35mm vs 50mm lens: which one should I buy first?

This moment I am about to describe seems inevitable in every DSLR photographer’s journey: you look at all the photos taken with the standard zoom lens you bought with the camera kit and suddenly have doubts about yourself: honestly, they look like typical ‘tourist photos’ that are just short of expectation from a ‘proper camera’. Maybe you think the colour is a little plain, or maybe you would like more bokeh (that blurry background). Sure it would be nice if the image is sharper and have greater details. A friend of yours just bought a new mirrorless camera with a 35mm or 50mm lens, his Instagram photos are kinda cool. Is this the new camera that makes all the difference?

Before you jump into a brand new camera eco-system (which means a lot of hard earned $$$), there are plenty of small and beautiful prime lenses for most DSLR type cameras and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras that you can use with your existing camera body. Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Sony, Pentax, just to name a few, all make 35mm and 50mm prime lenses. What’s more, with lens adapters you may even use lenses from other manufacturers or vintage lenses sometimes at unbelievable price points. 35mm vs 50mm lens: which one should you buy first? I have been asked this question many times, so here are the 5 things that will provide you with the answer you have been looking for.

crop factor of DSLR

#1 Crop Factor of your Camera

If you are ‘serious’ about photography and have a mainstream camera body, your camera body would have at least an APS C sized sensor, if not a ‘full frame’ sensor. If you have an APS C sized sensor, a ‘crop factor’ of approximately 1.6 applies to the focal length of the camera lenses you use. This means a 35mm lens will be equivalent to a 56mm (35 x 1.6) lens on your camera, while a 50mm lens would be an equivalent of 80mm on your camera. All the literature you read about 50mm lens or 35mm lens would not be relevant to you if you do not apply this crop factor to your focal length.

In my opinion, an 80mm equivalent lens (that is a 50mm lens with an APS C sized sensor) is a little too long. This may restrict the situation you are most comfortable using it. If your camera body has an APS C sized sensor, start with a 35mm full-frame compatible lens. This way you will be able to start practising shooting with primes at an equivalent 56mm, which most new photographers find easy to start with (more on this point below). What’s more, this lens can continue to be used as a ‘true’ 35mm lens if you decide to upgrade to a full frame camera later.

If you have a full frame camera, or are about to buy one, read on:

#2 What is your favourite photographic subject?

Have a look at your photos and ask yourself: what is your favourite subject?  For most people it maybe landscape, people, small objects (such as food or flower), pets, wild animals, events. If your subject is relatively small  (food, jewellery, flowers, clothing and bags, etc.), you love the facial details of people, you do a lot of indoor events (such as snaps of you and your friend or family in a restaurant), a 50mm lens is more suitable for you. It has the right focal length to focus on one single object and excludes unnecessary clutter in the background. 50mm is usually fast, small and has a reasonable price point. Superb choice!

However, if you take photographs mostly outdoors, you like to do some landscapes, a few full-bodied portraits, environmental portraits, travel photography, street photography, go with a 35mm lens. For beginners, it is usually harder to use a 35mm lens than a 50mm lens, because the wider angle means more elements will be included in the frame which needs careful composition. An upside of starting with a 35mm lens is that it forces the photographer to pay attention to the framing and composition. If you accept the challenge, go on and grab a 35mm.

Bokeh, the nice blurry effect

#3 Bokeh

Although it is somewhat controversial to say Bokeh is always desirable in a photo, it clearly does two things well: firstly, most times it is visually pleasing to viewers, and secondly, it shows people you took the trouble to take your photo with a reasonably advanced camera, which indicates you are more serious about photography than an average Joe (sorry Joe if you are reading this!). If your pursuit is a crispy clear object with velvet like bokeh as background, get a fast (maximum aperture 1.8 or above) 50mm lens. Does this sound like you? If so, another great option apart from a 50mm prime lens is to invest into a 70mm to 200 mm premium zoom lens (F4 or F2.8 constant aperture), this is considered a must for all good ‘portrait’ photographers.

On the other hand, it is harder to achieve this desired ‘bokeh’ effect with a 35mm lens. My personal opinion is that a ‘fast’ 35mm lens is not usually used wide open unless the situations do not allow shooting at a smaller aperture to capture the greater depth of field. I only find myself shooting the 35mm lens wide open when the lighting is poor. With more in-focus elements in your photo, there is greater room for the photographer to have an interesting composition and artistic creations. It adds complexity and sophistication to a photo if you do it well. Do I sound biased here?

#4 Distance between your and the subject matter

This is a point a lot of photographers would neglect to consider when making a purchasing decision. Yet I find it will play a quite important role in your photography experience for many years to come. When taking photos, sometimes it may become uncomfortable for the photographer to get very close to the subject. For example, many would find it confronting to take close up, candid photos of pedestrians on the street (street photography). Another example is that it may not be possible to take photos from a distance in a crowded or indoor environment. With prime lenses the photographer, you, have to do the legwork to capture exactly what you intended to, no gear lmore no less. It is good to have a lens that works with your ‘usual spot’.

Consider where you wish to use the lens may help you decide the best focal length for you.

#5 What to do if still undecided

I face the dilemma all the times: there is always another nice piece of photography equipment in the shops. My advise: if you don’t have at least one 35mm and one 50mm lens, it is worthwhile to invest in both so you can at least try them out before deciding which one to keep. I know a good friend of mine who fell for ‘gear lust’. Years ago he bought a flagship Canon 5DII full frame camera with a suite of full focal length coverage, top-end Limited lenses. His camera bag was so heavy that eventually, he gave up taking the entire kit with him on holidays. My friend quit photography eventually and sold all his equipment. The lesson?  Buy the lenses you are most likely to use, not the ones that you ‘fancy’ the most. Photography equipment collection can be an enjoyable hobby itself, however, it is always good to be reminded that it makes the hobbyist a ‘collector’ rather than a ‘photographer’. A bonus tip is that cameras with APS C sensors are perfectly capable cameras for both photography enthusiasts and professionals. You don’t really need a full frame camera if you know the exact reason why it is better suitable for you.

If you enjoy this article, make sure you check out my in-depth comparison of 35mm lens and 50mm lens based on their optical characters.

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