Is 35mm the New Exotic Focal Length?

Is 35mm the New Exotic Focal Length?

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.

Perception

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.

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26 Comments

Stephen Strangways's picture

Perspective and compression don't change when you change the focal length of your lens. Only moving your physical position will change that.

Chris Rogers's picture

Whut? That's not correct at all.

Matthew Johnson's picture

That is true. If you stand 10 ft from a subject and take a picture with a 24mm lens and an 85mm lens, and then crop the 24mm to have the same FOV as the 85 you will get the same compression. However, if you moved closer with the 24mm lens to get the same size subject, the compression will change because of the wider fov.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I think the confusion here is between perspective distortion and optical distortion. Stephen's statement is correct. Perspective distortion is based on the physical distance from the subject.

Think about it like this: hold your finger directly in front of your face then alternate opening and closing each eye really quickly. Notice that your left eye can see more of the "left side" of your finger while your right eye can see more of the "right side". This is because your each eye has a slightly different perspective. Now do the same experiment but instead of looking at your finger in front of your face, focus on a tree in the distance. Notice how it doesn't seem to change at all from eye to eye? This is because the relative perspective of each eye is much less for distant objects.

This is exactly the same thing that happens with photography. Think of your left eye as the "leftmost" pixels in your frame, and the right eye as the "rightmost" pixels of the frame. The closer the subject is to the camera, the more the perspective of each individual differs from other pixels. Note that you don't really experience perspective distortion when both of your eyes are open because your brain isn't stitching both into a single 2D frame like a camera does, rather your brain is interpreting what each eye is seeing as 3d the same way a 3D camera does.

This is what we call perspective distortion. Basically the delta between the relative perspective of each pixel on your sensor. What we call "compression" is simply a decreased delta between those perspectives. The only way to change perspective distortion is by moving the physical position of the camera relative to the subject. (aka Matthew's example, is exactly correct, though the 24mm may have more optical distortion so the frames won't be identical)

Optical distortion is based on the optical qualities of each individual lens. This is caused by how light is warped as it passes through the glass elements of a lens. Generally speaking, due to their nature, wider lenses tend to exhibit more optical distortion because the lens elements have a greater degree of curvature to them. (Though some wide-angle lenses have corrective elements to offset this more than others)

Alfred Barten's picture

I love square format, which means I usually have to crop. That encourages me to use a 28mm equivalent if using a fixed focal length, or a 24-75 for more walk around flexibility. But I seldom take portraits. People appear in my pics for scale, context and interest. So a person’s normal is really what they want to photograph and how close or far they can normally get.

Mike Shwarts's picture

No. People use to like 35mm decades ago. It was never exotic.

NSC Lee's picture

Enjoy 35mm more than 50

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

28mm is missing from the list. Years ago, I did the "shoot with a zoom lens and see what you like" analysis and also looked at the metadata on my favorite images and concluded I preferred 28mm. I bought a 28mm prime and it captures what I see when I'm looking at a scene.

Mike Smith's picture

That's definitelyan omission on my part. 28mm a good shout

Michael L. McCray's picture

Until I got my first DSLR carried two to three bodies 20mm was exotic, 35 mm 50mm was normal and 105mm was the long lens. The 50mm was my prefered street and photo-journalism lens. Now I use a zoom 18mm-200mm and one body.

J Cortes's picture

35mm is not exactly an exotic length. Plenty of photographers use it for street and events. It's my favorite length and on my Nikon Z6 the 35 1.8 S is used for 90% of my shots.

S M's picture

Here’s to hoping Canon reads this and decides its time to make that damned 35mm TSE!

35 has been my favorite spot for interior spaces and architecture. The 1.4x lives on my 24mm tilt shift

Michael L. McCray's picture

Thank you for the recommendation.

Patrick Marion's picture

Did I just waste 10 minutes reading this?

S M's picture

And yet it took you 11 minutes to come up with that response.

Kim Wilson's picture

The 35mm was one of my favorites however the lens was retrofocal due to using a slr. The 40 mm lens was excellent think it was not retrofocal. Liked the 85 and 50 for people closer up.

Alejandro Ravera's picture

I use crop sensor my 70mm(105mm ff) is my normal, and my 18mm(27mm ff) is my exotic. But, most of the time, in the city, the street and the wild i'm glued at 300mm(450mm ff).

David Purton's picture

35mm on a 35mm is THE ubiquitous lens! More useful than a 50mm and not so wide angle as to look like a wide angle! 50 was chosen as standard because it matched human perspective (?) but also just happens to be equivalent to the diagonal dimension of the frame for all formats. It was always said, I and I concur, you can cover most things with a 35 and an 85...for ff/35mm...65/120 for mf and 100/250 for a 5x4!

Indy Thomas's picture

79mm is the diagonal for 6x6 and 162 for 4x5. I preferred the 150 or 135 for 4x5 but so many came bundled with 240's.
I agree with the 35. Brilliant FL.

Trey Mortensen's picture

I bought the Sony 24mm GM back in 2019 and was really excited to use it, however, it has been one of my toughest focal lengths to compose with. Sadly, I had to replace that lens. The silver lining was that for the same replacement cost, I bought the 20mm G and the 35mm 1.8 lenses.

I've found 20/35 to be much more my liking. When I wanted something wide, I always felt like 24mm wasn't wide enough and when I wanted a little more focus, 24mm wasn't close enough. Now I set 35 as default and go 20 for the dramatic wide stuff or 85 for the portrait/longer focal length. It's been a good kit since and works much better for my style. Though with the 35, I'd be totally happy with a 50 or especially a 45mm instead.

Indy Thomas's picture

43mm was declared the "normal" focal length for 35mm as it was the diagonal measurement of the frame.

I started my serious photographic career with only the 50mm lens on my Pentax H3V. I graduated to a Minolta ART-101 and my first purchase of an additional lens was a 28mm. I loved the extreme views I could make with it and thus I have a lot of somewhat annoying exaggerated perspective shots from those days.
I finally settled on what would be my "perfect" setup for many years which was a 35mm f2 lens and an 85mm f1.8 lens. Both were Nikkors for my Nikkormat. I found that I loved the 35 much more than the 85.

I still feel that the 35 has just the right balance of field of view for most imaging that I like to do. It does not shout "I am super wide" or "I am super long" or worse "I am super fast, see my bokeh!"

Timothy Roper's picture

I thought all film camera back in the day came with a 50mm, and I've always viewed that focal length as boring as it gets. But I like it for portraits, and consider it my "long" lens. 28mm is my go-to lens, though. And while 28mm used to be very popular, luckily it was popular with people who took amazing photos, thus forever cementing it as one of the best. It takes a lot of work and practice to be able to use effectively, but no pain, no gain.

Rich Umfleet's picture

Exotic is a 35mm with f/>1.0 speed. Exotic is a 35mm with no distortion on the edges or peanut heads on people when photographing up close. What's not exotic is people starting to rediscover the 35mm focal length, something that's been around a long time. What that is, is "trendy."

Ian Cuthbert's picture

I don't have an 'exotic focal length and I don't even understand what that means, it seems like a fabricated expression. The focal length I use depends entirely what I'm taking pictures of, where and when. But I do like 35mm lenses a lot. For events, when you're mingling with groups of people and taking informal, reportage type photos, 30 to 40mm works great for me. This is, of course, different for everyone.

Chris Fowler's picture

35mm equivalent is kind of exotic for Sony APSC shooters because that requires (35/1.5 crop factor = 23.333mm) a 23mm lens and there are very few affordable primes at this focal length... unless you count the 24mm full frame lenses which can be used on the crop sensor cameras to produce a 36mm equivalent. Actually, I may have just talked myself into buying a new lens. Dammit.

Dillan K's picture

I've always liked my 50mm.