The Joy of Standard Lenses

The Joy of Standard Lenses

It's nice to be normal_ the joy of std lenses 01 (c) MandenoMomentsDotCom.jpgGuest Post by Jachin Mandeno

In the days of film, SLRs often came with a 50mm standard lens, but nowadays most DSLRs come with a zoom lens and many people have no idea how good a standard lens can be. Let’s find out, starting with the basics…

What is a standard lens?

A standard lens is a ‘tweener: it’s between wide angle and telephoto.

A standard lens makes things look much as they do with the naked eye. A wide angle lens will exaggerate the distance between near and far objects, while a telephoto lens will compress that space. A standard lens will make the distance between near and far objects look ‘normal’, and a standard lens is sometimes called a normal lens.

On a 35mm film camera and a ‘full frame’ DSLR a normal lens is a 40-50mm lens. Mid to low range DSLRs (e.g. Canon APS-C, Nikon DX) have smaller sensors so a normal lens is in the 25-31mm range, and if you use Four Thirds look for 20-25mm lenses.

What’s so great about a standard lens?

At least six things…

1) A photo taken with a standard lens can be very relaxing and natural because things look ‘normal’. Photos taken with a wide angle lens tend to be very active and pull the viewer into the photo, while photos taken with telephoto lenses tend to feel a bit sterile: because photos taken with standard lenses don’t have these effects the viewer goes straight to interacting with what’s in the picture. Wide angle and telephoto lenses place an optical effect between the viewer and subject, while a standard lens ‘gets out of the way’.

It's nice to be normal_ the joy of std lenses 03 (c) MandenoMomentsDotCom.jpg2) A prime (non-zoom) standard lens lets in a lot more light than a zoom does. A typical amateur-grade zoom lens set to 28mm will have a maximum aperture of f4, while a budget 28mm prime lens can let in twice as much light at f2.8 and an expensive 30mm prime lens can let in eight times as much light at f1.4. Those larger apertures (smaller f-numbers) are valuable, being good for getting nicely blurred backgrounds, working in low light without flash, increasing flash range, and improving image quality by keeping the ISO down.

3) A prime standard lens is small, light, and unobtrusive. Having a zoom lens that looks like an artillery piece mounted on your camera is not a good way to make other people feel comfortable, while a prime standard lens looks harmless.

4) Prime standard lenses give you more bang for your buck when it comes to image quality. The sharpness and resolution (ability to show fine detail) that prime lenses provide is far superior to that of zoom lenses unless you’re willing to spend very serious money on a zoom. Sharpness and resolution are often given too much importance in my humble opinion, but in this case we’re talking about a substantial difference. Zoom lenses are particuarly prone to unpleasant visual effects such as chromatic aberration [link to], while such problems are normally minor or absent in prime lenses.

5) Versatility. My personal experience is that a standard lens is Goldilocks – just right – in many situations, and that’s why one lives on my camera (more on this later). Obviously this won’t apply to you if all you do is take photos of lions!

It's nice to be normal_ the joy of std lenses 04 (c) MandenoMomentsDotCom.jpg6) I have found that photos taken with prime lenses have a little bit of magic that those taken with zoom lenses don’t. You can set a zoom lens to 28mm or whatever is appropriate for your camera and make it a standard lens, but you won’t get the magic. You really have to see it to understand it, but I love prime lenses because to my eye they produce photos that look more life-like and less two-dimensional. To put it another way, when I see a photo taken with a prime lens I’m more likely to feel as if I’m really there, a participant rather than a viewer.

What’s a standard lens good for?

A standard lens is really a general purpose lens that works well when you have a bit of room to move around and find a good position to shoot from. It’s very good for full length portraits, group photos, street photography, landscapes, and social occasions.

The photos included in this post were taken with a standard lens and, apart from the shot of the dramatic rainclouds, all were taken at f2.8 in aperture priority mode (A or Av on your camera). You can see how using f2.8 limits the depth of field, giving a nicely blurred background that reduces distractions and makes the subject stand out.

As with any lens it’s best to be at least six feet away from the subject when photographing people: much closer than that and you risk giving faces an unpleasant appearance. I just imagine a bed lying between me and the subject and that’s about six feet.

What standard lenses are available?

If you don’t mind manual focus and manual aperture control old lenses with a M42/Pentax screw mount can be attached to a DSLR with an adapter, but first find out how your camera will behave in this situation. I have done this with a Canon and it works very well with standard and wide angle lenses, while things get trickier with telephotos. Pentax prime lenses are highly regarded.

It's nice to be normal_ the joy of std lenses 05 (c) MandenoMomentsDotCom.jpgFor Canon users the Canon EF 28mm f2.8 is a good budget option and I use this. My main criticism of this lens is that the autofocus is noisy and slow, especially in very low light. However, its autofocus performance is good for the price and it’s very good optically.

If you can afford it the Sigma 30mm F1.4 EX DC HSM is very good and made for a variety of camera types. It offers fast, quiet autofocus that works well in low light.

I’m interested in hearing your recommendations for standard lenses that fit Canon and other camera brands, as well as your experiences with standard lenses.

There’s a lot to be said for the humble standard lens and I hope that you’ll try one out: it really is nice to be normal.

Jachin Mandeno lives in Auckland, New Zealand and publishes photos as Mandeno Moments. A dinosaur from the film age, he is particularly fond of photographing the peculiar species called Homo Sapiens. Click here to join his email list

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Some Older Comments

  • Larry Miller December 5, 2012 06:46 am

    I use three lenses. The Nikkor 50 F1.4 (late version), the 28 F2 (late version) and the 85 F1.8 AFD. Those are really the only three lenses I need. All three have the SIC on the elements. Occasionally I'll pull the 28 out of the bag and put in the 20 F2.8, when I'm feeling wirey. The one I use the the most is probably the 50. There's so much that the lens can do. It's what I call my "natural" lens. Wouldn't leave home without it!

  • uncle-rhea April 27, 2011 02:55 am

    i love my Nikon 50mm f/1.8 manual focus (80s throw back). i have a Nikon DSLR, but i strongly prefer manual focus. I hardly ever use my auto focus unless i'm doing a drive by street photography from inside a car for effect.

  • Greg Williams March 22, 2011 04:26 pm

    It's great to see an article about the "Standard lens" primes as well as all the comments! I am a professional wedding photographer in Canada and recently shot an engagement session with my trusty 50mm and FF Canon DSLR and the images are consistently great. This lens help's me create images the have that "something special" that even my fast zooms just can't duplicate. Sometimes it's that great bokeh, other times it's just the familiar perspective that looks natural, and finally, I haven't used a tripod or a flash in years! It just works as advertised for anything I need it to! Back when I shot film in the 90's, when I was learning photography and during the digital boom, I had the same leaning curve as most..trying to understand the 1.6x crop factor of my first digital camera (Canon 10D), the great prime vs zoom debate and the like.

    Finally, after identifying my shooting style and learning how both my camera and how my "minds eye" actually sees images, I settled on the 50mm prime for most all my general photography needs. While I do use fast "L" zooms for often fast paced weddings when I need the flexibility; I always have a 50mm in my bag or have the 50mm on one of my camera bodies. It just does everything very well...low light, daylight and everything in-between. It changed me as a photographer. I have learned and understand now after years of photography why the great photographers like Henry Carter-Bression, Robert Capa, and other photo greats used the 50mm prime lens or (normal lens). It's simple, easy to use, unobtrusive, small, light, sharp, and just gets out of the photographers way of making great images with little fuss, if at all.

    Primes are making a come-back, get your hands on one and watch your photography technique improve. This will translate to your images as well, as it did for me. For those who are starting out or those who think that you have to have the latest $$$ camera or XX-mega-pixel count or expensive f/2.8 zoom lens to achieve good images...You don' don't get sucked into this. Save your wallet and get yourself a good "normal focal length" prime for your camera and sensor size. Work like hell to practice and master your technique, and watch your images improve! I also highly recommend sticking to specific brand lenses made by your camera if you can, staying away from third party lenses. I learned this the hard way years ago with some Sigma and Tamron lenses. Lets face it, you can't beat the price of some offerings and it's very tempting. I even shot with a few of them years ago with fairly excellent results, if you get a good copy...and that's the catch. I even tried out these third-party lenses on my camera in the camera shop before I purchased, but both were found to have issues. However, I have never had any of the auto-focus, compatibility issues with any of my Canon brand lenses for any of my Canon 35mm film or DSLRs ...not even once. Even my 50mm f/1.8 (MKI) from circa 1980's works excellent on my current Canon 5Ds as it did on my old EOS 1V 35mm film body! So, no matter if you have a Nikon, Canon, Sigma, Pentax, etc...just be aware of this. So go get yourself a normal prime and unleash your true photographic potential!

    Here are a few non-"L" versions that I have used for my DSLR's (Nikon users will find comparably lenses in this range as well!)

    Canon Crop (1.6x) 7D, 60D, 50D, 40D, Rebels, etc.

    EF 28mm f/1.8 approx. $400.00
    EF 35mm f/2 approx $300.00

    Canon Full Frame and EOS 1D Series (5D MKI, MKII, IDs etc.)

    EF 50mm f/1.8 II approx. $100.00 (this is a steal!, one of Canon's sharpest non "L" lens!!!)
    EF 50mm f/1.4 approx. $350.00

  • Doug McKay March 21, 2011 09:07 am

    @dolores parganal Taking photos of jewelry can be very challenging. You have not described your problem but if I was to guess based on my experience it would be focus. Mostly in that the whole piece is not in focus. Check your lens information and see what the distance of the "in focus" area is on each setting. You then would set up your shots to match the in focus area. Another solution would be to make sure the camera is near to perfect parallel to the piece being photographed-this would result in crisp focused shots. You would have to select materials for the jewelry to lay on to make the shots interesting.
    To get the magazine ad like photos you would need to invest in a macro Tilt & Shift lens. They are ordinary lens not (DX) but work just fine on a DX camera- I know I have a selection of Nikon Cameras and a collection of Nikon lens. If I recall correctly Nikon has several I know for sure there is an 85mm Macro Tilt & Shift that is manual-that would mean you have to focus manually and set your f stops manually I do not have a D3100 so I can not say how much the metering would come into play. There is also a new auto focus version of this lens which I have not felt the need to get as I find that manual focus works the best for me because I normally move in and out just a bit to get the focus crisp. I have found that the focus indicator in the view finder works :) although humans not being computers it is quite hard to get it perfect, fortunately the images come out extremely clear. The trick to get the whole length of a small item in focus while looking at it from one end is to angle the adjust the angle of the lens so it looks down as related to the position of the camera. Takes a few attempts to get used to how it works but what an amazing tool when you get used to it.

    Here is a link to a selection of -DX macro tilt & shift lens new they are not cheap, but as I said above the ordinary or (FX-Full frame) will work and you should be able to find one in the net for less.

    Good Luck

    Doug McKay

  • Thijs March 20, 2011 09:48 pm

    A so-called macro lens is best for photographing small objects from a close distance. The Nikon AF-S 60 mm F/2.8 G ED Micro Nikkor would be a good choice, but it's not really cheap; a second hand lens would be cheaper. F2.8 will give you a shallow depth of field, which looks nice, but might not be ideal for jewelry where you would want the whole object to be sharp, to show all details. A simple background, like a (colored) piece of paper, would isolate the jewelry from the background, adding to the esthetic appeal. Your current lens, the 18-55 would probably give good results when set at 55mm to minimize distortion. Another important thing for jewelry photographs is good high contrast lighting. Flash is tricky at short distances, but try photographing near a window on a sunny day, experimenting with either with direct or indirect sunlight. Finally, about the tripod: it sounds like you have a tiny tripod, because most tripods are able to hold an SLR, even with a larger lens on it. You could try to manually support the camera to move it to the right angle. You would be half-holding it, but the tripod would provide added stabilty. If you're worried about camera shake, try using a higher ISO-setting (800-1600 = higher sensitivity to light) to get shorter exposure times.
    I hope this helps.

  • Dolores Pargana March 19, 2011 11:20 am

    I am trying very hard to learn how to take pictures of jewelry that I handmake and sell on Etsy site but I don't seem to get it right. First I bought a SLR Nikon Coolpix S550; couldn't get nice enough pictures. I decided to go for a DSLR but couldn't spend a lot of money, talked to the sales person, the DX3100 was suggested to be a pretty good camera for the price and new on the market. I bought it with what I thought was the standard lense the Nikkor 18-55 mm. The pictures are slightly better but still not good enough for the web. It doesn't allow a low f number. I also have a tripod but it doesn't work with the dslr - the camera is too heavy for it and doesn't stay bent the way I want it to.

    I have read a lot of articles but the more I read, the more confused I get. Considering the Nikon DX3100, which lense would you suggest to be the best to takepictures of jewelry? Also, what can I do to my tripod to be able to mount the DX3100 and be able to keep it at the angle I set it? I don't want to spend money on another tripod.

    I would appreciate all the help you may give me, but please, explain any names or fixtures you may mention (I am camera challenged).


  • Eric March 16, 2011 05:41 am

    Many photo buddies have zinged me for not going crazy with "artillery" lenses but the only two lenses in my bag are my 50mm f/1.4 and my 20mm f/2.8 ultra wide.

    I have found that those two lenses do everything I need, and they are small and light to carry around!

    And most importantly, they let me focus more on getting a good shot than fiddling with settings and other bells n' whistles :)

  • Mandeno Moments March 14, 2011 10:42 am

    @ ernie & fomu: thank you.

    @ sharon. A 50mm lens in not a standard lens on your 550D, it's equivalent to an 80mm lens on a 35mm camera. A great budget option is the Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II.

    If you want a budget standard lens try the Canon EF 28mm f2.8.

  • Donald March 14, 2011 09:21 am

    I have been using a Sigma 28mm 1.8 D lens with my D200 for about 4 years now and quite enjoy the results. A side perk was getting it at a camera store going out of business in San Francisco for under $150. With the small size and light weight it is always in my bag.

    I was asked to shoot an evening memorial service and it didn't seem appropriate to have a flash going off so I found a seat on the aisle near the front and used this lens wide open and got a number of very nice pics that the family could share with those that couldn't make it.

    I agree with the author that everyone should try one of these lenses.

  • ernie bernal March 13, 2011 05:56 am

    that's a nice write-up about standard lenses. I am usin g a Nikon D70,can I use a nikon AF 50mm lens

  • Victor Reynolds March 12, 2011 05:05 pm

    I have a 50mm f1.8 Canon EF from my film camera days. I kept it when I switched to a digital body. Works every time!

  • Martin March 12, 2011 03:06 pm

    I go against all the trendy advice of the "pros", and use an expensive body (D700 say $3000) fitted with an inexpensive lens (50mm f1.8 say $150)..... It is a great combo.

  • fomu March 12, 2011 11:08 am

    Thanks for the interesting article. I do a lot of street photography and only use 2 primes:
    The Canon 50 mm f/1.8 and Canon 28 mm f/2.8. Especially the 28mm is fantastic on the street and not too expensive.

  • charles March 12, 2011 10:47 am

    Love my prime lens'

    I use it as much as I can, and cant wait to add another

  • Rob March 12, 2011 04:02 am

    For my Nikon D300, I use my Nikkor 50 mm / f 1.4 more than any of my other lenses for portraits, etc....The end result is quite a bit nicer than my 16-85 zoom, but this little lens come in handy for tight spots and wide effects.

    Though not cheap, I'm considering the new Nikkor 85 mm / f 1.4 to capture even more of what I'm looking for. Primes are great!

  • Thijs March 12, 2011 12:55 am

    Excellent point Mandeno (6 comments earlier), about 35mm giving a different perspective and bokeh than 50mm, regardless of the sensor size. I totally agree (and already had a gut feeling about it myself) but it's the first time I have read about it. It's all about optical geometry. That's why I prefer using a 50mm lens on an APS sensor, for a more natural look than with a 35mm lens, especially with portraits.

  • Thijs March 12, 2011 12:38 am

    Another advantage of a fast prime lens is faster, more accurate auto-focus, because of the extra light gathering power and shallower depth of field. Some cameras have special autofocus sensors that are optimized for 2.8 and faster. Conversely, many cameras have trouble auto-focussing at the telephoto end of zoom lenses (5.6 and slower), leading to 'hunting' behaviour of the auto-focus system.
    I am quite pleased with my Canon 50mm 1.4 and consider added focal length to be preferable for portraits. Furthermore the lens is future proof, in case I want to upgrade to a full-frame-sensor camera body some day.

  • Jeff March 12, 2011 12:16 am

    I got a 50 1.8 II for my 30D thinking I'd give this prime lens thing a whirl for the little money they cost. I have not taken it off my camera since and love what it has done for my photography.

  • Sharon March 11, 2011 10:27 pm

    I've enjoyed reading everybody's comments about these lenses. I've been trying to come up with a valid reason for me to go and spend on a fixed 50mm (I've got a new Canon 550D with the 18-200mm lens). I thought that would cover me for most shots, but obviously no. I know that it's probably mentioned above - but for an amateur that loves (and is learning) photography, and currently hasn't got a load of money to spend on a lens, what would you suggest be my best bet for a 50mm lens that gives a reasonable/good quality image. Thanks in advance.

  • Paraschivescu Constantin March 11, 2011 08:10 pm

    Folosesc pe Nikon D3, mai multe obiective prime, de tip Ai sau Ai-S, deci obiective manual focus.
    Acestea sunt foarte bune de fotografiat pe indelete, si mai ales scenele unde nu este necesar
    in mod evident autofocusul.Daca tinenm cont si de partea financiara, aceste obiective fiind ieftine,
    raportul pret/calitate este foarte bun.

  • rio h. March 11, 2011 05:41 pm

    i use canon bodies.
    my xt is 22.2 x 14.8 mm
    my 40d is also 22.2 x 14.8 mm

  • Nino March 11, 2011 04:10 pm

    Great article, provoking a wide range of discussion, from which I would hope we all learn from.

    One of my three lenses that I own is a Nikon 50mm f1.8 and on my Nikon D300 is equivalent to a 75mm lens, which I find excellent for images of my children & grandchildren as well as a pretty good "walkabout" lens when you are able to zoom using your feet.

  • Kelly March 11, 2011 01:22 pm

    I just got my Sony standard lens in the mail today and already have taken a handful of great shots of my niece! You're so right- the pictures they take are unmatchable by a zoom! It's by far the best money I've spent, so far, on lenses!!

  • John Lambert March 11, 2011 12:00 pm

    You should have mentioned the advantage of light weight compared to the usual zoom bazookas. Having spent the last wo weeks travelling around Italy, I fully appreciate the liighter the better. Only now is my left shoulder beginning to work painfree. Why, oh why, do big lenses have to be so heavy?

  • Rob Milne March 11, 2011 08:56 am

    Lots of good has been said for primes. I love them too. I use a 105 2.8 and the new 85 1.4 AFS Nikkor lenses on a D3 .. FANTASTIC .. The 85 1.4 is amazing at 1.4 I use it a lot for inside shots at weddings, like the dressing of the bride with window light .. The 105 is an amazing portrait lens too. However, there will ALWAYS be room for good zooms. I couldn't live without my 24-70 2.8 and my 70-200 2.8 .. Sometimes there isn't the possibility of "zooming with your feet" and both of those zooms are excellent, even wide open. If there is a choice though, and nothing has to be sacrificed .. prime will always be king

  • Nick March 11, 2011 08:03 am

    I found if your a Canon user an looking for a great, cheap, prime lens you should check out Canon's 50mm f1.8. At around $80-100 US it's a great addition to any photographers kit!

  • Editwizard March 11, 2011 07:33 am


    Steve and Dok are correct. Crop sensors are simply that- 'cropped' images taken using the same lens. Optics and image perspective are different on a 35 vs. 50 lens no matter if you're using crop or full frame. A 50 is standard and 35 is slightly wide-angle - the look is totally different with respect to perspective and distortion.

    Yes, for framing purposes 35 on a 1.6 crop sensor is about the same as a 50 on a full frame. BUT the compression of the image is different. Appearance of bokeh and depth of field are also different.

    Try this: fit your crop-sensor camera with a 17-55 or something that will give you both 35 and 50 focal lengths. Frame up a shot at 50. Next step forward slowly and as you do so, zoom your lens and watch what happens in your viewfinder. The difference in perspective and magnification from 35 to 50 should be striking.

    I think what you aren't realizing is the lens itself is still precisely the same distance from the film, or sensor (in the case of DSLRs). A crop sensor camera will always require a wider angle lens to fit the same framing onto the sensor at the same distance from the subject. A wider angle view requires more image and perspective distortion.

    What to do? Use a 50 and step back further! Definitely looks more natural to me than fitting a 35 and getting closer.

  • ali March 11, 2011 07:30 am

    Fantastic article
    I have an old Helios 58mm (M42 mount) and I have mounted it on my 7D (with a ring adapter) and it feels soooooo harmless to people (even though the body is a bit larger than my previous 400D). Also I take hand-held with the amazing 2 aperture
    I know 58 doesn't translate "normal" on my camera but still having a prime lens is such an amazing experience. I have had two (cheap) lenses before (18-55 kit and Tamron 55-200) but if you want to learn photography you MUST have some "prime" experience. It helps soooo much with making u see better angels and frames (IMHO)
    Go prime, it's just peaceful ;)

  • Mike Wacht March 11, 2011 06:44 am

    I shoot Pentax (K10D and K100D Super) and have used Pentax for going on 30 years now.

    I recently dug out my first ever lens, an Asahi/Pentax 50mm f/2 and mounted it on my K10D. I have been loving shooting with that lens. It forces me to remember all my manual settings, since the lens has only manual aperture and focus. It's been great to really improve my portrait shooting, and I've been doing a lot of shallow DoF with it, too.

    I feel like I'm getting back to my roots, and recalling lessons I learned as a junior reporter/photographer for The Walton Tribune back in the 80s.

  • Mandeno Moments March 11, 2011 06:16 am

    @rio h

    What is the size of the sensor in your cameras?

    I find that using two cameras is great when shooting events, although I usually use two primes.

  • RahulMd March 11, 2011 06:04 am

    I use a canon 35mmf/2.0 on my EOS 400d.

    I love its versatility, low light capability, size (inconspicuous and very portable). This is the lens I have on about 95% of the time and pretty much the only lens I take when I travel. Best GBP175 I have spent :-)

    I also find that having a prime lens forces you to move around and getter a better composition.

  • rio h. March 11, 2011 04:38 am

    i mainly use a 50mm f/1.8 on my main camera, but my second one has a 17-40mm f/4 on it. it's a drag to carry 2 bodies at all times, but it has really helped me for my purposes as well. i get great shots of people's faces with the 50mm, but i do a decent amount of events and having a wide lens is really useful for crowd shots. i also do some family portraits and i use both lenses too, the 50 is wonderful for the "important" close-up shots but i rely on the 17-40 for other shots.

  • B. March 11, 2011 03:25 am

    Loved this article, I've been thinking about purchasing a standard lens.

    So, I have a Nikon D5000, I was going to get like the 50mm, but I read somewhere that it doesn't have autofocus and I'm not all that great with manual focus, so does the 35mm f 1.8 have autofocus?

  • Lucian March 8, 2011 09:19 pm

    About 1 year ago I got the Sigma 30mm 1.4 HSM lens.

    The Good:
    Fell in love with it. Almost never took it off the camera since.
    The bokeh is great.
    And the very wide aperture is awesome. Works wonders for extreme situations, such as only a few candles for lighting.

    The Bad:
    Still got a few credit card payments to go...

  • cortlander March 7, 2011 01:56 am

    I did a comparison of Sigma 50mm F1.4 with Canon 50mm F/1.4. Nothing scientific, just the copies I had. If you are considering any of these you may be interested in the test shots on my blog (inked to the name above).

  • chew March 4, 2011 03:15 pm

    50mm for nikon fx. Had the beastly 28-70/2.8 but I'm usually in the range of 40-50mm when doing general photography. Sold it for the lighter 50mm. And I'm in love with the lens.

  • v March 3, 2011 11:10 am

    the olympus 50 zd is a sharp lens. loved it when i had it but now i use the manual om 50mm lens because it was cheaper and bought the 35mm lens for auto focusing.

  • Steve March 3, 2011 03:29 am

    Dok said: "there seems to be a misunderstanding about full frame and APS-C sensors. In fact, a 50mm perspective is exactly the same on both sensors. It’s just that it’s cropped on APS-C.
    But, when looking in the viewer and leaving the second eye open, the “almost real life size” impression we got with a 50 mm lens is the same with FF or APS-C. But, to gather a same scene in a single with an APS-C we need to get a wider lens.
    for a photograph : (FF sensor + 50 mm lens ) almost equals to (APS-C sensor + (50/1.6=31mm) ) BUT the perspective will remain different !"

    Thank you! I was just about to post the same thing. Think of it this way, if you take an up close head and shoulders portrait at a really wide angle it will give the person an unrealistically large nose. Now you take that picture into Photoshop and crop the picture down by 30%. The person doesn't all the sudden have a normal looking nose do they? Thing to do is use a zoom lens and check the different focal lengths yourself and find what looks normal.

  • Andy Mills March 3, 2011 02:51 am

    @Aravind A 50mm (non EF-S) lens on a "crop" sensor camera like the 550D is equivalent to 80mm on a "full frame" sensor, or film, camera. This is a perfect starting focal length for portraits. For straight forward "normal" portraits, the best focal lengths are from around 80mm to 100mm - anything wider and you start getting distorted features (noses can look larger for example), and although you can use longer lengths, you start getting a bit far away from the subject.

    The f/1.8 aperture also helps with shallow depth of field to isolate the subject that you won't get with the kit lens.

  • Kevin Rawlings March 2, 2011 10:58 pm

    For those of you using the 4/3rds system, I can highly recommend the Panasonic/Leica 25mm 1.4. I've been using it with my Olympus E-P1 for several months now (all the photos on my website were taken with it) and I'm thrilled. Pricey but worth every penny, I haven't used another lens since I bought it.

  • GradyPhilpott March 2, 2011 12:55 pm

    I'm a little surprised that the the Nikkor 35mm/1.8 didn't warrant a mention. It's a little outside your stated range for a standard lens, but at 52.5mm on a 1.5 crop sensor, it's in the ballpark.

  • Mandeno Moments March 2, 2011 09:55 am

    @ aravind: the Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II is a great budget portrait lens, although if you're doing head-and-shoulder shots you have to get pretty close to fill the frame and that can make the subject uncomfortable. Also, with any lens you want to be at least 6 feet way from your subject in order to avoid distortion of facial features. Your 550D has lots of pixels so if you're doing 8X10 prints you can afford to stand back and later crop out the unwanted part of the photo.

    I have a basic publicity shot made with this lens at

    Another excellent portrait lens is the Canon EF 85mm f1.8.
    Bob says that the Kenko 1.4x teleconverter works well with this lens and that will also allow you to step back.

  • Mandeno Moments March 2, 2011 09:43 am

    @ David Cooper: I quite agree, but I'm just addressing the points raised :-).

    Personally, I prefer to talk about the practical aspects of photography (i.e what gets the desired result) and my article is aimed at that level.

    Although I prefer the practical stuff I also find that understanding the technical background helps me get the results that I want.

  • david cooper March 2, 2011 09:22 am

    @ Mandeno/nick/dok


    You are all running off into the wild blue yonder

    let's get back to English

    My understanding was, in the simplest of terms, that a an old standard lens, be it of a focal length of 35 - 55mm when speaking of 35mm film, MORE OR LESS APPROXIMATES WHAT THE EYES SEE


    End of story

    (& do you know that the 'MAGIC' 68° farenheit (+/-20celsius) that all chemicals have to be at is NORMAL ROOM TEMPERATURE in the Temperate Zone in the Northern Hemisphere?

    ie: premix & let stand & all will be well

    Sometimes the answers are much simpler than you think

    (I used to make gum prints & have forgotten more than most will ever know;

    I recently got hold of the key chemical for this process -getting raw chemicals got a lot harder after 9 sept 2001 - so I was researching a little

    a gum print is made on art paper with a light sensitised mix of Gum Arabic, water colour paint & potassium Bichromate

    I found this guy who had all his co-related bar charts about different types of art paper & water colours who didn't realise that you coat the paper with starch 1st (starch = hairspray)


  • Rick March 2, 2011 09:08 am

    The 50mm 1.8 D for my nikon d90 is fantastic. It's on my camera all the time and I only take it off when I know I want zoom. Other than that, you just can't beat the image quality this thing pumps out. It's small, light, fast, and cheap! Under $150 USD and just a little more in CAD funds. You can't go wrong. The 35mm af-s gives you the focus motor in the lens if you need that because the 50mm 1.8 and 1.4 need body motors.

  • Mandeno Moments March 2, 2011 08:52 am

    @ Nick & dok: this is getting esoteric :-)

    This is my understanding of it (and I don't know everything).

    A 31mm lens on APS-C will provide a photo with a field of view almost identical to that provided by a 50mm on full frame.

    Now you take a photo with both setups, both cameras using the same position, the photo has one car nearby and a car further away.

    The apparent or perceived perspective will be virtually identical in both photos, i.e. the size of the near car will be virtually the same in both photos and the size of the far car will virtually the same in both photos. Therefore the apparent or perceived distance between the cars will be virtually identical in both photos.

    In summary, the vast majority of the population would think that the two photos were identical.

    Why? The APS-C camera is only recording the centre portion of the what the 31mm "sees". That centre portion is almost exactly the same as what the full frame camera records when a 50mm is mounted on it. Both cameras are recording the same thing (with inconsequential differences).

    In both photos the apparent or perceived distance between the two cars closely mimics what we see with the naked eye so by convention 31mm on APS-C & 50mm on full frame are both called normal or standard lenses.

  • Aravind March 2, 2011 07:07 am

    I have recently started shooting and have a Canon 550D 18-55 Kit lens.. i Love Portraits and like to buy a Prime best suited for the same... Would a 50MM f1.8 do the trick...

  • dok March 2, 2011 04:28 am

    there seems to be a misunderstanding about full frame and APS-C sensors. In fact, a 50mm perspective is exactly the same on both sensors. It's just that it's cropped on APS-C.
    But, when looking in the viewer and leaving the second eye open, the "almost real life size" impression we got with a 50 mm lens is the same with FF or APS-C. But, to gather a same scene in a single with an APS-C we need to get a wider lens.
    for a photograph : (FF sensor + 50 mm lens ) almost equals to (APS-C sensor + (50/1.6=31mm) ) BUT the perspective will remain different !

  • Nick March 2, 2011 01:38 am

    Actually, I think we were both slightly wrong! In thinking about this more, and doing a bit more research, it's now clearer in my mind that the perspective (why I didn't use that word before I don't know!) is only related to the distance between the focal plane and the subject - nothing to do with lens or sensor/film size. I agree with you that the field of view changes with sensor size and focal length, but it was the perspective I was talking about, and although that doesn't have anything to do with sensor size, it doesn't have anything to do with focal length either!

    Apologies for muddying the waters. Hope they are clearing!

  • Nick March 2, 2011 01:02 am

    @Mandeno: I wasn't referring to focal lengths. I agree that to obtain the same field of view (i.e. "zoom factor") a focal length for one sensor size needs to be modified for a different sensor size. What I was referring to, however (and I may have not made that clear), is that the effect of a "standard" lens to mimic the human eye in terms of how the view appears (i.e. not compressed as in long focal lengths, or expanded as in short focal lengths) is always about ~50mm, so I have been led to believe. That will, of course, mean that you will get less of the field of view on a smaller sensor, but the image will not look more compressed simply because of the smaller sensor. Does that make sense?

  • Tom March 1, 2011 09:26 pm

    I have a Samsung NX10 and i love my 30mm but I've recently acquired some Cannon FB lenses (28mm, 50mm) so I bought an FB-NX adaptor and am lovingbthe old glass. It is so crisp.

  • Jim March 1, 2011 02:09 pm

    I love to use my Nikkor 50mm 1.8, And use the existing two leg Zoom that I have.

  • Nick March 1, 2011 08:49 am

    I was a bit of a geek and produced a database of all my photos by focal length to see which lens I should buy to augment my collection and it turned out I didn't need to - the Pentax FA 50mm 1.4 won hands down! A brilliant lens that I'm glad I bought before the price rises and the devaluation of Sterling sent it from £150 a copy to over £280.

  • Mandeno Moments March 1, 2011 08:40 am

    @ nick. You say irrespective of the the sensor size a “standard” lens is always ~50 mm.

    I'm sorry, but you're mistaken. The focal length (expressed as xx mm) of a standard lens is different for each film and sensor size. I have a list of these focal lengths in my article.

    ***For the readers who are finding this confusing: you are one of many :-). Just look at the list of focal lengths in the first part of my article. That's all you need to know if you want to get a standard/normal lens.***

    The next bit is for the geeks...

    If you want to be precise the focal length of a standard lens for any given format is equal to the diagonal measurement of the sensor/film. E.g., for 35mm a true standard lens is a 42mm and anything in the 40-50mm range is generally considered to be a standard.

  • Francesc J. Garcia March 1, 2011 05:59 am

    I like very much prime lenses. Besides its razor sharpness they are small and light, and this is very important if you want to carry your photo gear all day long.
    Besides, as an old Minolta (and now Sony) user... I can take advantage of the wide range of excellent prime lenses done by Minolta (I have and use the 20/2.8 and the 50/1.4) and also enjoy of the 135/1.4 done by Zeiss for the Sony mount. A terrific tool for portraits.

  • david cooper March 1, 2011 03:45 am

    @John Richardson

    Yes but then again no

    I certainly used to be able to tell which were shot with Hasselblad or Lieca

    & funnily enough I took a 'studio' set last week where I used my little sony kit zoom, but because the shots were all a bit dark switched to a 28 2.8 for the xtra stop

    No thought of lens quality, in general I need the extra width in my 'studio'

    But in fact the quality difference is massive

  • John Richardson March 1, 2011 03:18 am

    Point number 6. Quote "I have found that photos taken with prime lenses have a little bit of magic that those taken with zoom lenses don’t. You can set a zoom lens to 28mm or whatever is appropriate for your camera and make it a standard lens, but you won’t get the magic. You really have to see it to understand it, but I love prime lenses because to my eye they produce photos that look more life-like and less two-dimensional. To put it another way, when I see a photo taken with a prime lens I’m more likely to feel as if I’m really there, a participant rather than a viewer."

    This is a nice opinion, but are you claiming that you can tell the difference between a zoom set to "standard whatever' and a "standard whatever prime" if so, then I guess we are very lucky to have one of the very few people in the world who can tell what kind glass is being used when looking at a photo.

    I would never even allude to making such a claim, nor should you.

  • Gary Ngo March 1, 2011 03:07 am

    I'm a prime lover! I just like to use a prime lens over any zoom lens anytime anywhere!

    For Nikon DX, I love my little Nikkor 35mm f/1.8, best value as others have said!

    But I love my Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 more even on my D7000. And it's a good "normal" lens on the FX body!

    And I also like my GF1's little 20mm f/1.7 "pancake lens" too!

    All are sharp, fast, and create beautiful bokeh! =)

  • ErikKerstenbeck March 1, 2011 02:27 am


    I like to use a 100mm Prime Macro for studio portrait work and also for getting up close. This is a recent shot of a vintage hockey glove and puck using the Prime as a Macro - really great details can be achieved with good glass.

    A Puck in the Hand:

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • Nick March 1, 2011 02:04 am

    I believe that a "standard" lens with a focal length of approximately 50 mm is the same on a sensor with a crop factor (i.e. smaller than 35 mm film). Whilst you need ~31 mm on a 1.6 crop factor sensor to get the same field of view as 50 mm on a full frame sensor, the "standard" view (i.e. to replicate something similar to the human eye) is dependent upon the actual focal length and not the "equivalent" focal length. Therefore, irrespective of the the sensor size a "standard" lens is always ~50 mm.

  • Pete Langlois March 1, 2011 02:01 am

    I love my Nikkor 35mm f/1.8. It's relatively inexpensive and it's a great lens. I also have the 50mm f/1.8 and the 85mm f/1.8 all which are great lenses.

    I use the 35mm for all my portrait shots now and have the 50mm sitting in a box in a closet.

  • Mandeno Moments February 28, 2011 10:42 pm

    @ Steve: interesting point. I think that a comparison with zooms is useful because they are the default option for many people, and I suspect that only a minority of camera owners have ever used a prime.

    @ dogwatcher: I agree that zooms do have their uses. I own one and another is on my wish list. They're very useful when you cannot alter your shooting position in order to "zoom with your feet" and, as you say, they're good in hostile environments.

  • dogwatcher February 28, 2011 06:02 pm

    There seems to be quite some confusion which is a "standard lens" and which isn't, regarding all the comments about 50mm lenses.

    Once again (but the article already explained it):

    On a crop camera (which is still used by the vast majority of DSLR photographers) it is something between 25-31mm (as the article says) but you will find more 35mm lenses on the market.
    At least on a 1.5 crop this is regarded as a "normal lens" nowadays. (Pentax hast just released a "SMC DA 35mm f/2.4 AL" for example).

    50mm is the standard lens for "full frame" (it's somewhat below 50mm, but as already written here, 50mm became the de-facto standard). It's not the standard lens for crop, but it makes a great portrait-lens or - in general - a lens with a slight "tele" characteristic. These are usually quite fast lenses with good optical performance overall (as far as I know the layout of the 50mm lenses is decades old... good, proven and cheap to make). They are quite cheap for Nikon and Canon users... Pentax users should take used older manual 50mm lenses in consideration (there is no cheap 50mm prime lens in production any more.. sadly.)

    In other words.. the 50mm primes are quite adorable on crop cameras, but no, they are no "standard lenses" for crop cameras.... ;)

    Topic 6) is rather mysterious for me... I would say the difference the prime makes is ...

    a) a wider maximum aperture.. a look you can not reproduce on a usual zoom lens (at least not with a kit lens)

    b) the better image quality, micro-contrast and so on.

    Maybe this results in a different "feel" for you.

    But that depends which zoom you have in mind to compare with, there are quite good ones which don't come too costly but are better than your kit zoom.

    I have quite a lot of primes (a lot of used ones, as the Pentax mount can easily fit 20-30 year old lenses) and I love them, but you shouldn't underestimate the value of a good zoom lens. For my taste, with all the "prime lens craze" we see every now and then you should keep in mind that a zoom lens comes in handy for a lot of situations where you need the flexibility or you don't want to change your lens too often (dusty, moisty environment).

    So, love your primes but keep up the respect for your zoom lens in your bag! ;)

  • Steve February 28, 2011 05:56 pm

    Good information, however, it seems that you are talking about two different things. Half of your points are for "standard" lenses and the other half are zoom Vs prime debate.

  • Iza February 28, 2011 12:57 pm

    I do have the 30 mm Sigma you suggest, and I treat it as normal lens on my cropped sensor camera. I absolutely love this lens. I can achieve incredible shallow depth of field, which fits my photographic style. Also, it is fast, so whenever I need to shoot in low light, like inside museum for example, it is my to-go lens. Great article!

  • Jonathan Owen Photography February 28, 2011 11:11 am

    great advice... I've been considering getting a standard lens and you have helped me make up my mid to do so!

  • Adrienne February 28, 2011 10:51 am

    OH, I would love any and ALL 'prime' lenses! :) They sound like such a delight to work with!

  • Erin February 28, 2011 10:48 am

    I have a canon 1000d and am looking into a getting a 50mm lens. Have been looking at the 1.4. Still new to all of this, would that lens be suitable for my camera or should I be looking at something altogether different?

  • Brian Keith February 28, 2011 09:06 am

    Three years ago an Instructor suggested if I really wanted to open up to photography I should move away from my kit lens and shoot with a prime lens. With trepidation I purchased Canon's " Nifty Fifty" because that's what I could safely afford to buy in case I didn't agree with his recommendation. I was hooked within a few shots because my pictures looked and felt like I wanted them to but the kit lens never could deliver.

    I've since traded up to Canon's 50mm f1.4, and purchased the additional primes of 28mm f1.8 and 85mm f1.8. I believe primes have made me a better photographer and certainly more aware of what's happening throughout the frame. I find the fixed distance more natural to my own eyesight and unconsciously adjust my positioning to suit how I wish to frame the shot. And the sharpness is addicting!

    Yes, I know zooms have their place. But for me and the photography I do, I just can't bring myself to remove my primes, even for "L" glass. Come to think of it, I don't even own a zoom anymore...

  • Mandeno Moments February 28, 2011 07:48 am

    Thanks for your feedback folks.

    @ Will James: You are correct, a "true" standard/normal lens has a focal length equal to the diagonal measurement of the sensor or film. But a little variation either way is just fine.

    @ Karl Elvis: you have a very nice kit. I've read that the 20mm is particularly good, not to mention tiny. If you want to get another prime one in the 40-70mm range (equivalent to 80-140mm on a 35mm camera) would be good for portraits and bands in bars. A maximum aperture of f1.4-1.8 would be ideal.

    @ David Cooper: good point. Many of the old Minolta lenses were very good and make a great budget option for Sony users.

    @ Celine: on Canon APS-C cameras 28mm is as close as you can get to a "true" standard/normal lens so you've hit the jackpot. I find that the nifty fifty (Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II) works well for head-and-shoulder portraits of couples. E.g. the basic publicity photo at

    @ Dough McKay: yes, I've read that the 50mm (which is slightly telephoto on 35mm) became the standard because it was simple to make. The "true" standard on 35mm is a 42mm lens and there have been a few of those.

    @Raymond: I haven't heard about the paint-peeling issue.

  • Friendly Photon February 28, 2011 07:33 am

    The lens I use most often (on a Pentax APS-C) is a Pentax FA 31mm F1.8 Limited. For me, it's the perfect normal lens. Wide aperture, fantastic bokeh, fast (but noisy) auto-focus, and incredible sharpness. It's not the lightest lens around because it's all-metal, but it's a reasonable size that doesn't scare people off. When everyone else is relying on their flash, I continue to shoot away in near-darkness with this lens. I've got other, similar lenses of different focal lengths, but the "normal" range is by far my favourite.

  • Jean-Pierre February 28, 2011 07:09 am

    I have a 50 1.4 on a pentax spotmatic. I love the rendering, speed, and can't get enough of the tactile feel. All I use are prime lens so you get used to walking a little bit to get the composition right. What's so awesome, though, is that primes let train you to pre-compose, so you are pretty certain where everything will be in the frame.

  • Brett Dickson February 28, 2011 06:24 am

    I purchased the a second hand 28mm prime lens for my Pentax about a year ago. Since then it has become my "go to" lens. It never ceases to amaze me just how wonderful the images taken with the lens look.

  • Will James February 28, 2011 06:23 am

    The "Standard" lens for any camera was defined as the diagonal measurement of the negative

  • Woodsy February 28, 2011 05:07 am

    Nice article! I am a prime lens lover, and nearly always have my 50mm on my camera. My favorite shots came from that lens, and you are right--there is simply a different "feel" to those pictures, almost a sense of being precisely where the picture was taken. In addition to everything mentioned in your article, using prime lenses is an excellent way to improve your photography, because suddenly your zoom rests in your shoes!

  • Karl Elvis February 28, 2011 05:00 am

    I totally agree about primes. I'm fairly new at this (I picked my camera (a MFT Lumix g2) up around xmas of 2010), and I have four lenses: a 14-42 kit lens, a 45-200 telephoto, a 20mm f1.7 'pancake', and a four-thirds version of the Sigma you mention above (Sigma 30mm F1.4).

    Almost always, it's the primes I reach for. They give me freedom to shoot with natural light, they're small enough to get in tight, but also have a reasonably wide angle. More importantly, they make me work harder, and think more about composition. I can't zoom my way into a good frame, i have to actually move around, step closer, and look through the lens until what I see it right (it's the same reason I'm starting to like manual focus; I have to think more about what I'm doing, and it's making me better at this because I'm thinking more about what I'm trying to capture).

    I do love the ability to get in tight; I shoot a lot of live music, and when the light's decent, my 45-200 is perfect to capture a performer's emotion. But shooting bands in bars, the light's never good enough for that, so I'm back to my fast little primes and in close to the band.

    If price were no object, I'd have en entire bag full of primes; I just love them.

  • Rick February 28, 2011 04:47 am

    Fifty! Wouldn't mind getting that 135mm f/2.8 in the future, either. I know, it's a little more close-up than the standards you mentioned here, but it's great glass.

  • david cooper February 28, 2011 04:38 am

    The old standard lens was anything from 35 - 55mm

    Sony Users can use old Minolta A mount AF lens'

    I have 28mm 2.8

    50mm 1.7 (great for Club concert photos)

    & 24mm 2.8MF lens made by Zeiss

    These all give far better quality than the 2 Sony short zooms that I have

    85mm-105mm were considered ideal portrait lenses

  • Kelly Carmichael February 28, 2011 03:56 am

    Thanks for taking the time to post your two cents Doug McKay, I hope others stop and read the whole thing. It is well worth the read!

    My go to "Normal" lens is an OLD all manual 50 f1.7 that never lets me down due to quality, feel, depth or that "Look" that I try to get from time to time. I absolutely the depth of field it is capable of and the ability to control the Bokeh (blur) front and back of the subject which I am shooting.

    Want to see a sample of my work, go to where I am working on a photo a week for 52 weeks photography project.

  • Celine February 28, 2011 03:47 am

    The day I bought the nifty fifty I fell in love with prime. I have since bought the 28mm f1.8 which is a great lens on my crop canon camera (gives you the look of a standard lens) and the 85mm f1.8 for portrait. I now have a hard time putting my zoom lens on my camera!

  • Doug McKay February 28, 2011 03:22 am

    Thank you very much, nice article . Thank you also for leave the levels of photographer out of it.

    I found it interesting that you used the term “standard Lens”. In fact a 50mm lens was only considered standard because they were indeed standard issue. When 35mm film started the cameras were one piece and had a 50 mm or in some case a 47s mm lens as part of the camera. The optional equipment one could buy were one or two or both were adapter lens that screwed on to the fixed lens. One of these would be a close up and the second would be a telephoto.

    The name “NORMAL” comes from the perspective/ space relationship that the healthy human eye sees. The most exact number is the 47 point some fraction I cannot remember. The “Fifty” really started becoming the standard when the first detachable lens-camera SRL bodies became more available or popular. I would guess that 50 is an even number so that is what the designed for. Keep in mind the 50 mm only applies to 35 mm SLR cameras. Other formats would use a different lens to achieve the “life Like Look”. Back in the day when things were simpler there were even different designs of Fifty’s each lens maker convinced his design was superior to the others. In reality they were selling you on the ability to capture an image that they thought was best and what you really wanted- so each had their own lens(glass element) shapes, number of elements and groupings. I suppose this is what developed brand following in those days. My brother and I lifelong photographers seem to be a little odd in that we liked Carl Zeiss and Rollieflex for our bellows type cameras and Minolta for our 35mm SLRS. Nikon was not in our budget in those days.

    Fifty Primes are almost always simple and do not require many elements so that is the reason they let so much light in – simple less glass. A word of caution if you are able to mount and older generation of fifty or any lens for that matter – know that lens crafting was not computerized nor were there the magical coatings that we have today so you will end up with all kinds of new effects you’re not used to. Shading the lens helps much of the time and some, even an old guy like me uses the effect to purposely get and old school look to an image.

    Another magic prime lens is a 105 mm – again on full format and 35 mm film. It is purpose designed for Macro and Portrait work. It does really help with people pictures for the same reasons you state for your fifty. People like the "look" of their pictures so much better when their faces do not look too fat=round, too square=long, maybe someone you know does not like the "Martian look" due to their already largish ears and the real killer- that lady with the weird out of date hairdo does not appear to have a hair helmet or a nest for creatures to live in on her head.

    Again thanks for your article “the look” might just be the best description of why to use a particular lens. I wrote my two cents worth so people these days see that photography is and has been a developing technology and art- It did not just pop into existence it digital recording and processing.

    Doug McKay

  • Orv Neconie February 28, 2011 03:16 am

    I love my Canon 85mm f/1.8 prime lens for portrait photography. If I could afford the 85mm f/1.2L II, I would buy it in a minute!!!

  • Raymond February 28, 2011 02:13 am

    I have a 50mm and was looking to get the sigma 30mm 1.4, but was disappointed to learn about the paint-peeling issue on the sigma. The 35mm Nikon might be a better choice!

  • Christine February 28, 2011 02:01 am

    I've never heard that zooms have more chromatc abberration than primes. Interesting! I see a lot of it with my 50 1.4, even when I'm not shooting wide open.

  • Shaheen {The Purple Foodie} February 28, 2011 02:00 am

    I could not agree more. Ever since I've bought my 50mm, I feel like my kit lens is such a waste.

  • Anf | Infuzion Photography February 28, 2011 01:55 am

    I'm shooting with a Canon EF 50mm 1.8 II and I'm loving the versatility of the lens. I don't have the budget to acquire a 1.4 yet so I'm happy with what I've got. Yes, the lens is terrible for low lighting situations but I live with it. It'd be nice to have the option to go wider because I can't do landscapes too well but I make do and find creative ways to shoot for now.

  • Joe Sands February 28, 2011 01:52 am

    For Nikon cropped sensor (DX) bodies (so everything except for D3, D3x, D700) - the newer 35mm f/1.8 is the easiest and cheapest choice. Probably the best 200$ you can spend to get better photos for Nikon. It does everything well.