The 50mm Exercise

Photography provided us with the capacity to take a larger number of photos and the possibility to get more keepers. We live in an era where photographic technology advances by leaps and bounds and every day we hear of new cameras, lenses, attachments, apps, etc.

All of these options make our job of choosing the perfect lens, a little difficult.
Before we increase our collection of lenses though, we should consider concentrating our effort on improving our photographic eye.

We know that the siren’s calls of lenses are quite irresistible, but it is more important to learn how to make images with the exercise that we are outlining in this article. In the end, the experience will make the choice of our next lens a lot easier.

For this exercise, we are going to need a 50mm lens. This lens, also known as the “Nifty Fifty” is the lens recognized as a normal lens. In other words, is not a Wide Angle nor a Telephoto. For crop sensor cameras, the equivalent will be a 24mm or a 35mm depending of the crop factor.

It is in general, it is a pretty cheap lens and because it only has one focal length, is also known as a Prime Lens.

You can find it with fixed apertures of ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/1.8. The wider the aperture (the lower the number) the more expensive it is. For our exercise, we can even rent it.

Taking Pictures with the 50mm

Even though there are other important Prime lenses (the 85mm is quite nice), the 50mm (or the equivalent lenses in the crop sensor cameras) has a few advantages.

The 50mm is a very exact lens in all its configurations and its visual range is exactly the same as the human eye. In other words, this lens sees the world just like we see the world.

Because this is a Prime lens and not a zoom, we lose the ability to zoom in and zoom out from our point of view. In order to zoom we are going to need to do it with our feet.

This “handicap” will allow us to concentrate on the quality of our composition. We’ll need to frame our subjects, we’ll need to move or position ourselves at different distances and/or places.

The other important factor of the 50mm is the maximum aperture (ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/1.8) that allows us to capture more light and also to get softer backgrounds or Bokeh. These lenses are excellent for natural light photography.

The 50mm Exercise

Let us talk now about the exercise that we can do with the 50mm and how is going to help us with our composition.

One of the most common applications for the 50mm is Street Photography or News Photography. The idea is then to go out on the streets with a 50mm lens and imagine ourselves as a local newspaper reporter trying to describe the vibe and feeling of our city with our photos.

Try to exclude the elements that do not contribute to the final composition. Use your feet to get close and try not to think about how you are going to crop the photo later in Photoshop. Try to obtain the final image; in camera.

The exercise is to take our time before we take the photo. Concentrate on the composition. Capture the Decisive Moment made famous by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Once we complete this exercise, we are going to be in a better position to determine what lens we will to need to buy. Maybe we realize that we like to get closer to our subjects, which means we need a Telephoto. Or maybe we find out that we will like to capture more of the scene that what the 50mm provides and that will mean that we need a Wide Angle.

This article first appeared on the May 2016 edition of Street Photography Magazine.

All Images courtesy of Unsplash. All images retain the original photographer’s copyright.