Considering buying a prime lens but can’t decide between a 35mm and a 50mm lens?
In deciding which will suit your needs best the “35mm vs 50mm prime lens” conundrum may be the first you encounter on your quest for prime lenses.
Today’s cameras are sold with an array of kit lenses – the standard single kit lens being an 18-55 zoom or a double kit lens which includes a 55mm-250mm range.
Before I go any further let me just say that kit lens are extremely good lenses and the name “kit” seems to conjure up inferiority. This is simply not true as I have taken some award-winning photos with my kit lenses.
The only difference I can find between a kit lens and any other lens is in the build quality. The standard kit lens mount is plastic. For more expensive lenses the mount is metal. This simply means that kit lenses are more easily and cheaply mass-produced – but the glass that is used in the kit lens is the same glass that is used in more expensive lenses.
In the “old film days” the most common size of camera was the 35mm – this size is a reference to the size of the negative used – not the size of the camera body.
You bought a roll of 35mm film (pictured right) and inserted it into the camera.
All the negatives of that roll of film were produced at the same size – IE 24mm x 36 mm.
The standard “kit lens” in those days (IE the lens that came with the camera) is a 50mm – as per the photo centre right.
There were other film sizes such as 126, 4×5 etc and in all cases the film size referred to the size of the negative.
Life was simple until the introduction of digital photography.
The first digital camera’s that were produced came with a 35mm sensor to equate with the film cameras.
But these large sensors proved extremely costly to make and very difficult to sell to consumers as a result.
The solution was to make a smaller sensor – which they called a crop sensor. The original sensor size was referred to as a “full frame” as it duplicated the old 35mm camera film strips in actual size.
Full Frame (FX) Vs Crop Sensor (DX) - WTF?
With the introduction of digital photography film became obsolete (much like the dinosaurs and Kodak!) and was replaced by sensor size.
The sensor is effectively the new “film” as it is the sensor that records and transfers the image onto your memory card.
Nothing too complicated there but …
Then the smaller – more consumer friendly (price wise), cameras were introduced.
Consumers now had the option of a Full Frame (FX) or a Crop Sensor (DX) camera – the latter being a smaller sensor and a smaller body.
Suddenly a 35mm or a 50mm weren’t the same when fitted to different bodies and a whole new learning curve was needed.
The equivalent of a 35mm film camera coupled with a 50mm focal length lens in today’s digital world would be a Full Frame (FX) camera body with a 50 mm lens.
But a 50mm lens on a DX (smaller sensor) body equates to a 75mm to 80mm lens. Enough to confuse almost anybody!
IMPORTANT: It is important to understand that all lens sizes are based on a Full Frame (FX) body but don’t produce the same size image on different sized sensors.
The vast majority of photographers today have cropped-sensor (DX) models. To complicate matters still further cropped-sensor sizes differ slightly from one manufacturer to the next.
Nikon is different to Canon for example. The multiple of one is 1.5 and the other is 1.6.
You probably know all this stuff already but roughly speaking the difference between a crop-sensor (DX) and a full-frame (FX) is a factor of 1.5 times. This means that to get the same result as a 50mm lens on a Full Frame (FX) body you need to attach a 33mm lens on your crop sensor (DX) – 50mm / 1.5 = 33mm but there is no such thing as a 33 mm lens so we simply use a 35mm on a crop sensor (DX) to approximate the old 50mm result.
No? – well it doesn’t really matter
35mm or 50mm? - Use your kit lens to decide ...
Regardless of what size body or sensor you have determining which focal lens suits you best can easily be worked out using our kit lens.
Your 18mm – 55mm kit lens will tell you which focal lens prime will best suit your needs.
You probably aren’t even aware of it but you may have already been photographing at your preferred focal length.
Way back in the “film” days 50mm was determined to be the most appropriate/comfortable/realistic focal distance for everyday photography.
Nothing has changed and I would be surprised if you weren’t falling back into this “default’ setting quite naturally – IE either using a 50mm lens on a full frame (FX) or a 35mm lens on a crop sensor (DX).
It just seems to work that way.
There is one sure way to determine whether you should invest in a 35mm or 50mm prime lens.
Zoom With Your Feet ... naturally
Instead of using the zoom feature on your kit lens learn to zoom with your feet – after all if you had a fixed focal length such as a prime lens you would have to zoom with your feet as mentioned in the video above.
Zooming with your feet means moving closer to or further away from your subject as the situation demands – as opposed to standing in the same spot and zooming in or out.
More importantly it is what you will have to do once you have bought your new 35mm or 50mm prime which won’t have a zoom option.
Here’s what you do to determine the best of the two focal lengths for you.
- Set your lens to 35mm and if possible lock it in.
- Do NOT use any other focal length for a week. Lock it in to 35mm if you can.
- Now take a lot of photos using only this 35mm focal length over the next 7 days
- Photograph your favorite genre more than others. If you prefer landscapes over portraits take predominantly landscape photos and vie versa
- Pay particular attention to how you “feel”. Are you comfortable at this distance?
- After week change the focal length to 50mm and repeat the exercise.
After two weeks you will KNOW if the 35mm or 50mm suits you best it will be the one you are most comfortable with.
You can now go out and buy your first prime with confidence.
I have yet to find a better, more personal way to determine exactly what each individual’s needs are.
35mm or 50mm - Which One Did I Choose?
The 35mm vs 50mm prime lens argument goes on all the time in forums and camera clubs. And of course it doesn’t end with the 35mm and 50mm lenses either.
When reading and listening to these arguments remember two things:
- They relate to other people’s photography and not you or yours
- Some will argue one over the other simply because that’s what they bought – it’s a bit like the Nikon vs Canon argument.
I did this exact exercise and at the end determined that a 35mm was the best fit for my Nikon D7100 (DX) body and my preferred genres.
Let me know how it goes and do tell me what you decided to buy.
Leave a comment below.
Until next time …