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Has the nifty fifty had its day? Or are you a dyed-in-the-wool 50mm traditionalist?

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The new Leica Q with its 28mm focal length is ideal for the group shot

The nifty fifty, the “standard” 50mm was once my favourite focal length for general photography. If I include the various vintage lenses on my shelf, I probably have more 50mm optics than those of any other focal length.

But perhaps the days of the standard prime lens, as epitomised by a generation of photographers led by Henri himself, are over. It’s at least something to discuss and, as usual, comments are welcome.

Increasingly, photographers are choosing 35mm or, even, 28mm as the one prime lens to use for regular daily use. The Ricoh GR and the Leica Q have amply demonstrated the versatility of 28mm, a focal length that was traditionally viewed as too wide for general use.

And the fixed-prime 35mm Fuji X100 has become one of the most popular choices for about-town photography. In the Leica world, too, the “humble” 35mm Summicron is the lens of choice for many rangefinder fans. You can get a lot more in the frame, something which is important when capturing architecture in crowded cities with narrow streets. And you can crop.

Crop factor

Improved sensor technology and higher resolution now mean that wider-angle lenses are eminently cropable to capture a 50mm-equivalent or, even, a 75mm view without too much loss. At a pinch, they can even serve for impromptu portraits, although a longer focal length has always been preferable to avoid distortion and to enable greater subject separation (as demonstrated in the top Monochom photograph).

The Q2 proves this point and helps visualise images through its 35/50/75mm frame-lines. A crop to 50mm is perfectly acceptable and even the 75mm focal length is as good as the 50mm on the old 24MP Q sensor.

While I am always tempted by tradition to choose a good 50mm prime, such as the Leica Apo-Summicron-M, most times these days I go for something a bit wider. The Q2 with its great resolution has convinced me that 28mm is now a great all-rounder. My fifties do tend to spend more time on the shelf these days.

Slow death

Yet I’m not entirely convinced. I still like those fifties as a good compromise focal length. So this article is a bit tongue in cheek.

My friend Kai Elmer Sotto with his well-brassed Leica MP and 35mm Summicron, taken with the Leica SL and 50mm Apo-Summicron-M

However, do check this thoughtful article by photographer Andy Day at fstoppers.com which takes up the theme and poses the question as to whether or not we are witnessing the slow death of the nifty fifty.

What do you think? Have you forsaken your fifties in favour of niftier 35mm or 28mm lenses? Or do you still believe than 50mm is the sublime compromise between general around-town photography and effective portraiture?


All images by Mike Evans

40 COMMENTS

  1. I use the Leica 23mm on my CL a lot, but the 7artisans 55mm f/1.4 gets a look in occasionally. I also have Leica Varios which cover 50mm in APS-C, but I think the next Leica lens I may buy will be the 50mm Summicron, for sheer IQ.

  2. Frankly I have never seen the 50mm lens length as being of much use for the full 35mm format as I have always preferred the 35/85 pairing, or in Leica M terms 35/90. Beyond that I also then much prefer to go very wide. I.E. 18mm as a bare minimum wide for Leica M and then 240mm and if possible something longer as well at the Tele end. Habit of a lifetime maybe but one, or rather a range which has now stood me well for almost 70 years, and which also for me has long meant my regard for such as the very wide aperture standard lenses like the Noctilux’s has been something like nil.

  3. In my case, looking at my images, the majority of photos I ‘ve taken over the past 10 years I’ve used the 28mm and 50mm focal lengths (in my case 47 mm with the ricoh GR i & ii crop sensor) mostly. Before that I mixed 35mm and 45mm and rarely ventured into wider angles. When I was young I shot with 85mm exclusively but hadn’t used anything longer than 50 mm for more than 25 years.
    I think smartphones have probably influenced the shift of camera companies towards 28mm FOV. Camera companies have also developed very wide angles single or zoom lenses. Some 30 years ago 16-35mm zoom lenses were a rarity and the same apply to 15/16 or 20/21mm lenses. That might explain the need among photographers for wider FOV.
    I don’t shoot close-up portraits or sports or animals so the ricoh with its 28/35/47 crop and the Leica X2 cover all I need. I dream of a Leica Q-P but I know I can’t afford it.

  4. I’m with Don.

    I used 50mm years ago, before I found a decent-priced 28mm (..that’d be around 1975..) but looking at my iPhoto Library, I’ve found that I use mostly 21mm or wider, and I recently bought the Voigtländer 10mm for the M mount. Works for me, as long as you don’t have (.s.t.r.e.t.c.h.e.d..) people right at the edge of the frame.

    I use the Leica 16-18-21mm f4 (so-called ‘Tri-Elmar’) but also use a few 21mm f2.8 lenses to let in more light – by Zeiss (for an old Contax IIIa, for a Contax G2, for M mount); by Voigt (a little teeny 21mm, and a much larger f1.8, both for M); a what’s-it-called old screw-fit on a bayonet adapter (..ah; vignette-free Kobalux!) for M; sometimes a Konica dual-range 21-35mm for M; and others whose names I can’t even remember ..oh, and a 21mm adaptor for Sony’s 28mm for the A7S (..although it’s not too sharp with that adaptor on).

    My favourite for micro-four-thirds is the very small Panasonic 7-14mm f4 (equivalent to a 14-28mm zoom), and I’ve other assorted 14mm, 17mm etc zooms for full-frame cameras.

    As Mike says about the Q2 and its 28mm lens, you can get all sorts of other ‘focal lengths’ by cropping, but by using a wider lens (..such as that 14-28mm equivalent..) you can get any focal length you want between, say 14mm and 90mm ..by just zooming, and with the same pixel count every time, or with a bit of cropping.

    The Q2, no matter how great, won’t go wider, though, than 28mm ..unless you can find a sharp, distortion-free adapter to fit it.

    And unless that adapter is MASSIVE (like the heavy Panny 21mm screw-on adapter/adaptor for the old Leica Digilux 2) you’ll probably lose so much light – the way I take pictures, anyway – that it’d be better to just take two steps backwards ..if there’s room, of course!

    I do own a few 50s (..I recently bought a lightweight, aluminium-mount old Cooke ‘Amotal Anastigmat’ ..a similar lens to the one on the old clockwork auto-wind American ‘Foton’.. just to see how that looks on an M..) and although the Leica 50mm APO is terrifically sharp, with lovely out-of-focus soft ‘bokeh’ and I use it – occasionally – in preference to the 50mm f1.4 (which I sold, along with a Konica 50mm f1.2, to buy the f2 APO) I do like the old (uncoated?) Canon 50mm f1.8 if I want to take b&w pictures which look like old ‘distant-washed-out’ 1920s photos.

    But the 50mm lenses mainly sit on the side-lines, and – if pushed, for a minimum outfit – I’d plump for the largish Voigt 21mm f1.8 (not the Leica 21mm f1.4), or else the small and svelte 1997 Leica 21mm f2.8 Elmarit-M Asph, and maybe the current Voigt 75mm f1.5. At least, that’s for an M.

    Otherwise I’d always use the Panasonic 7-14mm or the phenomenal Olympus 12-200mm on m4/3.

    That just leaves – as alternatives – the diminutive pocket RX100 Mk VI, with its marvellous 24-200mm (equivalent) lens, or the even tinier Sony WX350 with its 25-500mm, or the HX50 (but that’s an altogether slower-to-use camera) with its teeny 24-720mm very, very sharp lens.

    Usually, I just don’t see the attraction of 50mm ..I want to see -M-O-R-E- than my own eyes would normally show me!

  5. Rumours of the death of the nifty fifty are as exaggerated as the death of Leica and the death of M43. My favourite focal length is a 50mm for my style of photography. In my early decades, my next favourite focal lengths were 135mm and 200mm. I also loved the 24mm for landscape and interiors. I found 20mm and wider much harder to get great photos with and did not use much. However, I have relatively recently come to love the 28mm especially for urban photography. It is a relatively mild wide angle compared to 24mm and wider so is much easier to avoid distortion of objects at the edge of the frame. Hence, I now own the amazing Leica 28/5.6 Summaron and 28/1.4.

    On the 50mm front, I have the truly legendary Leica 50/1.4 and the gorgeousVoigtlander Heliar 50/3.5. The colours, razor sharpness and rendering of the Voigtlander is breathtaking and if Leica made this lens it would probably be 5 times the price. If I go out for a day I basically randomly pick one unless I know I need 1.4 for shallow depth of field. I also used to own the Zeiss 50/1.5 which was amazing for dark scenes but had focus shift that required use of the dreadful Leica EVF on the M240 so I sold it. It is a specialty lens that creates stunning images under the right lighting conditions. My current ideal core compact outfit would be 28, 50, 75. For a larger compact outfit: 18mm, 21mm, 28, 50 and Panasonsic G9 with the unbelievable Oly 12-100/4 pro lens (24-200). Ignoring my opinion, the manufacturers would not have such a huge selection of 50s if they were not selling. I have started enjoying ultra wide angles lens a lot more but 50mm is still my first love.

    • Glad to see your support for the old Nifty, Brian. This has been an instructive and interesting discussion, as I hoped. In truth, there’s a place for primes in all focal lengths. In m4/3, for instance, the unusual Olympus 75mm is a very long portrait lens that performs well above its price bracket.

      Many people have suggested that a 50mm Q would sell well. But I think it would be superfluous because the existing Q2 is simply more versatile. But, as David B points out, often an even wider angle is now considered to be generally useful. The trend over the past few years to start medium zoom lenses at 24mm instead of 28mm illustrates the point. I wouldn’t buy a 28-70 or 28-90 these days because the wider 24mm is so useful.

      • Hi Mike, before sensor resolutions got so high I would have wanted a Q 50mm. However, now that cropping is so rational for most people’s use I would buy a 28mm fixed lens camera over a 35 or 50 if the sensor is 34MP or more.

  6. Actually I’d love a Leica Q with a 35mm and ability to crop to 50 and 90. Although 28 is useful I don’t need it much and close up performance with a 35 should be really nice. The fixed 28mm is a modern phenomenon, don’t remember too many people wanting that focal length before it’s popularity was brought about by compact cameras like the Olympus XA4, Ricoh GR-1, Nikon 28Ti etc.Now it’s more of a fashion than ever.

    • quite a few of the photographers from the 50’s or before used wide angle lenses. Bruce Gilden, Harvey Stein, Mark Cohen, Garry Winogrand, William Klein and many others.,used wide angles 21, 28, 35.

  7. I’m wondering: Is this article about the nifty-fifty phenomenon (cheap lenses), or is it a debate about which focal length is better? Referencing the F-stopper article embedded one could apply the first mentioned whereas your article certainly, to me at least, implies the fact that the latter mentioned schism between photographers that we all experience when having to decide for a new piece of glass or for which setup to bring on a shoot? I, for that matter, use a Leica Q and an M with a 50 mm lens for most part of my work. Though usually bringing only one camera for a day out shooting, I’ve become sort of used to the fact (or feeling), that my subject choice instinctively changes according to which focal length is around my neck that particular day. Seing a scene I know excactly how to approach a better motive and composition with the one focal length I have on me on that particular moment. That being said, I will never consider the 50 mm as being “out of date”, since it can do almost everything – and I have been so much accustomed to the 28mm of the Leica Q, that if I were to invest in something wider for my M – it would not be a 35 mm but a 28 mm.

    • Thanks Stig. Yes, fair comment. I merely suggesting that 50mm is no longer the natural choice for al all-round lens (if it ever was). For many years most SLRs came with a “kit” 50mm and that was the focal length most people seemed to prefer. This primary preference seems to have widened to 35 or, even, 28 in recently years.

      I don’t mean to suggest that 50mm is not useful. It’s just a trend towards wider general purpose lenses, now fuelled by the ability to crop higher resolution images without enormous penalty. It makes an interesting discussion point and I am sure the comments to this article have been more informative than the article itself. I was hoping for this.

      • Thanks Mike for your reply. I think I fully understand the point, and I must admit – in order to complement my first comment – that going on vacations, etc. I tend to bring only the wider option in order to “travel light” and be prepared for any shooting situation, knowing that I always have the option to crop with very acceptable results – even on my “only 24 MP” beloved Leica Q ! 🙂 Good debate we have here in this article! Cheers!

  8. Your first and last images Michael, indicate why there is always a place for the nifty fifty. Like ‘em a lot.
    But, from the archives, why do so many of us forget the wonderful 40mm examples of yesteryear?
    And, in that regard a Fuji XE3 (24mp) or XE2(16mp) with the little Fuji xf 27/2.8 lens. 41mm equivalent, quite compact, lightweight, very good image output from its APS Sensor, and superb value for money. An ideal form factor….perhaps ?

  9. I seem to have come out of my 40mm period and returned to 50 as my favourite standard. “Those people” (experts) say that somewhere between 40 and 50 is what we humans see in everyday life. that it is the most natural angle of view, but I have found that there is a significant difference between just those two, the wider you get so the less specific and more snapshot.

    Perhaps the genius of Apple, a Mr. Jobs, understood the significant difference between what he wanted his phonecam to do and what his Leica did. The first was set up as a friendly social media snapshot device, serendipitously the quality of components and software has significantly improved and these things are now approaching the level of quality device.

    I reckon that people are just much more used to seeing the bigger picture, it is almost like you are recording the out of field bit of a rangefinder OVF image.

    So, I am still happy with a 28 mm phonecam and and Ricoh, whilst the Leicas do the CL40 and the M-D50. Since I got rid of the CL, I have to walk to zoom, whilst ultra wide gets right royally messed up with various pinhole devices.

    • Stephen,

      “..serendipitously the quality of components and software has significantly improved..” ..that reads as if new parts and new software just, er, fell out of the sky!

      Many people have been working very hard to improve the quality of phone-camera components (..sensor sensitivity and resolution, lens resolution..) and the the software which delivers a human-satisfying coloured image from the (essentially) black-&-white sensor(s).

      Software specialists have worked intensely on almost-unnoticeable, subtle HDR to reveal details in dark areas and toning down shrieking whites, while simultaneously and automatically adjusting regional contrast – where necessary – and matching colours to ambient lighting, and to photographers’ expectations.

      It ain’t serendipitous, Stephen ..it’s hard slog, ambition, achievement and almost miraculous results – when you compare, say, the grainy murk which you got from an 8mm-film Minox, or even a Rollei A110-film camera, with results from modern minute-sensor(s) camera phones!

      • David,

        I meant serendipitously for the use.

        Those who “worked very hard… etc. etc…” were paid, I expect, so that is OK then.

        • David,

          I meant serendipitously for the user.

          Those who “worked very hard… etc. etc…” were paid, I expect, so that is OK then.

          I really wish I could edit my posts.

          • I can! With the old Squarespace system the administrator (aka me) was even prevented from editing comments. I can see the wisdom in this, since no one wants their stuff fiddled with. But I can now edit on request. If and commenters want something changing please drop me a line and I will do my best.

  10. I think this is a lot to do with habit and one starting way back with the dawn of photography when most if not all cameras manufactured came with a fixed ‘Standard’ lens, so for instance when Leica introduced the circa 1924 model we all now know as the 1a it had a 50mm non interchangeable lens, and from then on this lens just stuck.

    Fast forward through the 1950’s and 60’s and by then virtually every 35mm camera manufacturer expected or at least hoped to sell whichever camera with a 50mm lens EVEN if the actual camera model by then had the facility for interchangeable lenses.

    Hence not only Leica continued but also Nikon, Pentax, and whoever else you care to mention not only made and sold far more 50/55mm lenses than any other focal length they also made very sure this, THE standard lens was also the best lens in the range, not least because if we look back through the 1950’s 60’s and even 1970’s photographic magazine who did camera tests, you will find the 50mm being the only lens length said cameras were tested with.

    In short the vast majority of camera buyers were amateurs who even if they had a interchangeable lens camera never actually bought such as a second lens length and incidentally if they did in those days it would almost inevitably be a telephoto not a wide angle, and perhaps the oddest thing of all was that the 50mm focal length was in fact rather long compared to the standard focal length lenses on other formats, for instance as little as 75mm for 6×6 or 100/105mm for the vastly larger 2/14 x 3/14″ format sizes etc.

    The variable lens length explosion did not really arrive until the early 1970’s for most camera makes and this I would suggest was due mostly to the demands by we professionals demanding more choices rather than from the amateur market, hence such as Nikon and later Olympus leading the way with everything from fish eye lenses to 400mm f2.8’s and only then did the penny drop we no longer HAD to buy a 50mm with whatever 35mm camera system we were buying in to.

    • Interesting point about the 50mm and the fact that it seldom left the camera. Very true. I still cannot understand why so many people still purchase entry-level DSLRs and probably don’t realise the lens comes off. They are the people who have the flash permanently sticking up….. At last, though, this end of the market is fast disappearing.

      • .
        “..probably don’t realise the lens comes off..” ..and many of them come to my photo lessons in Greece each year. It was never explained to them in the shop (..and the shops are also fast disappearing..) or on the website where they bought it, WHAT they can do with different lenses. The (few remaining) camera shops just don’t have displays of wide-angle photos, or telephoto photos, with examples beneath them of which add-on lens can take a photo like that.

        Shops just have displays of lenses ..hardware.. and many of those look pretty similar (just small or large black lumps) ..unless you’re a dedicated gearhead and can tell one from another, and can understand what DIFFERENT things those similar looking black lumps can do..

        Many of these uninformed photographers are women ..and I don’t see many women here at Macfilos.. and they don’t frequent photo blogs online: they think “buy a camera, take pictures, end of story”. No-one shows them that you can whip off the lens (“..oh! I didn’t know you can do that! ..Doesn’t that break it?!”..) and replace it with a different one, and that’ll make their pictures look quite different, and thus let loose their creativity!

        [..Oh, and the first thing we do with EVERY camera (SLR or compact) it to turn the flash OFF!]

        Camera shops don’t seem to sell just camera BODIES and then ask the customer “what lens would you like with that?” ..customers are used to going to Starbucks and asking for a specific coffee (..latte, flat white, mochaccino, decaf espresso..) but are NOT used to going to a camera shop – or online – and stipulating “super-wide, super-tele, short portrait, low-light, panoramic” or suchlike. They’re shown a camera with a kit zoom, told that they can buy other lenses afterwards ..and that’s it!

        • Hi David, I agree with you fully on this. It has actually got much worse over the years as retail service has gotten much more superficial in every purchase experience from coffee to cars. A person should be carefully asked what their objectives are, what they want to take photos of, and some sample photos of various subjects taken by various lenses including fisheye – some of us are fun people. I have always been stunned that there are no photos on the walls of camera stores – at least not in Canada anyway.

  11. I have a Nikon 50 1.8G that came with my Df, I like it for portraits, its sharpness and wonderful bokeh. But after two years of messing around with it, I still prefer the 35mm angle I used in primes before hand, and also what my little X typ 113 technically provides, I just feel I get a little more in to my images than the 50 does.

    There are some nice images here Mike, but like many others have said the first one, and the third one win the day for me.

  12. hi Mike
    I think 50mm is more relevant today 🙂 i have 28mm summaron and a 50 Apo.
    today’s world people are hyper sensitive to street photography and 28 is almost very up close and personal. 50mm helps in this case. observe from a distance and shoot. also it could be used for good portraits too.
    where as 28 is more for instantaneous, zone focus , quick action street photos . one could also use it for Landscapes. I think both are more relevant today.

    Best
    Kannan

    • I agree about the Summaron, Kannan. The attraction is the small size, not just the excellent results it achieves — subtly better than the original version which I owned for a time. I find the Summaron on my M10-D is a perfect size for carrying around town. In fact, I prefer it to the Q2 unless I need the faster lens. It is indeed a little gem.

  13. Consider the photos of China by Cartier Bresson in today’s Guardian and ponder what lens/es he might have used and the relevance of that. The most important lens is in the eye of the photographer. My most used lens is a 35mm Summicron, but my best lens is a 50mm Summilux. I have far more 50mm lenses than 35mm lenses, but that is the result of being a collector of vintage Leicas, most of which come with a 50mm lens attached.

    William

    • I can find “Ranked: The Clash’s 40 greatest songs” in the Guardian (..you mean The Guardian, ex-Manchester Guardian, not the Dublin Guardian?..) today, though no pictures by HC-B. But I’m looking at the online version, not the printed newspaper. Perhaps that’s where they’re hiding..!

      • Try pasting this https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2020/jan/09/henri-cartier-bresson-china-breaking-free-of-its-past-in-pictures . I’m afraid the Clash’s 40 greatest songs would never attract my attention. As for the HCB pictures, yes, such scenes might not be witnessed in China today, but they were there in HCB’s time and he saw and photographed those scenes. My real test for any photographer would be to send them to ‘unspoilt territory’, such as the Antarctic, with a modern ‘do it all’ camera and to challenge them to match the photographs of Ponting and Hurley taken on much more ‘primitive’ equipment over 100 years ago. As always, it is the lens in the photographer’s eye that really matters.

        William

        • Many thanks, William. I’d seen many of the photos before, but it was nice to be reminded ..and good to find links at the bottom of that page to “classic French photography – in pictures”, from 8th November 2018, and many more Willy Ronis pictures than just the barges navigating through Paris.

          Thank you!

    • I agree! And am agreeing as a ex Guardian photographer as well as in those days all we photographers on The Guardian were only issued with a 50mm lens plus one camera body, however I quietly bought my own 35 and 85mm lenses and used them instead without ever telling my colleagues!

  14. For a while I favored a 25 (Zeiss) 50, 90 combination, but in the last few years I have reverted to the 21, 35 combination I used from about 1979 through to the early 2000’s. I find the 50 is neither fish nor fowl when it comes to the perspective I’m looking for in an image and the 35 captures just enough of the environment for a street picture to make sense. Similarly the 50 doesn’t have quite enough reach, so I’ve added a 75mm to get the separation from background I need for some shots.
    I think the acid test was those few years of using the 25/50 combo that didn’t produce many keepers. Then again that dry spell in picture taking could have just been my lack of imagination when it came to using those particular lenses.

  15. For Last Friday article on Cambodia, most images were taken with the 28mm and 47 crop mode on the GR. I really appreciate that possibility and shot most of the close portrait and other images with the 47 (only 3mm from the nifty fifty

      • That’s kind of you, Richard, but not really true. To paraphrase Churchill in reference to his Labour opponent, Clement Attlee: Evans is a modest photographer with much to be modest about. Every contributor to Macfilos, including you, brings a different view and talent.

      • There’s no better or worse photographer. Any decent image whatever the camera or person needs positive comments. There’s a trend among us teachers in France about benevolence and I totally and wholeheartedly adhere to the idea. There’s always something good in almost everyone or evreything despite flaws with the exceptions of dictators, serial killers and their likes.

  16. With bags and boxes of lenses all over the house, I’ve recently concluded I could probably go through the rest of my photographic life using only two lenses–a 24mm and a 50mm.

  17. Hi Mike
    An excellent article and some great replies. I think I am a big 50mm fan mostly for the reason Don mentions- I used it as my only lens in my youth. I don’t see any softening in s/h prices suggesting they are still popular.

  18. If I were to have just one lens for outdoors, it would still be a fast Leica 50mm. This seems to change… it was a 90mm when I was an APS-C DSLR user and it was a 35mm Voigtlander when I first came to Leica (M9). I think there is more than the focal length I connect with – it is the entire look.

    But it is horses for courses. A 28mm, 35mm or 75mm are the ones I reach for indoors!

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