When we speak about fixed focal length lenses, it is usually to extol their merits. We even dedicated a large portion of our lens buyer’s guide to fixed focal length lenses. However, the main question most people still have, is which fixed focal length lens they should choose: 35 mm, 50 mm or 85 mm?
That is why this “Practical Wednesday” will be dedicated to helping you better understand the differences between these lenses.
APS-C or 24×36?
Ever since 35 mm cameras (which is also called 24×36) have been around, 50 mm has been the standard focal length. According to many photographers, this focal length produces an image very similar to what can be seen by the human eye: which is also why this lens is so highly regarded. In the 24×36 format, 35 mm lenses are better suited to street scene photography, and 85 mm lenses are excellent for portraiture.
However, you must remember that lenses for APS-C sensors have an associated multiplication coefficient (approximately 1.6x, depending on the manufacturer) which means, for example, that a 50 mm lens mounted on an APS-C sensor camera is more or less the 24×36 format equivalent of an 85 mm lens.
A 35 mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera, is the 24×36 equivalent of a 50 mm lens – THE focal length which has the most similar angle of view to that of the human eye. Following the same reasoning, a 50 mm lens mounted on an APS-C sensor camera will provide a slightly more enlarged version of a scene than what can be observed with the naked eye.
Lastly, an 85 mm lens mounted on an APS-C camera is the full frame equivalent of a 135 mm lens – a fairly powerful zoom which will be difficult to use indoors.
Which one should you choose?
Did you understand everything that you just read, but are still unsure as to which lens you should choose? Do you already know what kind of use you will be making of your lens, what type of photos you would like to take with your luminous fixed focal length lens?
50 mm for portraiture
If you are considering buying a 50 mm lens for an APS-C sensor camera, it is almost certainly because you are interested in having a luminous lens for taking portraits in low-light conditions.
This is indeed the what these lenses do best: a 50 mm lens mounted on an APS-C sensor camera is the full frame equivalent of an 85 mm lens, the reference portraiture lens. It will allow you to frame a portrait without needing to get very close to your subject.
However, things get a little bit more complicated if you try to capture a wider scene with this type of lens. How many times have you bumped up against a wall when you were backing up in order to try to fit more people into the frame? In these types of circumstances, a 35 mm lens is much more versatile.
35 mm for versatility
As we mentioned earlier, a 35 mm lens mounted on an APS-C sensor camera is the full frame equivalent of a 50 mm lens, the focal length which offers the most similar angle of view to that of the human eye. Compared to a 50 mm lens, a 35 mm lens is even more versatile. And, oftentimes, 35 mm lenses are used for street-level portraiture.
What is the difference between these portraits and those taken with a 50 mm lens? The 35 mm lens makes it easier to simultaneously capture your subject as well as the surrounding environment. Be sure not to get too close to your subject with this type of lens since these 35 mm lenses are closer to being wide angle lens than they are to being zooms which means that the closest elements in the frame will have heightened perspective. 35 mm lenses are also often used for street scene photography or simply for everyday photography.
If you are using a 4/3 or micro 4/3 format sensor, you should be aware of the fact that the lens will have a 2x multiplication factor associated with it. The 20 mm f/1.7 pancake type lens will therefore be the full frame equivalent of a 40 mm lens – which is somewhere in between a 35 and 50 mm focal length lens.
85 mm for gaining distance from your subject
An 85 mm lens, mounted on an APS-C sensor camera, is the full frame equivalent of a 135 mm lens. This is already a lot of magnification, and it will be difficult to use this lens for indoor portraiture. In fact, the distance from your subject imposed by an 85 mm lens mounted on an APS-C sensor camera may even prevent you from capturing the entirety of your subject’s face when used indoors, unless you really have a lot of room to move around in.
85mm f/1.8 to f/3.2
Outdoors, this is the perfect lens for gaining some distance from your subject – in portraiture for example. You subject will be less intimidated by your presence, which will allow you to take more serene portraits and without the perspective deformations associated with wider angle lenses.
Now that you have a better idea about the lens that you need, we should discuss prices. Between a 35 mm f/1.8 and a 50 mm f/1.8, the difference in price is not very large, but 50 mm lenses are generally less expensive. Canon offers a 50 mm lens for under 100 euros – which is a perfect lens for becoming initiated into the world of fixed focal length photography (it works in low-light conditions and with a shallow depth of field). Nikon offers the most inexpensive 35 mm f/1.8 lens – for 180 euros (exclusively compatible with APS-C sensor cameras). In terms of an 85 mm f/1.8 lens, you should expect to pay at least 340 euros in order to acquire one.
Prices vary depending on the manufacturer, and it is relatively easy to find these types of lenses on the second-hand market.
Your choice of lens may be influenced by its price, but these three lenses (35 mm, 50 mm and 85 mm) are all “rock solid”; you will undoubtedly find them to be excellent companions which will provide better image quality than any standard zoom.
The deciding factor should not be price, but rather focal length. There is no point in buying the least expensive lens if it is unable to capture the types of images that you are interested in taking.
f/1.4 or f/1.8?
By default, fixed focal length lenses are very luminous due to their wide aperture opening (small diaphragm number – f/1.8 for example). There are both f/1.4 and f/1.8 versions of these lenses – the main difference between them being their maximum aperture opening: f/1.4 being the larger of the two, and therefore the more luminous.
With an f/1.4 lens it is possible to photograph in lower light conditions than with an f/1.8 lens – the depth of field will also be shallower. This ability will allow you to create a very beautiful background blurring effect on your portrait shots.
You will however need to be very careful when focusing under these conditions – the slightest error in focusing could cause your entire photo to become blurred. Moreover, photographers who own f/1.4 fixed focal length lenses do not always use them at their maximum aperture opening, but rather at more reduced openings such as f/2.8 or f/4, which allows them to achieve excellent image sharpness as well as to increase the depth of field.
Ultimately, the difference between these two lenses comes down to price. The 0.4 difference in f stop which separates these two lenses often results the f/1.4 version having a price more than double that of the f/1.8 version, if not more.
Conclusion and making up your mind
To summarize, if you are looking for a very good quality lens which is at ease in many types of situations, we recommend the 50 mm – despite the fact that it is more oriented towards portraiture. If you are looking for an even more versatile lens which will allow you to capture an even wider scene, the 35 mm lens is an ideal choice. The 85 mm lens is exclusively geared towards portraiture due to its long focal length; of course we are still referring to APS-C format sensors.
85mm f/1.8 full frame
For full frame sensors, the recommendations we have just made still hold true – with the proviso that the 50 mm lens be substituted by an 85 mm lens and that the 35 mm lens be substituted by a 50 mm lens (do you follow?). We haven’t yet discussed mounting a 35 mm lens on a camera equipped with a 24×36 sensor. Doing so will result in a very wide angle setup, which will not be very useful for portraiture unless you are interested in including the surrounding environment in your shots. This is the reason why the 35 mm lens is excellent for street scene photography when it is mounted on a full frame sensor camera.
If you are still having trouble deciding, here are a few tips:
- borrow the lens that you are interested in acquiring from a friend: this shouldn’t be that difficult given how popular these fixed focal length lenses are.
- go to a camera store and ask if it would be possible to test out the lens. Some stores allow this, others don’t.
- if you already own a trans-standard zoom, lock the setting to 35 mm, 50 mm or 85 mm for a while (by using some adhesive tape which is easy to remove and won’t leave any traces) and you will able to see which of the settings you prefer.
If you are interested in acquiring a 35 mm, 50 mm or 85 mm fixed focal length lens, check out our buyer’s guide dedicated to lenses. This guide will be updated periodically in order to keep up with the newest product releases.