization means they're usable in low light, especially with the RF's wide-ish aperture. And the macro capability is a nice bonus.

Of your photos the dog with The 50 looked like the best shot to me, it involved the subject and location, nice separation of the two despite putting your subject to center for my taste. The 200 was fine but lacked any sense of story for my taste and the wide shot seemed more of an exercise for what a wide lens can capture than a photograph.

Just because you dislike the story that's told with the 50 doesn't mean it's not doing exactly what it's meant to do.

I struggle with 35mm but 50mm clicks for me better. Not for everything, but I like it. Different strokes and all that.

Funny I find the opposite to be true. I hope canon makes a 35mm RF tilt shift. Maybe that'll change a few opinions 😆

Interesting article. To me the 50mm it only shines when I force myself to use it. For example, if I'm composing for my 8x10, the normal focal lengths are 300 or 360, those are kinda close to 50. Then I get fantastic pictures with the 50, but if I had to use something else, I usually go above or below 50.

Anyways, a lens is just a tool, I honestly dislike 35mm because I can't make it work, other photographers create amazing images with that focal length, is more a photographer problem than a focal length problem.

In my opinion, limited versatility and perspective are the whole POINT of choosing a particular prime lens, in this case the 50mm. Using one single lens makes you see the world with that lens, and it funnels your decision making to be appropriate to the inherent statements of that focal length, that is, the information about proximity and distance between photographer/viewer and subject and environment. A 35mm is more inquisitive and, to the subject, "in your face", an 85mm is more quiet. 50mm is a very nice middle ground imo.

I agree completely. 50mm is overrated. It's such a limiting focal range. I'd rather have something a bit more versatile such as a 20mm or 35mm for an everyday carry. Specifically for portraiture, I'd prefer a 75mm or above. They are much more flattering to the subject.

Totally agree that the 50mm is a waste today.
I got one several years ago and have used i 3 times, mostly just to remind me what a waste of money it was.
My 24-105mm runs circles around it for creativity and flexibility. In fact primes bore the heck out of me as a whole. So incredibly limiting in composition and perspective. Not really into just portraots so "bokeh" is mostly BS hype by elitists.

I started out with a nifty-50 Canon f1.8 and swapped it for an f1.4 some years later. I have hardly ever used it and many of the comments above I can agree with. For some reason it didn't feel comfortable.
A few months ago I read an article on the Helios 44 f2 and decided to buy one, just for fun. I got the Helios 44M which is 58mm.... and fun it is, I love it. it seems to fit everything for me perfectly, and comfortably... the focus peaking on my Canon R6 means I don't miss a shot.... and I am having a ball.
It led me on to buy a Mir 1B 37mm and that to is so nice... I have never tried portraits at 35mm-ish range and I am so surprised.

The opening photo is perfect.

Back in 1969, a 50mm f/1.5 Summarit was the only lens I used on an inherited Leica M3. For documenting my young life on Tri-X, it worked very well. (I *was* left wondering about where the vaunted Leica sharpness was - that lens was marketed under license from Taylor and Hobson before Leica released their first Summilux.)

For documentary work in an age before zooms, a 50mm worked well. Today I prefer a 35mm focal length. Primes for full frame cameras are lighter than any zoom.

That said, there are situations like Schutzhund or agility for dogs or a pro mountain bike race where a 70-200/2.8 gets the shots you can’t get with any 50mm.

But for travel to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula last summer, I brought a 1959 35/2 RF Summicron, 1949 50/2 Summitar, and 1973 90/2.8 Tele-Elmarit-M to use on a Leica M10-R. I came back with sharper pictures than some of my newer Canon and Olympus zooms. And the overall rendering was a bit less clinical wide-open.

It all depends on what you’re used to, and what you’re shooting.

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