Battle of the primes. The 50mm vs. 35mm

If there were ever a prime lens that I admired the most, it would have to be the 50mm. I love the 50mm for its simplicity, everlasting charm and of course the wonderful images that it promises, every time I pick up my camera and press the shutter release. The same can be said of the 35mm too, albeit at a slightly wider angle of view. Focal length is the first and obvious difference between these two lenses.

I wanted this article to be an honest match-up between two of the most widely used and loved primes in photography – the 50mm and the 35mm. However, in spite of stating my personal preference very early into the article I don’t want to appear biased. The 50mm is a personal favorite because of the style of photographer that I am. Having said that, the 35mm has its own advantages and is obviously loved by photographers with a different style than mine and one that is more suited to the 35mm. This is a true and honest match-up.

Focal Length

Before we delve deeper into the 50mm vs. 35mm debate, a word on the primary point of difference – focal length.

The angle of view of the 50mm is often considered to be the same as the human eye. It is thus frequently referred to as a standard focal length lens (or standard lens). I don’t know about you but I think I can see more than what a 50mm lens can. Even more than what a 35mm lens can. A 50mm lens gives an angle of view of roughly 46 – 47 ˚.  A 35mm, on the other hand, has an angle of view of 63 ˚. Just for the sake of comparison, a true-blue fish eye lens gives an angle of view of 180 ˚. Thus, the adage ‘close to what a human eye sees’ is not always an accurate description of the angle of view of the 50mm prime.

Lean by Kent Nguyen

Lean by Kent Nguyen

The second thing that you would no doubt come across is what is frequently referred to in photography as the ‘effective focal length’. This is sometimes also referred to as the ‘35mm format equivalent focal length’ and is closely related with the crop factor of the lens. Let me explain this a bit further for those who have absolutely no idea of what I am babbling about.

Smaller APS-C cameras use a sensor size that is smaller than that of a full-frame camera. Thus, a lens that has been designed for the larger image circle of a full-frame camera project an image much bigger than what an APS-C camera sensor can utilize fully. By the way, image circle is referred to as the image that is captured by the lens when the shutter opens.

When that happens i.e., you use a full frame lens on an APS-C camera, the sensor uses only the center portion of the image while truncating the rest. In effect, it appears as if you are using a slightly longer focal length than you actually are. This is also referred to as the crop factor of the camera. Different camera systems have different sensor sizes. Thus, the crop factor tend to differ for each camera systems. Nikon APS-C cameras have a crop factor of 1.5x. That means when you use a full-frame 50mm lens (or for that matter any full-frame lens), the effective focal length becomes the equivalent of a 75mm (50mm x 1.5) lens mounted on a full-frame camera. Canon APS-C cameras have a crop factor of 1.6x. Thus a 50mm full-frame lens will become an 80mm.

Street Photography

One of the primary purposes of a standard prime is to shoot everyday photos. Of course with the 35mm and the 50m primes street photography is another avenue that comes to my mind, other than everyday photography. You would ask why? Why not use the very versatile 24-70mm or even the 18-55mm kit lens that came along with your camera? The thing is with a 50mm prime you are kind of limited in terms of changing the focal length. The only way you can change the extent of the scene that you capture is by taking a few steps forward or backward. It is a good thing! This is because when you are limited to zooming with your feet and have less things to fiddle around with on the barrel of the lens, you automatically concentrate on things such as composition, depth of field and exposure. The 50mm prime is a great walk-around lens for these purpose. No wonder, it is sometimes referred to as the hardworking photographer’s lens. Now you know why that wedding photographer with a small lens was constantly moving around at your friend’s wedding!

The same can be said about the 35mm prime. Though it has a slight advantage. With it you are able to capture a slightly larger field of view. That has two implications. First, the 35mm is a better choice for street photography and two, when you want to push back the background or compress it (as this is normally referred to in photography), the 35mm does a better job than the 50mm. Additionally, with a 35mm prime, you get a slightly better depth of field compared to a 50mm for the same aperture, provided you are rooted to the same spot when swapping lenses. Because of the larger field of view, the 35mm is sometimes considered ahead of the 50mm when shooting at tight spaces, for shooting groups and for shooting architecture.

Distortion at the Edge of the Frame

Because of the nature of optical lenses, distortion is normal. This has nothing to do with the 50mm vs. 35mm debate. The nature of distortion, however, is not the same across all lenses. Longer the lens, more is the pincushion distortion seen in them. On the other end of the spectrum, shorter the focal length of the lens more is the barrel distortion. Thus, lenses that are wider than 50mm tend to suffer from barrel distortion. The shorter the focal length more is the effect of this distortion.

Angel by suzie quiban

Angel by suzie quiban

In barrel distortion the image appears as if it is slightly skewed or rounded at the edges. You are likely going to see more of this affect your images when shooting with the 35mm than the 50mm. This can, however, be easily corrected in post-processing. Just hit ‘lens profile correction’ when editing in Lightroom or Photoshop and this problem will be taken care off.

Better Portrait Lens: 50mm vs. 35mm

Among the two, the 50mm is the better portrait lens. How did I come to that conclusion? Let’s take the two lens together for a trial run. Same scene, same model, standing at the exact same spot. Everything the same except focal length of the two lenses. Take a picture with the 35mm prime. Now quickly unmount the 35mm and take a picture with the 50mm. Did you notice anything different? I mean anything other than the difference in angle of view?

Notice how the facial features of the person photographed appears more realistic with the 50mm vs. 35mm where the wider focal length facial features appear distorted? This is because of reasons mentioned in the section on distortion above. Though the 50mm is not a portrait lens per se, when mounted on a crop camera (APS-C sensor based camera) the focal length becomes a 35mm equivalent of 75mm, more suited to portrait shooting.

Does that Mean You Can’t Shoot Portraits with the 35mm?

Absolutely not! The 35mm prime is a capable portrait shooter in its own rights. The only time it fails to deliver is when you step in closer to make a tight composition. You have to be mindful of the distortion and keep your subjects off the edges. Anywhere towards the middle of the frame and you will have no issues making great portraits.

The Illusion of Fast Aperture and Depth of Field

Budding photographers, especially newbies, who are looking to migrate to a DSLR or have already migrated to one and are looking to take their photography to the next level, often say, that fast apertures are counter-productive when it comes to travel photography and landscape photography. I beg to differ. While larger apertures do tend to create a shallow depth of field, the actual depth of field depends on yet another parameter; and that is the focusing distance.

Let’s say that you are standing in front of a beautiful landscape. You have a DSLR with nothing more than a 50mm prime. At first you would be hesitant to use a focal length other than something like f/8 or f/11. But let’s say that everything is at a distance of more than a KM away. At that distance even if you shoot at f/2.8, you are going to have most of the frame in focus.

The advantages on the other hand are immense. At fast apertures, the consequent shutter speed would quicken up too. When shooting outdoors, wind plays a critical role in the entire scheme of things. When you shoot using a fast shutter speed consequent to a faster aperture the effects of image blur will be limited. Both the 35mm and the 50mm are capable shooters in that sense, with the 35mm having a slight edge.

To conclude, the 50mm is the more suited for everyday type photography with definite advantage when shooting portraits especially with an APS-C camera. The 35mm is the more all-round lens with better results in street, travel, landscape and architecture type photography.

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Rajib's love for the road is second only to his love for photography. Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly. He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favourite pursuits.

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Author: Rajib

Rajib's love for the road is second only to his love for photography. Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly. He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favourite pursuits.

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