Call us biased, but we think photography is one of the best hobbies around. It can help you embrace the world around us with newfound levels of wonder and curiosity. One thing we don’t love about this hobby, however, is how intimidating it can be to newcomers. For example – what on earth is the difference between a 35mm and a 50mm prime lens?
While getting into photography can feel daunting to the uninitiated, hopefully this page can reassure you. This stuff isn’t actually that complicated, it’s just about getting familiar with a few common terms and pieces of equipment.
In this article, we’ll run through the 35mm vs 50mm question. We’ll touch on where each focal length shines and make a couple of product suggestions for those looking to buy. Don’t let the snobs put you off – anyone can get into photography if they want to.
If you’re brand new to photography, it’s possible that you’re unaware what these measurements are actually referring to. While there’s a whole lot of optical science involved with this stuff, all you really need to know is that the mm measurement associated with a lens refers to its focal length.
In short the focal length of a lens tells you the kind of work it’s best suited to. It tells you the following:
- How far away you’ll need to be from your subject
- How wide your viewing angle will be
- How large items in your frame will appear (magnification)
- How sharp subjects will appear within a certain distance
The higher the focal length of a lens, the narrower your field of view will be and the higher your magnification. The same works in reverse – smaller focal lengths offer a wider FOV and a lower magnification.
We jump into things in more detail below. If you’re looking for a ‘cheat’s version,’ this section is all you need.
35 mm lenses – Have a wider viewing angle, have to be held a bit closer to their subjects, and have lower magnification overall.
50mm lenses – Still have reasonable viewing angles but they’re narrower than 35mm. They allow a bit more wiggle room in terms of how far you stand away from your subject and deliver higher levels of magnification.
It’s also worth exploring the format you’ll be using when shooting with either 35mm or 50mm lenses. These accessories are known as prime lenses, or primes. So what does that actually mean?
When most people, especially non-photographers, think of a camera, they imagine a device that can zoom in and out when capturing photos. While most cameras can indeed do this, they use lenses with both a minimum and maximum focal length/ focusing distance to do so.
For example, a lens that’s described as ‘75-300mm’ can only focus effectively within this range.
Prime lenses, like the 35 and 50mm options we’re discussing on this page, offer what’s known as a fixed focal length. The number you see on the box is what you’ll have to work with – you’ll have to physically move closer to your subject if you want to ‘zoom in’.
So what’s the point in using a prime lens at all if it comes with less functionality than a zoom lens? The main advantage with primes is that they can offer superior levels of both sharpness and overall image quality vs a zoom.
This all comes down to the science of optical technology – in order to make lenses that can zoom, at least a little optical performance has to be sacrificed. Remember that there are plenty of phenomenal zoom and prime lenses out there. The ability to zoom doesn’t immediately render a lens useless.
It’s just that one bonus of using a prime is that it usually comes with a higher level of performance when compared to equivalent zoom lenses in the same price range.
If your photography constantly moves between different distances with multiple subject types of varying sizes, a fixed lens might not cut it. You could have all the optical performance in the world behind you and it will fall short if you can’t actually focus up properly.
There are plenty of cases where a zoom lens will prove most suitable.
While there’s a slight trade-off in image quality with zoom lenses, they’re considerably more versatile than many primes. The ability to zoom in and out on the fly can prove invaluable. If you work with dynamic subjects like sporting events and moving wildlife, a zoom lens is an absolute must-buy.
If you’re brand new to all this and are unsure of the kind of photography you’re going to be doing, it might be worth picking up a decent kit lens that can zoom first. Otherwise, a 50mm prime can prove plenty versatile depending on the type of photographer you become.
We explore the key differences between 35mm and 50mm lenses below. Read on to up your photography game.
We’re huge fans of good 35mm primes – they offer a decent level of versatility for travel shots and street photography and can also produce some truly stunning photos. One thing that you read a lot about with 35mm lenses is that they feature an FOV and focal length that’s roughly equivalent to the human eye.
While in reality this kind of measurement is very tricky to pin down, these lenses will serve you well if you’re the right photographer. The wide angle of a 35mm gives users plenty of room to fit more into their frame. If you love taking group selfies, for example, you’ll be able to squeeze more people into each photo.
Just keep in mind that you’ll have to keep your camera relatively close to your subject(s) to keep them in focus. For more cramped indoor shoots, this will actually come in handy. In more spacious environments, however, you might notice the smaller distance.
This kind of lens probably isn’t ideal for portraiture. Even top-notch 35mm lenses can distort the face in ways that aren’t conducive to a great photo. If you’re just starting out, you might want to pick up an extra ‘all-rounder’ lens if you’re set on getting a 35mm product.
So what’s the best 35mm prime lens out there? Well, this will depend largely on what you need your camera to achieve for you. Everyone has different budgets and goals when it comes to photography. That said, we think this f/1.8 Canon lens is pretty amazing.
It’s relatively expensive for a macro lens but it packs a whole lot of punch to justify the price tag.
This thing comes with 5 stops worth of image stabilization. Without getting too technical, this basically means it does a fantastic job of keeping your images steady and free from noise. Even if you’re shooting handheld without a tripod, this lens will still produce the stunning shots you need.
If you’re interested in getting into macro photography, this option will definitely serve you well. Not only can it deliver excellent macro results on its own but it’s also compatible with Canon’s broad range of macro rings and flashes. These can really elevate your macro results when used correctly.
- A brilliant 35mm lens
- Makes for killer macro shots
- Top-notch image stabilization
- Compatible with Canon accessories
- A touch expensive for a macro lens
While 15mm of difference might not seem like a lot, it can have a significant impact on the type of work you do with a lens. 50mm options are sometimes affectionately referred to as ‘nifty fifties’ for their all-round versatility and flexible performance.
If you’re new to photography and are set on buying just one 35mm or 50mm lens, we say choose the 50mm. They offer a slightly narrower viewing angle for your shoots but provide more room to move away from your subjects. If you’re going to be working in multiple environments with varying amounts of space, this will come in handy.
Portraiture is another area where 50mm lenses can really shine. It’s relatively easy to capture faces flatteringly using this type of shooter. The comfortable balance of their viewing angle and max focusing distance make 50mm options a flexible powerhouse in the right pair of hands.
Like 35mm lenses, the 50mm format is ubiquitous in the world of camera equipment. For this reason, there’s tons of choice out there when it comes to which lens you choose. There are plenty of lens options out there for those looking to save some money, for example.
They’ll still usually offer great levels of performance and reliability as the market for this type of lens is quite competitive. We make a specific 50mm lens recommendation below.
We think this option from Sigma represents phenomenal value for money. While it’s not what you’d call ‘cheap,’ it crams a whole lot of performance into a relatively compact package. The ultrasonic autofocus motor on this lens caught our attention almost immediately.
Your subject(s) will come sharply into focus in record time. The motor is whisper-quiet and delivers an impressive level of performance considering the price point of this lens. This option is especially well-suited to street photography, portraits, landscape shots, and studio work.
The ‘nifty fifty’ format offers a degree of versatility that many photographers need when moving between multiple shooting environments. If you can afford to invest in an option like this, we strongly recommend it. It should serve you very well for many years to come.
- The nifty fifty format
- Excellent autofocus motor
- Great for street photography
- Could be lighter
So, to sum up – when should you use a 35mm lens? Check out our recommendations below:
- As a general-carry lens for street photography
- When you need a wider angle
- When you don’t mind getting close to your subject(s)
- For certain macro and similar shots
- When you don’t need zoom functionality
- Tighter indoor shoots
The following scenarios will call for a different format:
- When your subject is very far away
- When you need more ‘wiggle room’ to adjust your shot
- When you’re shooting a dynamic subject like sporting events or wildlife
- When taking portraits
So what about a 50mm lens? See our thoughts below:
- When doing portrait work
- When you need more space between you and your subject
- If you need a strong ‘all-rounder’ lens
Use something else if the following applies to you:
- You want to do super close-up shots
- Your subject is dynamic (like wildlife or sports)
- You don’t have much room to work with
- You need a wide viewing angle
Related: best macro lenses for Nikon cameras
We hope this page has helped to clear up any confusion. We think photography is one of the best hobbies around, but the terminology and equipment can be super daunting to newcomers. It’s worth keeping in mind that none of this stuff is rocket science.
Anyone can get into photography and you don’t need to be an expert to take killer photos – that’s part of why we started this site in the first place! When it comes to 35mm vs 50mm lenses, the main things to remember are:
- 35mm lenses have wider viewing angles but must be held closer to their subjects
- 50mm lenses tend to be more versatile thanks to their ‘nifty fifty’ status
- Both can make great travel lenses
- Neither lens can zoom in or out – they’re fixed prime lenses