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Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Elusive "Normal" and the Myth of the Fifty

The "normal" lens these days is a cheap consumer zoom, ordinarily bundled with a DSLR. Modern computer design, manufacturing techniques, and quality-control strategies have made many of these lenses into minor triumphs of human enterprise, akin to an economy car that doesn't need an oil change for a hundred thousand miles. The fact that they can be "good enough" optically while being so cheap to manufacture and also versatile enough to market easily is a "hat trick" that is, within its small sphere, mighty impressive.

Many such lenses are surprisingly good under a certain percentage of shooting conditions, too. Of course, however good they might be at ƒ/8, on a tripod or on a day with plenty of light, focused sufficiently close to infinity to be optimal, still, few exceed what might be termed a "B" grade overall. Spend more money, and you can do better. Most people never do. The mere act of purchasing a better lens as a better lens immediately puts a camera owner into a minority.

Pursuing the absolute best puts any photographer into a very small minority. Most people—let's not be too delicate here—don't give a rat's ass.

Thirty years ago, a slow 50mm lens ("slow" meaning within shouting distance of ƒ/2) was "normal," in that it was included with many SLR purchases and was considered the most basic lens. Photographers could upgrade to a faster 50mm and/or one with close-focusing capabilities (the so-called macro, which often wasn't; a macro-focusing lens is one which can reach and exceed 1:1 in magnification). Buyers often had fun building up lens "arsenals," "covering" a variety of focal lengths. Emblematic of the centrality of the 50mm in those days, and oft cited, was the fact that Henri Cartier-Bresson used nothing but. (Not strictly true, but close enough.) Now, of course, there are legions of enthusiastic photographers who have never used a 50mm at all. It's more fashionable now to denigrate than the praise the 50mm. It's a bit of a throwback.

Still, it remains an interesting focal length. It's just a bit too long on 35mm. The standard is that a "normal" angle of view for any format is the measure of its diagonal, which for 35mm is approximately 42mm. This would be more normal than normal. (It is often stated that 50mm became the standard because Oskar Barnack chose it arbitrarily for the first Leica. Not true; the "Ur-Leica" had a lens much closer to true normal for the format, at least according to an Englishman who got to take it apart once).

The slightly long 50mm has two salient visual properties in my opinion (to give credit where credit is due, I think I heard both ideas articulated first by John Kennerdell, a writer/photographer of travel guides for Asia). First, it has a certain "chameleon" property. That is, it can be made to mimic a slightly telephoto "look" and also a slightly wide-angle look, depending on how the photographer "sees" in any certain situation. Assuming you've learned how to mentally organize pictures as wide-angle compositions and as short-tele compositions, this chameleon property can be endlessly intriguing. Second—and this is impossible to prove—it may be true that, with a 50mm, you get a lower percentage of "acceptable" compositions but a higher percentage of true "hits"—pictures that are really outstanding—than you do when you're using "easier" focal lengths. This is John Kennerdell's thought, anyway, and I've come to agree with the notion, although of course I am—and, I would imagine, John is, too—short of the kind of data that would overcome skepticism.

From a lens-connoisseurship standpoint, there is one truism about 50mm lenses that I think is, in a very subtle way, a myth: and that is that they're almost all of very high quality optically. "Even cheap 50's are great," you'll read on the 'net. Or words to that effect.

Well—acknowledging that I'm looking at this from a fiercely uncompromising, true-believer optical nitpicker standpoint—I don't agree. It may be that there are a lot more examples of A-minus lenses among 50s than other types, and it may also be that the average is very high, and that the worst ones don't fall below a high C. But overall, I am more likely to be happy with a 35mm or an 85mm design than I am to be truly happy with a 50. A-minus and B-plus 50s are common, but A-plus 50s are rare indeed. There are just not all that many lenses of this focal length that meet my standards. The list of the very best is a very short list.

I've recently found another one that makes the grade, which is the occasion for these posts. Read on.

This is the second of three related posts, in descending order this time (anti-blog style)—continuing below.



Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

It's a bit of a personal coincidence that you've disclosed your 50s fetish, Mike. Last fall I took time to survey the focal lengths I use most. I discovered that I shoot in the 40mm - 55mm range quite often. So I began leaning toward using a 50 f/1.4 with my EOS cameras (a wonderful and relatively inexpensive lens, btw). I also just added a Zeiss C Sonnar 50mm f/1.5 to my M kit.

I am not really a lens geek (although I do have a bit of an "arsenal") and don't spend time debating such matters. Still, to my eye the 50mm has an appealing ever-so-slight tele compression particularly when a primary subject is in close range. But, in general, my 50mm prime lenses are just very sharp, have very good contrast and color rendition.

I suggest that folks consider giving the humble 50mm prime a close look. (No, it doesn't have to pass the 'Mike Seal of Approval' test.) Like me, you may find that you're often using that focal length anyway. But using a 50 prime has the potential to subtly lead you into new creative frontiers.

10:20 PM  
Blogger matt said...

I've gotta say I agree with most of what's been said. I do a ton of work with my 50's; at one point I had 4 or 5 for my various cameras. I've pared that down to just three now, two that I use and one poor russian lens that sits on a shelf. When I'm out just shooting for myself, they're all I take. Whenever I see a picture and put the camera to my eye, the 50's tend to have what I wanted in the frame and what I didn't want out of the frame.

One thing: I might be the only person who thinks this, but I really didn't like the canon 50 Ken mentioned. I used it for three months in brazil and sold it when I got home. replaced it with (the Sacrilige!) a nikon 50 1.2 and an adapter. I like this one a lot better.

4:30 AM  
Blogger Martin Storz said...

Examinating the focal length of my photos in iView Media Pro, I can easily see that most pictures are done in a range from 28 to 50mm.

This could one encourage to try to work with two lenses. To decide to work in wide-angle or "normal"-angle before photographing, is an interesting experience in the days everybody is working with the "standard"-zoom-lenses as 16-35, 28-80 an 70-200. And it needs some courage too!

Its also an new (after more than a decade of the standard-zooms) experience to work with a fast lens: brighter viewfinder, camera focuses in an smaller area (1/3 of DOF of the lens) and the special look of an (mostly useful) open aperture, better contrast than zoom, no distortion etc. pp.

So for my "little bag" I discovered the 50mm again.

With an RF-camera and an 50mm lens its a special thing: there is a lot of place around the 50mm marks in the viewfinder to see the picture come. Maybe with a SLR you would take the same scene with 35 or 28mm t0 be shure to find the right moment, and then crop the picture to 50mm.

5:18 AM  
Blogger Max said...

The idea of less acceptable compositions versus more hits looks right to me. Going up or down makes things easier, for sure. I think it's about planes in the picture, foreground/background tension. With a 35 or wider you have a clear definition of those because of the distance/scale of the background (or the background might be the main subject, so there's no problem). And with a tele it's the same thing, but the definitive factor is focus.
With the 50, the importance of the background and foreground in composition is more balanced, you can't neglect any aspect, it forces to a lot more thinking.
I hate it!!!
Hahahhah, I got carried away.
I prefer a 35/2 for a normal lens, but that's how I see things.
I have one Hexanon 50/1.7 that I like a lot.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Barbu M said...

I'm curious... MJ is (by chance) a digital shooter, more specific a „cropped frame” shooter. For 1/1.5 (1/1.6, 1/1.3... you got the idea) the 50s are totally different beasts. So, Mike: you don't care about angle coverage, but instead you only focus ;) on the rendering part of a lens?

(as an EOS non-F, I find myself using two main lenses: 35/2 and 28/1.8; the first one for the rendering part, the second one for the x1.6 „normal” angle)

9:38 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Barbu M,
I only have two lenses for my DSLR, a 28-75mm zoom and a 30mm f/1.4. I personally don't think I'd have much use for a 50mm standard lens on a camera with an APS-C sensor.


11:56 AM  
Blogger John said...

When I look over all the photographs I've made over the last 30+ years that still interest me, the vast majority of them have been made with a 50-60mm equivalent lens. I've made lots of photographs with other lenses, but the ones that stick with me have mostly been made with a lens in this range.

I agree with Mike that really excellent 50ish lenses are few and far between. My favorite for 35mm film is an old manual focus Minolta 58mm f1.2 lens (and I've used more than a dozen different 50ish lenses for 35mm film over the years).

For formats larger than 35mm, it seems to be easier to find lenses 50mm equivalent that I like. Maybe because they are not made as cheap "kit" lenses like so many 35mm normal lenses were. Maybe because the larger film doesn't stress the lens so much or doesn't interact with the film grain as much.

I was actually pleased when Minolta came out with a 1.5X crop factor on their digital camera because their 35/1.4 lense is a far superior lens to any of their AF 50's (except for price and weight). I got it years ago, used, when Minolta was out of favor at a fraction of it's new cost, but never used it much since I don't "see" very well at that focal length.

12:28 PM  
Blogger JK said...

There's an interesting quote in the Photographers at Work book on Bill Allard. He's talking about how he's starting to use the 50mm more (his usual lens is a 35mm) and he says something to the effect that with a 50 "you don't need to shoot tighter, but you do need to see tighter". I think that's the essence of it.

Mike, you may remember that at about the same time we talked about 50s (the early '90s?), both you and I had independently come up with the idea of using a 50mm or similar fast prime in conjunction with a normal zoom as a good, all-around lightweight lens kit. Just to let you know -- except when there's a specific need for something else, that's been my standard travel kit ever since. I find it just about perfect.


7:43 PM  
Blogger Ade said...

Getting my first 50mm prime lens after starting out with the standard kit zoom really turned my head, and in a way put my feet on their current path in photography (which is, put somewhat crudely, directly away from the "zoom lenses and lots of saturation" crowd). With my DSLR, I use it more than ever even though it approximates to a 75mm field of view. It's great for portraits of children, but I'm starting to miss the proper 50mm framing. I do own a 35/1.4 Nikkor, which I love, but manual focus lenses are hard to use on the D50. Plus, the DOF at maximum aperture on an APS-C sensor becomes something more like f/2.4, which ain't so interesting. I agree, it has to be film for best effect.

Some years ago, I wrote a blog posting about the glory of normality. It possibly suffers from the naïve zeal of the recent convert, and I won't speak for the originality of the example gallery, but it gathers several links about 50mm lenses (including this one).

One day, when I'm rich, I'm going to buy myself one of those "classic" fifties. Or all of them (you can never have enough). Oh, and I'll be hiring an assistant to develop all that Tri-X and HP5 too.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Player said...

"I only have two lenses for my DSLR, a 28-75mm zoom and a 30mm f/1.4."

That's not cool. ;)

12:46 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"That's not cool. ;)"

True. It's really not.


But not cool.


2:14 PM  
Blogger Player said...

Just kiddin' with ya Mike.

After reading your "cool" blog, I assumed that you felt that digital wasn't cool because #1, it's too new, and #2, all the cheesy materials used in digi cameras and lenses, but if I had to pick a cool modern lens, I'd definitely nominate the Sigma 30/1.4. It looks great, it's fast, and it translates to an ideal focal length.

And I think Pentax digital gear is cool too. The company itself is kind of aloof; the cameras look great, and Pentax offers the best bang-for-the-buck in the business, with a long-lived stellar reputation for great underrated lenses, to boot. That's cool!

So the point is that you've even flushed-out what's cool in the digital realm, too. IMO.

4:32 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

I don't care so much for 50mm, it feels to me like sitting between two chairs. It's not taking in a whole scene, and yet it's not really good for picking out details.

7:01 PM  
Blogger fivetonsflax said...

I've followed this discussion with interest, as I photograph almost exclusively with a 50mm lens. The catch is, I use it on a cropped-sensor camera, so the field of view is 80mm-equivalent. For whatever reason, that really works for me.

1:59 PM  
Blogger volker said...

The 50 Planar is the only lens I bought sofar for the M8 the others are inherited from my son (usually it is the other way round). I bought it quite frankly because it was the cheapest of the ZMs and I just wanted to see what they are like. I like it a lot as much as my old 40mm Summicron and here are just a few samples in the blog. The panorama and the yellow rose. There might be more, but with the M8 you can't track the lenses any more. Lets you look at the pictures a bit more.

2:45 AM  

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