Nifty LeviSim-5

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could buy one thing and it would make you a better photographer? Yet, as I read forums I always see comments like, “You can’t buy your way to better photos” or “There are no magic lenses that make you better.” Well, I’m telling you right now, no strings attached, that there is one thing you can buy that will make you a better photographer.

Nifty LeviSim-2

Nikon D800, 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/11, 1/125s, ISO 400.

The Nifty Fifty

This is simply a 50mm prime lens (prime, or fixed, means it doesn’t zoom), and they can be purchased new or used for about US$100, and they are typically very fast with an f/1.8 aperture, and they are very sharp. This is a lens you could possibly afford by mowing lawns or washing windows this summer. Don’t waste your money on the f/1.4 versions. Get the one eight and use it. Use it for everything everyday.

Nifty LeviSim-1

Nikon D800, 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/11, 25 seconds, ISO 100

50mm and Get There

The thing about using a prime lens is that you can’t zoom to alter what’s in your frame. Zooming the lens to change the framing is lazy, and affects more than the framing. There’s a phrase associated with prime lenses, “zoom with your feet,” but that’s a fallacy. You need to frame with your feet, and get the idea of zooming out of your brain. That is, move yourself and you camera around until you’ve got what you want in the frame.

Nifty LeviSim-3

Nikon D800, 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/11, 3 seconds, ISO 100

Lens Goggles

If you mount that nifty fifty on your camera and go photowalking, you’ll be awfully frustrated for the first while because you won’t be able to zoom. After a little bit, however, your brain will anticipate what it will see through the lens, and you’ll begin seeing the world at 50mm. You’ll begin visualizing what your camera can do before you even lift it to your eye. Get where I’m going here? You’ll begin to visualize and see pictures even when you don’t have a camera with you. Do you see that this is making you a better photographer? Being a great photographer is all about vision, and this one cheap lens will help you along that path faster than anything else you could buy.

Nifty LeviSim-4

Nikon D800, 50mm f/1.4 lens, f/8, five frame HDR, ISO 100. If you’re out shooting with only your 50mm and find a wider shot you just have to make, just shoot a panorama!

Fix your lens, Free your vision

This isn’t about cropped sensors and 35mm practically being a 50mm on my Canon Rebel. Don’t buy the 35mm lens. Buy the 50. It’s cheap. If you already have a prime lens, just use that. Longer lenses are even more frustrating (but more rewarding). Heck, don’t buy the nifty fifty, just buy some masking tape and tape your kit lens tight at 50mm. Go shoot with it everyday for an hour or two, and don’t worry about what’s going to be in the pictures. It’s about training your brain and your eyes. Fix your lens and free your vision.

See you on the street!

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Join the conversation! 16 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more

  2. This blog entry is spot on. I started out shooting digital, discovered, embraced, and still love film, and do shoot digital when the situation calls for it. My collection of Nikon and Hasselblad prime lenses are nothing short of spectacular. And one of the several Nikkor 50’s I own, when placed on the D300, become a neat little portraiture lens. While I do use zooms on occasion, I love the 50 so much. Funny how in their day, they were thought of as basically a “kit lens” for film bodies, and now they are highly sought after. Fixed focal lengths do make one a better photographer- guilty as charged.

  3. You are trying to make a point that the cheap 1.8 is all you need but all the sample pictures you are showing are taken with a more expensive 1.4. The 1.8 is good enough until you learn more but then eventually a good photographer will need the 1.4.

  4. “Don’t waste your money on the f/1.4 versions. Get the one eight and use it. Use it for everything everyday.”

    Yet, there are no images in the article utilizing the f/1.8 50mm. They all use the same f/1.4 version you said NOT to use. LOL

  5. Great advice. I love using my 50 mm. Super sharp and it really does free your mind to compose.

  6. I’ve been working through this with my new x100s. Learning to see in 35mm is interesting and I think helping me up my game!

  7. Absolutely! My favorite lenses are the 50mm 1.8 and the 105mm 2.8. Some of my best landscape shots are using the 50mm 1.8 lens. Lots of fun when it’s wide open during a photowalk.

  8. This is a great post. I always suggest to new photographers that they get a 50mm prime. Those who do, a drastic improvement in their photography happens within months.

  9. I will echo the sentiment of a couple of others and ask why you didn’t include any photos you took with the f/1.8. Your photos with the f/1.4 look great and I like the point of the article, but showing only photos with the f/1.4 does seem a bit odd.

  10. Sorry about using the f/1.4 in the post, guys. When I wrote this, I was on the road and did not have access to all my pictures. I’m sticking by my comment, though: my f/1.4 pictures are not $300 better than my f/1.4 pictures. That Nikon 1.8D was really good to me. I’d set it at f/4 and there was nothing sharper. I just got the new 1.8G in a package, and it’s also awesome, I’m not using the 1.4 anymore. Anyway, the post is about millimeters, not apertures :)

  11. Having the D800 (with a full frame 36MP sensor) affords you the luxury of making a large print with the liberal cropping that these shots have. The aspect ratio of both 35mm film and the D800 sensor is 2:3. Non of your photos are. While I agree with your premise, the examples that you have provided are misleading.

    • The first one with the fall leaves is a 2:3, but WordPress required presenting a slightly cropped version here (1280×800), so sorry about that. The one of the cow with the tree is also full frame 2:3, no cropping. The extra wide bridge pano is making a point of shooting a pano to get what you need with a limited lens. The other two are cropped more pano-like…but cropping for impact has always been a fundamental principle of photography. The 50mm was the right lens to make that picture, but the extra sky in each image isn’t helping the image. As far as printing, these aren’t cropped smaller, just narrower; I could make a great print from any of these even at 6 megapixels. Resolution has nothing to do with vision.

  12. Nice piece, I’ve got myself a little 35mm lens which I really need to use more!!

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  15. Last Christmas I got myself two Pentax DA primes, the 35mm f/2.4 and 50mm f/1.8 (both were on a great sale). One or the other is on the camera by default as I’m not really into the kit lens. Over time I found myself leaning to the 35mm. I don’t know why, maybe I got caught up in the “equivalent to a 50mm” thinking from my ME Super back in the film days. The 35mm gets used twice as much as the 50mm and after reading this I think I need to force myself to use the 50mm a little more.


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About Levi Sim

Passion drives Levi to make photographs, teach, and help new friends. He tells people he's a photographer, but he really does more than just make pictures. His professional photography is primarily commercial work for businesses, both small and large, and he really helps show how great it'd be to work with those companies. He excels at photographing people, from two-year-olds to oil field workers to couples married for 60 years, everyone has a good time making pictures with Levi. Besides people and businesses, Levi enjoys all other aspects of photography, and practices landscapes and still life, as well. Other people enjoy photographing everything, and Levi wants to be able to help, so he practices as much as he can to be ready to help. He also runs a local photography club, is a Rotarian, actively helps at church, is a husband, and poppa to a peppy four-year-old girl. Levi writes regularly for and is co-author of books on Adobe Lightroom.


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