35mm vs 50mm lens

If I’d have to take only one lens to a desert island, I really don’t know whether to choose the 35mm f2.8 or the 50mm f1.8 lens. And yes, I’m talking about manual focus lenses only, like a good little analog shooter.

For the past year or so, I’ve been mostly using 50mm — especially on my street photography. Like for so many others, to me it’s somewhat of a standard choice. I felt very comfortable with it for a long time, until I realised I’d really love to switch to 35mm. It kinda solved some of my problems that I was having with the 50mm, but a new set of challenges arose.

The obvious argument for the 35mm is of course that is has a wider angle of view, which is great for showing more context and background. I agree that 50mm is sometimes a bit too tight. 80% of the time it is the perfect focal length for me, but I find it difficult to use when I’m either indoors or want to shoot landscape. On those occasions, I really miss a wider view.

Moving to 35mm requires getting closer to subjects, which is terrifying, especially if they’re people, but that’s something I need to work on none the less, so I don’t mind. That is one downside for the 35mm, but it kinda forces me to learn how to get closer, which is a valuable skill.

Focusing

Both lenses have their own strengths in focusing. With the 50mm f1.8 I can snap the focus in place really quickly, because it has a larger aperture. Focusing happens wide open which means it is visually easier to detect the focused areas from the blurry ones. 35mm f2.8 doesn’t produce as much blur and, at least with my eyesight, it is significantly harder to snap it into place as quickly.

How ever — the focus zones in the 35mm are much deeper, which is awesome for hip shots and people with shit eyes like me. You see, on smaller apertures the zones in focus are very deep. On f16 wide angle lenses are practically point-and-shoots, that have nearly everything in focus, right from the stuff under your nose to the infinity.

Distance chart on 35mm lens, pre-focused to about 2m.

With 35mm, if you pre-focus to two meters on, let’s say on f8, everything will be in focus roughly from 1.5m to about 4m. That’s a huge ~2.5m deep zone of stuff in focus. (Referring from the hyperfocal distance chart of my Olympus Zuiko OM Auto-W 35mm f2.8 lens) There’s plenty of room for error when focusing. For me this is really important, because I like to keep the option for hip shots open. Even a very bad distance estimation will most likely yield a decent focus.

On 50mm lens with the same f8 aperture, the focus zone is narrower, something like 1.7m to 2.5m. That’s only slightly over 1m. Not a huge problem if you’re good at estimating distances, but I’d definitely prefer 35mm over 50mm for this reason alone.

And speaking of hip shots — nailing the framing with 50mm is really hard to do from the hip. I always tend to aim too high. For some reason I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I resort to hip shots quite often, but sometimes there just isn’t any other way. Wider angle helps significantly. On 35mm, all I need to do is point the camera very roughly to the right direction and I’ll have a very good chance of having the subject neatly in the frame.

Camera shake and maximum aperture

50mm f1.8 has of course one stop faster aperture over the f2.8. How ever, I’d argue that with a wider angle, it is less prone to camera shake, which enables you to use maybe one or two stops slower shutter speeds hand held. Now that it’s autumn, and the days are short, I’ve been shooting a lot in low light. You’d imagine, that f1.8 would be superior aperture over f2.8, but i’ve noticed that being able to comfortably click down one step to slower speed, kind of makes it just as capable in low light.

For bokeh fanatics, 35mm probably isn’t the right choice because you’d need to be relatively closer to the subject, and have more distance between the subject and the background, in order to achieve background bokeh. So in general, on larger lenses, bokeh is easier to achieve. This is something, I’m not too worried about though. I think the so called bokeh is very overrated, and something of a trend at the moment. As I mentioned on my previous post, for some reason, I just don’t think bokeh and film mix well. Could be a personal preference, but on my film photos, I’m rarely after the Instagram oriented background bokeh.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that I’m leaning towards 35mm focal length, but no matter what I do, I always seem to get back to the 50mm. Maybe because I’m so used to it and in some circumstances it’s a bit easier lens. After shooting with the 35mm, it feels like a telephoto lens, which allows me to shoot from a comfortable distance. At the moment I’m carrying both of them just in case, but my plan is to go with a very minimalistic one lens set-up. Let’s see which one it’ll end up being.