I've never been terribly attached to 35mm as a focal length of choice and, given I'm principally a prime lens shooter, it was the last focal length I bought. In short, 35mm is passe, so why now do I find myself attached to it?Fixed focal length cameras have been synonymous with 35mm — in my mind (and showing my age), the Olympus Trip is the epitome of 35mm (even if it was 40mm), although I never owned one. What I did have was a Canon SureShot AF35M which was — you guessed it — 35mm (well, actually 38mm).
My father, also a keen photographer, said the rationale for 35mm was because it was "equivalent to the human eye." I took that at face value, assumed all the best photographers shot at 35mm (including David Bailey and his eponymous Olympus Trip), and happily snapped away with my compact. Of course, my father had a zoom compact, because he could afford it, so it was more a case of do what I say, not what I do, but who was I to know any better?! It was that throwaway line "equivalent to the human eye" that recently caught my attention as I'd subsequently assumed 50mm was the "how we see" focal length which made me wonder what it actually is and, then, why I have had a dislike for 35mm.
The Human Eye
Perhaps the starting point for equivalence with the human eye is the focal length; there are various answers to this question and ClarkVision provides a good summary that can be distilled down to 22mm (full frame equivalent). Now that seems insanely wide as 24mm provides a quite unnatural (and exotic) field of view. Digging a little deeper, B&H's Allan Weitz provides a more nuanced look at the human eye and how it works. It's worth remembering we have two eyes and that the field of view is very wide (Wikipedia suggests 210º), however, that is after some mental processing which is different from how the eye views a scene. So we are "seeing" a scene at the "wide" end of the lens range which is perhaps why 24mm is a popular focal length. Yet Weitz comments that a "normal" lens is actually 43mm: how can that be?
Mark Wieczorek outlines the physical underpinning to calculating the focal length of a normal lens which, as Weitz notes, is 43mm. In the world of the "nifty fifty", 43mm seems like an odd focal length to use, but it crops up more regularly than you might think. Indeed Fuji has long had a 43mm equivalent in the form of the XF 27mm pancake which, when paired with the X-E4 will provide a rather svelte street camera.
Perhaps inevitably, the human eye doesn't work entirely like a camera. Physically yes it has a focal length and aperture that projects an image, but at that point, it breaks down. How we perceive an image involves a cognitive element and the brain is known to only "focus" on specific elements in the projected scene, roving around to where we direct interest. Our perception, therefore, belies the underlying optics of the eye. Given that a "normal" lens is intended to replicate the same perspectives we envision when we "look" at a scene, we are therefore looking for similar compression (and expansion) effects. Wieczorek's argument is to treat the (single) eye (and so perception) as enclosed by a cube where a normal lens is based upon the image diagonal. Physically that's fine, except perception is very much in the eye of the beholder and on this basis I know that my vision is unlikely to be the same as yours. This is a point that podcaster Martin Bailey makes (see a list of the top photography podcasts) — ultimately if perspective and compression are important to you, then this is something you will want to test in-camera the same way Martin does. Get a zoom lens and take the same image at different focal lengths until you find something you are happy with.
The New Normal and the New Exotic
The "new normal" is heavily overused in modern parlance, however in this case it's warranted. Given the above, a "normal" lens is considered to be 43mm, however, 50mm is often the modern incarnation of that with anything up to around 56mm (sound familiar Fuji shooters?) considered acceptable. Except of course when it comes to understanding your own perception of... your perception! For Martin Bailey that meant something around 68mm and, from my own experimentation, I would have to concur with him. Something around 70mm is about how I see the world. This would explain why I find 50mm a little wide and ultimately, slightly unsatisfying although you can't argue with the size, speed, and (stupidly low) price of something like the Nikkor AF f/1.8D. My go-to lens on a trip often ends up being the 85mm which is perhaps a little tight but gives reach, gorgeous portraits, and something a little closer perception-wise. It might also explain why many portrait shooters have an affinity with 85mm: it's flatteringly normal.
When I started shooting seriously, 24mm was exotic. Not "14mm exotic", which can become unusable without a lot of practice and is impractical in many situations. Rather 24mm is gloriously exotic and a lens I could shoot with all day. You get distortion — expected distortion — but it is manageable and you can tell stories viewing the world in new and unexpected ways. So where did that leave 35mm? No where in my playbook. Every snapshot in every holidaymaker's album was crammed full of brightly colored 35mm Kodak prints. Everybody shot 35mm, so much so that it became (boringly) normal. Except of course it wasn't and whilst modern incarnations of the Trip (such as the Fuji X100) are based around 35mm, zoom lenses are now much more popular.
As I said at the beginning, 35mm was the last focal length prime I bought simply because I never wanted, and so never needed one. However, since that purchase, it has become a favorite in my camera bag. I eschew the 50mm and I invariably take the 85mm and 35mm. It's a lens I can happily leave on my camera all day secure in the knowledge that it's not really wide or long. It provides a distortion-free image that you can simply fit everything into. Maybe this just shows that I don't shoot lots of street, but I've tended not to use a 35mm for weddings either preferring the 85mm. For all of my unhappy early marriage with the 35mm in my youth, it has now become my new exotic lens. Is it yours?
Body image courtesy Marc Lacoste via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons.