Four Reasons Why a Fast 35mm Prime Lens Should Be in Your Bag

Four Reasons Why a Fast 35mm Prime Lens Should Be in Your Bag

I’ve always passed on 35mm prime lenses. On paper, they always seemed too close to what I could already capture with my phones or what’s duplicated in my 24-70mm professional zoom lenses. It turns out, I didn’t know what I was missing until I tried out the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens.

My own logic around 35mm lenses doesn’t hold water. I’ve purchased a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED lens specifically for astrophotography. I’ve even purchased the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G lens and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G lens. I’m still not sure why I purchased either but at least I was able to trade the 58mm for a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR.

But back to the 35mm focal length. The kind folks at Tamron USA loaned me what’s been dubbed one of the most “optically superior” lenses around, the new SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens. In the name of science, I forced myself to use a focal length I don’t usually park myself at, and in the process I discovered that yes, Virginia, there is a reason to own a fast 35mm prime, especially one that’s tack sharp all the way out to f/1.4.

f/1.4 Is the Original Night Sight

The sharpness of the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD Lens allowed for an easy capture of Quinnipiac University's library at night. As a bonus, the wide aperture also hid all of the dust spots on my sensor that showed up at f/11.

The sharpness of the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD Lens allowed for an easy capture of Quinnipiac University's library at night. As a bonus, the wide aperture also hid all of the dust spots on my sensor that showed up at f/11.

I can wax poetic about how great Google’s Night Sight computational imaging tech is in their Pixel phones but the truth is, Night Sight is still easily blown away when it comes to detail when paired with a large sensor camera (in this case, my Nikon D750). The large aperture lens means hand-holdable shutter speeds in most conditions, and cases where I could balance the camera on something, way more detail than the tiny sensor a phone could muster even with fancy software. Compared to my trusty Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens, the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens is sharper across the board (as prime lenses tend to be over their zoom counterparts) but also lets in four times as much light.

In darkness, the f/1.4 and full-frame sensor are a potent combination.

In darkness, the f/1.4 and full-frame sensor are a potent combination.

Even in pitch black darkness, the wide aperture allows for a decent shutter speed, like the photo of the boat above at 5:40 in the morning, where I was able to get a 1/80 of a second at ISO 1250.

Shallow Depth of Field

A fast 35mm prime was able to catch a lot of the background for context while separating the kids from it.

A fast 35mm prime was able to catch a lot of the background for context while separating the kids from it.

Portrait mode is still somewhat of a gimmick on phones. There’s no substitute for good technique and a wide aperture lens when it comes to shallow depth of field, and the Tamron doesn’t disappoint. At f/1.4, images had a natural falloff that looked better than the f/2.8 I was used to on my zoom lens. In a tight space like the Home Depot above, it made it easy to pop the kids out of the rest of the store, and infinitely better than any computational imaging solution.

This works especially well for objects found against a busy background like the photo at the top of this post. The colorful Volkswagen Beetle was found sandwiched between cars in a repair shop. The Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens was able to pop it out of the surrounding area with ease.

Shutter Speeds Faster Than a Speeding Train

The wide aperture allowed for a usable shutter speed, allowing capture of this fast-moving train into Bridgeport, CT.

The wide aperture allowed for a usable shutter speed, allowing capture of this fast-moving train into Bridgeport, CT.

Even in broad daylight, fast moving subjects sometimes require extra-fast shutter speeds. To catch the train in the morning sunrise, I had to crank the ISO up to 800 and open the lens up to its widest aperture just to get a 1/800 shutter speed. With a little pre-focusing and a high-speed burst from the camera, I was able to freeze the train in motion against the wonderful lines of the tracks and bridges.

The Sweet Spot Between Too Wide and Not Wide Enough

The Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens is a top-tier 35mm lens and a good place to start with 35mm primes.

The Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens is a top-tier 35mm lens and a good place to start with 35mm primes.

Though I’ve purchased a 50mm lens for every system I’ve owned, the truth is, most of the time the purchases were made because the lenses were cheap. While the few times I’ve dusted off my Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G lens, the results have been good, the reality is that it’s not a practical day-to-day focal length. If it was, it would be the default on most phones. But the 35mm is another animal entirely. It’s just long enough to get good environmental portraits, but wide enough to take in landscapes without being the slightly-too-wide 29-ish mm of most smartphones. It just feels right on the camera.

If you’ve been writing off a 35mm lens as an unnecessary purchase, it might be time to take another look. The Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens is a solid choice for anyone looking for a 35mm lens to fill out their kit. It’s tack sharp and won’t break the bank compared to some of its competitors.

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15 Comments

Alex Yakimov's picture

Thank you, Wasim, nice engaging piece. I am debating which is better 28mm or 35mm and to be honest “widish” works for me. May be because of smartphone familiarity. Given it takes more patience to compose a good shot being close to the subject since the perspective is more extreme.
PS well composed and esthetically pleasing images

user-55962's picture

I find the 35mm to be a good focal length but I when you have a 24-70 or 24-120 (or 105) you already have it. I have the 20mm 1.8 and I find it to be a more practical focal length when wanting to shoot wide.

Alex Yakimov's picture

I do have 20 as you mentioned, but the distortion is a bit extreme to my taste. My favorites are: 20, 28, 58, 105 and 300.

user-55962's picture

You are tight, it does have distortion. I try to put subjects in the middle if possible and LR does a fairly good job at fixing most of the distortion.

I love the look of the 20mm. For me it's this spot of not too much but enough to have lots of context.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I have the 20 and I love it but I dismissed the 35 for the same reasons as you, and that was a mistake, the (sharp!) f/1.4 of the lens has a lot to offer. The key is how sharp it is wide open, making that aperture actually useful.

Stuart Carver's picture

Favourite equivalent focal length on the Fuji for me, although I also like the actual 35mm on APS-C

Angel Penagos's picture

I love the 35mm, and i´m ready to trade mi 200-500 for your 58 :-P

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Haha someone already traded me a 200-500 and for sports it is great for me.

Timothy Gasper's picture

After decades I've finally bought a 35mm. Since the 70's I had the standards....28mm, 50mm, and 105mm. For years I told myself - 'Hey stupid....get a 35.' But something always came up and I procrastinated. Well, last month I finally myself one and I am so glad I did. It fills in a gap and also can eliminate 1 or 2 lenses. Thanks for the article.

Juan Pena's picture

Ef 35 2.0 was a bargain at $200 if it breaks it get another. Good write up though.

Yeah ... not really. I think a 50 would have been better in all instances you’ve shown here. So while I admit this is a matter of taste your title « why a fast 35 mm should be in everyone’s bag » is simply false. I think you’re here trying to sell the Tamron lens you’ve received « to try out »

John Kane's picture

Really that’s 3 reasons to own an f/1.4 lens and one reason to own a 35mm lens, but still a good read. Thanks.

While I use micro 4/3 equipment, my favorite lens is the Oly 17mm f/1.8 - same as 35mm on a FF body. I really like the perspective and lack of distortion so I often carry only that lens. One thing that confuses me about your article: On the photo of the boat and the train, you seem to have much greater dof than I would expect with f/1.4. Are you sure you're right about the aperture?

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I double checked and yep, they're both 1.4 - at 35mm I guess it's really dependent on how close to the subject you are and how far that background really is.

terry gardner's picture

I have a 35mm 1.8 but on my cropped sensor it be comes a 52mm. Still love the shallow depth of field.