Ahhh the 35mm vs 50mm comparison. This is a topic many, many, people have been talking and debating since the dawn of focal lengths. It’s a topic that will continue to be the topic of debate for years to come…
What I'll do for you in this article is to shed some light on the two focal lengths and answer the infamous question, “which is better, the 35mm or 50mm”?
By the end of this article you’ll have a much better understanding about which focal length would be the best for you and your situation. Because let's face it, every situation for every person is different.
Let's dive in.
I thought it would be fitting to include a little explanation of full frame a crop sensors and how these can effect the focal length of your lens.
A full frame sensor just that - full frame. It's a 35mm image sensor format.
This is the format used when 'naming' focal lengths on lenses. Stay with me here, this will make sense in a minute.
A 35mm lens is 35mm on a full frame sensor. The same goes for any other lens, 50mm 85mm, 135mm, and so on.
On the other hand - a crop sensor is different. It's a sensor that's cropped into what would be a full frame sensor. As a result, your focal length isn't what is stated on a full frame lens.
Normally, your typical crop sensor is 1.5x (you'll have to check your camera/manufacturer).
This would mean that a 50mm lens, on a cropped sensor, would be 75mm (50x1.5=75). Your image would then look like it would with a 75mm lens on a full frame camera.
If you wanted a 50mm 'look' on a crop sensor camera - you would want to shoot with a 35mm (35x1.5=52.5). If you want a 35mm look - shoot with a 24mm (24x1.5=36mm). Make sense? Good.
This is very important when shooting on a cropped sensor camera. Take this into consideration if you are.
When discussing 35mm vs 50mm - lets take a step back and look at the common factor of these two lenses and why they're so sought after (compared to other lenses).
The most obvious common factor is that they're both prime lenses.
For those of you who don't know what a prime lens is - it's basically a lens that doesn't zoom in or out. So when you're looking through your viewfinder, the focal length stays at 35mm or 50mm respectively.
Let's touch a little bit on what make a prime lens so great compared to a zoom.
Distortion is something that is present in every lens - no matter the focal length or type.
Prime lenses, on the other hand, natively have noticeably less distortion than zoom lenses. This is due mainly to the fact that prime lenses have less moving parts. Therefore, there is less opportunity for distortion to occur.
This means that prime lenses are a great option if you're looking for an image with little distortion and sharpness in the center of your shots.
By faster - we're talking about aperture - or the 'opening' of the lens (represent by an f/number)
Prime lenses' aperture go much lower than a zoom. Example: 50mm F/1.2 vs a 24-70mm f/2.8 (which is it's lowest aperture).
This equates to more control over depth of field and light.
A shallow depth of field is often desired in portraiture, for example.
This is because it creates a very 'crisp' and clean image with the subject matter being highlighted.
A shallow depth of field can also be used to make a blurry background - great for emphasizing your subject!
You'll be able to take better photographs (or video) in low light situations (indoors or at night) - and you'll get more of the 'bokeh' effect from a prime.
With prime lenses having less moving parts than a zoom - they usually last longer.
With that being said - good lenses (if taken care of) will last years or decades.
But, much like anything in this world - the more moving parts (or 'stuff'), means there are more things that could go wrong or break.
I own more primes than zoom for this very reason. I even wrote an article about the best beach photography lens and dabbled into the fact that sand/grit is an issue with any photoshoot. And that sand/grit can get into the barrel of a zoom and render it useless (and professionally broken down/cleaned).
A prime's durability is something a lot of people don't think about - but it's a huge plus.
This isn't always the case (I'm looking at you Sigma) - but generally speaking, prime lenses are smaller and lighter than a zoom.
Something like the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 is tiny compared to a 24-70mm f/2.8.
Prime lens size makes then great for travel in a camera bag, street photography (being discreet), or any other time you need a small camera footprint.
When comparing a 35mm lens to a 50mm - the focal length difference isn't that much, right? What is it, 15mm? This won't matter much, will it?
Well, the difference may be a lot greater than you may think.
Let's talk about the differences in the focal lengths and how they effect your images.
Imagine this for a minute.
You're standing in a clearing - a beautiful field perhaps. The sun is setting and the sky is transitioning from bright to pink, orange, deep blue then purple... it's beautiful. You're in the last moments of a portrait shoot and want to capture the sun setting along with your subject.
Which lens would you choose?
Well, if you're standing in the exact same spot and nothing changes other than your lens - you will capture more of the surroundings with a 35mm than a 50mm.
If you wanted to fill the frame with exactly what you see with a 35mm, you would have to back up.
But, you see, your subject (the portrait model) - will look smaller in the image than if you took it with the 50mm (standing in the same spot). Your surroundings will also look more 'stretched' with the 35mm as well.
So, there are pros and cons with everything, including focal length. Learning to balance these pros and cons is the art of photography, in my opinion.
This is something, when I first started in my photography journey, that I never really thought about.
Distortion affects literally everything.
The longer your focal length, the less distortion you will have. This goes for architecture, scale, and even peoples faces.
Discussing 35mm vs 50mm lens - a face is going to be more distorted or 'stretched' than a 50mm. This is only exaggerated the closer you are to the subject.
With that being said, there is a distance your subject can be from the camera - that this distortion diminishes (and goes away completely, even). This distance is roughly 10 feet.
Keep this in mind as you move forward in this article.
I don't want to bore you with this section - so I'll keep it super straight forward and easy to understand (trust me, it can get very technical and boring for some).
But, minimum focusing distance is the minimum distance your subject can be from your lens - and the camera is still able to focus.
Have you ever tried to get really close to something with your camera and you it won't focus? To fix this, you normally have to back up and try again.
The distance you find you're finally able to focus, is the minimum focusing distance. This is good to know for those who like to get up close/detailed shots of things.
This distance, believe it or not, is determined by the lens itself and how it was made. Not by the focal length itself. Higher end glass may have a longer focal length than a cheaper wider lens - and be able to focus closer.
Macro lenses are made specifically for shooting up close.
So, to answer this question - neither one is better than the other. The build quality and manufacturer will determine who wins that!
Lets start comparing types of photography. We're going to start with portraits.
When you think of a portrait, what comes to mind? A studio? Maybe something outside - a wedding.. the beach...
Whatever it may be - we're going to discuss portraits as they should be discussed. These are photographs where the subject is the main focus of the image. Where the most important thing is a person and nothing else. Filling the frame with a person is most important in a portrait.
Society, as of late, is using 'portraits' as a blanket term to describe anything that has a person in it. Portraits aren't environmental lifestyle photos of people walking through the woods. We aren't talking about that in this section.
Now, when comparing a 35mm to a 50mm in the sense of real portraits... the 50mm is always going to come out the winner. Plain and simple. Why? Filling the frame with a person on a 35mm would mean you would need to be closer to them than a 50mm. This equates to noticeable distortion differences compared to a 50mm.
This distortion can be unflattering, especially if you attempt this with a wider lens.
You will get a much flattering portrait with a 50mm lens. The 50mm is the clear winner here.
This section is a bit more complicated than the section above.
We aren't necessarily talking about landscapes. We could be capturing the environment with a subject - person, animal, even a vehicle... anything with the environment in it along with a subject.
You would think the 35mm would win this section - and for you, it could!
But, while the 35mm is wider, you may not get the image you desire. Remember, the 35mm will stretch your environment away from you, including your subject.
*50mm on left 35mm on right* (top and bottom, respectively, on mobile).
Then there's compression which makes the foreground and background larger the longer your focal length is. The 50 mm wins in this aspect.
With that being said - the difference in both compression and 'stretch' are minimal in comparison to focal lengths with greater differences (like a 35mm vs 100mm).
The winner of this section is determined by your needs. While 50mm is closer to what the human eye sees, you may want a bit of a stretch to your environment to emphasize something (like a wedding trane, for example).
This is a section I'm going to keep short. I have written an in-depth 50mm landscape photography article that compares most focal lengths (in relation to landscapes) against the 50 mm.
But, generally speaking, you'll apply the same concepts/mind-frame of the previous section, minus an additional subject.
Personally, I cut out anything between 24mm and 50mm in landscape photography. I would either want wide or 'normal' focal lengths when shooting a landscape - and 35 mm doesn't offer enough 'change' between the two.
Now, if all you have is a 35 or 50 mm lens, I would probably choose the 35mm for the extra width. But if I had a 24, 35, or 50 - I would throw out the 35 and go with the other two.
Again, this is personal preference... I love the look of 50mm landscapes, that's why I wrote an article about it. If you haven't tried 50mm landscape photography before I insist, you need to try it.
When comparing a 50mm prime lens to a 35mm prime lens, for video.. there's even a bigger debate.
That's what I'm doing here, opening up this article for debate. I have used both lenses extensively for video, and have my own opinions on what's better...
But, everyone's needs are different. Not only that, but your environment/surroundings determine a lot on what lens you'll be using. As we all know, this changes a lot more in video than it does in photography.
I'll say this, I've used my 35mm far more in video than my 50mm. Seeing as I take travel style videos for the most part, the 35 mm has helped me more than a 50 mm would have. This will probably be different for someone shooting interviews or product videos...
Again, this all depends on your needs. Checkout the video below for more info on video.
Both lenses have their purpose - and while they have a slight difference in focal length, I'm sure you can see how different they actually are!
As far as which one is better - that depends on you.
I know of people who shoot nothing but 35mm portraits (with subject a significant distance away from the camera). Then there's me... I don't shoot a single portrait with a 35mm, in a studio or not. I prefer an 85 or 135mm - and use my 50mm for travel or street photography.
It all depends heavily on you, your needs, and your style. You're ultimately the one to say which is better.
Photography/videography is art. I don't care what anyone else says or feels about it. Art is subjective and expressive. Use whatever tool works best to get your message across in an understanding and meaningful way!
I hope I have helped end the 35mm vs 50mm debate for you. If not, checkout the video below, it may help tip the scale one way or the other.
You can learn more about us and what makes us tick and why we're so passionate about photography!
Until next time, be safe, and keep creating!
Jeff & Reyna