The first camera I ever bought, and we’re going back to the early 1980s here, was an Olympus OM-10. It was a sweet little thing and as with most cameras in those days it came with a manual focus 50mm f1.8 kit lens. This was, and still is, the standard lens for 35mm or full-frame cameras. Not too wide, not too long, it offers a perspective similar to that of the human eye so things appear natural within the frame without any particular distortion. It was once considered the perfect lens for someone starting out in photography and the fact that it was relatively easy to produce meant that you were getting sharp glass, a wide aperture, and a compact size for a reasonably low price.
Fast-forward to todays DSLRs and the kit lens that comes with the camera is often a mediocre zoom. It will probably be not very sharp, not very fast and not very interesting. I can understand why the marketing department might like it that way. Someone choosing their first DSLR might imagine the advantage of having an affordable, do-it-all lens to start off with and they would probably go with the manufacturer that offered exactly that as a kit.
But if anyone ever asked me for advice as to what lens to start off with I’d probably still say a standard, fixed lens; that means 50mm on a full-frame sensor and around 35mm on an APS-C. Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, I don’t know, but I really do think there’s something a bit special, something even a bit non-standard, about a standard lens.
So to see what it feels like to be the victim of my own advice I thought I’d set myself a challenge. I’d do a day’s walkabout in Venice, Italy, with nothing more than one camera and one standard lens. How would it feel again after so many years? Frustrating or liberating? Would I come home with enough variety from the day or would all the images look somehow the same?
My normal kit for a travel assignment would be a Fujifilm X-Pro2, and X-T2 along with 4 lenses; 16mm, 23mm, 35mm, and 60mm. The little Fuji’s have an APS-C sensor, so in full-frame terms those lenses equate to a 24mm, a 35mm, a 50mm and a 90mm. Which is plenty enough for me.
For my ‘standard’ day in Venice I took the Fuji X-Pro2 and a 35mm f2 lens (equivalent to a 50mm on full-frame). It’s a small, light and very sharp lens. Unfortunately, I happened to choose one of the coldest and greyest days of the year. I was hoping for rich colours and sharp winter shadows but in the end the sun only showed itself for about 20 minutes. The rest of the day was all cloud and gloom. I did take along a couple of other items to test during the day: a tripod, a backpack, a polarising filter and a 9-stop neutral density (ND) filter so at least I had some creative options if I needed them.
More ‘standard’ views of Venice. A polarising filter was used on the shot of the church (bottom left) to control some harsh reflections on the central window and to darken the sky a little.
So how did it go?
Well apart from the cold and the cloud it was a really nice experience and it reminded me what an amazingly versatile focal length the 50mm equivalent is. It’s a lens that can take on different personalities, sometimes appearing more wide-angle than it really is, and sometimes more telephoto. While at first it seemed a bit tight in some situations, I found that with some careful framing it was almost always possible to find a composition that worked. I think that’s what makes it a great focal length if you’re new to photography. It will force you to look harder and to physically move around your subject to find the image rather than just zooming or changing lenses.
So in some ways it made me work harder. But in other ways it made my life a little easier. Having just one focal length available meant that I didn’t need to try different options. I could concentrate harder on what was possible with that one lens. I think that’s something that can help develop a sense of ‘possibilities’ in your photography, of fully exploring the potential of any given situation. And that’s got to be a good thing.
Although the focal length felt tight sometimes, with a little care I could usually find a composition that worked.
A small camera and a single lens gives you a great sense of freedom. There’s nothing heavy hanging around you neck so you can go on shooting all day. And if you went for the shoulder-bag-and-no-tripod option you’d be really unobtrusive around town.
There are disadvantages of course. Sometimes I wanted to get in closer but I couldn’t, and cropping in post-production will only work up to a point. Other times, like in Saint Mark’s Square or at the Arsenale, I really needed a wide-angle. At least for going wider I did have an option available to me: with a simple series of four or five shots, panning my way vertically or horizontally, I could stitch the files together later to give me a wider field of view. I know it’s cheating, but hey, it works pretty well!
If I really needed a wider field of view I could always just make a series of shots and stitch them together later.
The tripod I used on the day was a Manfrotto 190 which is great for travelling with mirrorless gear like the Fujifilms. I found the aluminium version light and stable and with 4 sections it closes down to a small size. Having the tripod with me meant I could keep shooting into the evening and also try out some long exposures with the ND filter during the dull day.
A tripod and an ND filter can give you hope on a gloomy day.
For the long exposures I used a Manfrotto ND500 filter which gives nine stops of neutral density. That means on a cloudy day at the Fujifilm’s 200 ISO base, I was exposing at f11 for between 3 to 5 seconds: enough to give the silky water look. Stopping down to f16 would have doubled that time of course but there would be a greater loss of sharpness due to diffraction so I left it at f11. The filter itself didn’t noticeably reduce sharpness. As always there is a slight colour shift but it was better than most ND filters I’ve tried and easily corrected in Capture One.
The Manfrotto ND500 filter provides 9 stops of neutral density.
Venice at night. Another reason to take a tripod.
While I’m on the subject of equipment I’ll quickly mention the bag. It’s a Mover-50 from the Manfrotto Manhattan series. For a day out with a single camera and lens it was overkill, of course, and empty for most of the time! But it’s a good size for a full mirrorless kit. Not too big, not too small. It would also handle a DSLR kit quite easily. I packed it with more gear back at home to show you what can fit inside. No problem with two mirrorless bodies, a flash and a range of lenses in there and it can also accomodate a laptop. For me the accessible top section would be useful for prime lenses and other bits you want to grab quickly while the other gear is tucked safely in the main section. There’s a system to hold a tripod on the side of the bag although I found the 190 was a little too large to fit comfortably with the head attached. The smaller BeFree range of tripods would be far less intrusive when strapped on there while walking around.
The Mover-50 backpack was more that I needed for a day with a single lens, so I loaded it up here just to show what can fit inside.
Getting back to the lens, although I didn’t shoot any portraits in Venice I know the standard (50mm equivalent) is a good focal length for those loose, half-body shots. The lens I was using was an f2 which, for me, is just a touch slow on an APS-C camera to give good separation between subject and background. By ‘slow’ I mean the maximum aperture available. The larger the aperture, the ‘faster’ the lens, gathering more light and offering a shallower depth of field for throwing that background nicely out of focus.
On a full-frame camera, a 50mm f1.8 is fast enough for most people and they are usually quite cheap, offering great value for money. When stopped down to f4 or f5.6 they’ll be super-sharp right across the frame so you can marvel at the resolution of your sensor. Pay a little extra and you’ll get a nice 50mm f1.4. The wider aperture would give you even better separation between subject and background and the higher quality optics should ensure greater sharpness and contrast even at wider apertures. It will be bigger and heavier and more expensive than the f1.8 but you’d be getting a wonderful prime lens for less than the price of a slower, average-quality zoom.
The standard lens is tight enough to isolate some nice details.
There is a growing trend towards fast prime lenses and I think that’s a good thing. It’s a shame manufacturers don’t offer them as a kit these days when you buy a new camera. My own advice would be to try a standard 50mm (or equivalent) which I find to be a versatile and satisfying focal length, but I know other people will prefer a slightly wider 35mm (or equivalent). Either way, taking a single-lens out with you every now and then is an interesting exercise. Whatever level of photography you’re at it’s got to be good training for the eyes. Give it a try.
All shots in this article were made with the Fujinon 35mm f2 lens on a mirrorless APS-C camera.. the equivalent of a 50mm standard lens on full-frame.