Choosing between a 35mm and 50mm lens isn’t easy. But in my experience, one will definitely serve you better than the other. But which?
So, let’s just get this out of the way. I’m pro-50mm. In fact, I find a 35mm lens a sort of awkward middle ground between a 28mm and 50mm lens. In other words, I find it too wide for portraits and too narrow for landscapes.
Nevertheless, some people love 35mm lenses. For many years, I dismissed this as a medical condition easily addressed with pills and psychoanalysis. But if you’ve tried all that and still remain on the fence, here’s a more technical breakdown.
The key difference between a 35mm and 50mm lens is the Angle of View. For instance, a 35mm lens presents a full-frame camera with a wide-ish angle of view of 63-degrees. Whereas a 50mm lens yields a much narrower 46.7-degree angle of view.
Now, which focal length is best depends on you and your photography. But rather than copping out with that, I’ll provide you with some helpful generalizations.
In general, a 35mm lens is good for environmental portraiture. Or in other words, for capturing your subject within their surroundings to provide a sense of place and context (journalism for example). For this reason, a 35mm lens can tell a good story.
Some might argue that the smartphone-style 28mm lens is better still. But I disagree as a 28mm lens is so wide that subjects risk being lost in their surroundings.
Of course, you can walk your 28mm lens towards your subject to make them larger, but then you end up with distortion – as seen in selfies.
In contrast, a 50mm lens’s narrower angle-of-view means it can be difficult to capture wider scenes, particularly in small or interior spaces. That being said, the 50mm is a vastly superior lens for classic portraits where your subject should dominate the frame.
So if you’re photographing things as much as people, the 35mm will help you get more shots, more often. On the other hand, a 50mm remains a reasonably effective walkabout lens that’s wonderful for portraiture.
2. Background Blur
When it comes to background blur, the lens with the longest focal length and largest aperture wins. So assuming both lenses share the same maximum aperture; the 50mm lens is a better choice for melting those backgrounds to goo.
However, background blur or shallow depth-of-field can be a hindrance. For instance, you might want to take a photo that’s sharp from foreground to background. And in these cases, the 35mm has the advantage.
So, like before, it comes down to you. Whilst the 50mm works well enough as a walkabout lens, the 35mm is better suited when it comes to taking entirely sharp photos of larger scenes. But, whilst you can extend a 50mm lens’s depth of field to match that of a 35mm lens; a 35mm lens will never match the 50mm for background blur.
For this reason, the 50mm offers more versatility when it comes to depth of field – thus, winning this category.
The worst kind of distortion is the kind that deforms a person. After all, who wants an enlarged nose, tiny eyes, and a head shaped like a Mellon. In the slider below, observe how distortion can turn this withered middle-aged man into a distorted withered middle-aged man. Read How to Avoid Selfie Distortion.
Fortunately, neither a 35mm lens nor a 50mm lens is as bad as your smartphone. Nor will either lens significantly corrupt straight lines and horizons (pincushion and barrel distortion).
All that being said, the 50mm lens has greater reach, thus enabling you to put more distance between yourself and your subject. And the more distance between you and your subject, the less likely distortion is to occur.
Typically, 35mm and 50mm lenses are crazy sharp. If you are currently using a zoom or kit lens, you’ll be blown away by either.
The 50mm lens is the pound-for-pound number 1 bargain when it comes to lenses. No other lens offers so much for so little. Whilst the 35mm lens is reasonably cheap, it can’t hold a candle to the nifty fifty. So, if you can’t decide between a 35mm and a 50mm lens, it will cost you much less to try a 50mm first.
6. Size and Weight
Surprisingly, affordable 50mm lenses tend to be smaller than affordable 35mm lenses. However, premium 50mm lenses tend to outweigh expensive 35mm lenses.
For everyday use, I prefer a 50mm. Whilst it’s not quite as flexible when it comes to shooting wider scenes, I find it good enough most of the time. On the other hand, the 50mm lens is vastly better when it comes to photographing people. In fact, it is so good that I have used a cheap 50mm lens on paid photoshoots.
But if I was wandering around some tight streets, taking in the scenes – I’d lean towards taking a 35mm lens.
Warning: 35mm and 50mm Equivelent Focal Lengths
Angle-of-view depends on two things. Lens focal length and the size of your camera’s sensor. In this post, we compare 35mm and 50mm based on how they work on a full-frame camera. Read Beginners Guide to Sensors.
If you are using a camera with a smaller or larger sensor, the 35mm will no longer provide you with an angle of view of 63-degrees. Nor will a 50 serve up a 46.7-degree angle of view. As a result, each lens becomes a radically different proposition.
Therefore, to achieve these angles-of-views for your camera, you must choose different focal lengths. These are illustrated in the table below. If you are looking for the equivalent of a 50mm lens for your camera, click this link for a full list.
|Equivalent Focal Length||Full Frame||APS-C||Micro Four Thirds|
I find a 50mm lens to be more useful, more often, than a 35mm lens. It’s good for everyday photography and it’s an excellent portrait lens. So if you’re out and about and you want to grab a few photos of the kids – a 50mm can give you pro-level portraits.
But if you’re more interested in photographing places and scenes – a 35mm’s wider angle-of-view can be helpful – especially if there’s not much room for you to move about.
But in my opinion, 28mm is the new 35mm because it’s a little wider. And since almost every smartphone features a 28mm lens, we’re more used to the kind of photos a 28mm lens produces. For this reason, I believe the 35mm has become somewhat marginalized and more of a specialty tool.
Of course, you might have noticed a little bias in this post. But since it’s impossible to be objective about something as vague as an ideal angle of view, a subjective analysis of my own experience is all I have got.
That being said, it’s not all subjective and this is particularly true when it comes to price. So, if you’re still on the fence, it’s much cheaper to begin your experiment with a 50mm lens than a 35mm lens.
What’s your favorite?