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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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromatic_aberration], 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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