The 35mm is very much an underrated focal length. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because when you type “35mm” into the search bars, all kinds of 35mm film cameras pop up. Maybe it’s because its longer brother, the 50mm, has been stealing its thunder ever since Henri Cartier-Bresson mentioned how much he preferred the mighty 50. Maybe people are superstitious about odd numbered focal lengths? Who knows? But what I do know, is that some of history’s best street and fashion photographers have relied on the 35mm lens as their main lens of choice. And here is why.
A Flexible Working Distance
When shooting in confined alleys or with a live model, working distance is a very important but not often talked about concept. Working distance is basically the distance between you (your camera) and the subject.
Fashion and portrait photographers don’t regularly shoot 200mm telephotos because standing 50 feet away would make connecting with the model difficult. Not to mention, most urban studios are hardly big enough even for a 135mm.
Similarly, a typical street scene is filled with interesting and uninteresting subject matter. Not only would a 14mm ultra-wide introduce a lot more distortion into the image than a 50mm or a 35mm, a wide angle will capture a lot more uninteresting objects that you’ll have to crop out later on.
Choosing a 35mm versus a 50mm Lens
So what’s in a 15mm difference? A lot apparently, in terms of cost, design, and everyday use.
50mm lenses are generally more affordable. From the plastic fantastic $125 Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM to its sharper and less expensive copy, the new $67 Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8, a high-quality 50mm can be had for next to nothing. By comparison, a non-L Canon 35mm f/2 IS USM costs $549, and even the discontinued Canon 35mm f/2 with the buzzy AF motor cost $260 used.
Part of the cost difference, I suspect, is due to their inherent designs. 50mm lenses are often symmetrical Planar or even Tessar designs from decades ago; whereas many 35mm lenses are more complex asymmetrical Sonnar or Distagon designs with more elements. The fact of the matter is, it’s harder to find inexpensive 35mm lenses.
But that shouldn’t really stop you. You can’t make do with acrylic paints when only oils will do. I suspect connoisseurs will already know why they are shopping for a 35mm, but let me lay it out for you anyway:
- Every time you’re in a tight interior space and you squish your nose against a 50mm mounted camera, you’d wish you had a 35mm.
- Every time you try to take full body shots of your model without cropping off her shoes in a tiny New York studio, you’d wish you had 35mm.
- Every time you’re taking moving fashion portraits on the sidewalk and you’re backed up all the way into traffic, you’d wish you had a 35mm.
- Every time you just want to take one lens with you to any where you go, you’d wish you have a 35mm.
Versatility then, is the key reason you take a 35mm over a 50mm.
The 6 Contenders
While it is harder to find bargains in the 35mm focal length, some of the world’s best lenses ever created are 35s. There are a myriad of choices in the 35mm arena, particularly because so many industry professional rely on it. Below are my favorite candidates.
1. Original King of the Streets – Leica Summaron 35mm f2.8
- Exceptional sharpness
- Benchmark build quality
- Affordable, from $450 – $1000 depending on condition
- Increasing resale value
- Inexpensive $17 Leica M to Sony E adapter
- Only f/2.8 – Leica also has Summicrons at f/2 ($1500+) and Summiluxes at f/1.4 ($1800+)
- Difficult to find bargains
- Manual focus (though the focus ring is a joy to use)
- Some flaring issue due to older coatings
2. Great Handling Modern Zeiss – Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2.8
- Fast, silent, and accurate AF
- Very compact and lightweight
- Very good build quality
- Excellent center sharpness
- Stunningly low distortion
- Affordable used prices at around $550+
- Only f/2.8
- Expensive when new ($800)
- No distance or DOF scale
- Average bokeh
- Smaller resale market
3. Legendary Pentax Limited – Pentax FA 31mm f/1.8 SMC
- Very compact for a bright f/1.8 lens
- Sharp wide open
- Fabulous build quality
- Good bokeh despite aspherical elements
- Famous SMC coating
- Increasing resale value due to soon-to-be-released full frame Pentax DSLR
- High used prices ($700-900) already
- Designed for film cameras could lead to corner issues
- Antiquated screw-drive AF
- No AF via Pentax K to Sony E lens adapters
4. No Nonsense Bargain – Canon 35mm f/2 non-USM non-IS
- Inexpensive at only $180-250
- Compact and lightweight
- Quite bright at f/2
- Good center sharpness
- Large resale market
- Commlite EOS to E-Mount AF Adapter for $95
- Poor bokeh
- Average build quality
- Old design since superseded by the more expensive but excellent Canon 35mm f/2 IS USM.
5. The Best Kept Secret – Minolta Rokkor 40mm f/2
- An officially licensed version of the Leica C 40mm f/2
- Leica design but Minolta prices ($60!-350)
- Exceptionally small and compact
- Quite bright at f/2
- Leica optical quality
- Manual focus
- 5mm longer
- Filter thread not designed for regular 39mm filters
- Smaller resale market as Leica-philes look down on this lens
6. The New 35mm King – Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art
- Almost flawless optically
- Excellent build quality
- Very bright f/1.4 aperture
- Great value at $750-900 new
- Comes in Sony Minolta mount, so usable with the LAEA-4 AF adapters
- Good resale value
- Larger in size and very heavy in weight (665g)
- LAEA-4 AF adapters are costly at $350 and they add to the bulk and weight of the setup (160g + 665g = 825g) on a A7 series
- Hard to find bargains since it’s so sought after
Canon 35mm f/1.4 L – Part of Canon’s Holy Trinity of L lenses, the 35mm benchmark for DSLRs has since been surpassed by the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art. It is still a great lens, and there are many copies of it out there.
Yongnuo 35mm f/2 for Canon Mount – At $122, this lens is an absolute bargain that beats even Canon’s original in terms of optical quality. However, demand has stripped its supply and is currently unavailable.
Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 – Although reviews have generally favored this $1600 lens for being excellent optically, its massive 830g!!! weight (the Sony A7 is 474g) makes it an impractical 35mm lens for inconspicuous street shooting. If you’re in-studio doing portrait, you don’t really need f/1.4 do you? Why not just buy a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art, a LAEA-4 adapter, and save yourself $350?
Canon 35mm f/2 IS USM – If only IS and and fast USM will work on the Sony mirrorless mount, then this will likely be one of the best bang-for-buck lenses on the list. Sadly, contrast detect AF via a third-party adapter is slow and IS undoubtedly won’t work.
Loxia 35mm f/2 Biogon – We love this modern manual focus lens, so much so that we rented one to test and compared it to the Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f/2.8. We concluded that we liked the Biogon even more than the Sonnar, but unfortunately, these lenses are hardly in stock in the US despite it being a whopping $1300-1400 new.