by Jim McGee

I really enjoyed your article on the 24-120mm Nikkor. I’ve had this lens for a couple of years and have gotten some great shots with it. But why compare it to the 50mm f1.4 and 24mm f2.8? Does anyone actually use these lenses in the real world? In the real world photographer’s use zoom lenses. 

I haven’t used a prime lens since photography class in college, especially something as useless as a 50mm! It just doesn’t give you enough flexibility to get those really great images 

Bill Woodmansee

I have to admit I was tempted to fire off a quick email to Bill saying he was off base. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought he had a point. While there are some who will argue all day and all night about the superiority of prime lenses, most of us use zoom lenses for their convenience. But are zooms really more convenient in the real world?

I still use a couple of prime lenses regularly but I’m probably in the minority. My “normal” lens is a 28-105mm. On the wide end I keep a 20mm and a 24mm in my bag. Both are f2.8 lenses. But I don’t use these lenses because of their superior image quality compared to a wide-angle zoom. They’re in my bag because of circumstance and because I’ve gotten used to using them.

The circumstance was that back when I purchased the 20mm it sold for around $600. At the time Nikon had a wonderful 20-35mm f2.8 zoom lens I couldn’t afford. If I remember correctly it was selling for around $1,900 to $2,000. At the time all of the aftermarket lenses I looked at had problems with distortion. My wallet made the decision. I envisioned using this lens primarily for landscapes and figured I could always crop to the effective lengths between 20mm and 28mm those times when the 20mm was just too wide.

I was in heaven with this lens and I had a ball exploring its capabilities. I wound up using it for a lot more than landscapes. But while learning how to use super-wides for a wide variety of subjects I found the 20mm to be just too wide in some circumstances. So a year or so later I added a used 24mm f2.8 to my bag and my total cash outlay was still less than the half the cost of the 20-35mm.

 

Sometimes you get lucky. A single beam of light broke through the clouds and illuminated this flag like a beacon. I got off one shot and the light was gone. Underexposed 1 stop below center weighted meter reading

Recently I’ve flirted with the idea of the 17-35mm f2.8. But every time I think about taking the $1,600 plunge I hedge that the occasional lens swap isn’t THAT big a deal. I’ll eventually break down and buy it (after the proper amount of mental agony), but somehow I don’t think I’m the only person who wrestles with the cost of equipment.

Which brings me back full circle to Bill’s other point. You just can’t take good pictures with a 50mm lens. It’s too limiting; so you can’t get great images with that lens.

There was a time when it was common for cameras to sell with a 50mm “normal” lens included. The 50mm became the first lens that many photographers and students used – and many of them created great images with those lenses. But this also gave it “starter” status. For this reason it became fashionable to look down on 50mm’s as too limiting to be really useful. So photographers “moved up” to lenses that afforded more flexibility and the promise of more dramatic images. God forbid you walked around with a 50mm lens hanging off your camera. Other photographers would think your were just a beginner!

Then there’s the convenience of zoom lenses. They make composition easier so that you can include only those things you want in the image without having to change position. In the end many of us wind up weighed down by camera bags containing a bunch of zooms, which allow us to shoot everything from sweeping vistas to distant objects. We’ll never miss an image!

But as we huff along like pack mules a guy with a little Leica sporting a single lens strolls by hardly breaking a sweat. Who really has the more convenient setup?

As I pondered this I decided to do something I hadn’t done in a very long time – take a stroll with just a 50mm lens. Keeping it dirt simple I grabbed my old Nikon FG, 50mm f1.4, and a flash. I even managed to convince my wife that taking a long walk on a 18 degree day was a good idea! “Hon, with the sun out it won’t feel that cold; it will be a nice walk.”

For a properly picturesque spot we started at the Art Museum, walked to the overlook above the historic Water Works, and out along Philadelphia’s Boat House Row. The sun played hide and seek with the clouds and a stiff wind drove wind chills down to single digits. By the time the sun went down my wife couldn’t feel her fingers and toes and I had developed some opinions about shooting with a 50mm (Being numb from the neck up the cold doesn’t bother me all that much).

I’d originally purchased this 50mm as a low light lens and never really thought of it as a general purpose lens. So was it too limiting?

 

There are times when you can’t change position to recompose. This shot of the historic waterworks really needs a wider perspective.

Yes and no. It was liberating to walk around without a camera bag. The manual body is considerably lighter and smaller than my F100 and the 50mm is about half the size and weight of my 28-105mm zoom. That makes for an incredibly compact package that’s not much bigger than a Leica M7. The biggest thing I was carrying was the SB-28 in my pocket (hmm, maybe I NEED one of those new little SB-30s). Since changing lenses wasn’t an option I never even considered focal length as part of the compositional equation; instead I “zoomed” with my feet.

There were places where I wished for a wider perspective. The overlook above the waterworks cried out for a wider angle to capture the Romanesque old buildings in the foreground and the boathouses in the distance The 50mm forced a perspective that could neither capture the full sweep the eye sees nor allow you to dwell on details in the scene as you would with a long telephoto. When I attempted to silhouette geese against the sun’s reflection on the river the 50mm required me to get in too close, spooking them out of the composition I’d originally had in mind.

But all in all I was surprised at how much I could capture with this lens and how flexible it proved to be. It forced me to think a little differently about composition and to think more about perspective.

 

There’s no rule that says you need a wide angle lens to play with perspective. Four man sculls stacked up in their boathouse.

While I don’t think I’d want to limit myself to just a 50mm all the time, it’s not a bad solution for those times when you really don’t want to be weighed down with much gear. It’s a lightweight and compact setup that allows you to sneak in a few shots when you’d normally be tempted to leave the camera bag at home or back at the hotel. Nikon’s FM3a and pancake 45mm f2.8 lens are just such a combination. A 35mm lens wouldn’t be bad in this role either. Its wider perspective is closer to what the eye really sees making it in some respects more of a “normal” lens.

Want to try it for yourself? The good news is that high quality 50mm lenses come relatively cheap. Canon, Minolta, and Nikon all make reasonably priced 50mm’s with street prices around $100 or less. All three plus Pentax and Sigma make higher quality, faster 50mm’s that sell from around $300. To save even more money almost any photo retailer that handles used equipment will have a 50mm lens or two sitting on the shelf for even less.

Far from useless these lenses represent another option and another way to shoot, one that works surprisingly well when you feel the urge to travel light. It’s all about picking the right tool for the job.