What's so normal about a 50mm f/1.4 "normal" lens?
There's little this superhero can't do. Low light? No problem. Portraits? On most DSLRs, oh yes. Sports? For indoor action, it's the bomb. Extreme close-ups? With a reverse-mount adapter, it's what the doctor ordered. Street photography? Nothing better. Soft-focus romance? Absolutely.
Compact for travel, it's light enough to carry 24/7. And that big maximum aperture delivers a blindingly bright finder image. Want more? Even the expensive ones are a bargain. Compare, for example, Nikon's 50mm f/1.4, at $290 (street), to its 85mm f/1.4, which costs $1,000. No wonder every pro we know owns a 50mm f/1.4.
While teles compress space and wide-angles expand it, the 50mm renders spatial arrangements almost exactly as your eye sees them. Try this: Mount a 50mm on your DSLR and look through the viewfinder. Now, slowly lower the camera. Photographers weaned on superzooms that yoyo between expanded and contracted space may be surprised -- there's little difference between views. This distortion-free magnification, perspective, and angle of view is why it's called "normal."
And that's only the beginning of the 50mm's powers . . .
For much of the film era, 35mm portraitists opted for focal lengths between 70mm and 135mm. Why? Because they flatter the human face -- they're neither long enough to compress space, which flattens contours, nor wide enough to expand a large nose. This pushed the 50mm lens out of the portrait business.
But then came digital. Because of the lens-conversion factor associated with most DSLRs, the too-wide-for-faces 50mm converts up to 75-80mm -- perfect for half-length or even head-and-shoulder portraits. (Don't get any closer, though.)
The 50mm f/1.4 also beats "portrait" (105mm f/2.8 or 135mm f/2.8) lenses, allowing convenient working distances and beautifully out-of-focus backgrounds. For a half-length portrait made with a 135mm, for instance, you typically must put 12 feet or more between camera and subject. That kind of space can be hard to come by or work with -- you may have to shout to be heard. With a 50mm, though, you can step forward to fix Junior's tie, then take a few steps back to click the shutter.
And if you want the kind of dreamy background Michael Soo produced for this intimate view of a model named Tiffany, nothing's better than the f/1.4's extremely shallow depth of field.
With its bright apertures of f/1.4, f/2, and f/2.8 funneling generous amounts of light through to the image sensor, the 50mm f/1.4 affords shutter speeds fast enough to freeze most common forms of human motion.
It's especially well-suited to indoor amateur sports where organizers let you get within feet of the athletes. This lens, coupled with a high ISO, will work for basketball, wrestling, gymnastics, cheerleading competitions, or kickboxing in the dimmest gymnasium -- all without flash.
Because most of today's 50mm f/1.4 lenses have their origins in the film era, autofocus is rarely fast. This shouldn't deter you, though. Many indoor sports move within the plane of focus, rather than moving toward or away from your camera. Wrestlers and fencers are easy to follow, and for hoops, just focus near the backboard or foul line, and wait for the action to come to you.
Plus, because 50mm lenses are so compact, with focusing rings right under your fingers, they're easier to focus manually than almost any zoom lens -- and in really low light, manual is preferable to auto.