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We talk a a lot about prime lenses on Coles classroom. But when it comes down to price, lots of people can only afford to buy one prime lens. Although primes are wonderful and produce sharp stunning images, they can lack some functionality. The main thing being that you don’t have the ability to zoom in and out. Even though you can’t zoom in and out, prime lenses have a ton of benefits that I will be discussing in this article. If you have to choose between a 35mm vs. 50mm, which is the better lens? I believe that it depends on what you will be using the lens for as well a personal choice. I will give some information on both lenses that will hopefully help make your decision easier.

What’s a Prime Lens?

A prime lens is simply a fixed focal length lens. The term prime is short for primary, meaning first, chief or main. So technically it refers to the lens you would use the most often. People prefer prime lenses because they are thought to be sharper. Since there are less moving parts and glass, the image when it arrives to your sensor looks sharper and more pristine. Another huge advantage to prime lenses is that they are usually known to be faster. Meaning they typically have larger apertures, such as the Canon 50mm f/1.2. You can open the lens up and shoot in low light as well as get a nice shallow depth of field or blurry background.

Crop Sensor vs. Full Frame

Full frame and crop are both references to the cameras sensor. Different cameras have different sensor sizes. A full frame simply refers to a cameras sensor that is the same size as 35mm film used to be. Depending on full frame or crop sensors, lenses will act as different focal length because of the sensor size difference.  If you have a 50mm lens, the glass is 50mm from the sensor and that is effectively what your “zoom” is. But on a crop sensor camera, say a Canon T5i,  the crop factor is 1.6. So if you have a 50mm lens on a 1.6 crop sensor your effective focal length would be 50×1.6 giving you a “zoom” of 80mm. I wanted to explain all of this so that if you do have a crop sensor, you will know how to compensate for focal lengths.

35mm Pros

A 35mm prime lens is a great overall lens. I once worked with a wedding photographer who only used a 35mm the whole entire wedding. Although this is uncommon, it is totally doable. Technically a 35mm lens is considered a wide angle lens, although it sits at the very edge of that definition. A great advantage to having a 35mm prime is the fact that it will most likely have a pretty large aperture. So you still have the ability to get some nice depth of field, while simultaneously getting a relatively wide shot.

These lenses are great for getting close to the action and still getting a lot of the scene in the frame. You can also get really creative, such as holding a brides vail and shooting down it to draw attention right to her eyes. A 35mm lens is also a perfect travel and street photography lens. If I got to choose one lens to travel the world with, a 35mm would be my number one pick. If you are looking into buying a great 35mm, I would recommend the new Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art Lens. Its a phenomenal lens and costs less than the name brand ones.

35mm Cons

Every lens has its limitation and thats why many photographers have many tools in their kit. One of the biggest limitations to the 35mm lens is the fact that you have to be pretty close to your subject in most portrait situations.  There is also the whole issue with compression. Compression is simply what happens to an image when you are using a longer lens, commonly a telephoto lens. If you have ever seen an image of a giant moon, his was created by using a telephoto lens, probably in the range of 800-1600mm.

When you shoot on that long of a lens everything in the background appears to be closer. Thus giving it the name compression, the background appears to have been pushed to the foreground. Since you are shooting on a wide angle lens the image will have virtually zero compression. One last negative to a 35mm lens is that they are known to be less flattering. Usually the longer the lens, the more flattering a person appears. You must also remember that if you are shooting on a crop sensor a 35mm will appear to be somewhere in the 50mm zoom range.

50mm Pros

The “nifty fifty” as it is sometimes called has been somewhat a standard for a long time. Most 35mm film cameras came standard with a 5omm lens back in the day. The 50mm has been thought to be roughly the scope of what the human eye sees, although that can be debated. Its usually the next lens that I recommend to people when they want to upgrade from their 18-55mm kit lens. Canon created the 50mm f/1.8 for about $130, which is a great price for that fast of a lens. Since the 50mm is a little longer of a lens, you will see a little better depth of field than the 35mm as well as better bokeh or background blur.

There are a lot of pros that still do a lot of their shooting with a 50mm, so it has definitely stood the test of time. One of the best things about this lens is that it allows you to stand close to your subjects. I know this sounds really weird but when you are shooting on a really long lens and have to shoot from 100 yards away it can get really impersonal. I have found that everyone is more comfortable when you can stand close to your subject and not have to yell at them. Here is a link to the Canon 50mm f/1.4 which is a very affordable mid level lens.

50mm Cons

The 50mm is not the perfect lens either. First of all it doesn’t give you that wide look that you may need in certain situations. There have been countless situations where I have been backed up against a wall and the 50mm will just not cut it. A lot of times when you are doing getting ready photographs, there are just really tight spaces. These would be instances where a 35mm lens would be very helpful. On the other end, something a 50mm lens is just not long enough for what you need. If you have to stand at the back of a wedding and you can’t get a tight shot of the grooms face.

If you feel like a 50mm is just not quite long enough, there is also a third option. The 85mm prime is a beautiful little lens. It gives you a nice amount of compression, bokeh and is nearly a telephoto lens. But its not so long that you have to pull out the megaphone to communicate with you subjects. I love the lenses that Sigma has put out in recent years so here is a link to the 85mm f/1.4.

Take Away

In the debate between the 35mm vs. 50mm prime lens, there is no clear winner. They are both great lenses for different reasons. I want to stress the fact that if you are using a crop sensor camera the 35mm will appear more like a 50mm lens and the 50mm will be closer to 80mm. So if you are shooting on a crop sensor body and want a little wider lens I would look into a 24mm or a 28mm lens. If I had to choose one overall lens that you would carry with you at all times, it would be the 50mm. It is a timeless lens that has proven itself time and time again. The 50mm lens is a happy medium between a wide angle lens and a zoom lens. It’s a similar focal length to what we see with our eyes, so it translates well for viewers. It also allows you to obtain a nice amount of background blur to give your images that polished look.

Just know that ultimately you have to choose a lens that works best for you. I advise you to rent any lens and try it out for a few days before you buy it. I hope this makes your decision that much easier.

Related Articles:
Canon 50mm f/1.2L Lens Review: a Hands On Practical Review
5 Top Reasons Why You Need a 50mm Lens!
Why Everyone Needs a Prime Lens!
Best Portrait Lens on a Budget: 5 ways the 85mm f1.8 Delivers!