What Is The Difference Between An 18-55mm And A 50mm Lens?

The Difference Between A 18-55mm Lens And A 50mm Lens

As a beginner photographer, two of the most popular lenses are the 18-55mm kit lens or the 50mm. If you are brand new to lenses, the difference between these might not seem that significant. After all, they both can take photos at 50mm, so why get one over the other?

The biggest difference between these lenses is their type. The 18-55mm lens is a zoom lens that can change focal lengths to help you capture various angles. A 50mm lens is a prime lens with a fixed focal length, which means it cannot zoom in or out. Although the 50mm cannot zoom, it does have a wider aperture allowing it to perform better in low light conditions. 

Besides the exact lens type, there are a lot of key differences between these two lenses. Whether you’re looking to buy your first lens or are curious why everyone talks about these two options, this article will share everything you need to know. Let’s dive into the differences between an 18-55mm and a 50mm lens.

What Is The 18-55mm Lens Good For?

The 18-55mm lens is typically the kit lens for entry-level camera bodies. With a variable aperture range of F3.5 – F/5.6 depending on how zoomed in you are, it’s a great lens to get started in photography. Since it has a good focal range to capture both wide-angle and zoomed photos, it’s a great all-around lens.

Depending on the focal length you use, you can capture a ton of great images with this lens. While using the wider angles like 18mm, this lens works great for:

The list goes on as to what types of pictures this lens can take at a wider angle. Ultimately, you can shoot anything you want at 18mm, but certain genres will look better with a wider angle. Since it has a wider field of view and less lens compression, wide-angle photos lend themselves better to wide-open exterior scenes or interior photos.

As you zoom in the lens, you’ll be able to use any focal length between 18-55mm. With a moderate zoom range, you gain more versatility with what you can shoot. If you want to recompose your photo slightly, just zoom in or out to get an entirely new look! Once you zoom in all the way, the advantage of using 55mm is best used in these genres:

  • Portrait Photography
  • Wildlife Photography
  • Any Close Up Or Detail Photography

When you use a longer focal length, you get more lens compression in your photo. The easiest way to think of lens compression is the change in the perceived distance between the foreground and background. When you use a longer focal length, the background will appear closer to your subject that it actually is. For portraits, especially, this is a great way to capture more flattering images of faces. Since there’s not as much lens distortion, your camera sees the world similarly to your eyes.

What Aperture Does The 18-55mm Kit Lens Have?

Shot with the Canon Rebel t3i, an 18-55mm lens, and a Lee Filters Big Stopper ND Filter

Although there are a few different versions of the 18-55mm lens between camera brands, they all share the same aperture range. It has an aperture of F/3.5 – F/5.6, depending on the focal length. If you’re using 18mm, your widest aperture will be F/3.5. However, if you’re shooting at 55mm, your widest aperture will only be F/5.6.

Most beginner camera lenses will have a variable aperture like this, and it offers a few pros and cons to the lens. The advantage of a variable aperture is that they’re so much cheaper than zoom lenses with fixed apertures. Especially when you’re just testing the waters with photography, you don’t want (or need) to spend a month’s savings to buy a new lens. With variable apertures, you get a smaller, lighter lens for a fraction of the cost.

The downside to a variable aperture is that your exposure will change depending on your focal length. If you have the perfect camera settings at 18mm, it will be all thrown off when you zoom to 55mm. Since the aperture becomes smaller at F/5.6, there’s less light that can enter your camera. To compensate, you would need to adjust your shutter speed or ISO to balance your exposure again.

If you like shooting in automatic mode, your camera will make these adjustments for you, but you don’t know what you’ll get. You could end up with more grain in your photo or motion blur from too slow of a shutter speed. When you use a variable aperture lens in darker conditions, it can become a bit of a pain. Whether it’s after sundown or on a gloomy day, you’ll likely notice the change in settings.

With all that said, this lens still offers incredible versatility, despite having a variable aperture.

How Far Away Can You Shoot With The 18-55mm Lens?

Since this is a zoom lens, you can capture photos from various distances from your subject. Realistically, it doesn’t matter if you’re far away from your subject. Anything of a significant distance and you’ll still be able to capture a sharp photo without a problem.

What’s more important to look at is the close focus. On the Canon 18-55mm lens, the close focus is 8 inches. This means that your camera can focus on something as long as it’s a minimum of 8 inches away from the lens. If you are looking to get close up shots of different things, this is a perfect distance. Especially when you zoom in to 55mm, you’ll be able to capture a lot of detail you wouldn’t see otherwise.

To put it simply, you can take photos 8 inches of 8 miles away from your subject, and still get a perfectly sharp, high-quality image.

How Much Can The 18-55mm Zoom?

Shot with Canon Rebel t3i and an 18-55mm lens

The 18-55mm can zoom up to a maximum of 55mm. To put that into perspective, 50mm is about the same perspective as what your eyes see. If you were to zoom in from that slightly, that’s what the lens would see at 55mm. This wouldn’t be ideal for capturing distant mountain peaks on the horizon but is sufficient to zoom into things closer by.

In more technical terms, at 55mm on an APS-C camera, you will have a 26-degree field of view.

When Would You Used A Kit Lens?

The 18-55mm kit lens is one of the most versatile lenses for beginner photographers. It can be used for just about any type of photography and can work as your go-to lens for years to come. In fact, this was the only lens I ever used for the first year or two after buying my first camera. Even though you can’t zoom in to incredibly far away things, it still offers an adequate zoom range for tons of unique angles.

Shot with Canon Rebel t3i and an 18-55mm lens

The 18-55mm is a lens that you can use as your everyday lens. When you aren’t sure which lens to bring, this should be your choice. Especially when you’re strapped for space and don’t have enough room for all of your camera equipment, just taking this lens on a trip is more than enough.

Although it’s not the highest-end lens on the market, it provides a great starting ground for beginners. Having the option to zoom in and out makes it a lot easier to compose your photos. When starting, it’s hard to imagine the exact shot you want ahead of time. Having the luxury to zoom is a huge advantage to finding the best shot without as much work.

What Is A 50mm Lens Good For?

Now let’s talk about the 50mm lens. This lens offers a whole new world of opportunity compared to the 18-55mm and will change how you take photos. Since this lens has a fixed focal length, it can only take photos at 50mm. Despite the lack of zoom function, this lens makes up for it with an extremely fast aperture of F/1.8. While using an aperture this wide, you’ll have a much easier time taking photos in low light since more light can enter the camera. It also increases the amount of background blur you have in your photos, which can be a favorable effect for portraits. The best types of photography to use this lens with are:

With a flattering amount of lens compression, the 50mm is a portrait photographer’s dream. If you love taking pictures of people, this is where the 50mm will really shine the most. Since it has such a wide aperture of F/1.8, it also performs exceptionally well for night time photography because so much light can enter the camera. This makes it far easier to capture photos of the stars or the milky way.

What Aperture Does The 50mm Lens Have?

The 50mm has an aperture of F/1.8, which is over two stops brighter than what the 18-55mm can offer. Although you won’t use F/1.8 for all of your photos, it can create a unique look to some images. At an aperture this wide, you end up with an extremely shallow depth of field. So shallow, in fact, that you could focus on the tip of someone’s nose and make their eyes look out of focus.

If you want to capture a more dreamy look to your images, using an extremely wide aperture like this is a great way to do so. It will add a dreamy look since there’s such heavy background blur. With a narrow depth of field, it’s a lot easier to draw attention to your subject since the rest of the photo becomes heavily blurred. That’s why this lens is such a favorable choice among any portrait photographer.

How Far Away Can You Shoot With A 50mm Lens?

Since you’re stuck with 50mm, you’ll have to stand at least a few feet away from your subject. Otherwise, your photo will look a little too zoomed in. Just like with the 18-55mm, it doesn’t matter how far away the subject is from the lens after a reasonable distance. If they’re extremely far away, you’ll still be able to capture a sharp photo of them.

The more important thing to consider is the close focus. With the popular Canon 50mm f/1.8, the close focus distance is 13 inches. Compared to the 18-55, the 50mm isn’t as great at capturing sharp photos extremely close up.

Can You Zoom With A 50mm Lens?

No, you can’t zoom with a 50mm because it’s a prime lens. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length meaning they can’t zoom in or out. Although this might seem like a huge downside, the advantage to a prime lens is they’re smaller and have a wider aperture.

Using a prime lens for any photographer is a great way to improve and force you to think outside the box. Rather than just zooming in to capture the photo you want, you have to start moving your feet! At first, it might seem like a huge pain, but soon enough, you’ll be able to know the exact place to shoot the photo from, without even taking out your camera.

In terms of size, the 50mm has a big advantage because it can’t zoom. Since there are physically fewer components in the lens, it can boast a smaller total size. For portability, this is the ideal lens to keep your camera as low profile as possible. Being only a few inches in width, this lens could literally fit in your pocket.

When Would You Use A 50mm Lens?

The 50mm lens is more of a specialty lens that has its only specific purpose. Yes, you could use this lens for everyday shooting, but it wouldn’ be as convenient as a zoom lens. This is a lens that you use when you have a very specific shot in mind or want to experiment with shallow depths of field. If you plan on taking photos of people, this is an ideal lens to use.

Besides portraits or low light, using a prime lens is a perfect way to challenge your photography. By sticking to zoom lenses too often, you start to get comfortable being able to zoom where you want. In some cases, this can cause you to be lazy since you don’t need to look for a better frame. When you use a prime lens like the 50mm, you’re forced to be more creative in your compositions, and it helps you be a better photographer.

Comparing The 18-55mm Vs. The 50mm

Now that you have a solid handle on each of these lenses individually let’s compared the 18-55mm and the 50mm head to head.

– Focal Length

The most notable difference between these lenses is the focal length. Although they’re both capable of capturing the same photo at 50mm, there’s a big difference between a prime and zoom lens. As you now know, having a prime lens like the 50mm means you can’t zoom in or out. This can be a fun, creative challenge but doesn’t offer as much versatility. Being able to zoom with the 18-55mm gives you more variety to capture photos from multiple perspectives. Looking at focal length alone, the 18-55mm lens is a more useful lens for a beginner photographer. Especially if it’s the only lens, you plan on using for the time being.

– Aperture

The difference in aperture between these lenses is a big one. The 18-55mm has a variable aperture of F/3.5-F/5.6, while the 50mm is a fast F/1.8. With a wider aperture, the 50mm can perform better in more situations. Whether you’re shooting on a bright sunny day or after the sun goes down, having an aperture of F/1.8 will let you shoot in any lighting conditions. On the 18-55mm, you have to deal with a changing aperture depending on your focal length. This can quickly become tricky to deal with, particularly when you’re shooting in the fading light of sunset and blue hour. In terms of aperture, the 50mm has a significant advantage over the 18-55mm.

– Size And Weight

In the big picture, both lenses are extremely light and small compared to others on the market. Both of them are easy to carry around and hardly weigh a thing when packed away in your camera bag. Since the 18-55mm is a zoom lens while the 50mm is a prime, there isn’t much competition in terms of size. Any prime lens will be smaller than a zoom lens simply because there is less to it. If the size is a total deal-breaker for you, then the 50mm is the obvious winner once again.

Which Should You Choose?

If you’re stuck between choosing the 18-55mm and a 50mm, it all boils down to one question. What one should you choose? After understanding each of these lenses’ pros and cons, it’s clear to see they’re both worthy options. Ultimately, it comes down to the type of photographer you are and the photos you expect to shoot.

If you are trying to figure out what to get as your first lens, the 18-55mm is, hands down your best option. Despite the variable aperture, it’s a do-it-all lens that you can use for any photography type. It gives you the freedom to experiment and see what kinds of photos you love to capture. If you just want a lens to take pictures of friends and family, the 18-55mm is a perfect option.

If you have a little more experience under your belt and are dying to push your creativity, then the 50mm is the way to go. Using a prime lens is a whole different ball game and a fun way to challenge your photography. By having to actually move your camera instead of zooming a lens, you end up finding more interesting compositions that you wouldn’t have explored before. Since this lens is F/1.8, it also allows you to take great night time photos and not worry about lighting conditions. The 50mm is a great lens to have but is more of a specialty lens.

At the end of the day, both of these lenses will capture great photos. As a beginner, owning both of these lenses isn’t a bad idea either. With an extremely affordable price tag, you’d have a fantastic lens pairing to play with as you improve your photography!

– Brendan 🙂


Article By

Brendan Williams

Hey, I'm Brendan! I'm a professional photographer and photo retoucher who has spent the majority of his career shooting or retouching outdoor lifestyle and social media campaigns for brands like G-Adventures, xoxo Bella, P&G, Fitbit, Chevy, Tourism California, and more. You can view my photography portfolio here.

These days I primarily focus my efforts on this site, creating guides and tutorials that I wish I had earlier in my career. Each week I publish new tutorials on Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Canva to help you unlock new skills and bring your creativity to new levels! Everything you learn here is backed by real experience, so you can finally skip the fluff and focus only on what matters.

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