Do I need a 50mm lens if I have a 18-55mm?

Are you thinking of upgrading to a 50mm from the 18-55mm kit lens that you got with your first camera? I’m sure you have a lot of questions that need to be answered before buying a new lens. You may wonder why you need a 50mm in your camera bag even when you already have the 18-55mm.

The main benefits of the 50mm over the 18-55mm are it will make sharper images with better contrast, be lighter, has a larger aperture (usually around f1.8 or less) which makes the lens better in low-light environments like churches or events, and the lens is easier to blur the background for isolating the subject.

The 50mm is also a very flexible lens, and with practice, will surely be your go-to lens if you were to carry only one lens. To help you in deciding whether or not to purchase the 50mm, let us dive deeper into the main differences between the 18-55mm and 50mm.

18-55mm

Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II Lens
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II Lens

Pros of 18-55mm Lens

The pros of the 18-55mm lens are its versatility and zoom capability. Having a wide (18mm) to standard focal length (55mm) in one lens gives you the ability to shoot a variety of scenes without moving as much as with only one focal length. These lenses are generally relatively lightweight, inexpensive, and does not take up a lot of space in your camera bag. 18-55mm lenses also tend to have a smaller minimum focus distance than 50mm lenses (0.92 ft vs 1.5 ft)

Cons of 18-55mm Lens

The disadvantages of this lens is that it is a relatively inexpensive entry-level lens and it is most likely a variable aperture lens. This means that it usually comes with inferior glass elements which may lead to some poor quality images in terms of sharpness and contrast when compared to prime lenses like the 50mm. Another downside is that 18-55mm lenses is most likely a variable aperture lens with a minimum aperture of f/3.5 at 18mm and a maximum aperture is f/5.6 at 55mm. Being a variable aperture lens, zooming in and out with this lens will alter your aperture settings and you will have to adjust your aperture for the correct exposure, especially in manual mode. For example, if you are zoomed to 55mm with a variable aperture lens the lowest your aperture will most likely be f/5.6.

What can you do with a 18-55mm lens?

The kit lens is good for a variety of photography genres. The wider end of the zoom range can be used for the following applications:

  • landscapes
  • travel & lifestyle
  • architecture
  • still life

The longer end of the zoom range from 35mm to 55mm can be used for:

  • street photography
  • portraits
  • pet photography


Is the 18-55mm lens good for portraits?

If you are into portraits, the 18-55mm can be a serviceable lens when starting out in portraiture. Having the flexibility of the zoom can be a positive when doing full-body shots, especially in tight spaces. Be mindful of the distortion that comes with the wider end. When doing close-up or half-body portraits, it would be best to keep your focal length to around 55mm to avoid distortions in the subject proportions of facial features or body parts.

There are downsides to using the 18-55mm as a portrait lens compared to a 50mm. First is that you do not have the large aperture of the 50mm which means with the kit lens, you get less of that pleasing out-of-focus background or bokeh. Second, the 18-55mm does have some barrel distortion on the wider focal lengths which is not ideal when doing close-ups or having your subject near the edge of the frame.


Is the 18-55mm lens good for street photography?

The 18-55mm can also be a good lens for street photography. Having the capability to zoom in and out makes it easier to frame shots while walking around in the streets. It is also handy having a zoom lens as you do not need to change lenses (or move) when wanting to capture more or less of a scene. A good tip is to set your aperture to f/8 when doing street photography with this lens.


How far can an 18-55mm lens shoot?

The 18-55mm is a 3X zoom lens but in terms of reach, you can’t zoom in very far with the 18-55mm. A person standing 20m to 25m from the camera would still appear very small in your photo. It would be best to keep your subject at around 10m when taking photographs of people.

If you’d like to shoot further than 55mm, see this article I wrote comparing the 18-55mm lens to a 75-300mm lens and the differences.

50mm

Canon 50mm f1.4 USM
Canon 50mm f1.4 USM

Pros of 50mm lens

There are a lot of pros when having a 50mm. It is a relatively inexpensive lens as compared to other prime lenses like the 35mm or 85mm. It also comes with fast apertures which normally range from f/1.2 to f/1.8 (the larger the aperture usually the most expensive). Having the ability to use large apertures means you have much more control over the depth of field and the out-of-focus elements or what is commonly referred to as “bokeh”. Prime lenses also usually focus much faster, more lightweight, and compact since it is a more simple design than a zoom lens.

Cons of 50mm lens

The only downside of the 50mm is probably the fixed focal length when first using this lens and how to get sharp images from the larger apertures. It does take some time to get used to not having the zoom capability. With this lens, you have to zoom in and out with your feet rather than a zoom ring. They also have a higher minimum focus distance compared to a 18-55mm zoom lens (1.5ft vs 0.95ft with the 18-55mm zoom lens)


What is a 50mm lens good for?

The 50mm is a good all-around lens but it does excel in the following:

  • Portraits
  • Street photography / portraits
  • Fashion / Lifestyle
  • Pet photography
  • Wedding Photography (capturing details)
  • Food and product photography

With enough practice, the 50mm can be your workhorse lens for most of your photography as it is one of the most versatile focal lengths. It is nicknamed the “nifty fifty” for being a very good all-around lens.

What is the benefit of a 50mm lens?

The 50mm prime lens is an excellent lens in terms of optics and usability. The main selling points of the 50mm are the large aperture and better optics which have the following benefits:

  • Better low light performance because of larger apertures (for example f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8 vs f/3.5 of zoom lenses)
  • Larger apertures lead to more shallow depth-of-field for subject isolation and bokeh
  • Improved corner-to-corner image quality (sharpness and contrast) at larger apertures
  • less image distortion and chromatic aberrations (purples, pinks, and green colors in the image)

All these benefits translate to better image quality compared to the 18-55mm. With the 50mm, being a fixed focal length, you also get to practice your composition a lot more than when using a zoom lens. Moving closer to your subject to get more isolation and moving back to get more details; these exercises train you to become better at composing shots. It is not something you will see outright with your photos, but over time, will surely be very beneficial.


Why is 50mm considered normal?

The 50mm focal length is what is called the normal (or standard) focal length which means it gives you a perspective that is closest to the human field of view. Having a lens that is close to what you can see with your naked eye makes framing compositions easier and the resulting images are also more natural to the one viewing them.

The 50mm lens excels in street photography for this very reason. You simply walk around until you find the scene you want, lift your camera to eye level, and take your shot. 50mm lenses are also usually smaller and don’t stick out as much from the camera as 18-55mm lenses which makes the camera smaller and less conspicuous than a zoom lens and allows for easier candid shots of people.


Is 50mm the best focal length?

The best focal length depends on what type of photography you are doing. But in terms of a general-purpose lens, then the 50mm would be one of, if not, the best focal length due to its versatility and weight. It is the workhorse lens of many photographers as a testament to the 50mm being an all-around performer since it’s field of view and distortion being so close to what we see with our eyes. Also, 50mm lenses usually are cheaper because so many are made as well as come in a lot of varieties of aperture sizes – for both digital and film-based cameras.


How far away can I shoot with a 50mm lens?

Similarly to the 18-55mm lens, the reach of a 50mm is limited in reach compared to lenses with longer focal lengths like 85mm, or 300mm lens. 50mm lenses usually have a minimum focus distance of 1.5ft / 0.45m so you do need to be some distance from your subject. How far away you can shoot with a 50mm depends on the type of shot you want to get. The ideal distance for a full body portrait with the 50mm is around 19.6 – 33 ft (6m -10m) but you won’t need to be that far away if you are just photographing a headshot.

Best 50mm Lenses by Brand

Canon

Full Frame (EF and R)

ASP-C (EF-S)

Nikon

Full Frame (FX and Z)

ASP-C (DX)

Sony

Full Frame (E-Mount)

ASP-C

In Summary

The benefits you get from the 50mm are worth every penny. The “nifty fifty” is a sensible upgrade to the 18-55mm because of better optics (sharper images with better contrast), lighter weight, smaller and more compact size, larger apertures, and no limited apertures based on focal length. In my experience the All of these factors will make the lens be part of your gear for a long time.

Lee

My name is Lee and I love photography and learning. I received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography in 2010 and have worked as a university professor for the last 10 years in addition to being a working photographer. I started this website to learn more about digital and film-based photography and to provide a resource for all of my students.

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