Episode 22 of the Filter Photography Podcast is here and this episode is all about the 35mm vs 50mm focal length decision.
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The main thought: 35mm vs 50mm
Is a 35mm or a 50mm focal length better? Which lens should you buy? Sounds like it’s not that big of a deal. It’s only 15mm. Or is it?
This photography podcast episode will help you decide between 35mm vs 50mm lenses. When you start out with photography, gear seems really expensive. Unless you’ve been given a wad of cash from a sponsor, or a business, then you’re going to need to pick your gear wisely.
I’m assuming that you haven’t been given cash by either of those groups, because you’re just starting out. So your choice is important because it may be some time before you are in a position to afford a new lens.
If you have one of each, one 35mm and one 50mm lens, or are just curious why I prefer one over the other, you might want to listen in anyway.
What is a prime lens?
If you don’t already know, a prime lens is a fixed focal length. That means you can’t zoom with it. Sometimes that means the lens is cheaper than zooms, but generally prime lenses do one thing better than their zoom counterparts. They allow in a lot of light. When we say a lot of light, I mean a lot of light.
It’s common to see prime lenses offer an aperture of f/1.8, or even f/1.4. I once owned a prime lens that was f/1.2!
Some of the common focal length and aperture pairings are:
85mm and f/1.8
35mm and f/1.4
50mm and f/1.4
50mm and f/1.8
There are variations of those, but they are the common pairings around.
Obviously a 35mm prime lens has a focal length of 35mm on a full frame sensor. If you’re using a camera with a cropped sensor, you’re going to see a difference between your viewfinder, and what is shown in the viewfinder of a full frame camera.
And this is where we come to the first benefit to a 35mm lens. On a crop sensor camera, you’re going to see a focal length similar to what you would see through a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera. Unless you have a full frame camera, it’s going to look like a 50mm lens because of the cropped sensor.
That might not bother you. If you move to a full frame sensor later, you’re going to get the full benefits of a 35mm lens. It’s like the best of both worlds – the 35mm and the 50mm lens.
The 35mm, both on a cropped sensor or a full-frame sensor, is going to have a wider field of view than the 50mm lens. It’s great for street photography and landscape photography, but not so great for portraits.
The 35mm focal length also is probably as close as you can get to a super wide-angle lens without seeing some distortion around the edges of the image.
Distortion around the edges of the lens is normal for wide-angled lenses, but 35mm is probably as wide as you can go without seeing some kind of distortion you’ll need to correct in Adobe Lightroom.
The 35mm is also, arguably, the closest focal length to what the human eye naturally sees. When I started photography, people told me that the 50mm prime lens was what you see through your natural eye. I bought the lens because of that, and found that it’s a lot tighter than what my eye sees. At first I thought that it was because I was using a crop-sensor camera. I was new so I had to check all these things. But nope, it was on a Canon 5Dmkii body, which is a full-framed camera.
I didn’t mind all that much at the time, but I think it’s an important piece of information to correct. People get it all mixed up.
But what about the cons of 35mm lenses? As nice as a wide-angle view is, it may mean you’re going to need to crop your images more often than not. Cropping images can decrease your image quality, depending how far you crop and what megapixel count your camera has. So if you’re looking to take photos of things in tighter environments and don’t need that wider angle, the biggest characteristic of the 35mm prime lens means it isn’t suited to you.
If portraits are your thing, then you’re going to want to lean towards the 50mm focal length immediately.
The 50mm lens is immediately more intimate with your subject, showing them up closer than the 35mm. There’s immediately less distractions around the portrait subject, and the focus is solely on them or it.
This is especially worth noting if you want a really prominent bokeh (or background blur). The longer the focal length of the lens and the wider the aperture, the more bokeh you’re going to notice. So that means, the 50mm wins in terms of defined bokeh.
However, you’re going to be permanently working with a tighter view in your viewfinder. You could always take multiple photos and stitch together a panorama later on, but if you’re expecting to do a lot of photography work that would benefit from a wider angle, you’re going to get pretty tired of doing panoramas. Your harddrive will probably get sick of storing them, too.
What do I prefer?
As I mentioned, I started with a Canon 50mm, the 50mm f/1.8, specifically. It was $100 and that’s why it’s one of the most popular lenses out there.
Over time, I upgrade my 50mm f/1.8 to the Canon 50mm f/1.2L, thinking that the wider the aperture, the better of a lens it would be. I wanted it for my music photography, but the lens was so slow at autofocusing. So slow. It was so slow it was almost unusable for the purpose of music photography. And an aperture of f/1.2 was not practical, either. I was shooting at f/1.4 most of the time according to my Lightroom metadata, so that extra money to get an aperture of f/1.2 was not worth it.
I sold the Canon 50mm f/1.2L and reevaluated whether 50mm was right for me when it came to music photography. Would that 15mm make a difference? To me, it did. If I needed to crop the image, I would do it easily without too much decrease in my image quality.
I didn’t need the extra shallow depth of field the f/1.2 aperture would give me, and the easier-to-achieve background blur on the 50mm had no real benefit to me either for music photography. I wasn’t planning to shoot portraits, so I decided to change it up and trial the 35mm lens.
I looked at the Canon 35mm lens range, and they all looked great, but for the first time, I went outside Canon’s offering. I heard great things about the Sigma Art Series of lenses, and most of them came in under half the price of the Canon 35mm offerings.
It’s not weather sealed, and that’s something I need to keep in mind. But it’s a light lens, well built, fast to focus, and super sharp.
That is my thought process around deciding between 35mm vs 50mm lenses. You will have a totally different thought process, but I hope it’s been useful in thinking through your future purchase. Really, the 35mm and 50mm focal lengths are both great and you can work around each of their drawbacks if you need to.
Did you miss the last episode?
Episode 21 of the Filter Photography Podcast we answered a bunch of questions from you, the listeners!
Lead image by Oscar Ivan Esquivel Arteaga.