18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 vs. 50mm f/1.4

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This article is a comparison of 2 lenses that new people should consider when buying a DSLR whether it be a canon, nikon, or even a Pentax.

When I bought my first D200 I had read that the 50mm 1.8 was a lens every photographer should have. I didn’t know why, but I figured it was the same price as the 18-55 and they say it was a much better lens. I still have that lens but I bought a 1.4 to get a little more blur and a 2/3 stop speed advantage (at weddings you need all you can get!)

It took me a while to figure out why it was so much better. Maybe because I wasn’t used to the slow 18-55. I wondered, could it really be THAT much better in low light? I have done some test shots to show you just how much more you can do with a 50mm. For the particular test I will be using my 50mm f1.4, which has quickly become my favorite lens which I use for 80 or more percent of my shots.

These few shots were taken at dusk where I could demonstrate the low light possibilities

All these shots are streight from camera. That camera being a Nikon D700.
Also I am using the same lens insted of an actuall 18-55mm because I dont own one. but at 50mm or 55mm the maxium aperture is f5.6
So this test is only to show the low light capability where is would be identical.

RRP_2961 copy

You can see the only setting changed here is the aperture. The 1.4 has a 4(!!!) stop advantage! 1/60th is aguably the lowest shutter speed you would want to use without getting blur at 50mm. Therefore at this light and the 18-55, this shot would be impossible handheld without cranking up the ISO.

To get the correct exposure with the 18-55mm you would need to compensate with ISO, or a lower shutter speed. this next shot
demonstrates that.

RRP_2960 copy

Now you may be looking at these shots like ok, my camera goes up to 3200 iso. But keep in mind, unless you have the luxury of a full frame D700 your shots will bare a lot of grain, and lose a lot of detail and contrast. There is just no substitute for speed.

Also if you bring the shutter speed down to a quarter of a second, I don’t care who you are your image will be blurry unless you use a tripod as I am here.

So now you know how much speed matters. If that wasn’t enough to convince you, we can talk about sharpness! the 50mm lenses are up there with the sharpest lenses nikon makes. To even be close to the sharpness achieved by the 50mm you would need to stop down to f/8 which number one is very slow, and 2 you loose any background blur.

So to recap,

50mm pros

-4 stop speed advantage
-loads of backround blur wide open
-very sharp from f/2.0 and up
-better build quality and looks much cooler =)

50mm cons

-fixed focal length

18-55mm pros

-wide to telephoto range
-ummm good for.. stuff… sorry I got nothin’.

18-55mm cons

-4 stops slower the 50mm
-not sharp until f/8
-not enough background blur
-feels cheap

I guess really it depends on what you do. For me, I am a wedding photographer, that doesn’t like to use flash, and likes a lot of sharpness and blur. If you plan on shooting weddings at all don’t even bother with any cheap zoom lenses unless you plan on getting really good at flash.

If you buy one of these lenses, I can tell you they are at their best when you use them at f/2 and as close to your subject as you can stand. The blur creates a magical effect that will wow anyone if your composition is good.

October 25, 2008 - 6:14 pm

Phil - Thanks for the tips, Ryan. There sure is a lot to learn about this… Oh, and FYI, I did return the XSi. The D80 should be here next week. I woulda purchased yours but I wanted the warranty…

Keep posting blogs like this one! I sure appreciate them!

October 27, 2008 - 7:13 am

Jamie - I just got a 50mm f/1.4 last week and used it this weekend, and I love it! The bokeh is beautiful and you can just tell the quality not only of the lens, but the photos is better. Good experiment.

October 28, 2008 - 5:57 pm

Dave - Ryan……………love the blog and your evaluation. I enjoyed my old 50 1.4 back with my Canon EF film body. But what are your ideas on the Nikon 85mm 1.4 that we discussed while at our house during Katie & Jared’s wedding. With a 1.5x factor on non D700′s would this be too much lense for portraits? You and Holly sold me on Lightroom; my kids bought it for me for an early Christmas present. Now I just have to get up to speed. Enjoying your life adventure, and saving for the D300. The D700 is a little too far of a reach. Be well!

December 1, 2009 - 1:47 am

casualowe - Hi! Your site is great! casualowe This posts is also great. Youre great.

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