If there’s one lens I would recommend to new photographers time and time again, it would be a 50mm prime lens. Why? It’s cheap, incredibly sharp, super light in weight, and super small in size.  Value for money and performance – ultimate. And yes, the picture above was taken with the equivalent of a 50mm prime.

The 50mm prime lens is a great ‘learner’ lens that will really hone your mastery of portrait photography.

First, a primer on understanding lenses.

Prime Lens vs. Zoom Lens

Everyone knows what a zoom lens is. It’s a lens with variable focal length – meaning you can increase or decrease magnification – by extending or shortening the length of the lens. We’ve all seen it. We all know what it can do.

A prime lens is the exact opposite of a zoom lens. You cannot zoom it. It’s fixed.

Left: Canon 50mm prime, Right: Canon 24-70mm zoom.

Left: Canon 50mm prime, Right: Canon 24-70mm zoom.

So why is a prime lens better than a zoom lens? Because everything in its design is optimized for that one fixed length. That’s it. The manufacturer is able to optimize image contrast, color, sharpness, distortion control and bokeh for one and only one fixed length. On the other hand, a zoom lens is a balanced compromise between quality vs. price, size and weight. If you want a very high quality zoom lens, you have to contend with very expensive, very large and very heavy lens. If you want a cheap, small and light zoom lens, then quality suffers.

Most “starter” camera packages you buy come with a zoom lens. Which is great. It’s easy on beginners – you don’t need to focus as much on the ‘craft’ as you do just snapping the picture. But you’ll notice also that your zoom lens – being light, small and cheap – suffers in image quality.

Invest in Prime Lenses

In purchasing a camera, most people first decide on a camera body, then decide on the lenses. It’s a natural progression. When you think of photography, you think ‘camera’. Well here’s a secret that the pros know:

When you think photography, you should think lenses.

Take a minute to let this sink in. This is extremely important. When you think photography – think lenses. Not camera bodies, not manufacturers i.e. Nikon, Canon. Think of buying lenses first, then find the best camera body you can afford on those lenses. Which means, given a limited budget, think of the best possible quality lens you can buy, then sacrifice on a cheaper camera body to meet your budget. Not the other way round.

The Nikon 50mm F1.8G cost only $199 but provides excellent sharpness, contrast, color and bokeh.

The Nikon 50mm F1.8G cost only $217 but can create amazing portraits that rival the best of professional photographers.

Why?

Good quality prime lenses will last a lifetime. There are some classic manual lenses today (over 30 years old), that photographers still love and revere. When you buy a prime lens, you are investing in a lifetime of quality images. Technology will constantly change. The hot camera body of today will loose its luster when the next hot thing comes. Camera sensors are constantly evolving – giving you better and more powerful features over time. But a lens is all about one thing – capturing light in the best possible quality ever – and it does so with glass. In other words, it is about optical performance – not digital or electronic performance.

The quality of glass (and its coating) determines the contrast, color, sharpness, resolution and distortion control of an image. You can have an uber super-sized 36MP full-frame sensor (Nikon D810) that will capture the tiniest detail. But if you put an ‘ok’ lens on it – it’s pointless because none of that detail will ever reach the sensor. In lenses, quality matters.

Yes, you can overcome certain deficiencies in post-processing. But the more upfront work you do with lens selection and knowledge will save you a lot of time – especially when processing hundreds (or thousands) of vacation pictures.

Finally, the MOST important thing that a good prime lens offers better than any zoom lens is bokeh.

Bokeh

Bokeh is magic. It’s that amazing creamy, out-of-focus quality that pops your subject and gives it the wow factor.

Left: aperture set to 1.4, Right: aperture set to 16.

Bokeh is the magical creamy, out-of-focus quality that pops your subject and gives it a wow factor. The same camera and lens was used to take both these pictures. The left has an aperture setting of F1.4, the right has an aperture setting of F16.

One aspect of controlling a lens is to control the size of the opening that allows light through. The bigger the opening, the more light comes through. Think of a water hose. The larger the diameter of a water hose, the more water passes through. If you cut the diameter of the water hose in half, you will have to add more time to fill the bucket. Same concept with a lens, except the size of the opening is called the aperture.

One interesting effect of increasing the size of the aperture (lower the ‘F’ number) is that it controls something called depth-of-field. I’ll save this topic for another post but the gist is, the aperture controls the ability for you to make your background in focus or out of focus – thus creating the pop in your subject.

So how do you add bokeh to your picture? It’s easy. Set your aperture to the lowest number possible. When you control aperture you’ll see a number with an ‘F’ in front of it. When you want everything to be in focus (landscape scenery etc.), set the aperture to the highest number i.e. F16. When you want only your subject to be in focus, set the aperture to the lowest number i.e. F1.8.

The 'F' number on your camera controls the aperture of the lens.

The ‘F’ number on your camera controls the aperture of the lens.

That’s it.

Buy a 50mm prime lens. Set your camera to ‘aperture-priority’ mode. For Nikon cameras it’s the ‘A’ mode, for Canon it’s the ‘Av’ mode. Then pick the absolute lowest number your lens will allow you. Typically for a good 50mm prime lens it’ll be F1.8.

Conclusion

You don’t need to buy a brand new DSLR (if you already own one). You can start achieving amazing portraits with creamy bokeh just by buying a cheap 50mm (full-frame equivalent) lens and then set the aperture to the lowest setting possible. This is why having only a cheap zoom lens is bad. Zoom lenses tend to be small and thus the lowest aperture is likely between 3.3 to 5.6. That’s about 2 – 3 stops difference (roughly). Every stop is double the amount of light over the previous stop. So it’s significant. Supplement your zoom lens with a good 50mm prime lens.

Here are some prime lens recommendations for your consideration. Depending on manufacturer and sensor format, the focal length may change but the criteria remains the same – a good quality prime lens for great portraits at a reasonable price.

Nikon 50mm F1.8G – $216.95
Canon EF 50mm F1.8 II – $125
Sony E 50mm F1.8 OSS – $298.99 (75mm F2.5 equivalent)
Fuji 35mm F1.4 XF R – $599 (53mm F2 equivalent)
Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm F1.8 – $399 (90mm F3.5 equivalent)

Bottom line: Buy a cheap 50mm prime lens for great portraits. You cannot go wrong.