The 50mm Lens and The Culture of Being Right

The 50mm Lens and The Culture of Being Right

Photographer Joe Pugliese penned a piece on WIRED entitled “The 50 Millimeter Lens is the Only One You Need,” which is best described as an ode to the well-regarded “normal” lens. Back in the film days, the 50mm was the kit lens for many SLRs. I had one on my Olympus OM-10, so I understand where Joe is coming from. I’m personally partial to the 35mm lens, but I appreciated his thoughts.

Pugliese, in case you didn’t know, is a well-known and commercially successful photographer who is represented by Bernstein & Andriulli. These accomplishments would suggest that he is a better photographer than many, and thus his musings on photography hold a little more weight than the average person. Plus, he photographed the magazine’s cover, so it was probably convenient to ask his opinion.


Pugliese writes:

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.

Articulate and succinct.

In 2013, The New York Times Lens blog featured the work of photojournalist Jerome Delay, whose lens of choice is the 50mm. The profile shares a stunning set of imagery that shows what a great photographer can do with the focal length. This is to say that Pugliese is not alone in believing that the 50mm is a great lens. But forget the endorsement of two great photographers. Does any intelligent person really believe that the article is somehow constraining their ability to choose a different lens as the “only one you need”?

In publishing an op/ed of this nature, I’m sure that the editors hoped to foment a lively discussion – after all, online audience engagement is still incredibly valuable. A discussion did ensue, and couldn’t do anything more than shake my head and the typical bile of Internet commenters.

Riccardo R writes:

Bullshits, to be honest. Peraphs the 50 is the only lens YOU need but it is not True about rest of the world. Period

cbenci writes:

A 50mm is not the only lens you will need. It is the only lens you will need that requires a 50mm lens. What a bullshit headline.

There’s no point in elevating my blood pressure over such puerile comments, but I fell for the troll. Many photographers feel the need to express their righteousness on issues ranging from gear to the ethics of photojournalism. In some cases, photographers rise above the fray and present a cogent argument devoid of ad hominem attacks, but more often, an anonymous man sitting in solitude behind the cool glow of his computer shouts an angry response with very little to back it up. They just have to be right, and usually they’re pretty angry about it too. And to what end? Who’s gonna listen if everyone is shouting?

Photographers are constantly fighting for respect. Respect from their employers and clients. Respect from their audiences. Perhaps a little humility and respect within their own community would be a good place to start, dontcha think?

Update: The previously identified May cover photo was incorrectly identified as Pugliese’s. It was Sebastian Kim’s. The image has been corrected.

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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 13 comments for this article
  1. Lawrence at 11:06 am

    Another photographer, even better known (imo, anyway) was asked for information (f stop, shutter speed etc) for a series of photos to be published. His answer?

    The camera was faithfully used.
    -Minor White

    No bluster, little ego.

    He had a number of pithy comments through the years.

  2. Joe Pugliese at 10:22 am

    Thanks for the kind words. It was a very short opinion piece in which I suggest using the 50mm as an exercise in simplicity. I did not write the headline, which many are confusing for the point of the piece. Thank you for noting that a respectful discussion is all that anyone can ask for.

    As an aside, the May cover was photographed by the great Sebastien Kim, I photographed the February Wired cover story about Chevy’s new electric car.

  3. Derek M. Lacey at 10:46 am

    What always amazes me is the raw anger that some bring to the comments section of articles/posts. Why is it so hard for other photographers to just say “ok, great for you, but one lens just doesn’t work for my style of shooting”.

    Just about everywhere you turn these days the anger is visceral, in your face and far beyond the scope of what I would consider “normal” for the moment in question.

    Just my two cents and I thank Mr. Pugliese for his opinion and his work.

  4. Glenn A Primm at 6:30 am

    “… I suggest using the 50mm as an exercise in simplicity. ”

    For simplicity, I suggest using a 24-85 zoom, but then I almost always work in pretty close, except when I don’t. For the latter case, the reach and shallow depth of field of the 70-85ish range works out pretty swell. For me.

    Different strokes for different folks.

  5. Henry at 11:12 am

    “… I suggest using the 50mm as an exercise in simplicity. ”

    I suggest you work out what lens you need for the shot you’re taking and use that.

  6. Greg Smith at 11:53 am

    These arguments are at least as old the proliferation of affordable lenses outside the normal range. I’ve heard people argue just as passionately about a 35mm or 40mm lens for their normal perspectives. I’ve interviewed war photographers who use only wide zooms (or only a 24 or only a 35): death, up close and personal, with a you-are-there perspective. In my decades of studying, practicing and writing about photography, I’ve seen many assignments – from professors, from art directors and from photographers trying to do something different – that limited the photographer to some simple tool set: a 50mm; black-and-white, a Diana plastic camera, and more recently, an iPhone. They all boil down to the same maxim, by which I try to live, report and teach: “Art is made within limitations.” Put another way, creativity is the act of making the best with what you have. And the more you have available, the more cluttered can become your creativity. Mastering clutter is an art unto itself. In other words – outside the attitudes and “puerile” discussion methods – it all boils down to how many variables you want to manage. I’m reminded of the cliché about “available light” referring that you bring all the lighting contraptions available to light a scene.

    • Lawrence at 11:03 pm

      The flip side to this is about when Ansel Adams first saw Ed Weston’s darkroom. He was floored by it’s simplicity. Three 8×10 trays, a wash a contact print frame and an overhead light bulb. What Weston could do with that!

      Drawing with light is infinitely malleable, lending itself to all sorts of twists, turns, light-dark, and sharp sharp sharp!

      Today the better the camera, the more traps into which one can fall. And you better damn well master it—or else. Even eliminating clutter is a trap.

      Another gotcha, another gumption trap.

      Your assignment, should you choose to accept it : Go photograph gumption traps….

  7. Lawrence at 12:25 pm

    I suspect many people here use the APS-C format cameras, perhaps 4:3 aspect ratio as well, in which case, 50mm is not the focal length one would use as a “normal” lens.

    There is much to recommend that a beginning photographer (or even an experienced one!) attach a fixed focal length lens and go out and make some images, similar to practicing etudes at the piano. The Chopin Etudes are stunningly difficult and stunningly beautiful as well! In our case, simply using a fixed f/l isn’t so difficult! Making them beautiful, well that can be as difficult !

    You don’t even need a fixed focal length lens. Pick an f/l and leave it there. Even a better exercise because it adds an additional discipline; constraint.

  8. Andrew Molitor at 3:32 pm

    To be honest, I’m not sure where you’re going here. Internet comments are terrible? Yep. Most commenters don’t bother to read the piece they’re commenting on? Also true.

    It’s all very well to suggest that photographers, or dog owners, or mountain climbers, should be nice to one another, but humans gotta human.

    If you’re suggesting that the average photo gearhead has a higher than average need to be furiously right, I’m not sure I buy it.

  9. JW Headshots at 2:08 am

    I’ve always liked a 50mm as a good starter lens and often recommend it to friends and family who are just getting into photography. For myself, on the other hand, I tend to shoot with lenses on the longer end of the spectrum namely a 85mm and 100mm macro. On the wider end I use a 35mm occassionally but haven’t been liking the perspective as much as I once did.

    I agree with the viewpoint of some here though. 50mm can be somewhat boring to use in terms of wow factor. That’s why it’s good to have a few other lenses at your disposal for variety. I really want to try out Nikon’s 58mm as I’ve heard it’s the best of both worlds between a 50mm and 85mm.

    Ultimately these are all just tools and what you like to use comes down to your own style and preferences. There isn’t a right or wrong in this case. Just opinions.

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