There is a reason why a prime lens is called so. It’s the most important pieces of your photography kit, the chief of the lens world and should be part of your everyday kit.
If you don’t know why 35mm vs 50mm is important, then this article is for you. We will look at what makes a prime lens, what the differences are between a 35mm vs 50mm lens, and why you need at least one of them.
If you do own a prime lens, then you know how amazing they are. Maybe you are looking at extending your kit into bringing one (or both) of these standard formats into the fold.
[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here. — Ed.]
What Is a Prime Lens
When we talk about lenses, we look at two things. The focal length of the lens, measured in mm, and the aperture, measured in f/stops. A typical prime lens will look something like this Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM.
This says its focal length is 85 mm and its fastest aperture is f/1.8. We also use words such as prime, standard, telephoto and zoom to describe our lenses. Let’s look at what they mean.
- Macro Lens. 28 mm – 200 mm lenses used for getting very close to a subject. Best used for photographing bugs.
- Fisheye Lens. 6 mm – 16 mm lenses with a very wide angle of perspective. Best for creative purposes.
- Wide Angle Lens. 14 mm – 35 mm lenses with a wide angle of perspective. Best for interior or landscape images.
- Standard Lens. 43 mm – 50 mm lenses with minimal distortion. Best for portrait photography.
- Telephoto Lens. 70 mm – 400 mm lenses with a far-reaching focal length. Best for wildlife or astrophotography.
As you can see, we missed out zoom lenses and prime lenses. This is because all of the above lenses come in two forms, either as a zoom or a prime version.
A zoom lets you use a variable focal length. The Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L is a zoom lens as it lets you work at a focal length of 70 mm, 300 mm and anywhere in between.
A prime lens has a fixed focal length. The Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 is a prime lens as it will only work from a focal length of 24 mm.
Pros and Cons
There are benefits and downsides to owning zoom and prime lenses. It all comes down to what you are photographing. For more information on the types of lenses that are available, read our article here.
Prime lenses tend to be heavier, faster, sharper with a higher level of resolution. They are the perfect partner for low-light conditions and a shallow depth of field due to their fast apertures. Prime lenses can reach f/1.4 and even f/1.2 in some cases.
They also cost more money than their zoom siblings and aren’t as versatile. They ensure you have to zoom with your feet, keeping you active, but this isn’t always practical.
With zoom lenses you can quickly change from a wide angle to a telephoto lens with just a flick of the wrist.
35mm Prime Lens
A 35mm prime lens has a focal length of 35 mm, which gives you a field of view of 54.4 degrees. This is a great travel companion, as you get to see more of the scene. It is the closest to owning a wide angle lens, without having that distortion.
Having a wider field of view allows you to get closer to your subject, without having to sit on them. It also allows you to keep a somewhat safe distance, allowing candid moments to happen, and subsequently captured.
This lens is great in tight spots, as the wide angle will capture those details just to the side of the main focal area.
In terms of composition, the 35 mm lens is the closest to the focal component of the human eye. We are immediately used to it as we effectively use a 35 mm every day, all day.
This lens is versatile, letting you capture close-ups and landscapes with no problem at all. It lets you be part of the scene and interact more with your subject.
The 35 mm isn’t as flattering as the 50 mm in showing people as they really are. The distortion is a little bit more aggressive.
The best 35 mm lens in our opinion is the Voigtlander Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95 Manual Focus Lens. It has the fastest aperture I have seen on a lens, meaning it is great for very low light conditions.
Also, it gives you more play in keeping your ISO low. A lens which is specifically for a four-thirds camera, turning the 17.5 mm focal length into a 35 mm beauty.
50 mm Prime Lens
The ‘nifty-fifty’50 mm prime lens has a field of view of 39.6 degrees. It is the standard of all lenses and has been for some time. It is the lens I would recommend to a photographer after getting used to their 18-55 mm kit lens.
The Canon f/1.8 is one of the cheapest great lenses around, especially for the speed. This lens gives you a better depth of field than the 35 mm. This means better background blur.
Just like the 35mm prime lens, it requires that you get close to your subject. The 50 mm lets you stand a little further back, but not by any substantial amount.
Photographing from up close is personal, initiating a different relationship with the subject. Even better that you don’t need to yell instructions.
The best 50 mm lens in our opinion is the Panasonic Leica 25 mm f/1.4 summilux. It is a four-thirds lens, meaning the 25 mm becomes a 50 mm on a full frame camera. The f/1.4 is great in low light conditions, and it’s Leica made, oozing with quality.
Street photography is where I take most of my photographs, so it goes without saying, it is where I use my 35mm and 50mm lenses the most. No, you may feel that there isn’t much between the lenses. 15 mm of focal length, to be exact, and you’d be right.
But that little difference makes a mountain out of a molehill. The distortion affects your subject, which gets worse the closer you get to your subject. This is just in case you thought stepping closer to your subject would turn your 50 mm into a 35 mm perspective.
There is no winner between these two lenses, as they both have pros and cons. They work differently for each scenario you put them in to. I would start with the 50 mm on a shoot, switching to the 35 mm if I need a wider angle. This is even truer if my position is a little cramped.
If you find the 50 mm isn’t getting you close enough to the action, then try the 3rd choice – the 85 mm prime. This is great in low light conditions, and its focus is very sharp.
I use mine for live music portraiture as it gives me the tight crop where the light is less than adequate.
The other consideration is if your camera is full frame or crop. A cropped sensor will add 1.6x to your lens’ focal length. Suddenly, that 35 mm lens is now closer to 60 mm, and the 50 mm becomes an 80 mm.
This could drastically change your image, especially if you are used to a full frame rather than cropped.
I own all three because, at some point or another, they were needed. I like having the choice. And with the Canon 50 mm f/1.4, it costs less than $150. It was the second lens I bought.
All three lenses are different sizes, making some of them better for candid shots in the street, as their size is smaller and less conspicuous.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
Thank you for reading...
if you want to capture breathtaking images, without the frustration of a complicated camera.
It's my training video that will walk you how to use your camera's functions in just 10 minutes - for free!
I also offer video courses and ebooks covering the following subjects:
You could be just a few days away from finally understanding how to use your camera to take great photos!
Thanks again for reading our articles!