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Monday, August 3

When 35mm is just too wide

For a few years now I've considered the 35mm focal length to be my standard lens whenever I was travelling light with just a camera slung over my shoulder. I'm not quite sure how that evolved since, like most people who grew up during the film era, the first few 35mm SLRs I bought came with 50mm lenses.

It began with an OM1 and a 50mm f1.4 Zuiko when I was 18 and was followed by just about every other good SLR from the '70s and '80s, all sporting the ubiquitous fifty. Being a "serious" photographer, it didn't take long before I started adding other focal lengths and a spare body but one camera/one lens outings invariably featured the 50mm.

I then went through a medium format spell before getting into digital. With the latter, I always found a zoom to be more convenient. Then I went back to film a few years ago and, for some reason, my standard lens became a 35mm. Whether I was going through a Nikon F, Pentax MX, Minolta XE-1, OM phase or whatever, I found I preferred the slightly wider view of the 35mm.

But guess what? I'm back with the fifty again. The switch happened when I decided I really should put the 50m f2 Zuiko macro I have to some use. I effectively got it for nothing in a multi item lot at a local auction and it was in pristine condition - completely unused, I'd say. I knew about the reputation it had, largely cemented by Michael Johnston's description of it as one of the best 50s around.

He said, "Here’s one lens that’s utterly forgotten yet absolutely magnificent: the Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2 Macro. You can use it as a normal lens and I promise you, you will never use a better 50mm. No matter what name is engraved on the barrel." So I mounted it on my OM2n, shot some film and grew to like it more and more.

It's unlike most Zuikos in that it's quite large but that's a consequence of its macro capabilities and quite a fast aperture. But it really is just about the perfect lens if you're going walkabout. It's very sharp, has great bokeh, handles well for its size and focuses to just a few inches and so is very versatile.

For weeks I used little else other than the OM2 and the macro as I began to move away from the misty, moody shots I took in the country to my preferred subject matter (at least for now!) of the graphic image. Then the Leica M2 entered my life with 35mm Summaron, 50mm Summicron and 90mm Elmar. The Summaron and Elmar have haze issues which will need to be sorted by a camera technician but it was no hardship continuing my new photographic style with the M2 and Summicron.

That combination supplanted the Olympus one, although I like to give the OM2 a fairly regular airing to keep it ticking over as there's nothing worse for a camera than to sit idle. I'm not going to go on about the M2 and Summicron pairing beyond saying that, once I got used to it, it's turned out to be the best 35mm experience I've had.

Yesterday, after dropping Cath off at church, I thought I'd spend an hour wandering about the beach before picking her up. The only camera I had with a film in it was the Hexar AF so I scooped it up as I headed out the door. Well, that's when I realised how much I'd grown to like the 50mm - I couldn't find anything worthwhile to photograph at all with the wider angle of view of the Hexar's 35mm f2 Hexanon. It's a brilliant lens but, at least yesterday, I was somewhat immune to its charms. I wandered around for a while, realised I was seeing nothing at all and went back to the car to start writing this post.

What does all this mean? Am I now less able to take photographs of the kind I want with a 35mm lens? I don't think so. It's just about what you're used to. Photographers who find 35mm too wide have simply become accustomed to seeing life through the field of view of a 50mm. Force them - or me - to use a 35mm lens for six months  and I bet we'd all being saying the 50mm is too restrictive. That's certainly how I felt during my 35mm phase.

So, for now, I'm a dedicated 50mm photographer - the pics accompanying this post are a mix of the Zuiko and Summicron. In the future, who knows?


Jim Grey said...

True that it really can come down to what you're used to. But there's also the idea of the right tool for the job. I tend to think 50mm is normal, but when I'm out on the road taking documentary shots, 35mm gets more in the frame without me having to back up so much.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to what you are saying but, for me, I am finding it hard to return to the 50mm FOV. I started out with an OM-10 & 1,8/50mm almost 4 decades ago gradually adding lenses, bodies, etc., until I, while working as a newspaper shooter, I had two DSLRs and lenses ranging, in full frame focal lengths, from 18mm to 450 mm. When I had to retire, I tried to return to my "roots" of the 50mm but have had trouble visualizing at that single focal length. Right now, I am prone to carry my X100S and X-E1 with a Nikkor 1,8/85mm for most of my walkabouts. I had hoped to return to just the 50mm FOV but feel the only way to do that would be to reduce my gear to just a single body and single lens. I applaud your ability to "see" with the 50mm. I will keep visiting your blog to get some inspiration to try doing a walkabout with "just" a 50!

DavidM said...

I have found that when I set off with more than one lens, I look at my first shot and decide what field of view I want. So I put that on the camera. Curiously, after that, all the shots seem to need the same focal length, until I've used up all the pictures. Then, if there's some film left, I might change to another lens and often find (well, sometimes...) that a few more have come out of hiding. Odd, innit?

Herman Sheephouse said...

I think it's all to do with your mindset - some days are 50mm days, others 35mm, 28mm or whatever. I completed a holiday with only the 90mm Elmar as company, but my mind was set on using it.
This being said, you can't beat a 50, and there are some incredible 50's out there.
And with regard to wides? I rather like what Ernst Haas had to say about wides and standards. A lot of his wonderful New York colour work was a 50mm Summicron-R, but there's such a blend of images you'd swear he was using different focal lengths . .
Anyway, the following old saw is a good one to keep in your mental filing cabinet for future use:

"Best wide-angle lens? Two steps backward. Look for the 'ah-ha'."
© Ernst Haas

Michael Stevens said...

I've switched back and forth between 35mm and 50mm for years, but for the moment I've found a compromise: 40mm.

DavidM said...

Interesting. 43mm (actually 43.27 – I've just calculated) is the "true" standard length for 35mm cameras.
Two steps back is an old mother-in-law joke.

Bruce Robbins said...

I believe that's why focal lengths around 43mm were so common on old compact cameras: it's easier and cheaper to make the natural focal length for the format.

DcAnalogue said...

Beside the 35 Vs 50mm argument... I like these shots. The first 2 overall.... ;-)

Photo Utopia said...

I have always found 50mm to be the lens attached to my 35mm camera, normally a 50mm Micro Nikkor. There is one exception I don't know why but I prefer the 35mm focal length on my Leica RF...