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Everything You Need to Know About Using a Standard Lens

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There are many different types of lenses available for your camera system. A standard lens fits nicely between the wide-angle varieties and the telephoto range.

You will soon notice all the benefits that come with using standard lens focal lengths.

This article will give you all the reasons why a standard lens should be part of your kit.

A statue of the virgin Mary in an alcohol shop window, shot using a standard lens
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What Is a Standard Lens?

A standard lens is what we call an ‘inbetweener’. These type of lenses sit in-between wide-angle lenses (< 35 mm equivalent) and telephoto lenses (>70 mm equivalent).

Some people refer to a standard lens as a ‘normal’ lens, and there is a reason why they do.

Standard lenses offer a similar field of view to the active area of the human eye. This is around 58°, about 1/6th of a 360 view. This means the scenes that you capture with a standard lens feels normal to the viewer.

These lenses make great all-purpose lenses. They can be used to photograph anything, from portraits to landscape, street photography and product photography.

‘Nifty Fifty‘ lenses fall into this category. Like other prime lenses, they tend to be fast. Because of the wider apertures, in-door and low light situations are where these lenses shine.

Focal Length

Most sources define a ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ focal length as one that matches the diagonal of the sensor it’s used on.

Full-frame (24mm x 36mm) sensors have a diagonal of 43mm. So the ‘most standard’ lens would be a 43mm lens for them.

Traditionally, the most popular standard lenses were slightly longer, between 50mm and 60mm. They were often bundled with film cameras as a small and cheap lens option.

Some of these vintage kit lenses are very popular today, as they can easily be adapted to mirrorless cameras.

Today, most companies do sell lenses closer to 43 mm, such as the Canon 40mm f/2.8, the Tamron 45mm f/1.8 VC or the  Pentax SMCP-FA 43mm f/1.9.

If you’re not shooting on full-frame, one thing to take into account is the crop of your camera.

An outdoor model of a male model in a straw hat, shot using a standard lens

Crop Factor

The ideal focal length depends entirely on the sensor size of your camera.

Cameras that are smaller than full-frame will need lenses with shorter focal lengths.

Canon has a crop factor of 1.6x on its APS-C cameras. This means that if you want an equivalent 50mm focal length, you will need a (50 mm / 1.6x) 31.25 mm lens.

For Nikon and other camera manufacturers who use 1.5x, a 33mm lens is ‘the perfect standard’.

So, for APS-C cameras the most popular standard prime lenses are the 28mm and 35mm. Most manufacturers create lenses at those focal lengths for specifically crop cameras.

Nikon makes a 35mm f/1.8 DX lens. Fujifilm makes a fantastic 27mm f/2.8 lens for mirrorless X-series cameras. The Canon EF 35mm f/2 is another great example, although it covers full-frame sensors too.

To learn more about equivalency, please read our What Is Equivalence in Photography? article. 

Zoom Vs. Prime

You can choose between standard and prime and zoom lenses. The general differences between primes and zooms are true in this case, too.

Prime lenses have a fixed focal length. They are generally more compact, brighter and sharper than zooms. Most of the time they are cheaper, too. 

Lenses such as the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 have been around for multiple decades.

If you want a closer frame, you need to physically move closer to your subject.

This might deter some photographers, who would prefer the versatility of a zoom lens.

Standard zoom lenses cover a range of ~28mm to ~70mm (equivalent). Most manufacturers offer a 24-70mm f/2.8 as their flagship zoom. There are f/4 iterations, which extend a bit further. These include the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 or the Canon 24-105mm f/4L II.

Smaller sensors accommodate shorter standard zooms. The most popular range is 18-55mm. This is what kit lenses generally cover. There are f/2.8 options too, such as the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS or the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC. Sigma offers a unique, 18-35mm f/1.8 lens for APS-C cameras.

Zooms don’t offer quite the same image quality and brightness that primes do. Exceptions, of course, exist. The aforementioned Sigma lens is a great example.

However, they are undoubtedly more versatile. This makes them ideal for situations that don’t offer much flexibility but demand quick operation. Travel or photojournalism are such areas.

What Do We Use a Standard Lens For?

The standard lens was made famous by Ansel Adams, one of the most world’s famous landscape photographers.

If you aim to capture sweeping hills and scenes of nature, then you can also make it work for landscape photography.

Street photography is a great field to use standard lenses. The 28 mm focal length offers a wider shot of the subject in their environment.

The 50 mm focal length means you can get a closer frame of a subject, without getting ‘too close’.

The most common use of this lens is for portrait photography. Here, the lack of distortion keeps the image realistic. The wider and faster aperture allows you to capture situations in low light conditions.

This allows them to shine at indoor events such as concert photography. With the 28, 35 or 50 mm, you can still capture details in a brilliant way. Not only do you have the possibility of a shallow depth of field, but you also have the advantage of a relatively small and light lens.

Surely, we don’t need to tell you every benefit of a ‘nifty fifty‘.

A street photography shot of a tram running between buildings on a clear day, shot using a standard lens

Conclusion

No matter what you photograph, a standard lens is a must-have in your kit.

They are versatile, and there are a ton of options to choose from.

You can decide completely based on your preferences. Want the smallest lens for street photography? Choose a pancake lens. Want an inexpensive, fast standard prime? Your choice is a 35mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.8! Looking for a versatile, fast zoom lens? Pick a 17-50mm or 24-70mm f/2.8!

You have basically unlimited options.

 

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