Photography / Buying Guide

The Lens Every Photographer Should Have and Use: the 35mm

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To answer the question posed by fellow writer Todd Vorenkamp in his article about the venerable 50mm prime, the lens I would choose if I were to be stranded on a desert island would have to be a 35mm prime. Sure, the 50mm is an old and reliable choice that should cover most subjects, but it doesn’t work amazingly for anything specific and, frankly, I think it’s a little boring these days. The 35mm, on full-frame of course, will open the door to a different type of imaging experience, and it can do pretty much anything the 50mm can do, plus a bit more.

Like many photographers, I started off with the classic “nifty fifty” on film and digital cameras. It is a useful focal length, but arguably boring, due to how common it has become. I also find it somewhat limiting for many subjects; I was always craving something a little wider. Eventually, I relied on a 16-35mm for a lot of my documentary work, including environmental portraits, and I consistently found myself at the 35mm end. So, when I went to purchase some new glass, a 35mm became a priority, and now I have three different 35mm options sitting at home (which is too many, but I just can’t seem to part with any of them).

Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D Lens

What makes the 35mm a worthy go-to lens? Well, I think the most important consideration must be the slightly wider than “normal” angle of view. This means there are more opportunities for capturing part of the background along with your subject, and telling a complete story. I shoot a lot of documentary and photojournalistic work, so the wider view is a huge benefit. It also means I can work in tighter spaces, an issue I’m sure many photographers have run into while composing pictures. On top of this, the 35mm can usually get closer than your basic 50mm lens, giving you more freedom of movement overall. And, now that we have so many cameras with resolutions greater than 24MP at our disposal, cropping in post comes at a very small cost to overall image quality. This makes it one of the most usable and versatile primes out there.

Field of View

I find the 35mm to be the perfect, not too wide and not too long, focal length. It manages to avoid many of the issues of distortion that accompanies wider options, and can still create images with shallow depth of field. Our natural vision may be more closely aligned with the 50mm, but I think that's why the 35mm is a much better pick. It gives users a slightly different look than we get with our own eyes, especially if we want to capture something unique and reveal something about the scene in front of us that may not be obvious with a more restricted point of view. And, as I mentioned earlier, framing wide and cropping wider gives you the option to get the 50mm field of view whenever you want.

The difference between the angle of view of a 50mm lens and the angle of view of a 35mm lens (for illustrative purposes only)

Size

35mm lenses may not be the smallest options out there, but they can come very close. Some great examples of this are the Sony FE 35mm f/2.8 and Nikon AF NIKKOR 35mm f/2D, which match even the most compact nifty fifties out there. If you start looking for larger apertures, however, I must admit that the size does go up noticeably. The current crop of f/1.4 lenses gets longer and larger, but not so much that it is problematic, in my opinion. Anyway, it’s a prime, not a telephoto, so you are going to have a lighter load overall, compared to any professional zooms.

Nikon AF NIKKOR 35mm f/2D Lens

Cost

Alright, Todd has me on cost. The 50mm options can be found for cheaper, since they are generally simpler, more well-known designs. But you are paying for quality glass, and if you are anything like me, you will probably get more use out of a nicer 35mm, later in your photographic journey, than an inexpensive 50. If you look at used or slower options, you should be able to find one that fits your price range. It will be well worth the cost.

Optics

The 50 is easy, but good 35s are where you start seeing some specialized glass. Whether it's your more basic aspherical glass or the complex Blue Spectrum Refractive element, you can be sure that most 35mm lenses are quite good. The 35 isn't wide enough to be hugely problematic in any specific way, but a good lens will have some corrections to limit any aberrations.

35s can be quite fast. Nearly every brand has a 35mm f/1.4 option available, and every single one has something around f/2. With current sensor tech, you should be more than happy with any of these choices, and they are plenty fast for getting shallow depth of field, especially if you get up close to your subject.

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM Lens

The Guide

Hopefully, you are now on your journey to obtain a 35mm prime. Let us help you—just find your lens mount and compare some of the top lenses available. I’m going to dial this into a couple of main picks for each mount, to make things easier on you. And keep in mind that I am only going to list native options.

Canon EF (Full Frame)

Canon makes a couple of stellar options for 35mm seekers. First, one of its newest lenses is the EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM, which is obviously the most optically refined and high-end option for Canon shooters. If that is a little pricey, Sigma makes the 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art that will certainly satisfy many. For a more mid-range pick, it's hard to beat the EF 35mm f/2 IS USM, which is among the few wide primes with stabilization. Canon's EF mount is packed with options, but if you need something affordable, it'll be hard to beat Yongnuo's YN 35mm f/2.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon DSLR Cameras

For the complete list of 35mm full-frame lenses for Canon EF mount, click here.

Canon EF (APS-C)

If you are working with Canon’s APS-C system, you should be looking at lenses that are about 24mm (though 22mm would be perfect with the 1.6x crop factor). The only dedicated APS-C lens available is the affordable EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM, which has the benefit of being a pancake design. Beyond this, you need to look toward full-frame options, such as the EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM.

Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM Lens

For the complete list of lenses for APS-C Canon cameras, click here.

Nikon F (FX)

As one of the oldest mounts still in use, Nikon’s full-frame 35mm line is comprehensive, but the most recent picks are going to be your best bets. This includes the Gold series AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G at the top, and the smaller and more affordable AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G, which have many of the latest features for digital cameras. If you are looking for some more classic glass, Nikon still produces the AF NIKKOR 35mm f/2D, which offers AF and a physical aperture ring. And, for pure manual operation and high-end optics, there is the NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4, though a better bet today is likely the Zeiss Milvus 35mm f/2 ZF.2 or Distagon T* 35mm f/1.4 ZF.2. If you are just looking for something to get started with, Yongnuo makes a great budget lens in the YN 35mm f/2, though you will get a lot more by stepping up to the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art or Tamron SP 35mm f/1.8 Di VC USD.

Zeiss Distagon T 35mm F/1.4 ZF.2 Lens for Nikon F Mount

For the complete list of full-frame 35mm lenses for Nikon F, click here.

Nikon F (DX)

There unfortunately aren’t many choices for DX-format Nikon cameras, where you will need to look toward the 24mm to get your 35mm equivalent, but the few there are quite good. Starting with the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED, you will have contemporary glass and features for sharp imagery and fast operation. However, if you want something a little more affordable, the classic AF NIKKOR 24mm f/2.8D will definitely be able to do the job. There are a few more options that you can find by just clicking here.

Nikon AF NIKKOR 24mm f/2.8D Lens

Sony A

As a relatively small system compared to the more established brands, the A mount does still have some quality glass available. Sony has its own 35mm f/1.4 G for those who want to stick with the OEM. However, the system really opens up with third-party choices, including the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art. Also, Tamron has its SP 35mm f/1.8 Di USD, for those looking for a more compact or affordable lens. If you want something for APS-C A-mount cameras, the only full-featured option is the Distagon T* 24mm f/2 ZA SSM, which provides a 36mm equivalent. There is also an all-manual Samyang 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC.

Sony Distagon T* 24mm f/2 ZA SSM Lens

For the complete list of full-frame A-mount 35mm lenses, click here.

Pentax K

For full-frame Pentax slingers, the only choice from this company is the smc P-FA 35mm f/2 AL, which seems to be a capable option. If you want something more modern, you should check out the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art and, if you prefer the manual life, there is the Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC or Mitakon Zhongyi Creator 35mm f/2. If you are among the APS-C shooters, the closest pick is going to be the compact HD Pentax DA 21mm f/3.2 AL Limited, with its 31.5mm equivalent focal length.

Pentax HD Pentax DA 21mm f/3.2 AL Limited Lens

Sigma SA

Well, this is easy. For Sigma APS-C and APS-H cameras, the 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art will get you the closest, with an equivalent focal length of 36mm and 31mm, respectively.

Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Sigma SA

Sony E

This is my current system, so it is easy for me to pick a few options here, starting with the mid-range pick of the Sony Sonnar T* FE 35mm f/2.8 ZA. This option is super compact, has a price range in the middle of the pack, and offers excellent performance. For less cash, try the Rokinon AF 35mm f/2.8 FE, which claims many of the same features at a more palatable price. If you want to step up from this, there is the Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA with its faster aperture, even better optics, and a physical aperture ring that can be de-clicked for video. Looking into the manual realm, you have the Rokinon 35mm f/1.4 AS UMC and, if you are a video shooter, Zeiss offers the Loxia 35mm f/2 for you. For more full-frame options, click here, or if you find you really like 35mm lenses, just get the RX1R II.

Rokinon AF 35mm f/2.8 FE Lens for Sony E

If you are an APS-C E-mount shooter, there is one serious option: the Sonnar T* E 24mm f/1.8 ZA. One of my favorite lenses when I used an a6000, this lens is certainly worth the cost, which is good since it’s the closest thing to a 35mm you can get for the system unless you look at the all-manual Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS IF UMC or Handevision IBERIT 24mm f/2.4.

Fujifilm X (APS-C)

Fujifilm has an APS-C system, so you should be checking out its 23mm lenses for the 35mm look. Fortunately, the decision is quite easy, with just two options. The latest XF 23mm f/2 R WR is compact and weather resistant, while the XF 23mm f/1.4 R is obviously faster and claims better optics. If you want something strictly manual, then I would have to recommend the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4.

Fujifilm XF 23mm f/2 R WR Lens

For all the Fujifilm X-mount options, click here.

Canon EF-M (APS-C)

Another APS-C system, the EF-M mount has few options, but it is really hard to beat Canon's own EF-M 22mm f/2 STM. Fast, tiny, and superb optically make it an easy pick. If you want something manual, Rokinon makes a 21mm f/1.4.

Canon EF-M 22mm f/2 STM Lens

Micro Four Thirds

Crop factor makes finding a 35mm equivalent a bit confusing for Micro Four Thirds since, technically, you would need a 17.5mm. Luckily, one of those does exist with the specialized Voigtländer Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95, but this lens is focused on providing exceptional bokeh and may not be an ideal day-to-day optic. For everyday shooting, I would have to recommend the Olympus M.ZUIKO Digital 17mm f/1.8 or the slightly longer Sigma 19mm f/2.8 DN. And there is always the manual Rokinon 16mm f/2 ED AS UMC CS.

Voigtländer Nokton 17.5mm f/0.95 Lens for Micro 4/3 Cameras

Leica M

If you are shooting with a Leica M-series body, it’s hard not to want to stick to Leica glass, and they make it easy with three distinct choices, the Summarit-M, Summicron-M, and Summilux-M. The Summarit is an f/2.4 option that is exceptionally compact, and the most affordable of the bunch. Next you have the Summicron, with its highly-regarded optics, f/2 aperture, and compact size. Finally, you have the most expensive choice, the f/1.4 Summilux, which is a choice for its dreamier look and speed, though it is larger. If you are looking for something a little more affordable, it’s hard not to recommend any of the Zeiss and Voigtländer options, especially if you are planning on adapting them to other systems.

Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH. Lens

Leica L

Leica continues to build up its mirrorless system, so no Leica-made options are available for the full-frame SL quite yet, although there is the Handevision IBERIT 35mm f/2.4 if you don’t want to adapt anything to your camera. For T and TL shooters, there is exactly one 35mm equivalent option, and that is the Summicron-T 23mm f/2 ASPH. If you are shooting with an APS-C mirrorless camera from Leica, you should own this lens.

Leica Summicron-T 23mm f/2 ASPH Lens

Love the 35? Hate the 35? Is there a specific lens you feel very passionate about that didn’t make my list? Or is there another focal length beyond the 50mm and 35mm that you think is even better? Leave a comment below!

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I like 35mm but it's far from my most used focal length. I'm a lazy person so most of the time I just use a 24-105mm on full frame. I find that I like the exaggerated perspective 24mm affords me and the flattened perspective of 105mm but not really much between 28mm and 70mm. in my eyes it just doesnt make for enough of an interesting viewpoint. I like the 35mm field of view but the perspective is what I'm not a fan of. If I need a prime I usually reach for a 50mm just because of the perspective (also the 50mm STM is so damn light!)

i guess the only thing that can solve my problems is a larger format so i can have 35mm field of view with 100mm+ perspective...

just my 2¢.

HCB was brilliant, but his pro-50mm viewpoint was/is lost on me. My eyes fell that there is nothing more boring than normal. Mind you, I'm not saying his or anyone else's work with a 50 is boring. What I am saying though, is that I am bored when I look through a 50mm lens. It's not you, it's me.

I could die happy having only every shot through 35mm lenses. I own, and have owned, other glass, but 99% of the time I'll be working a 35mm f/2 on whichever body I’m dragging around. I feel as though my eyes 'see' in 35mm, whether or not that is true is up for debate but that's how it seems to me. When considering perspective - a 50 gives that accurate realness but to me it's too tight and too sterile. While the breathing room with a 28mm is nice, the look doesn't make me happy.

I'm fussy, me want goldilocks glass.

Mostly though, I like exploiting the inherent liabilities in the 35mm lenses I've owned. My goal is always to create drama that I will never get to show how I want it to with a 50 mm, and is impossible to manage in a non-gimmicky way with a wider lens. I love the vignetting when they're opened up, the roll off to the corners and the slight accent on the foreground/minimizing of the background. And let's not forget the diminished DOF when shot up-close-and-personal. For me, the 35 is juuuuuuuuuust riiiiiight.

I use the MFT system and my favorite lens is the Lumix 20 mm, f/1.7 (version I) on the Lumix G Series cameras. I mostly shoot landscapes and naturescapes. It's pretty compact, light, and has really good glass for my useage. Next best is my 14 mm, f2.5 Lumix for its even wider field of view. Don't own a nifty fifty, as the 14-45 mm zoom covers the short zoom range.

Nothing wrong with the 40mm equivalent, though I would still prefer a bit wider. As for the 28mm equivalent (your 14mm) that is another debate, as many shooters end up picking either the 28 or the 35 and sticking to it. They are close but very different.

Always been a fan of the 35 over 50mm for the more "what's happening around the periphery" look.

But lets look at this empirically (based on one person of course. Cmon, you thought this was going to be actually scientific?)
Stats of recent trip with an 18mm prime and 24-240 superzoom, 95% of my photos are 24-40, 18mm, and 80-200.

40-70 was a deadzone of a few dozen photos with nothing interesting of note, many even just accidental shots.

Conclusion: boring 50 for boring people

Thank you Willy for bringing some logic to this discussion. The 35mm is much more interesting than a boring old 50.

Fighting words!

I'll see you out back in the parking lot at 3 o'clock, Steiner!

The 50mm is THE lens to have!

Game on!

Just to muddy the waters and get a 3-way fight going....

Almost everything I do is with telephoto.  35mm? Useless.  50mm? Useless. Even 70mm, useless.  A good 100mm to 200mm macro? Great! Butterflies, your portraits are on the way! A 500mm to 800mm? Super! Birds, your portraits are on the way!

This somewhat irreverent comment is actually to emphasize that what's the best lens for any given photographer depends a whole lot more on the photographer and his intended subject than adherence to any specific focal length.  One will hardly try to take pictures of butterflies with a 20mm (it'll fly off :-) or a landscape with an 800mm (nice picture of a single rock you have there :-) 

If you must compromise from the purity of "your favorite focal length," perhaps the best type of lens is one of the all-in-one zooms, such as the Nikon 28-300mm or its cousins made by other brands.  While these may not do each and every focal length as well as a dedicated prime, they sure have a whole lot of versatility.  You can even do some pretty decent 0.1X to 0.3X close-up with the Nikon (which I own, so yes, I have to confess I actually do have access to 35mm and 50mm capability :-).  

All that said, I'm getting in the ring on Todd's side; I know he too owns a 200mm macro lens :-)   If we also get a fisheye advocate to show up, it'll be a tag team match :-) :-)

Geez. Where are my fellow 35mm fans?

I will admit Matthew that you are on to something with your telephoto macro pick. That is my second choice if I bring two lenses along for the day. The pairing between the 35mm and a 90-105mm range macro is quite nice.

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