The one lens that will give you the best ROI of any piece of photography equipment you can buy has to be the 50mm f/1.8 lens. It's also known as a “normal” lens because it's the closest you can get to the perspective of the human eye.* The awesome thing is these days they are quite inexpensive—you can buy a good one for around $100. They're also super versatile, lightweight, and available for pretty much any DSLR camera body.
A 50mm lens is also called “fixed” or “prime,” meaning there's no zoom. If you want the subject to appear closer, you have to walk closer to it. Typically, however, to get a head-to-toe shot, you'll be walking further away. You'll need to stand about 10 to 15 feet away to get everything from hat to shoes. It can be a small drawback to using the lens, especially if you're in a crowded area and have to dodge passersby. But the benefits greatly outweigh the negatives:
You tend to get much sharper images because the lens has fewer moving parts that can affect image clarity. For perfect focus in outfit photos, try setting your auto-focus point (refer to your camera’s manual for instructions) to the exact center and aim at the subject’s chest.
Depth of Field Control
A typical 50mm lens has an aperture (or f-stop) of of 1.8, which is very fast. That means the foreground and background can be slightly blurred, with crisp focus on the subject. That creates warmth, depth and you can use it to guide your readers' attention to what you want them to look at. Or, you can try minimizing depth of field to showcase the environment, making it part of your image.
The f/1.8 takes fantastic photos inside or out when there's good light. However, you can get an even faster f/1.4 lens, which is great in darker situations because the aperture is more open and allows more light in. It's also more expensive ($300-400), and probably isn't necessary unless you are consistently shooting in low-light situations or really need the extra versatility.
With any 50mm, you'll have the ability to take excellent photos in lots of different lighting. Experiment, and use lighting to your advantage. If something isn't working, move, turn around, point up or down. Find a way to get the lighting you want without a flash and you'll be rewarded.
Without a zoom, you have to really think about how to frame your shot. It might take an extra 5 seconds to think about, but that often forces you to be more creative, and your results will be better for it. So use the limitation as an advantage. Never just shoot an image and be done—compose a photograph.
Lastly, make sure the lens you buy is compatible with your camera. Older DLSRs may not be able to power an auto-focus lens, and not all older lenses had autofocus abilities. Most newer cameras will do great with the lenses listed below. If you're unsure, Amazon's “Questions & Answers” typically list which body the lens will work with.
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens
- Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras
- Sony 50mm f/1.8 SAM DT Lens for Sony Alpha Digital SLR Cameras
- Pentax DA 50mm f1.8 lens for Pentax DSLR Cameras
Do you have experience with a 50mm lens? Tell us about it in the comments!
*Update: We note above that this lens is considered a normal lens, however,that ’s iff you’re using a full size sensor camera body. If you’re using a more consumer level DLSR it will end up being a bit more zoomed and will be more like an 80mm (as per Magi’s comment below). While she’s definitely correct, we still stand by the recommendation that for around $100 this is a great lens to have for most people who don’t already have a quiver of lenses available to them. And if you’re only using the kit lens that came with your camera, you’ll *really* enjoy this lens. As with everything, buying lenses can get complicated and expensive the more demanding you are of your equipment. For professionals, we don’t need to tell you what lens you’ll want. However, for many of us, this 50mm lens is a huge asset and a huge step forward as your first “second” lens.