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When it comes to choosing a lens for your camera, there are many factors that you have to take into consideration.
The focal length is one of the most important ones, and yet, most people don’t know what it means or how to choose between 35mm and 50mm lenses.
In this article, I will explain all about these two focal lengths so that you can make an educated choice when buying your next lens. Finally, we'll put an end to the 35mm vs 50mm focal length battle, once and for all.
I thought it would be fitting to include a little explanation of full-frame crop sensors and how they can affect your lens's focal length.
A full-frame sensor is just that - a 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.
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.
Prime Lens... The Common Factor
When discussing 35mm vs 50mm - let's 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.
Those of you who don't know what a prime lens is are 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 makes a prime lens so great compared to a zoom.
Prime Lenses Have Less Distortion
Distortion 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 fewer 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.
Prime Lenses Are Faster
By faster - we're talking about aperture - or the 'opening' of the lens (represent by a f/number)
Prime lenses' aperture goes much lower than a zoom. Example: 50mm F/1.2 vs. a 24-70mm f/2.8 (which is its 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 highlighting the subject matter.
A shallow depth of field can also 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 fewer 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 more things 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 that sand/grit is an issue with any photoshoot. And that sand/grit can get into the barrel of zoom and render it useless (and professionally broken down/cleaned).
A prime's durability is something many people don't think about - but it's a huge plus.
Primes Are Lighter/Smaller
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 them great for travel in a camera bag, street photography (being discreet), or any other time you need a small camera footprint.
Advantages of using a 35mm lens vs a 50mm lens
A classic walkaround lens, the 35mm prime can be used for a variety of different shooting situations.
When choosing between the 35mm and 50mm lenses, here are some advantages of the 35mm lens:
Wider Field Of View
A 50mm prime lens will provide you with a field of view of about 40 degrees, whereas the 35mm prime lens provides you with a field of 54.4 degrees — considerably wider.
You'll be able to fit more of the world into a single image, which makes it a good choice for landscape, architecture, travel photography, and groups of people.
A wide-angle lens will be more useful when shooting in tight spaces, especially indoor environments where you may not be able to move backward in order to get more into your frame.
If you're photographing small, unpredictable, fast-moving subjects, the 35mm lens will probably be a better choice than the 50mm one. When taking pictures of children, we usually keep quite close to them and use a wide-angle lens so that we get a good shot of them.
This focal length is ideal for group shots and for shooting environmental portraits — that is, photographs of people where you'd like to show them in a context that reveals something about who they are.
If you're on vacation and want to capture the entire view from a mountain top, a 50mm lens may feel a bit claustrophobic. Wide-angle lenses are best for capturing large landscapes. A 35mm lens is a better choice than a 50mm lens.
Greater Depth Of Field
The wider the lens is, the greater the depth-of-field, and the more of the image will be in focus.
Because of this, the 35mm lens offers you a greater chance of getting a sharp photo when photographing fast-moving subjects or unpredictable ones. If you're planning on being close to your subjects, it's just going to give you far better shots.
It makes the 35mm lens an excellent choice for candid moments, like street photography or capturing children playing.
It's also good for capturing everyday moments, giving you a versatile camera experience where you just want a quick snapshot and don't care so much about whether your shot will be in focus.
Doesn't Distort Too Much
There are wider angle prime lenses than the 35mm, and you'll find plenty of different options.
However, one of its advantages is that they have a more natural feel to them because they don't distort the image too much. Because of this, people's limbs won’t get stretched unnaturally if their limbs stray too close to the edges of the frame.
It’s one reason why some photographers consider 35mm to be close to their own vision — but others will argue the same thing for the 50mm focal length.
Because of this, 35mm is used extensively by photojournalists and street photographers.
Being wide might make your photo look cluttered, but if you decide to crop some of the distracting elements out later, you can easily do so.
One advantage of using a wide-angle lens is that you may not be able to enlarge the subject without actually getting closer, but you will always be able to crop your image later and enlarge it to fit more of the frame.
Advantages Of A 50mm Lens
If you want to be able to take better pictures, you can increase your involvement with how you create your photos by using a 50mm lens.
Bring your subject closer
With its 50mm focal length, the ‘niftity fifty' brings life that tiny bit closer by bringing your subject closer to you.
50mm gives you a narrower frame to eliminate clutter and focus more on your subject
How we see the world
For many, 50 mm relates very closely with how they perceive the world, both in their ability to filter out what’s in their peripheral vision and in how they understand perspective.
With wide-angle lenses, you may distort people's features and make elements at the edges of the frame look bigger than they actually are.
The 50mm lens makes it easier to take portraits without having to worry about making arms look too long or noses too pointy, but it won't let you get any closer than waist length. If you want to get closer, use an 85mm lens.
Isolate your subject
A wide-angle lens will usually capture everything in the frame and keep it all relatively well-focused, but a 50mm lens shooting wide open will separate your subject from its background, creating a beautiful effect.
This is perfect for portrait photography because it means that the subject can be isolated from the rest of the scene, which leads the viewer's eyes to the main point of interest in the photo.
This tutorial also gives your images a softer, more cinematic look. It creates soft, out-of-focus areas that feel like they were straight off the silver screen!
On top of that too, a wide aperture helps when shooting in low light conditions.
More control, greater creativity
A lens that offers greater magnification means that you're less involved with the creative process, which is why you need to be careful when choosing one.
You're focusing on what's important by excluding what isn't, making more decisions about which parts of the image will be included, and also having much more control over which parts of the image are in focus.
While 35mm prime lenses are for reacting, 50 mm prime lenses are for crafting.
Lets Start Comparing: Real World Examples
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 affect your images.
Filling The Frame
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 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.
Distortion Affects Everything
When I first started my photography journey, this is something 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 people's faces.
Discussing 35mm vs 50mm lens - a face will be more distorted or 'stretched' on a 35mm 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.
What About Minimum Focusing Distance? Is A 35 MM Better Or A 50mm?
I don't want to bore you with this section - so I'll keep it super straightforward 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 noticed it wouldn'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!
35mm Vs 50mm Lens Comparison: Portraits
Let's 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 will always come out the winner. Plain and simple. Why? Filling the frame with a person on a 35mm would mean you 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. So the 50mm is the clear winner here.
35mm Vs 50mm Lens Comparison: Environmental Photography
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.
Then there's compression which makes the foreground and background larger the longer your focal length is. Again, the 50 mm wins in this aspect.
With that being said - the difference in compression and 'stretch' is minimal compared to focal lengths with greater differences (like 35mm vs 100mm).
Your needs determine the winner of this section. 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 train, for example).
35mm Vs 50mm Lens Comparison: Landscapes
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 (concerning 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.
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.
35mm Vs 50mm Lens Comparison: Video
When comparing a 50mm prime lens to a 35mm prime lens, there's even a bigger debate for video.
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 a video than it does in photography.
I'll say this, I've used my 35mm far more in a 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.
Let's Tie It All Together!
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 the 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!
That's About It!
To conclude, the best way to choose a focal length is by understanding what you want the lens for. If you are shooting portraits, then it might be worth considering investing in a 50mm because of its ability to create that beautiful shallow depth-of-field effect. On the other hand, if you're looking for something more versatile and have no idea which focal length will suit your needs - start with 35mm. This should cover most bases without breaking the bank!
We hope you have learned a thing or two by reading this article. Be sure to check out other camera gear articles we've published - check them out here.
Until next time, be safe and keep creating!
Is 35mm or 50mm better?
This answer depends entirely on your needs. Want a 'look' that is closer to what your eyes see? Go with a 50mm. Want to capture more of your surroundings while not seeming too wide? Go with a 35mm. A 50mm has a very natural look to it's images, while a 35mm looks slightly stretched, but captures more than a 50mm would.
Is 35mm or 50mm better for video?
This depends entirely on your needs. You will capture more of your surrounding with a 35mm than a 50mm. Benefits to video: you'll notice less camera sway and "shakey" unstable footage from a 35mm than a 50mm. A gimbal is recommended for foal lengths at or above 50mm (or a glidecam).
Is 35mm wider than 50mm?
Yes. A 35mm is 15mm wider than a 50mm. This means you'll capture more of what's around you than you would with a 50mm. 50mm is a narrower focal length than 35mm.
Is 35mm or 50mm better for portraits?
Depends on the 'style' of portrait. A typical studio portrait or headshot is best with a 50mm. If your style of portraits is more 'stretched' or exaggerated - then a 35mm would be better for you. You'll answer this question yourself as you go through the process of finding your own unique look/style.