Pentax User Archive Article: Setting A New Standard
We extol the virtues of the overlooked and often deemed old fashioned 40/50mm prime lens.
If you were asked what your favourite and most versatile lens was, which would it be? Perhaps it's your trusty 70-210mm zoom, maybe a 300mm telephoto or what about your 28mm wide-angle or 17-28mm ultra wide zoom that you use for landscape photography?
Ask me the same question and I wouldn't hesitate in answering my 50mm lens. This fixed focal length lens was created to more or less replicate what the eye sees, 43mm to be exact, and was provided with all 35mm SLR cameras before zooms appeared.
If you bought your SLR in the last decade, you may never have owned or hear of such a lens and therefore may think my reply is quite strange. Nowadays, when you buy a Pentax SLR, especially digital, it comes fitted with either a versatile 18-55mm or 28-80mm zoom lens that covers the 50mm focal length as a prime lens, you are missing out on the sheer range and versatility that this type of lens offers.
So, what is all the fuss about? I bought my first SLR some 20 years ago and this was the first lens that I honed my photographic skills on. I had to work hard on it, as I couldn't afford any more optics at that stage and I had to use it to its full potential to achieve the results I wanted.
|You can easily hand hold shots in low light using the widest aperture that these lenses offer.|
However, the beauty of this lens is that it's ideal for the widest range of subjects, including some that, if using a zoom lens, you can't touch. It was only after I had used the lens to its full that I git my first full-time job and was able to afford a 70-210mm zoom for distant subjects and a 28mm wide-angle for dramatic landscapes.
Owners of older manual focus and autofocus Pentax SLRs may already have one of these basic lenses, although you may not use it as often as you used to. For today's digital camera owners, the choice is more limited. With an Optio compact, you can still set the camera's zoom lens to a focal length of around 50mm, but you still don't get the full benefits of using a prime lens.
|Use the 50mm for landscape compositions, like these daffodils surrounding the tree.|
Pentax *ist owners have a choice of the Macro D-FA 50mm and the DA 40mm. The 50mm doubles up as a true macro lens, whilst the 40mm certainly has the compactness of the standard lens, even making it look quite bulky in comparison, though its widest aperture, like the macro, is limited to f/2.8. The other option is a 43mm f/1.9 FA Limited, which can be used on both film and digital models.
What makes this lens ideal is its angle-of-view is the closest to our own eyes and the easiest to use to get the most natural looking shots. You can even visualise shots without putting the camera to your eye. This doesn't mean this lens is boring compared to the extremes that a telephoto or wide-angle will give. On the contrary, it's just a lens that works well and keeps your photography simple, especially when you are still learning and getting to grips worth your camera.
|A 50mm is perfect for hand holding in areas where tripods are not allowed.|
Secondly, it's an ideal lens for portraits, as long as you remember not to get too close to your subject, which will lead to unflattering distortion to your sitters face. It works especially well with full-length portraits, but you can get some very nice head & shoulder shots. Landscapes are another subject that this lens is perfect for, allowing you to achieve the ideal composition when perhaps a wide-angle would give you too much empty space in the foreground. Stop the lens down beyond f/11 and you will get plenty of depth-of-field to achieve front to back sharpness in your pictures.
You can also successfully use this lens for close action shots, especially where you want some space around the subject, which can greatly help emphasise movement, by giving your subject an imaginary space to move into in the picture.
With a minimum focus of just 45cm on some models, the 50mm also makes a fine job at working as a close up lens too. Although it won't replace a genuine macro lens for ultra close ups, there are many still life subjects that it will suite, as well as being close enough to capture abstract subjects and picking out patterns in a wide range of objects.
If you don't have a genuine macro lens, you can turn your 50mm into a stripped down macro lens, simply by fitting it the wrong way round on your camera with the aid of a reversing ring. You will lose autofocusing and TTL metering, but you will get 1:1 magnification that a macro lens offers. Not bad for the price of around £12!
Where a 50mm lens really comes into its own is in light. The average widest f/stop for the 50mm is a fast f/1.7, but older Pentax models, including mine, open up to f/1.2. The benefit is the difference between getting and missing a shot. An f/1.2 model is around threes stops faster than a comparable zoom with maximum aperture of say f/3.5, so you can carry on shooting, where the shutter speeds with a zoom attached are so low that camera shake or subject movement would be inevitable.
Couple this with the fact that a 50mm is so much lighter than a zoom, making hand holding a lower shutter speeds much easier, it's easy to see how it will greatly increase your chances of getting that shot in the bag when you would have to give up a zoom lens.
It also means you can get the shot without sacrificing quality by switching to a faster film or a higher CCD ISO speed, which would inevitably mean more grain or noise and generally a less sharp photo.
With such a wide maximum aperture, tons of light floods in through the front elements. In low light the benefit of this will be immediately obvious and will greatly aid your focusing, especially when working in manual.
Because the 50mm is a lens of simple construction, it used to be cheap for manufacturers to make and for us to buy - partly the reason why it was bundled with older cameras. The lack of demand, caused by more versatile zooms, means the cost of production has changed and the standard lens is now more expensive than a budget zoom, but the image quality it delivers is superb. A 50mm is pin sharp from corner to corner of the frame and will beat most standard zooms hands down in quality shoot outs.
If you have one hidden in a cupboard dig it out, polish it off and keep it handy in a corner of your gadget bag. You'll never know when it will prove its worth. If you don't own one you can seek one out second hand.
The standard lens offers us so much in such a small size - I certainly wouldn't be without mine.