Using the Nifty Fifty

Some photo instructors advocate using only a fifty millimeter fixed focal length lens as a creative exercise. A nice idea for an exercise, but I really did not want to do this while on an extended trip along the Alaskan and British Columbia coast by boat.

A workshop at Lagoon Cove, British Columbia
I did not get a choice in the matter.

Looking to pack light I had taken only three lenses to accompany the Canon 60D that would travel with me. This set included a Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens, a 70-200mm f/4 L series telephoto, and a 50mm f/1.8. The 50mm was almost left behind, I grabbed it on a whim while packing realizing that it took up very little room.

It was a few days into the trip when trouble appeared. I began to get occasional errors when using the 17-85mm, the camera complaining about a lens communication error. After a day this became a serious issue, the camera refusing to take photos with the lens. The other lenses worked fine, thus I was sure the trouble was in the lens, not the camera.

A set of tools awaiting use in the workshop at Lagoon Cove
Sitting down and experimenting, I discovered that the issue only occurred if I was attempting to stop down the lens, used wide open I had no problem. During a series of gray and dark days, this proved little issue, I just set for aperture priority and continued to shoot, with some loss of creative control.

A couple more days and even that solution failed, the lens just jammed up entirely, with the aperture stop about halfway closed.

I was down to the the telephoto and the 50mm… Time to get creative.

The 50mm lens is interesting. It is small. It feels like you have forgotten to put a lens on the camera. It is sharp! The lens may be the cheapest lens Canon sells, just over $100, but there is nothing to complain about in the performance, crisp and sharp photos from corner to corner. It is fast. The very fast f/1.8 ratio allows for photos in low light conditions as well as providing a wonderfully shallow depth of field when you want it.

Cans of nails in the workshop at Lagoon Cove
I really missed the flexibility of a zoom and the 17mm wide angle in the close confines of the boat. The ability to go from wide to a moderate 85mm telephoto in a flash was a major issue when something popped up unexpectedly, something that happens on a boat in the wilds of Alaska.

I did have my little Canon G11 along, giving me some capability with a zoom lens. But I really wanted to shoot with the DSLR and the higher photo quality offered by the big lens and larger sensor when the photo really mattered.

On an APS-C camera like the Canon 60D there is a 60% crop factor, converting a 50mm to a mild telephoto. With a fixed focus I had to control the field through positioning myself instead of adjusting the camera. I do wonder if I got better shots as I had to become more involved and plan the shot?

I did take some great shots with the 50mm. Going through the 1,800+ photographs from the cruise I am quite happy with a number of them. An unintentional creative exercise, but a successful one.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

4 thoughts on “Using the Nifty Fifty”

  1. An interesting write, Andrew…! I am presently into my fifth month as a budding photographer and have accumulated most of my equipment used via Craiglist. At the present all such information is being eagerly sopped up like gravy with biscuits, regardless of whether I comprehend the material or not. The “nifty fifty”, one lens that is absent from my satchel. I have just sold a 30mm Sigma 1.4 which yielded a 48 mm on a 1.6 cropped body in exchange for cash to fund a canon 1.4 III extender which was paired with your 70-200 f4 IS for this past weekend’s air show at Kaneohe MCBH. I questioned the wisdom of this strategy, and hope that it was a sane choice! ( by the way, image quality is still excellent to my uneducated eye! ) Just a thought, has the misbehaving lens regained it’s faculties after being removed from Alaska’s colder temps?

    Thanks for your interesting report. I am flying back this evening but will not be going to the VIS which is where I normally “see” you in the glare of headlights entering the parking lot. And thanks for sharing your visit to Alaska…!

    1. No luck with the lens, the aperture mechanism seems totally seized. I am going to have to replace the lens, doing a little research and thinking on that subject.

      I have an EOS-M on pre-order with B&H, I understand they may start shipping soon!

  2. I have a 17-55 2.8 that does very nicely, although some reviews complain about issues with dust being siphoned in via zooming operations. Too soon for me to tell, hopefully I shall be one of the fortunate owners. A mirror less camera? I need to read up!

  3. In theory the mirrorless design can offer the performance of an APS-C DSLR in a far smaller package. I would love to have a high performance camera with better portability. The advantages for astrophotography are also considerable, far less weight to be supported by the mount and focuser. We shall see how that theory holds up.

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