The 50mm is the lens most boudoir photographers use most of the time when shooting their sessions. It’s the workhorse of the industry and indispensable if you’re planning to shoot boudoir.
In fact, if you’re just starting out in photography, and in boudoir in particular, the one lens you should start with is a 50mm. Personally, I own four — one Canon, two Nikkor, and one Zeiss.
Nikon’s lens subsidiary is called Nikkor but many people use those two names interchangeably, so if you were wondering about that whole Nikon/Nikkor thing, there it is.
It’s also been said that the 50mm focal length is what most closely resembles what the human eye sees, so it’s a baseline of sorts for focal lengths. (Actually, it’s probably closer to 42mm but that’s a debate for another time.)
Fortunately, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a really nice quality 50mm lens with a low aperture. Nikon and Canon both make several versions of the fifty, and Fuji has its own solo version (as of this writing) but for our purposes here, we’re only going to concentrate on the best value 50mm lenses… the most bang for your hard earned buck kind of thing. So…
What are the three best value 50mm lenses for boudoir?
Canon’s 50mm 1.8 STM
Nikkor’s 50mm 1.8 D
Fujifilm’s 50mm f2
A few things all these lenses share is that they’re all compact, lightweight, and offer excellent quality optics with low apertures. They’re also all fairly inexpensive as far as lenses are concerned, and they’re all auto focus lenses.
And since the vast majority of boudoir photographers shoot with auto focus (I’m guessing but I’m pretty sure that’s the case), I’m limiting the discussion here to AF lenses only.
Let’s now take a closer look at each one of these nuggets of value in detail and I may even throw in a surprise 50mm lens a bit later on, so “stay frosty people”. (Do you know what movie that’s from?)
Canon 50mm 1.8 STM
This lens came out in 2015 and replaced Canon’s previous version of the 50mm 1.8 (version II) with some notable improvements. The first thing you notice is the better build quality. This STM version is built more solid and they replaced the plastic ring mount with a metal one which makes this newer version hold up better and last longer.
The focus ring is also wider and smoother making it easier to operate in manual focus mode.
What Does STM Mean?
STM stands for Stepper Motor which makes auto focusing smoother and quieter. Its main purpose is to reduce the noise the older USM (Ultrasonic Motor) auto focus system makes so it won’t get picked up by the camera’s internal microphone when recording video.
The STM technology is in direct response to DSLRs being used a lot more for video recording nowadays.
Don’t, however, make the mistake that the older USM auto focus system is inferior to the STM system. If you mainly shoot stills and video isn’t really your jam (or you use an external mic that’s not positioned near the internal mic on the camera), the USM auto focus system will be faster. It will “snap” into focus quicker compared to the STM system, which was designed to be smoother to shoot video. (Yeah, that makes sense.)
Improved Minimum Focus Distance
Another improvement is its minimum focus distance. You can now get about four inches closer to your subject with detailed close-up shots than with the older version. Its minimum focus distance is now around 9.5 inches compared to the older version’s 14 inches.
Not a big thing but worth mentioning when you’re shooting that close-up of your client’s bejeweled belly-button piercing.
Another nice feature of the STM version is that its auto focus is a LOT less noisy. In fact, you can barely hear it at all now. Gone is that winding ratchety noise that sounds like two hedgehogs in heat every time you engage the auto focus.
If you shoot at low apertures, the addition of two more aperture blades, from five to seven, creates rounder smoother bokeh. With the older version, bokeh appeared pentagonal in shape, but with the STM version those points get rounded out quite a bit.
Which To Buy?
If you already own Canon’s older version of the 50mm 1.8 (version II) it’s probably not worth the upgrade to the STM version because the image quality between the two is barely noticeable.
(The STM will be slightly sharper wide open with less chromatic aberration.)
However, if you don’t own a 50mm and you shoot with a Canon then get the newer STM version. Also, if you shoot a lot of video this quieter upgrade will definitely be a welcome feature.
Brand new Canon’s 50mm 1.8 STM runs about $125, but used in excellent condition it’s around $90.
If you buy it used, the difference in cost is under $20 between the older USM version and the newer STM version, so you won’t be saving a whole lot. Be sure to check out KEH and UsedProPhoto for the best price.
Nikkor 50mm 1.8D
You can’t mention Nikkor’s 50mm 1.8D without comparing it to the newer 50mm 1.8G. The biggest difference being that the newer 1.8G has a built-in motor for auto focus so it will work with older cameras while the 1.8D won’t.
But don’t let that dissuade you from acquiring one (unless you have an older camera). There is very little difference between the two as far as image quality is concerned.
The 1.8D is noisier, yes, but unless you’re shooting a lot of video and recording audio with the internal microphone, it’s not going to be an issue.
The 1.8D is lighter, smaller, more compact, and offers slightly better image quality at higher f-stops, although the 1.8G performs better at lower f-stops. That was the conclusion I came to after conducting my own test.
At f1.8 the clear winner was the G.
At f5.6 it was virtually a tie.
At f7.1 there was a slight edge to the D.
At f11 the clear winner was the D.
In all fairness, you really can’t go wrong with either one but since this is about the best value 50mm lenses I have to give the nod to the 1.8D
In excellent condition, a used 1.8G will run you anywhere from $125 to $165, compared to the 1.8D in the same condition which goes for $80 to $99 (current prices from KEH).
So, if you shoot Nikon and you’re looking for an excellent 50mm (with very little difference from the 1.8G) and you’re looking for the best value, then go with 1.8D, unless, like I said earlier, you shoot a lot of video using the built-in mic to record audio with (however, you shouldn’t be doing that anyway… shame on you).
Fujifilm 50mm f2 R WR
If you shoot with Fuji, like the HX1, XT3, the new XT4, or another model, you only have one choice with a 50mm lens if you want to stay native (meaning the same brand of lens as your camera), and that my friend is their 50mm f/2.
The “R” stands for ring as in aperture ring, and the “WR” stands for weather resistant.
This lens has a remarkably fast yet quiet auto focus, is incredibly sharp, produces creamy bokeh, and has superb micro-contrast (which is a must if you’re into black and white to capture all those fine gradations of gray between the shadows and highlights).
With the best build quality of all three lenses mentioned here, and made almost entirely of metal alloy in Japan, this 50mm is small, compact, lightweight, and offers amazing image quality for its remarkably low price — and comes in silver as well as black (if that’s your fancy).
More expensive than the Canon or Nikkor at $449 new, you can pick one up used in excellent condition for around $350 at KEH. Not bad for a lens that will be your primary go-to glass for your boudoir shoots week after week, month after month, year after year.
When shooting boudoir it’s practically a must to have a 50mm lens as part of your line up but getting one with great optics doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. There are great lenses out there that perform exceedingly well that can also save you a ton of money.
I mean, sure, you can buy Canon’s 50mm 1.2 L series for $1300, which is 1000% more expensive than the 50mm 1.8 STM, but is it 1000% better? Think about that for a moment. You’d be paying 1000% more ($1300 instead of $125 new) but how much better (percentage-wise) would it be? 10%? 15% 20%?
At some point you have to ask yourself, how much is it worth to me and my photography to pay 1000% more to get that extra 10-20% better performance from a lens?
That’s a question only you can answer.
My advice would be that it’s something you grow into as a photographer as you get better shooting, your business is rolling, and you have the money to burn.
A Surprising Result
When conducting my test between the two Canon lenses, the 1.8D and the 1.8G I also threw in my Zeiss 1.4 50mm Planar ZF.2 which is considered one of the best 50mms out there and costs about $725 new. (Needless to say, I bought mine used for $500).
Now, while it did produce better results at three out of the four apertures I tested it at than the two Canons, there wasn’t that big of a jump in quality.
Quite frankly I was shocked. I thought for sure my more expensive Zeiss would run circles around the 1.8D… but it didn’t. It was better, yes, but I was expecting something really exceptionally better… but I didn’t see that big of a jump between the two.
Now, this was just one test under one scenario. It’d be interesting to really put it to the test in a boudoir situation and then compare the two. I wonder then if I’d see a huge difference or if the difference wouldn’t be all that great.
Something To Think About
It’s something to think about when you’re considering buying a really expensive lens. You have to ask yourself, “Is this lens going to give me a noticeable jump in quality?” and if so, is it worth that extra expense?
Something Else To Think About
By the way, you’re going to get better looking quality images by learning how to control your light than you will acquiring a more expensive lens.
There’s really no point in getting a super expensive lens until you have reached a point where you know what you’re doing with the light, and getting the full potential from your exposure.
Expensive Lenses Are Like Racing Fuel
Let’s use race car driving as an analogy. Let’s say there’s this really expensive fuel that costs 1000% more than regular racing fuel, and you think using this better fuel will give you a better result over the regular fuel.
Well, if you haven’t yet learned how to master driving the car, the better fuel is going to be a waste because you haven’t maximized the performance of your driving yet by learning how to master driving the car.
Once you’ve really learned how to drive the car, then adding the expensive fuel into the mix will boost your performance overall.
Final, Final Thoughts
Boy, I had no idea when I started writing this article reviewing three simple lenses that it would lead to this rather surprising revelation at the end here. But I’m glad it did because there’s a valuable lesson to be learned.
I hope this article was helpful, and if so, please pass it along to someone it may also benefit.
Thanks for your time!
Founder / Lounge Boudoir