It's Not So Normal Anymore
There was a time when camera lens were in 4 basic groups...
, Telephoto, Wide Angle and Normal.

Typically, a new 35mm SLR came with a 50mm lens, known as the "Normal Lens". The goal would be to hopefully save enough money and make a wide angle and telephoto lens part of your gear bag too.

Back in that time of photography, the "normal" telephoto was 135mm focal length and the wide angle being a 28mm field of view. A 300mm would be considered a "super telephoto" and have a "super" price tag to go with it.

When I moved up to 35mm SLR from my 126 Instamatic & Brownie 620, the everyday-lens was a 50mm. Usually a f/1.8 or even f/2 aperture, but if you had the extra funds you could get the "fast" f/1.4 lens. In the early eighties when I traded up to the Nikon FE, my everyday lens was still the 50mm. Camera manufacturers still put a 50mm as the "Standard" lens on 35mm cameras they produced.

At some point for me, my everyday lens became a Nikor 50mm macro, but still that was a fixed length "Prime" lens. Although my favorite SLR I ever owned was the Nikon F3, the FE is 2nd on the list. Now, many years later I find myself replacing some of my favorite cameras of my days-gone-by. I picked up this pristine Nikon FE for $65 on eBay and also found a 50mm f/1.4 for $75 and a 43-86mm zoom for $45.

Since not only has it been over 15 years since I shot with an FE, I was quite excited to see it arrive and feel it in my hands again. But... that fixed focal length... how would I ever shoot with that? Especially after getting accustomed to some kind of semi-wide range of focal length zoom for an everyday lens. I did mention this same question before when I tested the Nikon FTn using a "normal lens".

So Let's Give It A Shot
I loaded up a roll of several year old Kodak BW400CN which is a 400-speed black-&-white chromogenic film designed for processing in color negative chemistry and printing on color negative paper. With the "high speed" film and a "fast" f/1.4 glass, I was ready to try out the low light ability and reflect back on the "limits" in photography before the age of the modern DSLR.

In this scene, captured at ASA 400, 1/125 second at f/2, you could crank up the ISO in a DSLR to shoot at EV's more than triple that you can film. And thats actually a mass understatement, since triple would only be 3 stops faster. The current DSLR sensor can record low light images with less noise/grain than film could ever imagine.

I can capture at ISO 3200 without even thinking about a noise problem in my D600. But with light limitations when shooting film, you actually have to become more aware of the ambient light just as much as the bright sun light. As an added bonus... this is an older manual focus lens, so it makes the adventure actually more hands-on feeling. Although I do love the ability to touch a thumb button and move my focus point with having to grab the lens barrel and rotate it.

After shooting a handful of images with my subject above, I suddenly realized that it wasn't really that much more difficult to shoot with a fixed length lens. That is... as long as there is room around you to move and compose and put your body in strange positions to get the shot you want.

Pushing this camera & film set up to the hand-held limit.. I captured this image of Elisha with the ASA400 BWC at 1/30th second wide open at f/1.4

The images with this study are un-cropped and the actual white and black values are what were as scanned.

There usually is some minor cropping that I typically could find to do in almost any shot I may make, but decided not to crop any in this project.

With a zoom lens you can compose a scene with a lot more options to the view from the same vantage point as with a prime lens. As such, when you are shooting with prime lens, you don't have the option of just rotating the lens to get a different composition or cropping. It does take a little getting use to.

Why Normal?
A "normal lens" is a lens that reproduces a field of view that generally looks "natural" to a human observer, as compared with lenses with longer or shorter focal lengths which produce an expanded or contracted field of view.

The 50mm lens also was often referred to as the "Standard Lens", but that was because it was the standard lens that came with the camera. You could say that the standard lens in common day terms would be the "Kit Lens" except for that the kit lens means it comes usually one body and a short range zoom like and 18-55mm and a 55-200mm zoom. Sometimes even filters and other goodies are tossed into the "kit" to lure perspective buyers.

Although Nikon had produced their first zoom lens in 1959, (85-250mm) the price of zooms over the base model (kit lens as we know it today) 50mm normal lens kept the 50mm as the normal lens for many years.

Other marketing factors and customer desires began to work their way into the camera, that ironically were on the typical point-and-shoot. Things like auto focus, auto film advance and zoom lens were "normal" for P&S cameras and consumers wanted and needed those features in their SLR's.

Shooting The Zoom In "Normal" Mode
You might ask: If I have a 24-85mm zoom, why would I need the prime 50mm? Since I can shoot my zoom at the 50mm setting.

You can see compared to the B&W image of Sock Monkey captured with the FE, and disregarding the different lighting and even the day that I made these 2 captures. It is still evident that the field of view is pretty much the same between a 50mm prime and the 50mm setting on a zoom lens, The viewer really would be hard pressed to say which image was shot with a prime and which one a zoom lens.

Obviously that is one of the reasons you don't see many prime lens offered for sale in camera stores. Yes, they are still being made, but the trend currently is the mega zoom that does everything except the dishes.

Since my everyday lens for the last few years has been a 24-85mm, then I as well haven't found the need to get a prime 50mm. I even found myself reaching to turn the zooming ring on the prime lens as I was framing up this shot. I could have gotten the same basic composition from a foot closer or further away. If anything, you could say that a 50mm is healthier for you since it will make you move and contort your body in ways you don't normally do. Giving yourself more of a workout than with a zoom.

Technically you could say that the 50mm is still in our normal lens range. With the quality of todays zoom glass, most photographers don't buy or need a separate prime lens. There are situations where it could suit better, but for the most part, primes are used by photographers that prefer them. Especially if they like a repetitive focal length in their shooting habits or projects.

What is it like 20 years later?
The last time I carried my FE and a 50mm glass was ages ago (1980-1999) it seems, but back then I thought it was the sweet stuff of the crop. Especially if you had the f/1.4, you really had some awesome glass for low light. Yet... Now we scoff at the idea if a camera can't shoot noise free at least to 3200 ISO.

I have been carrying the FE around as my everyday camera for the last week or more, and don't even think much of the focal length. You just need to tell your brain in the beginning that you don't have a zoom. Not until you stop thinking about what the lens will not do, can you begin to make it do more.

And of course if I had the Auto-focus version, that would definitely be a nice touch, but they cost about double what the older glass does and since I wont use it that much, I figured it will be a great companion to the FE.

Since my typical focal length I use is in the 24-40mm range, I mostly had to adjust back to the narrower field of view with the fixed 50mm. Not a big deal, but I do like to capture automobiles, and getting close with the 24mm range is what I prefer.

I grabbed a few shots of my MX-5 and seemed to not even think about zooming, instead I automatically just moved my GPS coordinates until I was where I needed to be to get the composition I wanted. Seeing the results of the roll of BWC I shot, I can say I was well pleased with the results. I found that I could shoot at 50mm and not let it affect my vision of the scene and how I present it.

An Overlooked Bonus of The Normal Lens
While it may be the focal range that has us all hyping zoom lens, there is one feature that most zooms just don't have. Along with the "speed" of being a low light lens, due to the fact that the speed comes from the large aperture.

The great advantage the prime lens has over the zooms is with the wide open aperture. Since most zooms will typically be a f/3.5 or similar at wide open, and the giant size opening with f/1.4 gives a fabulous shallow depth-of-field.

As you can see in this image and the others following it, just how quickly the focus drops off to render a very pleasing soft background. Plus when captured in the right light, you will get amazing bokeh from a wide open fast normal lens.

One of the key features that caused us back in the day to want a fast normal lens was the shallow depth-of-field when shot wide open. But then... we still desire such a feature from a lens today, but probably overlook the 50mm f/1.4 glass. As you see in the tailpipes image in this set, just how dramatic you can make the DOF when shooting wide-open.

Also note that the images in that set are also captured on film, with the camera scene on BWC400 and the Motorcycle images on Kodak Gold 400. The added soft glow of film combined with the wide open aperture makes for a smooth artistic background from just inches away from the front or rear of the main point of focus.

On The Other End of The Dial...
When shooting the normal lens stopped down to the maximum f/16 (on some glass it could even go to f/22 or f/32) you will also be surprised at how sharp of a lens it is. This is where the "kit lens" has left some sharpness behind in favor of what it takes to make a low cost all in one zoom.

If you recall this image from a previous study of shooting with a vintage SLR and a modern day DSLR in Issue #2. Indeed the sharpness on this image from a 40 year old normal lens captured on Fujicolor 400 Film is quite amazing.

From the images in this set, you can see where with the right position to shoot from, you can compose just as you would the zoom. Yet it's also this same situation I wished I had the zoom glass mounted. After capturing the first image, you can stay in the same spot and turn the zoom ring and get a completely different scene.

With the carved rock scene you can easily see where grabbing several views from one spot makes the zoom lens a great glass for that scene. And in the third image of this set, I had to get in one specific place and bend to however it took to get this viewpoint, and once again I could have gotten more from the zoom.

Will My Normal Lens Gather More Dust?
If I were to ask myself if I will shoot with the normal glass again... why yes of course. After this little round of recent shooting, I plan to keep the 50mm on one of the film bodies or at least use it some more.

Since I currently have several film shooting & processing projects to do for this issue, I am sure the normal lens will see more use.

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