The real voyage of discovery is not seeking new landscapes, but having new eyes. (Proust)
THE BEST LENS Long ago, in the late 1970s when I was a graduate student, faced with recording my field research, I bought my first serious camera. It was a Nikon Nikkormat. I outfitted it with a 50mm lens. Everything was manual, although by half-depressing the shutter, there was a little needle that allowed you to adjust the aperture or shutter speed to get a proper exposure. That camera and lens went everywhere I did, sharing a backpack with rocks, a can or two of tuna, a notebook, and a bottle of water. I'm actually pretty amazed that I not only survived two summers in the Greenhorns, but also had a lot of images that came out just fine, given the primitive state of equipment. No GPS, no autofocus, no Goretex. And just one lens for everything, from closeups of fossils and rock textures, to landscape views of entire mountains.
The 50mm lens is supposed to provide a "normal view"-- supposedly the world as we see it without any binocular enhancement. In fact, with our naked eyes and attention, we are able to zoom in on things far away as though they were closer, and scrutinize minutia as though we were viewing thru a macro lens. Never-the-less, the proportions and perspectives rendered by a 50mm lens most closely approximates the world as we see it, especially at distances easily viewed. (That's also a 35mm lens on a APS camera, and a 25mm lens on a Micro 4/3.)
I still have the lens, now mounted on a slightly newer, circa 1976 Nikon FM. The H.C lens was among the first Nikkor lenses to sport a coating (That's what the "C" stands for. This lens can focus only to within about 2 feet. But considering that it was, even then,, a "cheap" lens and more than a million were sold, it has remarkably sharp optics. (Six straight diaphragm blades, and no bokeh.) For me at the time, this 50mm was the best lens.
Today, 50mm lenses and their equivalents have become more sophisticated. They can focus closer, have nano-coatings, and are most commonly available in f1.4 (spendy) and 1.8 (economical) prices. Their simplicity and small size is a relief from the distortion of telephotos and wide angles. And because they are used so little, now that the more spectacular views can be had with other lenses, they provide a view not often seen--a sort of documentary panache.
Is a 50mm lens the BEST lens? Well, no. The BEST lens is the one you have on your camera when the light and composition are right. But practice with a 50mm is rewarding. It brings us back to the simple essence of photography, and it makes you think and work to achieve that different angle and fresh insight that make for a good image. And in that respect, it is the best lens.
50mm Non-AI f2.0
Greenhorn Mountains, circa 1974. Nikkormat w. 50mm f2 Lens