Nifty Fifty Lens Guide

Nifty Fifty Lens Guide
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Looking back, it seems ridiculous to me that I spent so many years with just a couple of zooms and no prime lenses in my camera bag.

That changed completely when I bought the cheapest nifty fifty lens on the market, suddenly making me realise how much fun could be had with a tiny lens that features a surprisingly large maximum aperture.

Very quickly, I fell in love with the form factor and the glorious bokeh, not to mention its versatility.

If you don’t own a nifty fifty, there’s little reason not to add one to your arsenal, especially if you’re new to photography.

What is a Nifty Fifty Lens?

The nifty fifty is a 50mm prime lens with autofocus that is lightweight, built from inexpensive materials, and has a fast maximum aperture. The 50mm focal length is often referred to as a “standard view” as it’s very close to what the eye sees naturally.

By a quirk of physics, it turns out that the ‘standard’ 50mm view is very easy to make when it comes to camera equipment, meaning that it’s possible for manufacturers to create a 50mm lens that’s small, light, and comparatively sharp – even when it’s built with a large maximum aperture.

The kit lens supplied to those buying their first camera will typically be a cheap zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.5, closing to f/6.3 when you zoom in.

By contrast, the nifty fifty usually has an aperture of f/1.8, letting in much more light, allowing you to freeze action in much darker conditions.

Perhaps more significant, however, is the effect that the wider aperture has on your depth of field.

Bigger apertures allow you to keep your subject in focus while blurring the background. This allows you to isolate your subject, and create that cinematic look, which is especially pleasing when shooting portraits.

If you’re feeling restricted by your kit lens and want to escape your camera’s Program mode, you can embark on an exciting, bokeh-laden journey of discovery, by snagging yourself a surprisingly affordable 50mm f/1.8 lens and learning how to use Aperture Priority mode.

For those looking to learn about aperture and how it affects image-making and develop their knowledge of photography, the nifty fifty is the obvious step up from the kit lens.

It’s also incredibly affordable, making it accessible for those on a budget, or as an excellent gift for photographers, if you happen to know someone who wants to improve their photography game.

Remember: The crop factor for those shooting on APS-C cameras means that a 50mm lens will end up being the equivalent of 75-80mm, depending on your particular sensor. This means a tighter angle of view than if you were using it on a full-frame camera, but don’t let that put you off — this is still a versatile lens.

9 Reasons Why You Need a Nifty Fifty Lens

There are many great reasons to buy a nifty fifty, especially if you’re pondering what to buy next once you’re bored of your kit lens.

Many of these reasons will apply to other lenses too, but the nifty fifty brings them all together into one cute and convenient bokeh-tastic bundle.

1. Size

The niftiest part of the nifty fifty is definitely its diminutive size. Especially on bulky, full-frame cameras, being able to attach such a small lens that offers this type of performance can be refreshing.

Smaller lenses offer a number of advantages. A nifty fifty is an excellent walk-around lens, ideal for capturing candid moments.

When it comes to shooting people, it’s less intimidating and intrusive than a large, pretentious zoom, and can make your subject more relaxed.

It’s not unusual for people to become a bit more tense when confronted by someone wielding a massive, expensive camera featuring huge lens that’s probably compensating for something else.

With the smaller nifty, it will feel less like you’re invading their space, and avoid any paranoia that you’re capturing what’s stuck between their teeth in ridiculous detail.

2. Weight

If the best camera is the one that’s in your hand, the best lens is the one that’s always in your bag. You might not plan to use it on a particular outing or intend to use it for a specific job, but the nifty fifty is so insignificant in terms of weight, it would be daft to leave it at home.

As a minimalist who spends a large part of the year traveling as light as possible, my nifty fifty is the perfect companion, and many small jobs are completed with just my wide-angle zoom and nifty fifty.

Budget airlines aren’t very sympathetic when it comes to baggage restrictions, and every ounce I can shed is valuable.

As a walk-around lens, this low weight is ideal. With such a small piece of glass, suddenly your chunky DSLR will feel almost like a compact camera, making you more likely to carry it with you on random outings and adventures.

3. The Price

For the image quality and maximum aperture, no other lens gives you so much value for money. Of course, it’s possible to spend four times as much money for the exact same focal length and aperture on a lens that will have faster autofocus and sharper images, but do you need it?

For my purposes — friends climbing in the forest, look-books for small clothing brands, occasional product shots for online use — absolutely not.

I’m not printing these images to appear on the side of a bus, and no one is zooming into my images to check for chromatic aberration (i.e. pink or blue fringes in areas of strong contrast).

4. Bokeh on a Budget

Canon 6D + Yongnuo YN 50mm f/1.8 | Left: 1/320 f/1.8 ISO 100. Right: 1/160 f/1.8 ISO 100

Whether it’s Instagram celebrities and their fairy lights, or those YouTube photography celebrities shooting beautiful people, they are all obsessed with one thing: creamy bokeh.

Sure, an expensive smartphone with multiple cameras can come close, but it’s not quite the same, and you’re not going to learn much from the process.

The bokeh of the 50mm f/1.8 can be as buttery as you need. You can spend more than ten times as much for a 50mm f/1.2 lens, but will your images be more than ten times as good? Probably not.

5. Flattering Portrait Length

Sony a7 III + Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 | Left: 1/250 f/1.8 ISO 800. Right: 1/250 f/1.8 ISO 640

The 50mm length is great for photographing people. Consensus is that 85mm is the most flattering when it comes to portraits, but 50mm is a nice compromise when size and weight come into play, and for half-length shots and wider, the distortions can largely be avoided if you’re careful.

Wider lenses tend to make faces narrower and noses longer, and while 85mm might often be preferable, sometimes there’s not enough space to back up, and it puts you further away from the person you’re trying to connect with.

6. Autofocus

Sony a7 III + Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 | 1/640 f/1.8 ISO 100

There is a ton of very affordable, small prime lenses on the market but not all of them have autofocus.

That vintage lens with manual focus might have a faster aperture, but how many of your shots will be blurry, and how convenient will it be to fight with focus peaking while also learning how to manage your depth of field?

Every nifty fifty offered by the main brands offers auto-focus, which is often surprisingly fast and accurate.

7. A Jack of All Trades

Sony a7 III + Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 | Left: 1/800 f/1.8 ISO 100 Right 1/320 f/1.8 100

Being a standard view focal length means that 50mm gives a very normal view of the world, making it ideal for portraying everyday life.

It also puts it right in the middle of the range, making it neither wide nor long, and something of a jack-of-all trades and master of none.

Sometimes it won’t feel long enough for portraits and not quite wide enough for landscapes, but it does mean that it’s wonderfully versatile, if not always perfect.

The beauty of primes is that your feet have to do the zooming, and with the nifty fifty, you’ll be mobile and learning how to make a scene come together for the right composition.

8. Learn How to Use Your Aperture

Canon 6D + Yongnuo YN 50mm f/1.8 | 1/1000 f/1.8 ISO 100

If you’ve been stuck on Program mode for too long and want to figure out how to stop your DSLR photos looking so similar to snaps from a cheap compact camera or smartphone, taking control of your aperture is where to start.

Aperture Priority with Auto ISO is the next obvious step to mastering your camera, and there’s no better lens to learn this with than the nifty fifty.

With 50mm, you’re tight enough that the effects of the wider aperture are felt, but without being so zoomed-in that it’s daunting to work with.

9. Shoot In Low Light

Canon 6D + Yongnuo YN 50mm f/1.8 | 1/125 f/1.8 ISO 1600

Canon 6D + Yongnuo YN 50mm f/1.8 | 1/125 f/1.8 ISO 1600

A walk-around lens is great if it’s small and light, but it’s even better if you can use it indoors, or on a night out.

With a cheap kit lens (and its small/variable aperture), once the light drops, you’re forced to crank up the ISO to unfeasible levels or ditch the camera completely.

With f/1.8, those extra stops of light give you much more flexibility. Suddenly shooting indoors becomes less of a problem, too.

Why are Nifty Fifty Lenses so Cheap?

Obviously at such low prices, there has to be something that you’re missing when you opt for something so affordable.

So what do you get for your money when you choose a 50mm lens that costs more than 1000% more?

50mm primes come in various flavours of aperture, with the widest typically being f/1.2, though you could argue that Nikon’s new NIKKOR Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct is comparable — and that’s $8,000!

Faster apertures require more glass and more precision to avoid aberrations and unwanted effects, and that all quickly adds up.

The speed of the autofocus on a nifty fifty will be a little pathetic compared to its more expensive counterparts, and not always so accurate.

Similarly, the coatings on pricier primes are much more sophisticated, eliminating the colour fringes when shooting wide open, and preventing unwanted lens flare more effectively.

Best Nifty Fifty Lenses in 2020

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM

50mm 1 8 canon Nifty fifty lens

Compatibility: Canon EF Mount (Full frame and APS-C)
Minimum Focus: 13.78” / 35 cm
Filter Diameter: 49 mm
Size: 2.72 x 1.54” / 69.2 x 39.2 mm
Weight: 5.6 oz / 160 g

Click here for the latest price >>

The Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM nifty fifty lens is a stalwart sitting in the bag of many a professional photographer, and is said to be the world’s best-selling lens!

Small and light, it’s refreshingly sharp even when wide open, though corners become slightly soft and the autofocus is far from quiet.

There’s a even discontinued version with a plastic mount that’s even cheaper, if you can find it. You can see some sample images taken with this lens above.

[Related: See more of the best Canon lenses]

Sony FE 50mm f/1.8

Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 lens

Compatibility: Sony full-frame (FE) and crop sensor (E)
Minimum Focus: 1.48’ / 45 cm
Filter Diameter: 49mm
Size: 2.7 x 2.34” / 68.6 x 59.5 mm
Weight: 6.6 oz / 186 g

Click here for the latest price >>

The Sony 50mm f/1.8 FE nifty fifty is not quite as affordable as the Nikon and Canon equivalents but there’s a small bump in build quality to compensate.

It’s sharp wide open and performs well when compared to similar lenses that are significantly more expensive.

[Related: See more of the best Sony lenses]

Fujifilm XF 35mm f/2 R WR

FUJIFILM XF 35mm f/2 R WR

Compatibility: X-mount
Minimum Focus: 1.15’ / 35 cm
Filter Diameter: 43 mm
Size: 2.36 x 1.81” / 60 x 45.9 mm
Weight: 6 oz / 170 g

Click here for the latest price >>

The popular Fujifilm 35mm f/2 is designed for Fuji’s APS-C sensor cameras, and is the closest you’ll get to a nifty fifty at 35mm, you’re getting a full-frame equivalent of 52.5mm.

It’s not as affordable as its Sony/Canon/Nikon counterparts, but the extra cash brings you a metal body coupled with weather sealing, somehow without making it heavy.

[Related: See more of the best Fuji lenses]

Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8G Lens

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G Lens

Compatibility: Nikon FX (full-frame) and DX (crop-sensor)
Minimum Focus: 1.48’ / 45 cm
Filter Diameter: 58 mm
Size: 2.84 x 2.06” / 72.1 x 52.4 mm
Weight: 6.5 oz / 185 g

Click here for the latest price >>

Loved by amateurs and professionals alike, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 nifty fifty lens gives remarkable sharpness given the price, with excellent autofocus and pleasing bokeh.

There’s a cheaper option (the f/1.8D) but this G version is more rugged, and has an internal focusing motor, meaning it can be used on entry-level Nikon DSLRs which don’t have built-in motors.

APS-C shooters should note that there’s a DX version also available, the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G, which gives an equivalent focus length of approximately 52mm.

[Related: See more of the best Sony lenses]

Budget Nifty Fifty Lens Options

YongNuo YN 50mm f/1.8 for Canon and Nikon Mounts

Yongnuo YN 50mm f/1.8 cheap nifty fifty lens

Compatibility: Nikon FX/DX and Canon EF mount
Minimum Focus: 1.48’ / 45 cm
Filter Diameter: 52 mm
Size: 2.87 x 2.17″ / 73 x 55 mm
Weight: 4.2 oz / 120 g

Click here for the latest prices >>

Yongnuo has produced an updated version of the YN 50mm f/1.8 lens that is completely redesigned externally, but the first, cheaper iteration is still available and looks remarkably similar to the Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM.

The bayonet on the Yongnuo nifty fifty is plastic and autofocus is slower and noisier, but at around $50 – less than half that of the Canon – it’s hard to complain.

Images can be soft and autofocus sometimes inconsistent when shooting wide open, with the motors hunting around noisily, but what do you expect?

As budget bokeh goes, this is the cheapest nifty fifty option out there, and can be a lot of fun to shoot with. See some sample images above.

Final Words

A nifty fifty is not the sharpest, fastest or most flexible lens, but with a little practice, it can be the best value lens you will ever buy.

The limitations of a fixed focal length and the classic 50mm field of view, provides a great learning ground for beginners, and a comfortable, versatile option for more experienced photographers.

And at such an affordable price, why wouldn’t you add a nifty fifty to your bag?

Leave us a comment below with any questions, and let us know your experiences with a 50mm lens.

Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post may contain affiliate links.

Andy Day is a British photographer and writing, living and working in France, specialising in adventure, travel, architectural and landscape photography.

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