Creativity beyond limits: top tips for 50mm lens photography

Photographer Ejiro Dafé finds shooting solely at 50mm has made him a more instinctive shooter. Here he offers his tips for success with the not-so-standard Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM.
Photographer Ejiro Dafé photographs a woman in bright clothing with a Canon EOS R6 and a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens.

Ejiro Dafé shoots solely with a 50mm lens, so he was the ideal photographer to work with the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM first. "The 50mm focal length allows you to become more instinctive with your photography, but at the same time, because of the limitations it has in terms of its focal length, it challenges you to be more creative," he says.

London-based photographer and creative director Ejiro Dafé has a distinctive approach to his commissioned work: he only shoots with a single 50mm lens.

His 50mm lens photography journey began as a cash-strapped student: "I was studying advertising and spent my student loan on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III [now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV] so that I could shoot my own campaigns. I fell in love with photojournalism too, and the photographers I looked up to all shot with prime lenses. So I got the affordable little Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II lens [now succeeded by the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM] and visited other countries to photograph stories on the streets.

"I didn't intend to have that lens for long, but over time I got used to the angle of view. I liked the way that it came close to my field of vision and shooting with the lens became instinctive – I could look at something and know how it would line up as a shot. That gave me the confidence to shoot even more."

As his paid jobs built up, Ejiro upgraded to the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, followed by the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. His experience with and enthusiasm for the focal length made him a natural fit to become the first pro to use the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM, the most lightweight and low-cost standard lens in the RF range.

A portrait of a woman wearing bright pink lipstick and a mustard top, against a blurred background caused by a wide aperture.

Ejiro advises others to get out there and have a go at 50mm lens photography. "Take advantage of the fact that a lens such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM offers a wide aperture in a small form factor – take it everywhere to really get involved in the things that you shoot," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Ejiro Dafé

The Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM’s pocket-friendly proportions (at 160g and 40.5mm long), bright f/1.8 maximum aperture for creative depth of field and near-silent STM autofocus technology make it a discreet option, ideal for street photography, candid portraits and video.

Despite the lens’s affordable price it’s also a strong performer in low light, and is the ideal partner for a Canon EOS RP or Canon EOS R6. Its lens elements and coatings ensure shots are sharp from edge-to-edge, with superior image quality and colours.

Here, Ejiro shares the results of his first shoot with the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM and offers his tips for creativity in 50mm lens photography.

A woman in a white frilly blouse turns her face towards the camera. Fairy lights in the background create a bokeh effect.

With its wide f/1.8 aperture and 7-bladed diaphragm, the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM can produce beautiful bokeh. "To achieve this effect, we hung some fairy lights on a clothing rail," Ejiro explains. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/1.8 and ISO1250. © Ejiro Dafé

A model in a white frilly blouse poses in low light.

The Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM's wide maximum aperture makes it a versatile option for capturing the mood of a dark interior. When the lens is attached to the Canon EOS R6, it can also benefit from the camera's five-axis Image Stabilizer, enhancing its low-light performance. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/50 sec, f/2.8 and ISO800. © Ejiro Dafé

1. Shoot at 50mm-only for a while

By restricting yourself to a single focal length over a period of time, rather than just the odd shoot, you naturally become intimately familiar with its angle of view and more instinctive when it comes to framing up a shot. As a result of using only a 50mm lens, Ejiro explains: "When I'm moving around the subject, I can almost feel it in my legs when I'm in the right place without having to look through the viewfinder."

He continues: "Obviously with a 50mm lens you can get really wide shots and you can take tighter portraits and close-ups. Given plenty of space to move in, it's a very versatile focal length, although it can be challenging to work with in a small room. But that in itself makes you really think about every element within the photo and how they interact. It certainly sharpened my composition techniques when I was starting out and made me hyper-sensitive to everything within the shot."

2. Immerse yourself in the moment

"One thing I've always loved about the 50mm focal length is that it forces you to get involved with your subject and experience the moments that you want to capture, whether it's an editorial shoot with a model who's standing there posing, street photography or even sports," Ejiro says. Though 50mm lenses such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM aren’t designed with fast-paced sports in mind, Ejiro has photographed dance and even football for brands at 50mm.

He adds that what some may see as a disadvantage, he relishes. For example, "With street photography, I like the fact that if you spot something across the street, you usually have to cross the road to get relatively close to shoot it rather than being able to simply zoom in from a safe distance." This approach means he engages with his subject in a more intimate way, which is reflected in the framing and detail of his photographs. The compact size of the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM makes chasing the moment easy.

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A portrait of a woman wearing a green suit and a blue coat.

The standard view captured by the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM and other 50mm lenses leads to more natural-looking results and flattering portraits. The perspective doesn't distort the subject in the way that a wide-angle lens can, or compress the scene in the way a telephoto might. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/320 sec, f/2 and ISO1250. © Ejiro Dafé

Photographer Ejiro Dafé photographs a woman in white boots and a green suit reclining on a sofa.

"When I'm working with a model, there's usually an initial warm-up period where it's really all about trying to establish the angles I'll be using, as that will inform the style of the shoot," Ejiro explains. The compact size of the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM helped him stay flexible here. © Gary Morris Roe

3. Play with angles

A prime lens pushes you to work for a shot, fine-tuning your compositions by moving the camera. That can help to keep you in shape – creatively as well as physically. "If you watch me shoot, you'll see me rolling on the floor or contorting up into a corner," Ejiro explains. "I'm always moving. I'm constantly turning and rotating my body to try to find the best angles.

"Sometimes I don't even bring the camera up to my eye. Because I'm so familiar with the focal length, I know what I can get in the frame. So, I can hold the camera in these unusual positions and bend down or move around whatever I'm shooting to provide a perspective that people don't normally see. It's not that photography at eye level is boring – you can always make that interesting – but seeing what works with alternative angles can allow you to capture things in a new and exciting way."

Of course, the vari-angle touchscreens on EOS R System cameras such as the Canon EOS RP and Canon EOS R6 means that you can manoeuvre your Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens into tight corners and unusual angles and heights without having to contort yourself too much.

A shot of a woman wearing a blue coat and bright pink eyeshadow, reaching her hand towards the camera.

"We shot [these images] in a warehouse space, and although I started out using artificial light in the beginning, I ended up working with the available light in the room and we got some really nice results," Ejiro says. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.8 and ISO320. © Ejiro Dafé

A close up of the same woman wearing bright pink eyeshadow.

The Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM has an easy-to-grip combined focusing and control ring, and can focus down to 0.3m. Ejiro says he enjoys going in for tight crops such as this to create "almost abstract images" that add variety to a collection. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/125 sec, f/4 and ISO1600. © Ejiro Dafé

4. Vary from wide to close

Using a single prime lens can bring a cohesive quality to a body of work but finding ways to add variety will ensure that it doesn't look boring.

"My approach depends on the subject and the location, but usually I start quite wide with an establishing shot and then almost chase down whatever I'm shooting in order to get as many different perspectives and angles as possible. If I'm working with a model, I'll ask her to move around so that I can establish a general composition and use that framing as almost a boundary or a limit. I'll then take a few steps closer and carry on working in from there.

A portrait of a model in a white jacket in front of a busy but blurred street.

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"I love taking wide shots where you can see everything in context, but I also really like intimate shots. With the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM you can focus [to 0.3m], so you can go in quite tight and create these almost abstract images. This type of shot works particularly well with dancers, where the viewer isn't necessarily sure of the context because of the movement and the angles and the attractive shapes within the composition."

A model in a white frilly blouse leans forward across a table, resting her head against her gloved hand.

Ejiro prefers to keep things simple and work with the available light, and the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM's fast aperture makes it ideal in low-light situations. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.2 and ISO800. © Ejiro Dafé

5. Keep your whole setup simple

To keep the discreet and manoeuvrable advantage of a lens such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM, it pays to strip back the rest of your kit to the bare minimum, advises Ejiro. "Too much choice can cause you to overthink things," Ejiro says. "Even a standard kit zoom lens offers such a variety of focal lengths that it can sometimes slow you down."

The Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM's bright aperture means that you don't necessarily need to use flash when shooting in low light, something that Ejiro is enthusiastic about. While his portfolio is a testament to his ability to read the light around him, he doesn't want to make lighting a complicated affair. "I don't use artificial light very much. I find you can start to get a bit distracted with that extra level of control rather than working with the ambient lighting you've been dealt and using that to the best of your ability.

"Even if it's using the available lamps in low-light situations indoors, I think that looks better than what you get with big bounces. Besides, working with natural light is more fun."

Marcus Hawkins

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