The two lenses that I see people deliberating over a lot is the 35mm vs 50mm prime lenses, so if you are currently having an internal debate between these two, and wondering whether the 35mm or 50mm would suit you best, read on…
What does the 35mm and 50mm refer to?
Let’s start right back at the beginning for any newer photographers reading this.
The 35mm and 50mm refer to the focal length of the lens.
In technical terms, the focal length of the lens is the distance between the lens and the image it forms on the sensor when focused at infinity....
...or in more helpful real world terms, the focal lengths determines whether we can fit more or less in the frame. In other words, how “zoomed in” or “zoomed out” the image you see in the viewfinder appears.
Longer focal lengths look more zoomed in (i.e your subject takes up more of the frame) and shorter focal lengths look less zoomed in (i.e your subject appears smaller in the frame)
Here’s a helpful rule of thumb: if you have a full frame camera, then the 50mm focal length will give you a field of view roughly similar to the naked eye. (It’s not exact, but it’s close enough to give you an idea!)
The 35mm on the other hand, will allow you to fit more into the frame, in other words, everything will look a bit more zoomed out, and you will see more of the environment on either side of the subject.
Here’s a focal length comparison of the 35mm and 50mm side by side...
And a comparison where you can see the two lenses in action, but this time framing the subject in the same way.
What if I have a crop frame camera?
When comparing the different focal lengths you MUST take into account whether you are using a crop frame or full frame camera.
If you have a cropped frame camera, then it is actually the 35mm that will give you the field of view that is roughly what you see with the naked eye.
And the 50mm will give you a field of view that looks more zoomed in - in other words, your subject will take up more room in the frame.
How did I figure that out? Because when using a crop frame camera, you multiply the actual focal length of the lens by either 1.5 or 1.6 (depending on the camera manufacturer) to tell you how that focal length is going to perform on your camera.
If you need more information about this, and how to work out your crop factor, head on over to this blog post “What do the numbers of my lens mean?” to get the full scoop.
Pros & Cons of the 35mm Lens
Let’s turn our attention squarely onto the 35mm, and look at the advantages and disadvantage of this focal length.
If you have a full frame camera, then as I said above, a 35mm is going to allow you to fit more in the frame than you can see with the naked eye.
That means it is great for situations where you want to include more of the environment in the frame, or you need to be close to the action.
Here are some examples of when I would use a 35mm on a full frame camera:
Shooting indoors and I wanted to include some of the environment
Shooting outdoors and I wanted to include some of the environment (for example, shooting at the beach, or climbing a mountain, or even in the park)
Street photography, or just as a general walk around lens
Group or family shots, where I have more than one person to get in the frame
When I wanted to remain super close to my subject (i.e I was on my own with a toddler who I didn’t want to let get too far away from me)
Here are some examples when I would NOT use a 35mm for:
Individual portrait close ups (the wide angle will give distortion to the face)
When I wanted good background blur due to lens compression (a longer length lens is better)
Let me give you some examples of images taken with 35mm lens...
Pros and Cons of the 50mm Lens
Let’s move on now to the 50mm lens - again, I’m talking about how this works on a full frame camera, so do bear that in mind if you use a crop frame.
Remember, the 50mm will give you roughly the same view as the naked eye - it’s not exact, but close enough for a reference! This lens isn’t considered wide angle, or even telephoto - just a “normal” focal length, and as such, is endlessly versatile.
Here is when I would use this lens:
Outdoors when I wanted a mix of environmental and portrait style images
Indoors if there was enough space to back up in the room a little bit
If I wanted to remain relatively close to to my subject
As an all purpose walk around / street lens
If I wanted to pack just ONE lens that was a good all rounder.
When would I NOT use the 50mm?
When I want to include more of the environment (wide angle is better)
When I am in a tight space, such as small church, or in my bathroom or small bedroom
When I want good lens compression (i.e I want lots of background blur)
For pure portrait style images
Although the 50mm is a fantastic all purpose lens, it just sometimes lacks the “oomph” of other lenses. For example, if I want that wide angle feel, then the 50mm doesn’t cut it. If I want a beautiful portrait, I’m more likely to reach for my 85mm or even 135mm, because they slim the face slightly and are more flattering, and they give better background blur.
So the 50mm is a camera bag staple, and it’s a workhorse (especially if you only have one lens)...but there are other lenses that may do certain jobs better.
Again, a few 50mm examples for ya…
If you do already have the 50mm, and don't feel like you are getting the best images from it, then you might also want to cast your little eye over this post, with 8 tips for using the Canon 50mm F1.8 Lens (helpful even if you have the Nikon versions!)
And the 35mm vs 50mm for the crop frame camera users…
No, I hadn’t forgotten about you!
If you are a crop frame user, then things are slightly different, due to that pesky crop factor.
For you, the 35mm is going to act more like a 50mm on your camera, which means that you can read the description above for the 50mm lens, and it will apply to you.
However, if you wanted a lens that acted more like the description above for the 35mm on a full frame, then take a look at the 24mm or possibly even the 28mm focal lengths.
If you went for the 50mm, and put that lens onto a crop frame camera, it is going to act more like an 80mm lens. This means it falls into the telephoto category, and as such it would be absolutely wonderful for portraits, but less useful as a walkaround lens, or times when you wanted to shoot indoors, or when you wanted to capture a bit more of the environment.
You might want to grab a copy of my “Which Lens Quick Guide” that is helpful for seeing all the different focal lengths and what they might be useful for. (And did I mention it's free?!) You can grab your copy to download here...
Here’s what to do now:
Chances are you still might be a little undecided between the 35mm and 50mm, so here is a couple of things you can do to help you make a decision.
If you are upgrading from a kit lens, then there is a way to help you determine which focal length is going to suit you better!
Move your zoom ring until you get to the 35mm focal length, and then leave it there for a week - no matter how tempted you are to move it (you can even place a piece of tape to lock the zoom ring into position if you want) . Then do exactly the same at the 50mm focal length. This will give you a great idea of which of the two lengths you find yourself happiest with.
If you don’t currently have a kit lens, you can of course rent lenses from a number of different places - usually even renting it for a couple of days can be enough to see whether you are in love with that focal length before you commit.
There is no victory lap for either lens in the 35mm vs 50mm contest - it really does depend on the type of photography you do, and which you feel would give you the most use.
If you were to force me to make a decision for you, here it is…
If you have a full frame camera, and you only want to have ONE lens right now - and you want to shoot portraits, shoot outdoors and indoors, take a lens for a walkabout etc - then the 50mm might be your best option. It’s such a great all rounder because it is neither telephoto or wide angle, so it can be used in a variety of situations.
HOWEVER, if shoot a lot indoors, or like more of a lifestyle feel, and you don't really shoot portraits, the 35mm might just be the best lens for you.
If you have a crop frame camera, once we take that crop factor into consideration, it would mean that perhaps the 35mm is best for you, as it will give you the same versatility as a 50mm - again, unless you know that you want something wider, which case look at a 24 or 28mm instead.
My personal favourite combo is having the 35mm and 85mm lenses on my full frame camera - I find having two covers me better than having just one 50mm lens, so might be something to consider if you have funds to buy two lenses instead of one.
(In fact, if you want to see a 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and a 135mm in action, check out this post about “What’s inside my camera bag?”which gives example images from them all these focal lengths, and you could also cast your eye over this post which gives you a full focal length comparison)
Now I’d love to hear from you!
If you DON’T have either of these lenses, which one do you think would suit you best? And if you already have one of these focal lengths, which one do you love the most and why?
Sharing your insight and inspiration might just help someone else find their own perspective on which lens is best for them, so don’t hold back :) Plus I always love to hear from you!
As always, if you enjoyed this post, or think that others may benefit from it, please share! Either pin to your Pinterest boards, or share on Facebook or Twitter.