Editor's note: The ebook deal of the week is back – get 10 Black & White Photography Assignments for just $6 with the code bw4. 🙂
Buy any modern digital APS-C camera in a kit and it almost always comes with an 18-55mm zoom. Zooms are popular for their versatility but in a way it’s a shame that cameras no longer come packaged with a standard lens. These lenses are also versatile and the optical quality is excellent.
Standard lenses also happen to be one of my favorite types of lens to use on both APS-C and full-frame cameras.
What is a standard lens?
A standard lens is a prime lens with a focal length roughly equivalent to the length of the diagonal measurement of the sensor (or film).
Using this criteria a standard lens on a full-frame camera would have a focal length of 42mm. It produces a field of view that is similar to the human eye or appears natural.
In practice, the 50mm lens is considered the standard for full-frame cameras (although Pentax makes a 42mm lens). A 35mm is considered standard for an APS-C camera, as is a 25mm lens for Micro Four-Thirds cameras.
Standard prime lens vs. kit lens
If you already own a kit lens you may be wondering why you would need a standard lens.
The answer is that standard prime lenses have advantages that kit lenses don’t.
Advantage #1: Better image quality
Standard lenses are relatively simple to design and make. It’s easier to optimize optical performance on a prime lens than a zoom. As a result the optical performance of even inexpensive primes is better than many zooms.
An inexpensive prime lens gives you better image quality than an inexpensive zoom, every time. Even high quality zoom lenses may not replicate the performance of a decent prime throughout the entire focal length range.
I made this photo with a Canon 50mm f1.8 lens. The image quality is visibly better than kit lenses I have used.
Advantage #2: Wide maximum apertures
This is the most exciting feature of any prime lens.
Most kit lenses for APS-C cameras have an aperture of f5.6 at the long end (usually 55mm). A prime standard lens has an aperture of f1.8 or wider. That’s more than three stops.
It makes a tremendous difference when shooting in low light as it gives you the option of opening the aperture to let in more light.
It also lets you use a wide aperture to create images with beautiful bokeh.
I made this photo in low light with a 50mm standard lens.
Advantage #3: Price
Kit lenses, by their nature, tend to be inexpensive zoom lenses. The compromise for the price is often relatively poor build and image quality.
Standard lenses can be just as inexpensive but the optical quality is much better. For example, optimizing image quality for a 50mm prime lens (a standard lens on a full-frame camera) is a relatively simple task that lens designers mastered decades ago.
Zoom lenses have more elements (pushing up the manufacturing cost). It is also harder to create a zoom lens that gives great optical performance across its entire focal length range. You can buy zooms that do, but they will cost you a lot more money than a budget standard or 18-55mm kit lens.
Most standard lenses are excellent value for money. But, as with any lens, you need to consider build quality, autofocus performance and weatherproofing when buying one. It may be worth buying a more expensive lens for your camera if the autofocus performs better or if the lens has a stronger construction.
It’s also worth noting that you can buy expensive standard lenses (the Canon EF 50mm f1.2 L is a great example). You are paying for image quality, high quality lens elements, build quality, weatherproofing, a wider aperture and high quality autofocus motors with these lenses.
The 50mm standard lens
50mm lenses – or nifty fifties, as they are affectionately known – seem to hold a special place in the hearts of many photographers, perhaps because they are the first prime lens that many photographers buy.
50mm lenses on APS-C cameras
If you use a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera then the crop factor of the camera means the 50mm lens is a short telephoto. Combined with the wide aperture of the lens this makes a 50mm lens ideal for portraits on an APS-C camera.
Some photographers own both full-frame and APS-C cameras that share the same lens mount. In this case a 50mm prime lens does double duty. It’s a standard lens on your full-frame camera, and a short telephoto on your APS-C camera.
I made this portrait using a 50mm lens and an aperture of f1.8. The background is out of focus to an extent that would be impossible to achieve with a kit lens.
Learn more: How to Focus at Wide Apertures
Ideal subjects for standard lenses
These subjects are ideal for standard lenses. That is, a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera, a 35mm lens on an APS-C camera or a 25mm lens on a Micro Four-Thirds camera.
I’ll touch on each briefly – it’s possible to write many pages about using standard lenses for each of these subjects.
Street and travel photography
A standard lens helps you get close to the action without being so close that you invade people’s personal space. The wide aperture comes in useful in low light or for selective focus. Most standard primes are also small in size and light. This makes them ideal to carry around all day. It’s a lot less tiring than using heavier zooms or telephotos.
I made this photo with a 35mm standard lens in Spain.
We’ve already touched on the use of standard lenses for portrait photography. If you are making formal portraits then a short telephoto would probably be better. But for environmental, documentary style or street portraits a standard lens is ideal. It lets you capture your subject within their environment without the distortion caused by moving in close with a wide-angle lens.
Here is an example of an environmental portrait that I made with my Fujinon 35mm standard lens.
Here is a close-up of some of the blacksmith’s tools that I made with the same lens.
You can use a close-up lens or extension tubes with a standard lens to take close-up photos. You can also reverse mount it onto another lens to take macro photos. This greatly increases the versatility of the lens.
If you already own a standard lens these are cheaper options than buying a macro lens.
I made this photo using my Fujinon 35mm lens fitted with an extension tube to get closer to the flower.
While you will probably use wide-angle lenses for most of your landscape photos, a standard lens can be surprisingly useful. The use of a standard lens simplifies the composition by drawing the main elements of the scene closer. It’s a focal length worth considering when a wide-angle lens includes too much of the scene to create an effective composition.
I used a 35mm standard lens to create this landscape photo.
A standard prime lens is a great lens for any photographer to own. The benefits are great value for money, excellent image quality and wide apertures. My 35mm f1.4 lens has become a firm favorite since I switched to Fujifilm.
Do you like to use standard lenses? I’d love to hear what you think of these versatile optics. Let us know in the comments.
Mastering Lenses ebook
Learn how to take beautiful photos using any lens with our popular ebook Mastering Lenses. The lens buying guide alone could save you hundreds of dollars on your next lens purchase!