I have always loved working in ambient light, particularly low light. My early photographic jobs were taking pictures of gigs, often punk bands. The lights were low and the venues were dark. Flash made photographs possible but totally killed any atmosphere, instead I used super fast film (Ilford 3200 was my favourite, lovely chunky grain). Switching to digital the noise was a lot less attractive than the film grain so pushing the ISO was problematic. It was around then I discovered the 50mm f1.8 lens, which remains my firm favourite. If I could only use one lens for the rest of my life it would be this, even over the apparent flexibility of a zoom.
It’s a cheap lens (around £75 new), it’s a small lens, it’s a light lens. It’s unassuming and unthreatening. I love it because of the way you use it and the results it gives. With it, you can shoot in the near dark with no flash. You can often get right up close to your subjects without them even realising they are being photographed, which suits my style of photography. It’s great at gigs and performances, events, clubs, parties, weddings – anywhere that a huge burst of flash would destroy the mood and ruin the subjects’ naturalness by yelling “HEY GUYS, I’M TAKING PICTURES HERE”.
Those are amazing benefits, but they’re not the whole reason I use it. I use it even when there’s plenty of light. I use it in the studio with models who are very aware they are being photographed. I turn my flashes off and use just the modelling lights so that I can use it at its widest aperture. I do this because the photos it takes are so beautiful. The shallow depth of field draws the viewer’s eye to exactly what you want to show them, everything else fades away into a beautiful warm mist. The bokeh is beautiful too.
True, when using it at it’s widest aperture you have to be very careful about focus point, as if it’s slightly off the whole image is out of focus. Although if that happens you are left with a soft image with bags of atmosphere, which I often prefer to something that is well lit and in focus but a little sterile.
I’ll end by sharing some images I have taken with this lens in a range of different situations. Many of them are not perfect but they have the “I was there” quality that I believe is part of the essence of photography.