Standard Lenses 1/3

In two weeks I’ll be presenting a workshop at Beverley Station Arts as part of an artist’s residency, and pieces of that workshop should start to appear once I’m back. The workshop is part technical, part conceptual, very similar to an extended and more generalised article from here. I think it’ll be a great introduction to some, and a great demystifier and challenge for others, and I can’t wait to see how it goes. My only grievance is that, try as I might, I just couldn’t make room in the workshop to talk about Standard Lenses. And so I’m going to go off on a bit of a spiel about them here.

Coming up to Standard

If you’ve just started taking photography seriously, lenses are probably a little baffling. You’re probably just trying to kick the habit of zooming rather than moving in relation to the subject, perhaps even buying a prime to kick that precise habit. But familiarising yourself with the compression and angle of different focal lengths gets quite confusing. The good news is that there’s one lens you’re already going to be very familiar with: Your eye. A normal lens is going to be as close to regular vision as you can get. This will be helpful not only in giving you a frame of reference. But once you have the one focal length down, it can work as an anchor from which to work out others.

Your first picks are usually going to be either a 50mm or a 35mm. Both are sharp, versatile and available in large apertures. Each of these focal lengths closely resemble the relative compression and angle of human sight. But perhaps the most decisive factor for many, is that they’re almost too cheap not to have in your kit. High quality wide and telephoto lenses can easily creep well above a thousand dollars, but most camera manufacturers have a 50mm available around $100, and a 35mm not too far off that.

What is normal?

There’s a fair bit of debate as to what a normal lens is or should be. And more often a normal lens is defined by what it isn’t: Neither wide-angle nor telephoto. And so the crux between these specialised focal lengths is lenses which aren’t wider than our eyes nor longer. If it were so easily, this would be the 17mm focal length of the human eye. However not only is the base of the eye concave rather than flat like a sensor— but the very process of sight seamlessly blends images from both eyes. As such a ‘Normal’ angle of view has come to be defined as the lens through which an image held in front of a scene, is the same in terms of angle and perspective, as the scene viewed itself. What this gets us is around 43mm, which is coincidentally (Or more likely through some phenomenon of optics not yet within my understanding) the diagonal length of a full frame sensor. Now if you’re shooting with anything other than a Pentax, the closest you’re getting to that length is either 35mm or 50mm.

To complicate things a little further, if you’re looking to buy your first prime, you’re probably using a crop sensor camera. Through which a 35mm will be just slightly over 50mm, and a 50mm will have an equivalent view of 75mm in full frame terms. When I had my first crop sensor camera I used a 50mm and it definitely worked for me. My next lens was a 24mm which made a 35mm equivalent, and between the two lenses I had a close approximation to the very popular 35mm, 85mm combination. Which I use to this day at weddings.

When I recommend a first prime now, I usually advise a 35mm. 75mm isn’t quite 85, but a 35mm on a crop sensor is almost exactly 50mm. Liz, my assistant for weddings, uses the Nikon 35mm 1.8 DX, and I sometimes steal her lens to use on my full-frame camera as a specialty lens. My point here being that, no matter what you buy, it will last until your next camera purchase and longer.

Part Two: The Nifty Fifty
Part Three: 35mm

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