The 50mm prime lens (meaning a fixed focal length of 50mm rather than a zoom) has been an unparalleled photographic work horse since the invention of 35mm film. It's often referred to as a normal or standard lens and it used to be the regular kit lens included with most camera bodies. A 50mm offers a happy medium between wide-angle and telephoto and, usually, a fast aperture (typically 1.8 or 1.4) that gives you the option to shoot in low light or isolate the subject with a sliver of sharp focus. It's simplicity encourages good technique, it's price is approachable ($100 to $500 depending on features and brand), and its versatility makes it potentially the only lens you'll ever need.
Now, before I get too high and mighty about this let me say that I am terrible at taking my own advice. This post is supposed to be about simplifying, about using your equipment to its fullest rather than buying something else. It's about truly mastering the basics rather than just upgrading your gear. I, on the other hand, have often done the opposite.
Over the past decade, I've bought and sold more photographic equipment than most small camera shops. At one point I even sold one 50mm lens and then promptly bought a different one. Out of desperation and nagging insecurity, I have several times attempted to buy my way out of photographic slumps and creative dead ends. It almost never works. I tend to travel with more camera equipment than clothing. I have been known to take multiple cameras for a "relaxing" afternoon at the beach. The back seat of my car is like a drifting dune of photo equipment, ebbing and flowing from driver to passenger side and back again. This is partly because I'm an idiot, but also because I fear that with out lots of fancy equipment on hand at all times I will miss a great photo. This is almost never the case. When I look back through my archive, I find that most of my favorite images were taken with minimal (and often cheap) equipment at times and in places where a huge camera case would have only held me back.
That in mind, here is my resolution: I'm going back to shooting with a 50mm...most of the time. Now, I have to hedge my bet a little because I know I will have clients and shoots for whom the 50mm just won't be quite enough. I'm not going all Kung Fu Master and leaving my worldly possessions behind to simply walk the earth. But I am going to try to get back to basics as much as I can. And shooting with a simpler rig is a great way to do that.
I find that bare bones equipment forces you to be more intentional about composition. It forces you to zoom with your feet rather than your fingertips, to look carefully, to think about angles, and to pay attention. PAY ATTENTION. It creates challenges that you have to think through rather than skirt around. In short, it makes you work a little harder, but it makes you better. And it rewards you with images that you wouldn't get any other way.
So here's to the classic 50mm, long may it reign.