After a few years being overshadowed by an increasing number of zoom kit lenses, the “normal” lens is making a noticeable comeback.
Nostalgia certainly plays a role in the comeback, as well as the longing for a more “pure” form of photography. But there are important practical reasons: first, there are so many 50mm lenses available that they cost little, are available in a variety of types, from full auto to 100% manual, from basic to full professional grade optics and build quality. Second, they will influence your style of photography and open up new possibilities.
With an abundance of kit lenses now available on all camera bodies, and considering the flexibility and range of zoom lenses, what attracts photographers to a prime lens anyway?
We need to remember that during the entire 35 mm film era, all cameras were delivered with a 50mm lens. This focal length was considered normal because its frame is very close to the field of view the human brain usually “sees” with both eyes open. Millions were manufactured.
Compared to a zoom lens, a prime lens generally offers superior optic performance plus higher luminosity. This is because when designing a zoom lens, engineers need to compromise in order to make a lens that performs at a wide variety of focal lengths.
However, the flexibility of using a zoom lens is undisputed. It’s a lot simpler to have one zoom lens attached to a camera than constantly lugging around 3 or 4 heavy lenses, putting caps on and off, and spending your time attaching and removing the lens for each different shot. This kind of versatility far outweighs the minimal loss in image quality.
But beyond the question of sharpness versus versatility, we need to also consider the enormous potential of large, luminous apertures and limited depth of field. A 50mm f/1,8 lens (or better still, a maximum aperture of f/1,4) opens up the possibility of shooting in low light, and offers the possibility of throwing everything but a very thin part of an image out ot focus, thus bringing full attention to whatever part of the subject you want to make tack sharp. Of course, fans of lens bokeh will love the beautiful effect a wide-open aperture on out-of-focus light sources within the frame.
Maybe the most interesting creative asset of a prime (or fixed focal length) lens is, it will force you to zoom with your feet, that is move around in search of the best point of view to capture your subject.
With a zoom lens, it’s easy to get into a creative rut where you just turn the zoom ring until you get the best frame you can without ever moving from where you stand.
Moving around, and searching for angles and perspective is also a big part of “pure photography”. Try it.