On assignment with the nifty 50

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When I first got into photography, there was a fairly uniform thought about the 50mm lens: BORING.

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Most every body came with a 50, f1.8 standard, and photographers were widely encouraged to chuck that thing in the drawer and forget it ever existed because all it would take would be flat, dull images. Get an 85 for those flattering portraits or a 24 for wide shots that tell the whole story, etc. The 50mm, f1.4 got some respect for its low-light action and shallow depth of filed capability. But in general, the 50 was to be shunned.

Opinions have changed over the years, and the 50 now seems to be held in higher esteem.

A few weeks ago, I was reading a post by Darren Rowse at his Digital Photography School site called Set Yourself a One Focal Length Challenge, and it sounded like a great idea: put one lens, preferably a prime lens, on your camera and use it for everything. Zoom with your feet. Look for all the options in that one piece of glass rather than constantly changing glass.

So, I got out my trusty Nikkor 50mm, f1.8, popped it on my D300s and pretty much left everything else behind.

OK, I left my gear bag nearby in my trunk, in case this just didn’t work. But with a couple exceptions I rolled with the 50, including a Herald-Leader assignment chronicling Open Mic night at Common Grounds Coffee Shop & Cafe. For two weeks, I went in with the one body and one lens, which was in one way perfect for the location as its low-light performance was ideal for the dimly lit coffee shop.

But it required a lot of “zooming with your feet” working around the crowded cafe and occasionally trying to lean back through walls when the 50 didn’t feel wide enough. But I found I was working and thinking much more about my composition and not at all about gear. Plus, I was always ready. No missing a shot because I was switching glass.

Here’s the funny thing. I did say there have been some exceptions. One was a concert I shot for the paper, where I needed to use some long glass like a 300 and 80-200 for closeups, and the other was a portrait session for a private client, where I felt they were not paying me to “experiment” – though everything in photography is an experiment to an extent.

But as it turned out, the 50 ended up producing the images of both shoots. A somewhat different longshot of the concert ended up published with the story, and my favorite portrait for my client was shot with the 50 (both are the top images on their respective posts). What’s more, I sorta annoyed myself changing lenses during that portrait shoot.

Of course, I will continue to use all the lenses in my bag. But the challenge has altered my mindset a bit, and I see myself more inclined to exhaust the possibilities of the 50 – zooming with your feet can be good exercise – before changing glass.

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