If you’ve been following up till now, you’ve heard me say that 46mm is the closest focal length to the approximate angle of view of the human eye. But when we hold an image from such a lens in front of us, it does not obscure our vision completely. To make things even more complex, the focal length of the human eye is not 46mm but 17mm. When using a 50mm lens to recreate the eye’s angle of view, we’re actually ignoring a few other aspects of human vision, each of which are present in the 35mm focal length.
These other aspects of vision, which include peripheral vision, mild curvilinear distortion, and the phenomenon through which we perceive vision. I’ll break these down one by one at the end of the article, but for now I’ll just focus in on how they come together to make the 35mm focal length important.
When we perceive a scene we don’t stare straight at it. Rather, our eyes dart about around what we think might be important, and quickly we create the context of the scene. When a detail is of particular interest, consciously or subconsciously we lean in to better perceive it, but when we do this, our eyes don’t completely let go of the context we’ve built up.
35mm is favoured by so many photojournalists and wedding photographers, who aim to tell stories. In no small part because 35mm lenses don’t isolate the way 50mm lenses do but rather they include a little bit of the context. The 35mm lens works beautifully as a detail lens and as a wider context lens for these reasons: It looks, but it doesn’t stop looking around. This way of singling out details organically without losing context makes compositions more demanding than 50mm compositions, since (as a generalisation) more elements will have to be considered within the composition. But at their best these compositions are organic and intriguing.
A Walkabout Lens
There are two 35mm lenses I regularly use. The first is Liz’s DX 35mm 1.8. It’s a beautiful lens with a lot of character from the intense vignetting when used on my full frame d700. The other is a 35mm equivalent (Physically a 23mm) welded to my Fuji X100s. And if I’d had to weld any one lens to my Fuji, I would have agreed with Fuji and gone with a 35mm too.
The Fuji gets a lot of use during weddings and my personal work. It’s an inconspicuous camera which lets you weave into a crowd more easily, but regardless of camera, the general sentiment for using a 35mm involves getting into the thick of it. Which has lent a lot of street photographers to enjoy the 35mm focal length. On my Fuji, a longer lens would become require too much back-tracking, and a wider lens would start to lose the isolation.
I know the Leica Q has a 28mm lens welded on, and there are some absolutely gorgeous photos coming out of it. Partly because I think the majority of people willing to drop six grand on a fixed lens camera are the sort of people who know what they’re doing. The Q also has ‘Auto Crop’ modes to imitate 35mm and 50mm lenses. When you’re dropping this much on a Leica, these are the options you get. For the rest of us, if it’s just one lens, I think 35mm is perfect. Which brings me to..
I crop religiously. I consider hearing someone praise another photographer’s eye by saying that he’d ‘never need to crop’ as the most detrimental advice of my photographic career, and it took me the likes of Jeff Newsom saying otherwise to convince me that cropping is not a cop out. We’re photographers, not camera operators, if we create a good image, it doesn’t matter that we’ve done to make it. Good images can be judged only on their good-ness.
Back to the topic at hand: I crop a lot, but with a 35mm, I crop so much that I rarely leave a full frame in tact. There are a number of reasons I do this: Because the way I like to treat horizons leaves a lot of headroom. Because, for whatever reason, 2:3 always feels a little too wide or too thin. Perhaps because I’m actually more comfortable with a slightly longer lens. Or perhaps because I’m just a better judge of compositions when editing than when shooting.
Those things I was writing about earlier.
I did mention that I’d be breaking down curvilinear perspective, peripheral vision, and the way the mind registers images. I detailed the mind under the context header, but regarding the other two:
The eye is not optically complex or powerful. It’s actually outclassed by most plastic lenses and phones. The reason the eye gets away with this is by only using the outside edges of your vision to perceive changes and a general understanding based on context. Whilst the 50mm lens covers the bulk of the optically superior sweet spot in our vision, a wider focal length such as in a 35mm can be more ‘natural’ in regards to how it includes these wider, peripheral edges.
The eye is spherical by nature, and this lends to a certain bulging in the centre. This same phenomenon is more prominent in wider lenses and is generally considered a flaw in lens engineering. Most 35mm lenses have a gentle curvilinear distortion which feels natural and mimics the eyes. (It is actually less distorted in most 35mm lenses than in the eye, but since we cannot perceive the eyes image as a whole, it sort of breaks even)
Part One: Standard Lenses
Part Two: The Nifty Fifty