By Ana Mireles on | No Comments
Every photographer knows how important it is to have the right lens. In fact, many photographers say that the lens is even more important than the camera.
So, if you’re trying to decide which lens to buy and you’re struggling to choose between a 35mm and a 50mm, this article can help. We will discuss what focal length is, the differences between the two focal lengths, and how to choose the best lens for different photo situations.
Let’s get started.
Focal length is what determines the angle of view of a photographic lens and the amount of magnification of the subject when photographed with that lens.
These two characteristics work opposite each other:
Focal lengths are expressed in terms of a full-frame sensor (equivalent to a 35mm film camera). If you use a crop sensor, you must apply a "crop factor" conversion rate to calculate the focal length. For example, the APS sensor in Nikon and Sony cameras has a crop factor of 1.5x, and Canon has a 1.6x. If your crop sensor camera is a different brand, you can find the crop factor in the camera manual or by doing a quick search online.
NOTE: Read more about the difference between a full frame and a crop sensor camera HERE.
For instance, if you have a 50mm lens and use it with a Nikon DX crop sensor camera - you are actually getting a 75mm. And if you use a 35mm lens with the same camera, it would be about a 50mm focal length. To truly have a 50mm focal length on a DX crop sensor camera, you would use a 35mm lens. And to get a proper 35mm focal length on the same camera, you would use a 20-25mm lens.
Based on their focal lengths, lenses can be divided into three major categories:
None of these lenses are better than the others; they simply have different characteristics and uses. Let's take a quick look at each:
Standard lenses have a 50mm focal length. They are the ones that more closely represent things as we see them with the naked eye.
A telephoto lens has a long focal length. Anything above 50mm is considered a telephoto - although there are different subcategories:
Wide-angle lenses have a focal length shorter than 50mm. Just like telephotos, they are also subcategorized:
When photographers can't decide between two focal lengths, they often think a zoom lens with a range that covers both is a good solution.
While zoom lenses are the most versatile and would cover the range, there are certain advantages to using a prime lens.
A prime lens has a fixed focal length. In other words, if you want your subject to appear closer or further away in your photo - you will need to move towards or away from them physically.
Because of this, a prime lens has fewer glass pieces, resulting in less distortion and sharper images. They are also smaller and lighter than a zoom lens and have fewer moving parts, thus fewer chances of needing repair over time.
Another advantage to prime lenses is that they usually have a wider aperture which means more light can pass through, making them a better option for low-light situations. You can also create beautiful bokeh images with prime lenses.
All in all, prime lenses offer a better value for the money. On the other hand, you will have less versatility. You can either make do with your focal length, or you will have to bring more than one lens and change it mid-way through your photo shoot.
There are pros and cons to both zoom and prime lenses. However, the pros of a prime lens usually outweigh the cons.
Now, let’s see if getting a 35mm or a 50mm is best for you.
We already discussed that a 35mm lens is a prime wide-angle lens. Here are some of the characteristics of a 35mm and what makes it ideal for certain types of photography.
Side note: Some famous photographers known for using a 35mm lens include Diane Arbus - before she switched to a Rolleiflex, Aaron Huey, and Adam Bird.
A 35mm lens has a horizontal field of view of 54.4 degrees and a vertical field of view of 37.8, which is notably larger than the 40-degree horizontal and 27-degree vertical field of view that a 50mm lens provides, so you will be able to capture more of the scene in your photos.
The wider field of view allows you to incorporate a larger area of the scene in your photos, making it a perfect option for landscape photography, group portraits, and other large scenes. It also allows you to be closer to the subject, making it an ideal lens when working in tight spaces.
A wide angle lens will also ensure that a moving subject remains sharp in a wider area of movement, which is helpful for action shots because it will give you more wiggle room to maintain focus on any moving subjects.
These lenses are also helpful when your subject is very far from you. For example, if you photograph a subject in the distance (i.e. an airplane, a sweeping landscape, the moon, etc.) and want to ensure that all of it is sharp, use a 35mm lens.
Finally, a greater depth of field is perfect when you want more of the environment in focus to give more context to the subject, making it a great lens choice when shooting landscape photos.
Please remember that the focal length isn’t the only factor impacting the depth of field. You will also have to consider your aperture and the distance between the camera and your subject.
All lenses have some distortion. Wide-angle lenses create something that’s called barrel distortion. This means that straight lines seem to curve as they move outwards toward the edges of the photo.
While a 35mm lens is a wide-angle lens and DOES INTRODUCE SOME DISTORTION towards the edges of the photo, it is RELATIVELY MINOR and can be corrected easily during post-processing.
Keep in mind that the wider the focal length, the more distortion it will have - which is why fish eye lenses (the widest focal length) create images that appear as if the viewer is looking through a door's peephole.
A 50mm lens is a standard lens on a 35mm film camera or a full-frame digital camera. It’s referred to as a standard lens because it renders images CLOSEST to how we see things with the naked eye. It's also called a nifty-fifty because of its usefulness in ALL TYPES OF PHOTOGRAPHY. Most photographers recommend owning a 50mm lens.
Side note: Many famous photographers have used a 50mm lens to capture their iconic images, including Henry Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, and David Douglas Duncan.
While a 50mm lens has a narrower field of view, it is still wide enough to incorporate a large portion of the scene into the image. In many situations, this is a good trade-off that allows you to take advantage of the beautiful shallow depth of field that a 50mm lens provides but still incorporate some of the background in the frame.
The longer the focal length - the shallower you can make the depth of field. Keep in mind that this also depends on how close or far you are from your subject.
You can intensify this effect when you combine a 50mm lens's shallow depth of field with the wide apertures available (most commonly f/1.8 or f/1.4).
This makes a 50mm lens ideal for Portrait photography or any images where you want to separate the subject from the background and create a beautiful bokeh effect.
A 50mm lens causes the least distortion compared to all the other focal lengths. As I mentioned previously, it captures the scene as closely as possible to how we see it. This is another reason a 50mm is commonly used in Portrait photography, as it won't distort the portrait subject's face or proportions.
Some of these factors are discussed above, but let's review some of the important differences between a 35mm and 50mm lens:
A 35mm lens has a wider angle of view, which is ideal if you want to include more of the scene into the frame without moving too far away physically.
The wider frame of a 35mm also allows you to more easily reframe an image in post-production by cropping if you want to change the composition. This will result in some loss of resolution, which is not ideal, but it does provide more flexibility when editing.
On the other hand, a 50mm lens gives you more control because the subject will appear closer to you, and distracting elements will be less likely to appear in the background. A 50mm lens also allows for beautiful bokeh that helps separate the subject from the background.
Lens distortion will be more pronounced using a 35mm lens. However, as I mentioned above, it’s not usually significant and can be corrected in post-production. Most editing software, including Lightroom and Photoshop, has a feature to correct lens distortion with one click as soon as it detects the lens used to take the photo. Lens manufacturers make this information available so proper adjustments can be made.
Whether you’re trying to decide which lens to purchase or which one to bring with you on a photo session - there are several important factors to consider:
The first thing to consider is the TYPE of photography you are shooting.
Another factor to remember when choosing a lens is the type and size of the location or photography studio you will be shooting in.
If you typically shoot in small spaces, you will benefit from a shorter focal length (a 35mm lens) because you can fit more into the frame without needing physical distance. A couple of great examples where this would be helpful include:
In both situations, a photographer will probably be better off using a 35mm lens.
Both 35mm and 50mm lenses are available with wide apertures. You can find very affordable choices with apertures between f/1.4 and f/1.8.
However, if you want anything faster than f/1.2, f/1, or f/0.95, you will find more choices and affordable pricing among 50mm lenses.
So when choosing a lens based on aperture, you will also need to indirectly consider your budget as well.
A 35mm and a 50mm lens are both excellent choices and worthy of consideration. And they are both quite versatile, too - so you can’t go wrong with either of them, especially if you haven’t chosen a type of photography to specialize in.
That being said, each has advantages that make them better for certain situations, which have been covered here to help you make an educated choice.
One last tip: You may want to try both lenses by renting each for a few days before choosing which one to buy. Another option is if you have a zoom lens that covers both focal lengths (your kit lens, for example), you can try capturing different shots with the zoom at 35mm and then at 50mm to see which one gives you the results you prefer.
Which lens is YOUR preferred focal length and why? We would love to hear about your experiences. And PLEASE SHARE our tutorial using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)!
Ana Mireles is a Mexican photographer and researcher with a passion for writing and teaching. She’s collaborated in artistic and cultural projects in Mexico, Italy, and the Netherlands.