Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Why would anyone want to put an inexpensive lens that doesn't even zoom on their expensive DSLR? Here's why.
I finally broke down and bought the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, and spent some time this afternoon rediscovering photography with it along the lake in Wingra Park. A prime lens is what used to be called a standard lens, the non-zooming lens that used to come with the camera, back before zooms became standard "kit lenses." Prime are faster and sharper than zooms, usually smaller and lighter, and they allow you to create beautiful out-of-focus background effects ("bokeh"). And the f/1.8 lenses are a bargain. This one is Nikon's least expensive lens and is sharper than lenses costing many times as much. Canon and other camera makers have similar offerings
Many younger photographers grew up using nothing but a zoom lens, and so using a fixed focal length prime usually takes a period of adjustment and getting used to zooming with your feet instead of your hand. But I made photographs for years with a 50mm before I ever touched a zoom (because, among other things, most of the early zooms were god-awful or cost a fortune if they weren't).
Over the years, I drifted away from using prime lenses, mostly because the stuff I occasionally shot for work required the flexibility of a zoom. But putting this lens on the camera was like putting on an old shoe. It felt really comfortable and familiar (even though it's closer to shooting with an 85mm on a film camera than a 50mm). It reawakened instincts that had lain dormant for years -- composing carefully, as if it mattered; the footwork dance that somehow puts you in a direct physical relationship with your subject the way a zoom never does; thinking about the basic elements of photography such as aperture, shutter speed and depth of field. Using the depth of field preview. I had a ball.
This photograph doesn't necessarily illustrate anything unique to the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, although it hints at its legendary sharpness and crisp colors. In fact, it probably says more about the Nikon D90's "Vivid" saturation setting than the lens I shot it with. But it does capture some of the excitement I felt on a sunny afternoon, rediscovering photography by going back to my roots and shooting the way I did a long time ago.