The 50 Millimeter Lens Is The Only One You Need
If he were alive today, legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson would marvel at all the choices a modern shooter must make before arriving at “the decisive moment.” The roadblocks to creativity we place before ourselves are more prevalent than ever. Camera makers update their lenses, sensors, and formats with overwhelming frequency. We can read hundreds of expert (and not-so-expert) opinions on every new piece of gear before we even begin to think about where to point the thing and when to press the shutter.
While we all search for the one camera system that will somehow allow us to elevate our technique, a humble and ingenious solution has been here the whole time, ready for us to embrace or rediscover its beautiful simplicity: the 50-mm lens.
This unassuming and ubiquitous piece of glass is beloved by pros and serious hobbyists alike. Maybe it’s the lens our parents had on the family camera or the lens we peered through in our high school photo class. We didn’t mind that it had no extra features. We accepted that if a good picture was going to happen with this setup, it wasn’t going to be the lens doing the creative heavy lifting.
To this day, when paired with a full-frame DSLR, the 50-mm has the same effect. That is to say, it has no real effect. The lens isn’t there to wow us. The canvas is set, and it’s our job to make a picture appear within it. We zoom with our feet, physically engaging with the composition, getting in close to pack the frame with information or backing off to let the scene play through. These technical limits liberate our brains from interference. The 50-mm won’t save us from taking a bad picture, but it won’t get in our way either.
For sure, there are many good reasons to use all the other lenses in one’s arsenal. Each photographer’s approach is as wonderfully unique and personal as it is varied. But we can surprise ourselves with how exciting it is to make a satisfying picture using the most basic of tools. Without falling into the trap of fetishizing a single piece of equipment for its retro vibe (which the photo community is inclined to do), the simple act of taking pictures with one of the most tried and tested setups in photographic history might be the easiest decision we’ll ever make.