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?