Should I buy a 35mm or 50mm lens?

35mm or 50mm focal length?

Should I buy a 35mm or 50mm lens? That is a question that often gets asked. Which one is better? Which should I buy? What is the difference? Let’s take a look at those questions now.

Reflections on the water of the Old Harbour in Honfleur, Normandy, France Fujifilm X100S, 1/1000 sec, ƒ2, 23mm (34 FF Equivalent), ISO200

Reflections on the water of the Old Harbour in Honfleur, Normandy, France
Fujifilm X100S, 1/1000 sec, ƒ2, 23mm (34 FF Equivalent), ISO200

There are many reasons you should buy either a 35mm or 50mm prime lens (or their ‘crop camera’ equivalents). Of course, you could buy both, but you’ll probably find that one or the other suits your shooting style better.

Both lenses are quite similar in many respects. There’s obviously a difference in their fields of view, but they’re both very practical lenses. The 35mm lens has a horizontal field of view equal to about 54 degrees on a 35mm (full-frame) camera while the 50mm lens is about 40 degrees.

It’s more complex to calculate an angle of view for the human eye, but it’s generally recognised that our central angle of view, which is that part of our view where we have the best vision, is about 40 – 60 degrees. The 35mm and 50mm prime lenses fall right within that range. Human’s actually have a much wider angle of view, but beyond that 40 – 60 degrees is where our peripheral vision kicks in, which is much less acute.

Using either a 35mm or 50mm fixed focal length makes you get a little more creative when making images. You can’t just zoom in or out, you’re forced to move around and look for more pleasing angles.

Generally speaking I don’t think it really makes sense to buy both lenses, so which lens do you choose?

NOTE: I do not currently own a 35mm prime lens because I’ve moved to smaller cameras. I use a Fujifilm X100S that has a fixed 23mm lens, which is the equivalent of a 34mm fixed lens on a full-frame camera.

Why you should choose a 35mm lens

Overlooking the harbour at Port en Bessin, Normandy, France Fujifilm X100S, 1/600 sec, ƒ8, 23mm (34 FF Equivalent), ISO200

Overlooking the harbour at Port en Bessin, Normandy, France
Fujifilm X100S, 1/600 sec, ƒ8, 23mm (34 FF Equivalent), ISO200

The 35mm focal length is a very practical lens to own. It’s just starting to creep into the wide-angle group of lenses and is a good choice for street and travel photography, as well as for making images in relatively tight spaces. If you can’t move backwards, the wider angle of view enables you to fit more into your frame. It was and still is a popular lens with photo-journalists who are able to capture more of the environment of their main subject.

People singing in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris Fujifilm X100S, 1/60 sec, ƒ4, 23mm (34 FF Equivalent), ISO200

People singing in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris
Fujifilm X100S, 1/60 sec, ƒ4, 23mm (34 FF Equivalent), ISO200

When you use a 35mm lens, you’re forced to almost become a part of the image you’re capturing. If you’re photographing people, you need to be close to them. Close enough that they know you’re there. Of course, not everyone you photograph will actually notice you, but you will be close enough for them to see you and see that you’re making a photograph with them in it. While some people might see this as a reason not to use the 35mm lens, becoming a part of the scene is a great way to draw your audience into the image.

A 35mm lens also gives you more depth of field for a given aperture than on a 50mm lens. That can be good for street and travel photography, as well as for making landscape images. If you’re shooting street photography and like to use zone focusing then the greater depth of field works in your favour. The old adage “ƒ8 and be there” really can come into play. For example, on the Fujifilm X100S with it’s fixed focal length 23mm lens (34mm full-frame equivalent), setting the aperture to ƒ8 and focusing at a distance of 3.33 metres, means that everything between 1.66 metres and infinity will be acceptably sharp. On a 50mm lens you’d have to stop down to ƒ11 for the same hyperfocal distance.

Advantages of a 35mm lens

  • Wider field of view
  • Good for street / travel (landscape / cityscape) photography
  • More DOF at a given aperture
  • Close to the focal composition of the human eye (debatable – the true ‘focal length’ of a human eye is somewhere between 35-50mm)
  • Can be used for almost anything – landscapes, portraits, travel, macro, street, real estate, or product photography
  • Great for photographing weddings – indoors and out
  • Shows more of your subject’s environment
  • Small and light – ideal walk around lens for street photography
  • Considered to be the beginning of ‘wide angle’
  • Larger DOF – easy to zone focus
  • Good for photographing groups

Disadvantages of a 35mm lens

  • More expensive than most 50mm lenses
  • Harder to isolate the background
  • Distorts subjects that are close to the lens – not so good for portraits

Why you should choose a 50mm lens

Walking across Liberty Bridge in Budapest, Hungary Nikon D700, 1/2000 sec, ƒ5.6, 50mm, ISO200

Walking across Liberty Bridge in Budapest, Hungary
Nikon D700, 1/2000 sec, ƒ5.6, 50mm, ISO200

Where the 35mm lens is a very practical lens to own, the 50mm is slightly less so. It’s still practical, but the 35mm has a slight advantage. However, the 50mm lens does have some advantages over the 35mm in certain areas.

Generally, a 50mm lens will be cheaper than a 35mm lens. Both Canon and Nikon make 50mm lenses with apertures as low as ƒ1.4. Canon also has a lens with a maximum aperture of ƒ1.2, which is considerably more expensive but has fantastic bokeh when shot wide open. Most lens manufacturers also have a 50mm lens with a maximum aperture of ƒ1.8 that are affectionately known as “nifty fifties”. They’re built for consumers rather than professionals, but produce professional grade results. The “nifty fifties” are low cost lenses and most photographers will own one at some point in their lives.

Drinking beer at the Hotel Gellert, Budapest, Hungary Nikon D700, 1/40 sec, ƒ5.6, 50mm, ISO1600

Drinking beer at the Hotel Gellert, Budapest, Hungary
Nikon D700, 1/40 sec, ƒ5.6, 50mm, ISO1600

The benefit of such a large maximum aperture is the shallow depth of field, which makes a 50mm lens great for shooting portraits. There is very little distortion in the image when using a 50mm lens, so it’s possible to get quite close and ‘fill the frame’ without causing facial features to become over-exaggerated. Coupled with the creamy bokeh you’re able to really isolate your subject from their background and make pleasing and professional looking portraits.

Advantages of 50mm lens

  • Closer perspective to human vision than 35mm
  • Less distortion than 35mm
  • Great focal length for individual portraits
  • Beginner street photographers can stand a little further away than 35mm, which helps overcome nervousness and shyness
  • Lower cost to buy than a 35mm lens

Disadvantage of 50mm lens

  • Less background / environment in portraits unless you step further back
  • Need to stop the lens down further than a 35mm if using zone focusing

Conclusion

Blue scooter in front of an old wooden door in Paris, France Olympus OMD E-M5, 1/80 sec, ƒ6.3, 25mm (50mm full-frame equivalent), ISO320

Blue scooter in front of an old wooden door in Paris, France
Olympus OMD E-M5, 1/80 sec, ƒ6.3, 25mm (50mm full-frame equivalent), ISO320

Both focal lengths are very good. Both are versatile. I think the 35mm is a little more versatile than the 50mm and would be my personal choice between the two. Although I would choose the 35mm, you wouldn’t go wrong with either focal length. You simply need to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of both and work within their specific limitations.

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Ken

Photography is about vision; I love making photographs that tell a location’s story – the place, the people and the culture. I'm a photographer with a relaxed approach. I'm an experienced traveller and love teaching others about photography. Images can be made anywhere - right in your back yard or in exotic overseas locations. I can teach you not only to look at your surroundings, but also to really "see" what's there. Photography is more than just pressing a button. It's also about vision. Let me show you how to look, see and capture your world.

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