Getting my work out to the public, to share and learn

Shooting with a Fast 50 Lens

So I purchased my first prime fast 50 lens a year ago and have learned a lot about it during the year.  The lens is a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM and I use it on a full frame body.  I obtained this lens mainly to shoot portraits, especially my family members.  I chose the f/1.4 over the other common Canon 50’s (1.8 or 1.2) for two main reasons.  The f/1.4 has a more substantial feel than the f/1.8-II, mainly due to less plastic in the construction and has a metal mount over the plastic one on the f/1.8.  Since I plan to keep this lens for a long time I was worried about small bangs doing big damage to both the lens and camera.  The other factor was cost; the f/1.4 is more than the f/1.8, but still fit in the budget.  The f/1.2 was way too much for what I needed or wished to pay.

There has been a much bigger learning curve to using this lens than I had originally thought. Without thinking to deep, I figured I could just continue to use this new lens like any other I had used in the past.  Wrong!  First, it does not zoom.  Feet start moving.  Looking back now I had never really used a prime lens.  All my other lenses I have are zooming.  This meant becoming very dynamic and moving a lot more to get the correct composition.  Secondly, it is fast.  My fastest lens before was f/2.8 and that is a full two stops slower.  It is very effective in low light, but that also means it has a very shallow depth of field (area of scene that is in focus) when shooting at the lower f-stops.  In fact if I shoot wide open (f/1.4) at a subject distance of 5 feet (standard upper body shot), I will only have a 3 inch depth of field to work with.  This means you either have to be very precise with the focusing and realize that the focus area is going to be very shallow or reduce that aperture (larger f-stop) and produce a greater depth of field to work with.  I found that when using the LCD on the camera to check the focus areas, I had to zoom in or it was almost impossible to ensure the correct depth of field.

My main tips for someone starting to shoot with a fast 50 would be the following.  Get a depth of field calculator (online version) and use it to get an understanding of how the lens reacts to different distance and f-stop settings.  I use a version of the calculator on my mobile phone, so I have it on hand while taking pictures.  I have an Android phone and use The Depth of Field Calculator by Allen Zhong.  Check your LCD after all shots and zoom in to check the focus areas.  Also note that like all lenses the 50 has an f-stop sweet spot for tack sharp shooting.  The f/1.4 I have is at its sharpest when set larger than f/2.0.  It does soften a bit wide open, so take that into consideration when shooting for sharpness.

I have shot many a bad picture with this lens, but when I get it right, and nail the shot the results are awesome.  Sharp, colourful, deep and fabulous bokeh.  I love this lens and as I continue to use it it loves me back.  I would recommend a 50mm prime lens to everyone.  Buy the version you can afford and start shooting.


2 responses

  1. I’m not much of a photographer but am going to have my son read this. He really seems to have an eye and you’ve packed so much good information in here. I had never heard the word bokeh before.

    February 27, 2011 at 8:05 am

  2. Robert

    Nice article. Agree, every photographer should have a 50/1.8 or 50/1.4 lens period.

    June 1, 2011 at 6:43 pm

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