35mm vs 50mm vs 85mm Lens | Buying Your First Prime Lens
Updated: Jan 12
When you first start your photography journey you're likely to have a kit lens with a zoom range of 18-55mm for a crop sensor body. That's the full frame equivalent of 27-82 depending on your camera system of choice. Most APSC cameras have a 1.5x crop (Sony and Fuji) while Canon has a 1.6 crop. Also keep in mind that Micro Four Thirds has a 2x crop if you're going that route. Either way we're talking equivalent fields of view.
The Kits Lens
As we discussed, the kits lens is a zoom lens which provides an incredibly range to work with. Although the quality may be questionable and the aperture may be darker than ideal you get to learn all the most important focal lengths in one lens. Learning your ideal focal length usage will allow you to choose your ideal prime lens to take your photography to the next level.
Kit lenses of the past were very cheap and plasticky. However, the most recent crop of kits zooms are quite good and a great place to start for a beginner photographer. Fuji's 18-55 f2.8-4 is a great example of what a kit lens should be.
The Prime lens
The prime lens is the opposite of a zoom. Its a fixed focal length that typically has a much faster maximum aperture than the kits lens. A good starting point is F2 or faster. Prime lenses come in autofocus and manual types which are often times cheaper. Canon's famous 50mm f1.8 aka nifty fifty is typical of a lot of other camera manufacturers. Its usually the first prime to get since its a neutral focal length.
The 35mm focal length is arguably one of the most versatile of them all. It's wide enough to be useful as a general purpose but has enough emphasis to be decent for environmental portraits especially if you have a fast aperture (i.e. F2 or better). Its the right focal length to have for many situations such as events and travel. And if you pair it with another prime such as 50mm or 85mm you have a versatile lens kit. I personally prefer the 35mm as an alternative to the fast standard zoom of 24-70mm as it usually much cheaper and lighter. Some even call the 35mm a standard prime but that can also be said for the 50mm prime.
Arguably the most popular and least inexpensive focal length for lens manufacturers to produce is the 50mm. It's considered a normal lens and has the field of view the eye sees. This focal length is right in the middle to get the perspective around you while also having a good level of emphasis for a good portrait. Most will be choosing a 35mm vs 50mm for most things such as street photography, events, and some portrait work.
50mm is what most will choose as the first lens due to the price vs performance. I prefer to use the 50mm for my 2nd walk around lens to help have a different perspective in my photography. This focal length doesn't distort the facial features the way a wider angle lens would potentially.
If you've decided that portrait work or telephoto focal lengths are your most used than an 85mm lens is the most popular. Some would say 135mm is great for portraits but I find that you will be quite far away from your subject. Telephoto lenses provide an opportunity to compress your backgrounds and put an emphasis on your subject even more. The advantage of these lenses is that they don't distort your images they way wider angle lenses can. Distortion is when the edges of the images are stretched.
35mm vs 50mm | Which One is Better?
There is a plenty of opinion out there when it comes to whether a 35mm or 50mm lens should be your first choice. They are both great focal lengths since they both can be considered standard prime lenses. However, they are different and you should consider what your immediate needs or intent is with your chosen prime.
Why I chose the 35mm as my 1st prime lens
35mm for Professional Work
I use my 35mm lens as my wide/standard lens when paired with an 85mm lens as my portrait/telephoto lens. This is my current go to event photography kit when I do professional work for clients. I like using two fast prime as opposed to a standard zoom (24-70mm like lens). The prime lenses I use are F1.4 vs F2.8 that a fast standard zoom usually is.
My current setup is a pair of Fuji X-H1's with the Viltrox 23mm F1.4 and Viltrox 56mm F1.4. These are great lenses for the money and I really think they do a fantastic job. Using the 35mm as a wide angle allows you to shoot with a fast aperture to gather lots of light while getting most things in focus at a distance. It's also lighter than a standard zoom and sharper in most cases.
Some will argue to just use a fast 50mm and don't carry two cameras and lenses, but that leaves a problem for me. I never find that I have any use for a 50mm since its too close to the 35mm and 85mm in both regards. It's either to narrow to be wide or too wide to be telephoto.
35mm for Personal Work
For personal projects like travel or family I love to use a pancake lenses. I use a Canon M50 with the Canon EF-M 22mm F2 lens (35mm equivalent) or the Fuji X-T1 or X-S10 with the Fuji 27mm F2.8 (I know this is 40mm equivalent but close enough). When taking family photos I find myself always in the mix so a 35mm is perfect to still get the subjects and/or the scene. A 50mm would struggle in tight spaces so that's the limitation in my experience.
The reason why I love this setup is because its really small and allows me to have extreme versatility while still getting a high quality photos and video. My alternatives are to use a zoom lens or a point and shoot with a zoom. I personally don't like zooms unless I absolutely have to use them. They are very versatile but can also take the fun out of just getting the shot and learning your focal length.
A point and shoot like the Canon G7X mark II is a great option when you don't want to carry a camera but want to carry a quality camera other than your phone. It's small and compact, good zoom range of 24-100, fast aperture 1.8-2.8, and has a good resolution of 20 megapixels. However, it doesn't have a big sensor like the M50 or Fuji's I shoot with so you sacrifice something there.
What will decide your first prime is going to be your personal preference from a usage and artistic perspective. Over time you will find that a pairing of two or three primes will suit your needs and give you great coverage. My first prime was a 35mm for its versatility to replace a standard zoom (i.e. 24-70mm) with a faster aperture. My second prime was an 85mm to be my portrait lens and to cover distance when needed. Ultimately, you will need to experiment with your photography to learn what is right for you.
My name is Jason Logan. I'm a freelance photographer from Jersey City, NJ and founder of JMT Photography & Media. You can learn more about me and my work at www.jmtphotographymedia.com. If you'd like to connect send me an email at email@example.com.
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