Writer’s Favorites – 35mm Prime Lens

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Street Photography

When I was 15, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. While it has gotten much better with age, when I was younger the slightest stimuli would grab my attention. It was a tough job to keep me focused on a single task (it still is if you ask my wife).

Why am I telling you this and what does this have to do with my favorite lens / focal length? I’m telling you because over the years simplifying things has become very important to me and for my photography, and this has manifested itself into a love of the simple 35mm prime lens. I much prefer the simplicity of sticking with a single focal length, as long as a situation allows for it.

When I say 35mm prime, I am referring to the 35mm focal length, so it would be a 35mm lens on a full frame, around a 23mm lens on a cropped APS-C sensor, and around a 17mm lens on a micro four thirds camera.


Lightweight

Brooklyn Bridge35mm lenses are light and non-intimidating, which is a huge advantage for daily use. For this reason, I prefer lenses that are a little slower, such as a 35mm f/2 instead of a 35mm f/1.4, because the f/2 lenses are usually significantly smaller than their faster counterparts. I rarely feel the need to use f/1.4, particularly since most newer digital cameras can shoot very well at high ISOs.

The Freedom of a Prime Lens

Using a single focal length is a great way to simplify your photography and to make it more consistent. The constraint can slow you down and help you think more critically about perspective and framing. It can help you grow as a photographer.  In addition, 35mm  is just wide enough without being too wide. It will not overly distort a scene, but it will allow you to capture a wide scene from a close distance.

Fuji X100s + 23mm (35mm equivalent)

Fuji X100S

Fujifilm X100S with 23mm F2 Lens (35mm equivalent).

Currently, my favorite 35mm lens is actually a camera, the Fuji X100S, which has a fixed 23mm (35mm equivalent) f/2 lens that is not removable. I use this small camera as a daily complement to my DSLR system and am now able to carry a high quality camera with me everywhere, no matter what I am doing.  Because the lens was built specifically for the Fuji X100S, it is a spectacular combination and the image quality is very comparable with my high-end DSLR in a much lighter camera body.

A 35mm can be used for a variety of situations. It is not perfect for every situation, but you can use it for street photography, landscapes, travel photography, portraiture, and even architecture. Here are my favorite ways to use the 35mm focal length.

Street Photography

Street Photography

The 35mm focal length is one that has been used by many street photographers over the years and there is a reason that so many do. The focal length makes it easy to show an entire scene, to combine a person and a background, or to combine multiple subjects within the same frame from a close distance. It is wide enough for you to show a large area of background while still focusing on a main subject at a close and intimate distance.

PortraiturePortrait

A 35mm can even be used for portraiture. It is not your typical lens for a tight headshot, where an 85mm to 120mm is ideal. However, the 35mm excels at producing wonderful environmental portraits from a little further away, where both the person and elements of the background are prominent. It is wide enough to include a lot of the surroundings, but not too wide to significantly distort the subject’s features.

Architecture

Architecture

This focal length is not ideal for zooming into building details at far distances, however it is a great focal length for capturing buildings. The constraint can almost turn into an advantage as you begin to photograph buildings in ways that you might not otherwise. I do not recommend only a 35mm for architectural photography, but a 35mm can be a big asset much of the time.

Urban Landscapes

Urban Landscape

The focal length is wide enough to include a scene with a lot of depth and a lot of interest, while not being too wide as to significantly distort the features of the scene.


Travel Photography

Overstuffed Photo Backpack

Have you ever given your wife a black eye by swinging around a tripod that was attached to your backpack at 5am, while getting out of a taxi at the airport for a vacation to Mexico with her extended family? Here is how I used to pack for vacations. I no longer pack like this for vacations.

So for these reasons the 35mm is my favorite lens. Do you use it? What is your fave and why?

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • Keith Starkey

    I use the 35mm 1.8 DX for my D3200. It’s a great lens, that gives me what you talked about here. And you know, I love the style of the old-school cameras. They just have that “look,” you know. When cars of only a few yesteryears ago had edge and cut and distinction from one part to the next, something was lost when they became too rounded, too bulky, too…just there; the body style of your typical Nikon or Canon today. Maybe, what with all the buttons, knobs and twist-and-turn things on cameras today that’s the way it has to be, but just seeing your camera here with the simple but elegant prime (or a zoom, too) on it is definitely cool.

  • david blanchard

    I love the Olympus 17mm, it rarely comes off my camera incept for some occasional headshots with the 45mm

  • Rich

    Hi Keith, I have the Nikkor 18-55 F/3.5-5.6 VR and the Nikkor 55-200 F/4-5.6 IF-ED VR lenses along with the D5200 of which was given to me by my three adult sons for our most recent Christmas. After being out of the photography genre’ for far to long, due to divorce I’m very grateful to be back in that form of communication and couldn’t agree with you more about the “classic” look and feel of the older systems. The 35mm focal length is superb indeed, thanks for your input and love of our medium.

  • GJGK

    I use a pentax 21mm limited lens (31.5mm) most of the time on my K-3. Like it because it is close to the 35mm range.

  • Nice work, James. I recently purchased my first 35mm prime – the Canon 35mm f/2 IS USM. Like you, I’m finding this focal length to be just right. It’s not too wide. It’s just right. I created a “35 Days of 35mm” project with this lens. I thought you’d be interested in it. http://www.calebkeiter.com/canon-35mm-f2-is-usm-lens-review/

    Thanks for the great thoughts!

  • Eelco Romeijn

    Being a videographer, the 35mm 2.0 is my favourite lens for doing interviews on a crop sensor body. At 2 meter distance you’ll get a nice medium shot and a nice bokeh with reasonable dof at 2.8.
    Besides that this lens has no visible geometric distortion. Straight lines stay straight on camera.

    Love it.

  • Dennis Baker

    I enjoyed the article, but I think you mis-calculated the “equivalent focal lengths” that you listed in your third paragraph. The equivalent focal length of a 35mm lens on an APS sensor would be 56mm (35mm x 1.6) – for a Canon lens. The “equivalent focal length” increases on a smaller sensor.

  • Marbico

    Calculation is ok. To achive efect of 35 mm in FF you need use 23 mm on APS-C camera

  • Dennis Baker

    I understand what you’re saying. Sorry. I was looking at using a 35mm lens on a camera with an APS sensor. The “equivalent focal length” would then be 56mm. You’re saying that you would need to use a 23mm lens on an APS sensor camera in order to achieve the same optical effect as using a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera.

  • The Canon 35mm f2 IS is my favourite lens on my 6D. I used to prefer the 50mm focal length but I feel the 35mm FL is more versatile and you can still get a nice shallow DOF in certain uses.

  • Aick Nakpil

    Hi There! I have a D7000 + 50 mm 1.4g but i find this combination “too tight” (x1.5 crop factor) for a daily walk. If i purchase the 35mm 1.8G DX, will it be a 35mm or will it have 52.5mm (x1.5 crop factor)?

    Thanks for your kind feedback
    Cheers,
    Emil

  • Mel Timtiman

    The 35mm f/1.4 L is always attached to my 5D mkIII.

  • Mike Vincent

    I love the 35mm focal length. Like you James, I recently acquired the Fuji x100T and it has become my constant companion. It is a wonderful camera and the 23mm with the crop factor thrown in makes this a perfect combination for my eye. An interesting thing has opened up using this camera, I have learnt a lot more about the relationship between the Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. The feedback from the camera and instant image preview before the shot reveals a good exposure or “not”. Excellent article, thanks. PS…I love your book on Street Photography.

  • Rayan

    lol.. its my favorite too and even every professional photographer like to use 35mm prime lens http://bit.ly/1xAttCP

  • David

    Hi Aick,
    You have to apply the X1,5 crop to all the focal lenghts you use on a DX body, even if it is a DX lens.
    That DX means that the lens is optically optimized for a DX body. If you try to use it on an FX body you’ll see a lot of vignetting.
    Hope to make things clear to you.

  • Leif Sikorski

    Same for me, it’s my most used lens on my OM-D.

  • Jens Rueckert

    Great article, thank you. Had/ still have a lot of CanonFD equipment…but most of the time I used a 50 1.4 or the 35 2.0… Some years ago I bought a lot of equipment, the D700 the 2.8 zooms and some primes…and…? What I used and use most: 50 1.4 and 35 2.0 (manual) on full frame and more and more my old Canon FD lenses on a fuji xe-1. My favorites again the 24 2.8 and the 35 2.0. I travel light. Long lenses for animals only… No more big zooms no more back pain but more fun and fun. (jensaddis/flickr.com)

  • I love my XF 23MM F1.4 R prime lens (35mm equivalent) on my Fujifilm X-T1… this in conjunction with my XF18-135mm F3.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens… I’m usually set for whatever photographic situation I normally find myself in. Great article… Thanks!

  • I bought my Nikkor DX 35mm for my D5200 and I do like it. The first photographs I took with it are astonishing portraits of my girlfriend. And since then, I am initiating myself to streetphotography.

    However, I don’t like taking my DSLR with me at all, because it’s still bulky and noisy. People see it and, it’s like I become a threat with it. I wish I could have the same, but on a smaller camera, like a hybrid.

  • Kelly Dutro

    I love the idea of 35 days with a 35mm! I just ordered my first 35mm prime lens as well, the Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G for my D3400. It’ll arrive tomorrow, and I’m really excited to start using it!

  • Deep Das

    Love your photos with the 35mm

    Deep

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/deepdasphotos

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