Buying Your First Prime Lens – 35mm or 50mm? (2021 Update)
There comes a point in every photographer’s journey when he/she must answer the age-old question: Have I outgrown my kit lens? This question typically comes up after borrowing a friend’s prime lens and realizing you just can’t get the same dreamy bokeh when zoomed in to 55mm at f/5.6. Sure, you can still take great pictures with a kit lens, as we demonstrated in Photography 101, but you’ll eventually start to realize the gear’s limitations. It is at this point that DSLR and mirrorless users alike must answer a second question, only this time about buying your first prime lens: Should I get a 35mm or a 50mm?
The Case for Prime Lenses
First, there’s nothing wrong with using a kit lens, especially early on in your photography journey. They’re affordable, and they’re versatile in terms of focal length. A common kit lens typically covers a zoom range of 18-55mm (or 55-200mm), which means you don’t have to physically move much to cover a lot of ground and you can quickly zoom in or out in tighter spaces. Plus, as I mentioned above, you can use kit lenses to capture quality photos. The biggest drawback for using kit lenses, really, is the variable aperture, which even at its widest setting is still quite narrow. In a variable aperture lens, the aperture changes based on the focal length you’re using, usually moving from f/3.5 when zoomed out to f/5.6 when zoomed in, or some variation of those settings depending on the lens. The narrow aperture limits your creative control. A prime lens with a fixed wide aperture, on the other hand, opens up creative possibilities that would be difficult or impossible to replicate using a kit lens.
What prime lenses lack in focal length versatility, they more than make up for with bokeh-licious depth of field and low light capabilities. There are zoom lenses with fixed apertures, such as Canon’s RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens, that can be used in lower light and produce amazing bokeh, but prime lenses generally offer a much wider aperture, going as wide as f/1.2. Here’s why that’s important.
Shallow Depth of Field
A shallow depth of field, which means there’s a very thin plane of focus, creates foreground and/or background blur. The out of focus areas, known as bokeh, add a cinematic look to the image and help separate the subject (or focal point) from the background. While sensor size and focal length also play a role in setting the depth of field, using a wide aperture will help deliver the look you’re likely going for.
Low Light Performance
A wide aperture (f/1.2 to f/2), which you find in prime lenses, lets a lot of light into the camera and onto the image sensor. This means photographers using a wide aperture prime lens in a dimly lit location can keep the ISO lower to minimize grain and keep the shutter speed faster to help eliminate motion blur. The latter feature is the reason people often call prime lenses with wide maximum apertures “fast lenses.”
Choosing Between the 35mm or 50mm
Two cornerstone primes include the 35mm, which is especially popular for street photography, and the 50mm, a longtime go-to for portrait photographers. There are other primes to consider that feature wider or tighter focal lengths, of course, such as the 24mm, 85mm, 100mm, 135mm, and so on. For practical use, however, we suggest you start with either a 35mm or 50mm prime lens. To help you decide which of these two lenses you should pick up first, let’s briefly touch on some of the nuances that set them apart.
A Closer Look at the 35mm Prime Lens
The 35mm prime lens is a great choice if you’re looking to purchase a wider focal length. There are some characteristics unique to wider focal lengths that you should be aware of when using these lenses.
Because the 35mm focal length gives you a wide field of view, you will likely need to move physically closer to your subject when shooting with this lens. When using a telephoto lens, you have to put some distance between you and your subject, and that typically shows in the photos, even if you’re zoomed in. The person viewing your images will take a passive role and observe the action, just as you did when you captured it. When you move in close with a wide angle lens, however, you bring your viewer along with you, making them feel as though they are part of the action.
That said, here’s a quick look at some pros and a con for shooting with a 35mm prime lens.
- 35mm is a great universal lens for travel – great in tight spots and landscapes
- Exceptional bokeh aesthetic
- Dynamic artistic effects (shoot-throughs, ring of fire, etc.)
- Great in low-light conditions
- More lens distortion for portraits (keep your subjects towards the center of the frame to minimize the distortion)
Sample Images Captured with a 35mm Prime Lens
[Related Reading: 5 Reasons Why We Love 24mm & 35mm Lenses]
A Closer Look at the 50mm Prime Lens
In reality, the difference between a 50mm focal length and a 35mm focal length is not huge, but the characteristics between the two are noteworthy enough to likely impact your decision as to which of these prime lenses you should buy.
The 50mm occupies a useful middle ground in terms of focal length, not too wide or tight. The field of view is wide enough to offer plenty of background at close distances, like the 35mm, but the minimized lens distortion (when compared to the 35mm) will leave your subject looking more natural. It has been said that the 50mm focal length closely reflects the same field of view as our eyes. You can also capture tack-sharp images at wide open apertures, especially with a bit of distance between the lens and your subject. As an added bonus, you’ll still get nice background depth and separation from your subjects, even when you’re standing a little farther back.
Here are some pros and a con for shooting with a 50mm prime lens.
- Closer to a “true portrait” focal length (85mm) w/ minimal distortion
- Exceptional bokeh aesthetic
- Great in low-light situations
- A go-to for photographing details at weddings (alongside a 100mm macro lens)
- Tighter crop than a 35mm, which limits its usefulness in tighter spaces
Sample Images Captured with a 50mm Prime Lens
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In addition to the pros and cons mentioned above, there are other considerations to take into account, which we’ve outlined below.
Full Frame Vs. Crop Sensor
Another thing to consider when choosing between the 35mm and 50mm focal lengths is crop factor. If you have a full frame camera (which refers to a sensor size that has the same dimensions as the 35mm film format), then the focal length listed on the lens should match the field of view. A crop sensor camera, on the other hand, has a smaller sensor than a full frame camera and introduces a crop factor that in essence crops the image and reduces the field of view. While the crop factor varies between camera makers, you can expect it to be somewhere around 1.5x to 1.6x the listed focal length. In other words, if you want to achieve close to a 35mm look but you’re shooting on a crop sensor body, you should probably opt for a 24mm prime lens. Because of the crop factor, a 24mm prime lens will capture images with closer to a 38mm focal length. A 50mm focal length translates to a 80mm field of view when using a crop sensor camera with a 1.6x crop factor.
Budget Vs. Premium
We previously shared the Canon Lens Wars Series, in which we compared the majority of the Canon lenses available at the time. Two of the lenses we featured include the 35mm and the 50mm primes. Of those two focal lengths, the best performing lenses included the Canon 35mm f/1.4L lens and the Canon 50mm f/1.2L lens, both of which have been updated with Canon’s new RF line of lenses. All of the major brands (Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc.) make premium lenses to use with their camera bodies. While these lenses generally receive stellar reviews, they also command a premium price and can cost several thousand dollars.
At a fraction of the cost of the premium lenses, you can find other high-performance primes, even within your camera’s brand. Canon’s “Nifty Fifty” 50mm f/1.8 lens, for example, represents an amazing value and is very widely used for that reason. Priced at $125, it’s smaller and less ruggedly built than its pricier counterparts, but apart from the slightly narrower aperture (and resulting effects on bokeh and low light performance), only pixel peepers are going to notice any differences in the final images. We’ve also reviewed Canon’s “Nifty 35,” an affordable option you can read about here. The quality of these lower priced lenses is typically good enough to make you second guess whether or not the 3x extra cost is worth it for the more expensive options.
Another alternative is to shop third-party lenses like Sigma, Tamron, and Rokinon, among others. We’ve reviewed a number of these lenses and they often represent some of the best options in their class. Most of these lenses are available with various mounts to match your brand, and adapters are usually available if the mounts don’t match up directly. Check out some of the reviews in the links below:
35mm Prime Lens Reviews
- Samyang AF 35mm f/1.8 FE Review
- Sigma 35mm f/1.2 Art Review | A First Of Its Kind
- Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Review | The New Champion Of 35mm Primes
- Tamron 35mm f/1.8 Di VC Review: Beast Mode On A Budget
50mm Prime Lens Reviews
- Sigma 50mm F/1.4 DG HSM Art – Full Review (Older)
- Rokinon AF 45mm f/1.8 FE Review | More Than Just Another Average “Nifty Fifty” Lens?
Renting Vs. Purchasing
Before you make any purchases, you may want to consider renting both of these lenses and taking them for a test spin. I’ve had great, no-hassle experiences renting lenses from both Borrowlenses.com and Lensrentals.com. The rental prices are reasonable and you can have a full week (or more) to really test the lens and see if it’s a good fit.
I hope you found this guide for buying your first prime lens helpful. Whether you choose a 35mm or 50mm prime really comes down to your personal photography style. Chances are you’ll eventually pick up both lenses. In the meantime, consider the points above and go with the prime that more fully complements your style of shooting.