Recently, I purchased a used 50mm Summicron lens from DanielCraigslist. The seller had mentioned the lens had “Hollywood” connections but I couldn’t quite remember the details because we got to talking about photography. I did follow up and asked him to send me a reminder:

While attending a Steve Huff workshop in January 2012, I had the chance to meet Actor/Comedian/Producer Jeff Garlin. Jeff played Larry David’s manager on the HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm and is also producing a documentary on photographer Vivian Maier. Jeff had been using the lens for a little while and decided to upgrade to the 50mm Summilux. He is an extremely funny person and showed his stand up skills when asked to do a little piece on why he loves photography in front of the workshop.

I’ve been using this lens exclusively for the last couple-few months and for me, surprisingly, it has become my preferred lens and the 35mm Summicron is resting. However, I don’t want that to be the only line you read if you’re on the fence between a 35mm or 50mm lens.

I cannot write a cohesive comparison of the two focal lengths so I’m going to spout out some random thoughts:

35 is a more versatile lens. 35 sometimes feels like I’m invading people’s private space. 35 sometimes feels very point and shoot. 35 is great for cockpit portraits shooting from passenger side. 35 can be more of a storytelling lens. 35 is great for paddocks. 35 photos always get cropped tighter. 35 always forces me to compose three times 1. find the position. 2 Realize I’m not in position after looking through the view finder. 3 Step closer then compose again. 35 sometimes distorts perspective/shapes which is a big no-no for me – not a big fan of “undesigning” the beautiful Porsche shape. Jesse Alexander prefers 35mm based on a personal correspondence. Garry Winnogrand shot even wider with a 28mm most of the time. Henri Cartier-Bresson sometimes shot with a 35mm.

50 simply feels more natural. 50 is what the human eye sees. 50 doesn’t force me to compose three times because I’ve zoomed with my feet and just need to compose through viewfinder. 50 is a more flattering portrait lens because it doesn’t distort. 50 can be less of a storytelling lens because it excludes more background. 50 has allowed me to go back to my “stacking” style framing with foreground, middle-ground and background elements. 50 allows images to breath. 50 is less expensive than 35. HCB mostly shot with a 50mm.

For me, the 50mm just slightly wins over the 35mm for three main reasons:

1. Less personal space invasion. 2. Quicker composing. 3. No distortion.

No 1 further explained: I like photographing people being themselves. As soon as they are aware of the camera then the sincerity of moment is lost. It was one of the main reasons to switch to a smaller camera. Sticking a grey tennis ball canister-sized lens in people’s faces…forget about it. People are going to start posing. The sincerity is lost. Fake smiles. Postures straightened. Comb-overs fixed. No. Pass.

No 2 further explained: I start composing before I bring the camera to my eye which means I zoom with my feet. Once I step into position then I know I’m there and 95% composed. Bringing the viewfinder to my eye is sorting out the last 5% along with manual focusing. I want this process to be quick and pluck the moment without interfering with the scene.  And to totally get off course, sort of, but as I said all these thoughts are random…I like watching photographers work just as much as I like looking at their work. My favorites take pics and no one has even noticed. The good ones are incredible stealthy predators who have snatched up prey without any evidence.

No 3 further explained: this is me, my personal opinion, go ahead and disregard. I hate to see cars distorted by wide angle lenses. Their beauty is their shapes. Why alter it? Why morph the proportions with fish eye effects? Shoot wider because you want to capture the entire street of cars? Have a look at the cars at the edge of the frames…effed up! That is not flattering. If I haven’t made my point then mount a 21mm lens and take a picture of your wife. Frame it so that she is on either edge of the frame. Show it to her. Plan on never being able to take another picture of her again.

I still love the 35mm but the 50mm feels more instinctual…to me. I thought I would try the 50 and sell one or the other because as far as I’m concerned…I have one lens too many. I have no desire to carry a bag of lenses. I want to eliminate choices. I want a simple set up. I have no desire to build the “holy trinity” (21, 35, 75 or 28, 50, 90). That was the whole point of making the switch. Simplicity. More lenses is not going to make me better.

Anyway, I’ve rambled. This was not meant to be a lens review. These are just my random thoughts on two different focal lengths. The 50mm makes me cry. I know I make no sense most of the time.

What is your favorite focal length and why?

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • email
  • Tumblr
This entry was posted in LIFE. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Jeroen says:

    Somehow it makes perfect sense… Should I be worried?

  2. Ted says:

    Thanks for the insight. I’d love to try the Leica system. What do you use to process teh images?


  3. Randy Wells says:

    Brilliant explanation. If I only had one lens it would be a 50mm. My mentor Ernst Haas loved it too. The 50mm Summicron-M is probably the best lens ever made. Enjoy!

  4. Chet Dawes says:

    I don’t have a fixed 35mm but do have a fixed 50mm. Obviously I prefer a 50mm as a result!
    For all the reasons Bob rambles about, I resonate most with the no distortion reason. I too prefer the image as ‘pure’ as possible. Photography doesn’t work as well if it is impressionist in form!

  5. Bob Tilton says:

    “Pure” is an excellent description.

    Wow Randy! Didn’t know Haas was your mentor. My mentor is tumblr…not quite the same.

    Ted – everything is post-processed in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) then brought into Photoshop.

    Jeroen – yes. Be very worried. However, I’m not surprised.

  6. stric says:

    My preferred Leica lens is 45mm Summilux f/1.4. The focal length and faster aperture offer more versatility and that’s what I’m looking for. Sometimes I have 50mm with me but I feel constricted.

  7. Bob Tilton says:

    I am completely unaware of a 45mm Summilux. Intrigued.

  8. ibmiked says:

    I recently purchased an RX-1 which is a fixed 35mm focal length with a full frame sensor. Having moved up from AF-S lenses it was a revelation shooting with ‘true focal length’ 35mm. I agree with most of Bob’s points but despite all of that I wouldn’t give up my 35mm and here’s why; it makes me work at being a better photographer. It makes me see things differently and think about the best way to capture them within the constraints of 35mm. Most of the time I get it wrong (who’s kidding who; 99% of the time) but it’s never simple and always challenges me.

    For a long time I was anti-Photoshop and Lightroom (although I am profficient in both for other reasons) when it came to tweaking pictures. I didn’t want a crutch to fix what I couldn’t capture through the camera and with my own abilities. Hell, it’s the reason I first took the camera off Manual mode all those years ago. But I’ve come around now. It started with a crop here and a crop there to correct lens abberation. Then it became a touch of saturation and maybe a teensy tiny bit of color coorection. My point is that I’m finding the 35mm format is uniquely suited to a little cropping in post-production, especially if you’re shooting RAW and with maximum image quality (in the RX-1’s case some 26MP). I get more of the scene and can choose to end up with the same picture as if I had shot in 50mm.

    The problem with a 50mm (as I see it), is that you can’t go backwards and get a 35mm image from it. Anyway this is an academic argument, but as I took Bob’s post he was looking for opinions whether they differed or not so there’s mine.


  9. Seth O. says:

    Bob – you may want to try out a (relatively) cheap lens that came with the Leica CL in the 70’s – the 40mm f2 Summicron.

    I always felt it was a bit closer to my actual vision and the 50mm was a slight tele.

    Seth O.

  10. Bob Tilton says:

    Hi Mike – a full frame sensor combined with a fixed focal length is a great combo. I would agree with your comments on the advantages and disadvantages of the two focal lengths. I think it most important to work with what you got and mastering it. History has proven that people did extremely well with less equipment back in the day. There is a certain “well optioned SUV” mentality these days with gear.

    Seth – I had a 40mm Voigt which I liked but it had so much chromatic aberration. I did research the Leica version and was tempted but read some less than flattering reviews about its bokeh.

  11. Great read Bob… Sitting here near a lake in France, thinking how bored I sometimes am with my Canon cameras… I feel Leica fever coming up…..

  12. Randy Wells says:

    Hey Bob – Ernst Haas’ “The Creation” photo book was the reason I became a photographer. I started studying his work and philosophy in 1977, then spent two weeks with him in Japan in 1984. He passed away two years later. Here are a couple of his quotes relating to the 50mm lens: “The most important lens you have is your legs. Best wide-angle lens? Two steps backward.”

  13. Ritop Nides says:

    Hey, I just found that blog, and post. It seems we have or had similar dilemma about 35mm vs 50mm.
    50mm is SO tempting. It truly coresponds to natural proportions and so on. It truly was the lens of choice of many masters of the first half of 20-th century, and maybe even later. Without any contribution of wide angle or telephoto lens. Without exaggerations, without being flattened. Technical reasons? Yes. Lack of other choice? Yes. But also a good choice (50mm I mean), you can do A LOT of stuff with just a 50mm.
    But. If I may quote:
    “35 photos always get cropped tighter. 35 always forces me to compose three times 1. find the position. 2 Realize I’m not in position after looking through the view finder. 3 Step closer then compose again.”
    If that above is right to you, it just means you do not see how 35mm sees. Maybe you didn’t spend enough time with that FL, or maybe it will not change after years for you. Maybe you just don’t want to use 35mm.
    There are no lenses which are dedicated more to crop images. If you need to crop, you just did not see the image, did not compose it as it should be composed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.