If you been into photography for a while, chances are the first lens you owned was a 50mm prime. My first slr came with one - an f1.8 on the front of a Minolta SRT 101. It was the only lens I owned for years and I put it to work for everything - sports, people and landscapes. It's what got me started, back in high school days.
A lot of kit, brand flip-flops and thousands of images later I, like many amateurs and professionals, allowed my "50" to fall from the radar. The lens that had been the workhorse of photographers like Cartier Bresson was no longer en vogue. It's perspective similar to that of the human eye became seen as "boring" and "uninspiring" - too short for a conservative telephoto, too long to be a mild wide-angle.
Long story cut short, I came back. For the last few years among the digital bodies and zooms regularly carried by me about the world, again a prime 50mm is along for the ride. There's good reason why.
The lens is light in weight and compact. My Canon f1.4 isn't built like a tank, but it's been bumped aboard helicopters and rattled in the back of trucks, sprayed with dust in the south of Afghanistan and continues to work without a glitch. I can shoot portraits from a comfortable, yet intimate distance, get the bokeh (soft, out-of-focus area of a photo) I want and still be able to work candidly like the proverbial "fly on the wall." Best thing though, I can shoot in the lowest of light - naturally, without flash - very cool, indeed!
What else? Well - plenty! Great optical performance is another plus for this "normal" focal length. Since the 1930s the lens has been the mainstay of 35mm photography. Its pedigree carries one of the best understood and most highly corrected optical designs in the history of optical technology. Even the cheapest 50mm lens will be superior to any of the current crop of moderate-aperture, consumer zooms. In fact, 50mm lenses are often the sharpest optics in a manufacturer's line.
Best of all though, using a "standard" 50mm prime is good training for seeing effectively with the camera. "Zoom with your feet" is the Modus operandi here - moving closer to eliminate the unwanted, backing away to include more context for the subject.
With a prime lens like a 50mm, a photographer becomes much more aware of the viewfinder as a compositional frame. In fact, after using such a lens exclusively for a while, pictures then made with a zoom will improve, since the former instills a much better understanding of just how focal length affects composition.
The 50mm lens is the one many a beginning photographer starts on the road to creativity with. And in this and many other regards, the best online photography courses for beginners starts rights here - at The Compelling Image.
Photojournalist and TCI instructor, David Bathgate, teaches online photography classes at the The Compelling Image - online school of photography and there's one focused specifically on the stellar qualities of the 50mm lens.