The Most Versatile Focal-Length in the Bag.
The first lens I ever shot with was a 35mm, back in the day when I began making photographs with a film camera. In those days, zoom lenses had only been popular among casual shooters and enthusiasts for around ten years or so and my pocket was way too shallow to be able to afford anything more than my 35. So, it stayed with me and I made the best possible use that I could have with it. For over two years I used that same lens and the more I did, the more I loved it. It was almost as though I could predict how it would render, no matter what I was photographing; in essence, it’s frame-lines had begun to become branded into my brain, through my eyes. Of all the lenses I could have learned with, I am so relieved that my first lens was that 35. In later years I would come to prefer a 50 – a more natural focal-length for me, but whenever I spent time with this slightly longer lens, something often felt like it was missing. It took me years to figure out what that something was.
After saving (and hammering my credit card on occasion) I acquired a number of other lenses over time, G.A.S took a firm hold of my psyche and, I kind of got lost. Though I loved all of the choices I was giving myself, I was only becoming more confused as to the ends I was trying to reach. Telephotos and mid-long zoom lenses made me want to go out and shoot wildlife; wider lenses had me scouring locations for old ruins and run-down buildings and kit zooms, the standard nowadays being the trusty 18-55, shot everything in-between; which was in honesty, almost everything. But even the useful FLs of a kit zoom weren’t really doing it for me because the something that I missed was this: scene and subject interaction. In other words, I was beginning to feel like a casual observer of the scenes or subjects that I was trying to capture rather than as an integral part of it. To me, this felt like a crime given how much I love and always have loved photography, but not only this, I wanted to be close to or even inside my frame – I wanted to be a part of the creative process that I absolutely love so much rather than as a bystander or worse, a casual voyeur on the perimeter, casually making frames of a world, or a scene – that was passing me by.
Stumped | 720nm Infrared
It took me years to realise that I was killing my own creativity by trying so hard to cover every base by carrying way more glass than I could possibly need and, that no matter what lens I had mounted at a given time, I would always feel as though it was the wrong one, or, be at least concerned that it might not be the right choice at the time. Doing away with so much choice, essentially, does away with equal amounts of worry and concern. Furthermore, when we can make any and all possible images with any working lens, the only consideration needs to be how best to frame with that one chosen chunk of glass. To see in that focal-length and move around it and, through it, according to our own vision, whether unique or not. This does also mean that the legs get more use (particularly for prime glass) which in turn, puts me back in the centre of the process. But I hear cries and, they’re getting louder. They are cries of anguish and perceived enlightenment that are trying to tell me that I can’t shoot wildlife without a tele-lens, nor can I shoot wide landscapes or industrial frames without a decent wide lens. The 35 is neither one nor the other. So, what the hell am I doing? Well, I know these arguments well and I’ve been doing this a long time so, the ol’ saying about grandma proverbially sucking eggs may well be extremely relevant here. I don’t carry four or five kilos of gear any more and, I am still able to capture images that make me not only happy themselves, but also happy that I am back in the middle of my art. I simply had to revert to one main, workable focal-length and, get to know it again like I once did. The learning never stops but it’s amazing how quickly you can place yourself in the right spot for any shot when you only have to think in one perspective – the chosen prime perspective, that is. Before I have even lifted my viewfinder to my eye, I know where I need to be when an inspiration strikes. It takes away the guesswork, the trial and error, the faffing with lens-changes and the worry about crud getting inside the camera body. And yes, the bag is shedloads lighter and I can move about more freely, for way longer and, I don’t get home and reach for the Deep Heat anymore.
The 35mm focal length is considered to be at the longest edge of the wide-angle lens concept. It is also regarded as being pretty close to the natural focal-length at which we humans see. Neither of these ideas do I argue with. In contrast, I believe that these two elements are what truly make a 35 the most versatile lens for the way that I shoot and make photographs. Here are just some reasons as to why a good 35 should be a definite consideration:
- Not only do most if not all 35s focus pretty close, they have little if any distortion (providing you haven’t got a dud).
- They are inherently sharp (usually, even wide open – I’ve used many and never had a soft shot at f2 that wasn’t my own stupid fault).
- Primes tend to open up more than zooms (though if you have deep pockets and you want, need and can justify the purchase of that mean looking 18-600mm 1.0 constant (you get the idea?!) then go for it). A fast 35 is a total joy to use when the light levels dip. If you haven’t tried it – you should.
- The costs are relatively a lot lower than for good or high-quality longer or wider primes (so, much cheaper to replace if you drop it from a height).
- They are small, light, often very well constructed and a joy to use. Because of the size and weight, they really don’t get in the way of my thinking. It’s a tool. I trust it. It works. Make photographs. Move on and, stop thinking about the gear!
- 35 is wide enough to capture life as it happens, socially, environmentally, intimately – back in the 70s and 80s it was pretty much the only lens used by press photographers and if ever a lens finds itself in a tough proving ground, that’s probably it, right there.
- Construction is largely such that it remains reliable for many years of service.
- It’s the best middle of the road lens (alongside a nice 50 prime, depending on how you ‘see’) for learning and capturing whatever you want.
- Whatever single focal-length one chooses to befriend, the mainstay of all of these points apply. I simply feel that a 35 is the true Jack of all’.
- I’ve shot weddings, portraits, land & waterscapes, close-ups & near macro, stills and fine-art, visible, full-spectrum and infrared, the lot. The 35mm FL has seldom if ever left me wanting. My ageing legs too, are grateful, because they get a reason to keep working that little bit harder than a slightly sedentary brain would usually require of them.
- Bag: Light + Bank Balance: Healthier (potentially).
If you’re considering venturing into a single focal-length for the first time, choose wisely and justify your choice, stick with it and, persevere. The benefits of restriction will present themselves quickly and, your eye will improve with enough frames. If you’re not sure about which FL to plump for but can’t get the idea of self-limitation for the sake of freedom out of your head, just go for a 35, mount it, forget it’s there, and simply enjoy making pictures – for the sheer love of it.