50mm Street Photography

To start with, let me explain by saying 50mm angle of view it means in full frame equivalent. In other words, roughly 25mm in Micro Four-Third (MFT) System, or 35mm in APSC System. 50mm lens famous for their other name as “Nifty-Fifty” which is originally means as solid buy and hold growth stocks back at 1960s in New York Stock Exchange. Nowadays, to put it short, Nifty Fifty refers to something practical, useful, and effective.

Manado, Indonesia, 2016

I genuinely think it is a right statement, 50mm lens is a solid option as allrounder lens that we can use for many purposes. My very first prime lens (Lens that can not zoom) when I started photography is 50mm. Photo above is one of the very first image that I captured with 50mm angle of view. It was early morning at beach area when I saw magical blue hour and silhouette of people fishing. I saw the scene, raise my camera to my eye without thinking, and clicked the shutter. The angle of view of 50mm is just spot on to me. Truth to be told, I have tried 28mm, 35mm, 85mm, a couple of zoom lens, even sell my 50mm lens to funding other lenses, and in the end, now I’m back owning 50mm lens specialist in street works and daily lens (My system is Fujifilm X-T2 with XF35mmF2). This is how I see the world through camera, let’s say my eyes naturally work like 50mm lens. I’m fully understand that biologically human eyes work in around 42mm, but most of the time we (especially me) see things in tunnel vision, therefore slight narrower angle of view is more natural. Anyway, here is the benefit of using 50mm lens for street work:

Artistic Lens

Bandung, Indonesia, 2018

This is a painter lens. Many times 50mm lens considered as angle of view of how a painter draw their work on canvas. Henry Cartier-Bresson (Famous as Father of Street Photography) who use 50mm lens for most of his photography works, first interested in painting before he jump to photography world, and also after he retired from photography he back to focus in drawing. Some may argue with this statement (50mm as painter lens), but I think this kind of true as well. Let’s say someone give me a paper and a pencil, and he told me to draw a person on paper, the way I draw will reflect how I shoot a person in front of blank white wall (the scale and position of subject). Not in 28mm/35mm (wide with its surrounding) or 85mm (close up, kind of headshot) angle of view. With this particular reason I believe 50mm produces artistic feel in natural way.

Jakarta, Indonesia, 2018

What I like the most about 50mm is it able to create composition that naturally make point of interest looks dominant in frame, yet we still can get enough environment space around subject to create stronger story line. Yes, with the right distance, timing and moment we can do the same on 28mm, 35mm, 85mm or any lenses, but 50mm will work more effectively in more various situation and scenes, therefore easier to achieve this natural artistic composition without need to keep changing lens when we are shooting on the street.

Give Space To Your Subject

Jakarta, Indonesia, 2018

In 50mm world we do not need to always shoot in extreme close range to subject (like in 28mm) to fill in the frame. The main benefit is we can shoot subject before they realise it (or maybe not even realise it at all), therefore candid reaction is more likely easier to capture. Some street photographers also said by being too close to subject will worry them as they afraid subject will upset, though it is not always true, I believe by giving space to subject also make us the photographer to act more relax on the street and by less worry means we can shoot more comfortably, which is means we have bigger chance to get a great shot.

Allrounder Lens

Street cat who curious about camera, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2018

Not too wide, Not too narrow. Practically we can shoot many things with 50mm lens only. From documenting event, journalism, wedding, travel, food, product, landscape, street photography and also as daily lens. As bonus, most of 50mm lens out there have relative good in minimum focus distance for close up shoot (unlike 85mm or longer which is roughly 1 metre minimum focus distance).

Architecture shoot. Jakarta, Indonesia, 2018

50mm also considered as “widest” lens that does not suffer from distortion issue. High end quality 35mm lens also has good distortion control, but every time we compare it to 50mm lens (in the same price/quality level) then 50mm will take the cake. This fact makes 50mm useful for travel photography, especially if we like to shoot some buildings or other kind of architectures.

Jakarta, Indonesia, 2018

Perfect lens to carry daily. If we look into many lens manufactures we will find the fact that their smallest (and lightest weight) lens is 50mm. It is because 50mm lens (usually) use the least amount or parts inside, therefore size can be pack to smaller compare to 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 85mm, etc (Pancake lens excluded). By having our camera always on our side means we have more chance to capture golden moment in street scene, and also we can just snapshot things everyday to scenes that we find interesting or beautiful as our personal documentation.

Big Aperture

Jakarta, Indonesia, 2018

Most 50mm prime lenses have big aperture which quite handy when it comes to shoot at low light places. Most of modern cameras have quite good high ISO control, combine with big fast aperture (f2 or bigger) we easily can get fast shutter speed in low light places. In photo above I took it at 11.30 pm inside shopping mall, all tenants already closed and only minimal light around.

Price

By having the least parts inside and also the easiest to create, generally 50mm lenses have cheaper price compare to others. For example, nowadays Canon 50mm f1.8 can be bought less than USD 100, then in Fujifilm system their XF35mmF2 lens also considered as the cheapest “High Quality Prime Lens” in their line up, Sony Alpha system also invent FE50mm F1.8 which is really cheap compare to other Sony lenses.  So, I think if you serious in your photography, at least you should try at least for once to use 50mm prime lens to feel it, enjoy it and there is a chance this lens will glued to your camera for long time because of its versatility.

That’s all the reason why I (really) love 50mm lens! I have tried to replace it with other prime lenses, but in the end I just going back to use it a lot nowadays. Have fun shooting with 50mm!

Keep Shooting and stay inspired,

Nico Harold