35mm vs 50mm

NERD ALERT

This blog post is going to be totally related to photography gear… lenses to be exact. So be warned, unless you’re a fellow photographer or just really interested in photography-related topics, everything I’m about to write will probably put you to sleep. Seriously.

Okay, if you’re still reading this then I’ll assume you know all about one of the great photography lens debates, “35mm vs. 50mm”. They’re probably the two most common primes in the “standard” range. If you take a look into the bag of anybody who photographs people on a regular basis, you’re almost guaranteed to find one, or even both those lenses.   

Of course if you’re trying to decide between the two lenses it can be a difficult process. They’re close enough in perspective that they can be used in similar ways but they’re different enough that your results can vary greatly.

So how do you decide?

Listening to the experiences of other photographers is a good place to start and that’s basically why I’ve decided to write this post. I’ve owned and used both focal lengths pretty extensively and recently went through a two year ordeal trying to decide between the two lenses.

To make a long story short, 50mm on a full frame camera (or 28mm on a crop) was the focal length I felt most comfortable shooting in. I owned a 50/1.8 when I was first starting out and then eventually got a Canon 50/1.4 which I adored. When I only shot portraits, families, and street photography that lens suited me just fine. But once we started shooting weddings I knew I should probably upgrade… Not because the 50/1.4 wasn’t a great lens (it’s a spectacular lens actually) it’s just that I tend to be a little rough on my gear and I wanted to get something that could withstand living with me through the long wedding season.

At the time I was shooting with a split kit… I had a full frame and a crop frame camera and so I figured the Canon 35/1.4L would be a perfect match. It was far more durable than the 50/1.4 and it would give me the wider 35mm perspective on the full frame and the traditional 50mm look I loved on the crop camera.

As our wedding work increased I ended up ditching the crop camera body and only shooting full frame.  I decided to just live without a 50mm and embrace the world of 35mm. I shot with it and shot with it and shot with it. I would force myself to leave it on my camera for any personal shots I took. I eventually learned the quirks of that focal length but I always missed 50mm. I would take a good shot with the 35 and think, “yeah, but if I had shot that with a 50…”

So finally, after two years of shooting with the 35L I decided to admit defeat. I ended up trading my 35L for a 50L and it feels like I’ve gotten back into my comfort zone. Instead of thinking about how to work around the 35mm quirks I can just think about my shot.

Now of course I keep mentioning the 35mm quirks but I haven’t gone into any explanation of what those quirks are. My main issue is that for me the focal length feels like no-man’s land. It’s slightly wide, but if try to put your subject(s) in a scene that calls for wide angle, 35mm isn’t quite wide enough to give it that dramatic look. 

 

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I liked that angle of pic above (please ignore that the subjects are under exposed) but I felt it really called for something wider and more dramatic than 35mm. I would have been better off using something at 24mm.

On the other end of the spectrum, it’s not really a lens you necessarily want to get in tight with on people either unless you’re intentionally going for that slightly distorted look. You have to be careful to keep your subjects away from the edges of the frame. 

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Here I tried to fill the frame with my subjects as they shared an intimate moment. The lighting and mood were perfect but notice how exaggerated the male subject’s shoulder is? I knew that distortion would be there as I took that shot so I made sure to take a step back and get another shot which more suits the 35mm.

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While I was really happy with that second shot, I much preferred the expressions on that first shot which is of course obscured by the shoulder distortion. Had I been shooting with a 50mm in that instance it would have worked much better. They’re still both good shots and as you can see the color, contrast, and tones of the 35L are fantastic. The issue isn't necessarily the lens but the way it didn't quite fit how I wanted to use it.

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Here above is the 3rd issue I always had trouble adjusting to with the 35mm lens. Bokeh. Because it’s a wider focal length and because I couldn’t always step in as close as I wanted without distortion becoming an issue, I just couldn’t quite get the backgrounds to melt away the way I could with a 50mm. I shot the picture above at f/2.2 since I wanted to make sure they were both in focus. As you can see, there is a decent amount of separation between the background and subjects but not as much as I would have liked. Shooting at f/2.2 on a 50mm lens would have blurred out those pesky trees much more, leaving less distraction for the viewer. I also could have taken a step forward without worrying that the distortion would have become overwhelming. You can fill the frame with your subjects on a 50mm and while there may be some distortion, it won’t overpower the shot (unless you’re trying to shoot a headshot of course).

And those are essentially the quirks of the 35mm. It can be a great focal length for photojournalism or environmental portraits where you want to capture your subject interacting within a scene without getting too wide but I just didn’t find myself with that need often enough to justify keeping the lens. If I want to go wide, I want to shoot at 28, 24, or 20mm. And if I want to get in close I want to shoot at 50, 85, or 100mm.

Anyway, I thought I’d close this out by showing some of my favorite shots I’ve taken at 50mm. As you can see, it’s a great length for shooting at a shallow DOF to melt away any disturbing background elements. You can still get wide enough to include your subject’s environment but if you want to get in close you don’t have to worry much about any unflattering distortion to your subjects. 

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If you have a similar style and taste in your photography as I do, the 50mm will most likely fit you more than the 35mm will. But don't just take my word for it, check out what other people have to say. If you have any friends with those lenses, try them out, or even rent them to decide for yourself. 

And check out these two videos that cover all the positive features of each focal length: