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Buying Your First Prime Lens – 35mm or 50mm?

By Leujay Cruz on September 24th 2014

Have you outgrown your kit lens? It kind of feels like taking your training wheels off, doesn’t it? Maybe it was because you borrowed your friend’s prime lens and realized what you were missing out on, or you figured out that the only way you were going to get that super blurry background is by buying a really fast prime lens. Now that you’re ready to buy a prime lens, should you go for a 35mm or a 50mm?

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In DigitalRev’s new video, Kai Wong discusses his reasons on picking between the 35mm and 50mm focal lengths. He states the 35mm is a great universal lens for travel – great in tight spots and landscapes while providing great bokeh. For the 50mm, he feels like it could be seen as a 1 trick pony since it forces you to crop so tightly, but he likes the selective focus capabilities and the shallower depth of field. Check out the video below to see which lens he loves for street photography.

The Canon Lens Wars Series

Recently in our studio, we completed the Canon Lens Wars Series where we compared the majority of Canon’s lenses available in their lineup. Two focal lengths we featured were the 35mm and the 50mm primes.

The two lenses that outperformed the available choices were no surprise. The Canon 35mm f/1.4L lens for the 35mm focal length and the Canon 50mm f/1.2L lens for the 50mm focal length. Although, we’d like to note that the new Canon 35mm f/2 IS surprised us. At a fraction of the cost of the 35mm f/1.4L, the 35mm f/2 IS holds its own against its big brother – making you second guess whether or not the 3x extra cost is worth it for the L version. The 50mm f/1.2L, on the other hand, although much more expensive, provides you much more visual performance than the other 50mm prime choices.

Check out our image samples for both the 35mm f/1.4L and the 50mm f/1.2L

Notice the slight increase in contrast with the 50mm over the 35mm. The bokeh is also noticeably creamier with the 50mm over the 35mm. The slight difference in compression between the two is apparent with the branch in the 35mm image looking longer while the 50mm image looks compacted.

When holding the two lenses, the major difference is the weight and construction. The 50mm 1.2L is much heavier than the 35mm 1.4L and the metal body of the 50mm provides you with a strong sense of build quality over the plastic 35mm 1.4L.

Another thing to consider when choosing between the 35mm and 50mm focal lengths is crop factor. When I bought my first prime lens, I was shooting with a Canon 7D as my primary body. I was actually deciding between a Canon 24mm f/1.4L and a 35mm f/1.4L. With my 1.6 crop sensor body, I wanted to achieve a 35mm look so I opted for the 24mm f/1.4L.  With the crop factor, that gave me about a 38mm lens.


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The choice between the two focal lengths, 35mm and the 50mm, is really based on your personal photography style. Do you like to include a lot of the background in your shots or do you prefer a more defined separation of background and subject with creamier bokeh? While one lens could be considered more versatile because of its ability to compose at a wider focal length, the other lengths allows you more creative possibilities with depth of field. Whichever your choice, make sure it complements your style of shooting.

Currently, I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III and I still own the 24mm f/1.4L, but now my focal length of choice – if I had to pick between the 35mm and the 50mm – would be my 50mm f/1.2. I love the depth of field and the bokeh it produces and since I’m pretty active and mobile while shooting, I’m thankful for the metal body for a more solid build quality. Ideally, I’d like to have both the Canon 35mm and 50mm L lenses, but if I had to choose one, it would be the 50mm. I love the shallow depth of field and with my 24mm f1/.4L and also a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II in my UnDfind One bag the 50mm allows to have an option much different from the other two wide lens options I already carry.

To see the entire episode of the 35mm shootout, check out the video below or go here for a more in-depth analysis.

To see the entire episode of the 50mm shootout, check out the video below or go here for a more in-depth analysis.

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Terms: #Prime Lens

Leujay is a full time wedding photographer with Lin & Jirsa Photography and a freelance runway fashion photographer. He currently lives in Palm Desert with his wife and two dogs. When he’s not enjoying quality family time he fancies himself as a work-in-progress world traveler.

Connect with Leujay on Facebook and follow him on Instagram.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. jd kizzo

    35mm is a little more versatile…but a 50mm 1.4 is much smaller and discrete for on the street and night time photographry. Easier to bokeh when necessary also. I rather pair it with a 28 or of both worlds imo…35mm to me is a compromise single lens solution.

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  2. Thomas Stuff

    I started my journey with a 5omm 1.4 Sony prime lens. Fast, light and versatile is how I like it. I now own the Sony Zeiss 50mm 1.4, Minolta 50mm 1.7 Rokkor and Olympus 25mm 1.8. Which one is better? Neither. The Olympus is suprisingly well corrected, great contrast and sharpness and to my eyes holds it’s own against much more expensive lenses. The Minolta Rokkor is a beast with great warm colors and providing great character.

    If I would suggest a first. Well, I’d probably recommend a 135mm and as fast as you can afford. But then again, I’m slightly crazy. However, if heaven had to choose a focal length to shoot a celebration I think that would be it. It’s nearly the perfect combination of versatility for the photographer, compression and oodles of seperation should you need it. Mat it to an APSC and you have an ideal 200mm for dramatic portrait shots. How can you loose? You can’t…because 135mm IS PERFECTION!!!!

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  3. Jill Schindel

    Also, this video was hilarious. I enjoyed it.

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  4. Jill Schindel

    I’m shooting with a 50mm f/1.4 (Sigma) on a APS-C, so an effective focal length of roughly 80mm if I understand correctly. I just love it to pieces when it works the way I want it to, but I can’t tell you how often I just can’t back up enough without hitting a wall, counter, tree, etc. I think when I upgrade to a full frame (6D) this winter, I’ll opt for keeping my 50mm, and get a zoom to cover the 35mm range. I’m thinking the Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 and my 50 should do just fine.

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    • Thomas Stuff

      Might I suggest not upgrading to a 6D at all. Maybe take a look at an Olympus EM10 and a 25mm 1.8. It’s marvelous, light, versatile, feature packed and the quality will have you scratching your head wondering how they managed to pull it off.

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  5. Trey Mortensen

    I’ve never had the chance to consistently play with a 35mm but my first camera set up was a t2i and a 50 1.8mm. Even though I have a 6D and 24-70 now, I keep the 50 on my t2i. I like the 80mm equivalent. A quick check on lightroom and with my 24-70, I use longer than 50 for a lot of my stuff or wider than 35. So I guess I should get a 24 1.4 and an 85 1.4 instead of a 35 and 50 ;)

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  6. Amanda Jehle

    Thanks for including the info on the crop sensor. I’ve been debating my next lens for my Canon APS-C & this article was really helpful!

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  7. Ryan Orcullo

    The first lens I bought when I was a Nikon shooter was the 50mm 1.8D. Now, I am a Canon shooter and still the first lens I bought is the 50mm 1.8 II. I just loved the tightness of the 50mms especially my cameras are all APS-Cs for I am a portrait shooter. Though I used before the 35mm 1.8g and it feels good especially for tight spaces. It’s also good for tight landscapes.

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    • Kasun Meegahapola

      Hi Ryan,

      This might be out of the topic but would like to know is their any particular reason why you switch from Nikon to Canon. I know its a vast debated subject but just interest to know what was your reason to switch. I got some really good info from the video posted resonantly “Why I Want to Switch to Nikon, But Can’t”. Just curious to know your real life scenario..

      Thanks in advance.

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    • Ryan Orcullo

      Hi Kasun, I love Canon’s skin tone over Nikon. And I love Nikon’s sharpness and dynamic range over Canon. I hope soon their will be a camera with both Nikon and Canon features :)

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    • Ryan Orcullo


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  8. Kasun Meegahapola

    1. I bought the Nikon 50mm 1.8G vs the Nikon DX 35mm 1.8G (which falls around $200 New) as my first prime lens because Nikon 50mm 1.8G was affordable entry level prime lens and knowing that i can use the same lens when i buy a full frame camera. Since now i have Full frame camera i feel very happy as i can use them for the fullframe camera as well.

    2. On a lens test “” Nikon DX 35mm 1.8G scored 18 when mounted on a D300 vs Nikon 50mm 1.8G scored 16 mounted on a D300. But been a fullframe lens Nikon 50mm 1.8G could achieve excellent scores like 34 when mounted to a good full frame camera like a D800E.

    3. Then again one could argue that you could compare with the Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.8G ED which is 3 times expensive as the Nikon 50mm 1.8G. Where the Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.8G ED scored 36 when mounted to a D800E.

    Here’s what i wanted to say, In my case i was always thinking about my future full frame camera and worked towards it. Mostly in my shootings i had enough space to step back and frame my shot which could be equal to 35mm focal range. And finally i liked the portraits given with the 50mm 1.8G specially the characteristics it gave on face & body of my subject.

    End of the day there are many options out there in the market which suites different peoples / photographers needs with different brands, aperture, different construction that suites different scenes. But the success factor purely not come out of the lens it self. Many many other factors take place. Most importantly the talent of the Photographer.

    Anyways, i’m not a pro. I’m just a casual shooter where photography is my hobby. This is just my opinion and it could be wrong. And happy to hear if its wrong bcos thats how i learn.. :)

    Kasun Meegahapola.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Very well said! I personally really love the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 G as well, it’s so incredibly sharp on both full-frame and crop sensors, and it’s so cheap and light. In short, it puts all other affordable 50mm options to shame…


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  9. Leo Wong

    I love 50mm and this is my first prime lens at the beginning went I had my full frame camera and I love it for portrait, it is a superb lens in between 35mm and 85mm, but kind of human eye view and that I don’t enjoy much about it. So I bought the 35mm, ever since I hardly go back to 50mm, just too good for event, small to large group photo when where is crowd of people.

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  10. cherestes janos

    my first prime lens was a 50mm 1.8 and at that time i did not have a dslr :)) i used the 50mm reversed (head to head tehnique ) for macro :-) with my sony h2

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  11. Eric S

    I have an Olympus 25mm f/1.8 (50mm equiv) and I firmly believe I could shoot an entire wedding with just this lens if I needed to. Hard to deny the benefits of the 35mm and certainly nothing against it, but the 50mm is just the stuff.

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  12. Cha

    the first prime lens I ever bought was actually a 35mm because I was shooting with a crop sensor at the time and I wanted a 50mm equivalent focal length. Now that I shoot full frame I love my 50mm and I even own two that I shoot with regularly.

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