If you’ve had your DSLR or mirrorless camera for a while and still only have the kit lens that came with it, the thought of picking up a prime lens may or may not have crossed your mind.
For most people, when the time comes, this means getting a 50mm. And with plenty of good reasons, as you can read all about here.
This means buying a 35mm lens comes afterwards, which is a nice progression. But it does beg the question ‘why not just get a 35mm first instead?’ So that’s what we’re going to answer here, regardless of where you are on your photography journey.
Whether you’ve not considered buying a prime lens before, or have and had just presumed that would be a 50mm, or have a 50mm and now want to try something different; this is why you should buy a 35mm lens.
Prime lenses can instantly elevate your photography
Let’s be honest. The reason you bought a DSLR or mirrorless camera in the first place was to take better photographs than you can on your phone or old compact point ‘n’ shoot.
So it makes sense the first and foremost reason to buy a 35mm, or any other single focal length ‘prime’ lens, is to make them better still.
Of course, great photographs are made by the photographer and not by the gear. But equally, upgraded gear does help you take better photographs than you could before. Nobody would ever buy the good stuff if it didn’t.
This is probably never more true than with lenses, where an upgrade to a prime – be that 35mm or otherwise – will typically see a bigger jump than you’d get by upgrading to a newer camera but still using its own kit lens.
Kit lenses are designed to be a jack-of-all-trades, which means they’re highly versatile. This versatility means plenty of people just stick with them. If not forever, then for a long time until they finally explore other options.
However, this focus on versatility also means kit lenses don’t excel at any one thing optically. The manufacturers have the zoom mechanism to worry about, which means a compromise in the image quality.
As a prime lens only has one job – to shoot at its single focal length – far more resources are put into the image quality. This means you can expect more sharpness and fewer aberrations in your work.
As we’ll get into later, you can also take advantage of wider apertures at the focal length of your prime lens; be that 35mm, 50mm, or anything else.
A 35mm prime lens will push you to be more creative and active
Before I bought my first prime lens, I used to wonder how useful one would be if I couldn’t even zoom in with it. The idea of a single focal length sounded too restrictive.
However, it’s in restrictions where we find the most creativity. This is true in any artistic field. In this case, you have no option to zoom in and out, which takes away the easier option of making varied work simply by doing so.
This means having to think more about your compositions. About what to leave out and what to include. If your kit lens was 18 – 55mm as many are, you’re going to be pretty much right in the middle with a 35mm. You can neither go as wide nor as long as you could before.
I know this may sound counterproductive to great photography but once it clicks in the mind, there is often no way back to zooms. I’ve shot 99% with prime lenses for the past few years.
Another major benefit is that prime lenses force you to zoom with your feet. In other words, to walk closer or further away from your subjects.
As well as raising your steps count for the day, I find this physical movement helps get the mental creative juices flowing too. I get more involved mentally the more I do physically, which increases the enjoyment and I’m sure leads to better results.
The photograph below was shot on film with a 35mm fixed lens camera.
A single focal length brings consistency to your photography
There’s nothing wrong with getting out and shooting anything and everything, from the upper to lower reaches of your zoom lens’s capabilities, and coming back with a highly varied photo set.
In fact, if you’re away on a trip and are documenting it in a comprehensive travel photography project, this might be preferable.
There’s a great benefit to the consistency of using a single focal length too, though. Especially in other situations or shooting styles.
Think about this. If there are any photographers out there whose work you admire, they probably have their own recognisable style. It’s harder to build an affinity with someone’s output when it’s changing from one day to the next.
So if your own work has nothing to bind it together, it’s going to be harder for you to gain loyal fans too. If that’s something you even want, of course.
Using a single lens, or film, or camera for a project is a great idea as it gives it that consistency all the way through. Some people stick with one for an entire year and see what they’ve made at the end of it.
Webb is one of my very favourite photographers and has an immensely recognisable style that would, in my humble opinion, have been diluted if he’d have interspersed his work with shots taken with say an 85mm focal length too.
Fast primes allow you to get those blurred backgrounds
I need to begin this section by saying the following. Having a blurred background or foreground doesn’t automatically make a photograph good. However, they can and do help make a photograph great when used well.
The best way to achieve that is with a fast lens, which means looking at the f-numbers that come after the 35mm in the name; f1.8 or f1.4, for example.
You can read more about this here, but as a general rule, the smaller this number, the more background and foreground blur you will achieve. It’s all about how wide open the aperture in the lens – the hole that lets in the light – is.
The kit lens I got with my Sony mirrorless was 18 – 55mm and f3.5 – f 5.6. This means that as I zoom in, the aperture will close up. This is by design as it keeps the cost of manufacturing the lens down.
So while I can shoot at f3.5 at 18mm, the lens will stop itself down to f5.6 when I zoom in to 55mm. At 35mm, it sets itself to f4.5. This is why a prime lens helps you achieve those blurred foregrounds and backgrounds far more.
As the effect is more pronounced the lower that f-number, a 35mm f1.8 is going to give more spectacular results than your kit lens can at f4.5 at 35mm.
It’s also worth noting the combination of wide aperture and wide angle here. While you can achieve the shallow depth of field with any f1.8 lens, wider lenses like a 35mm allow you to do so with a wider shot, leading to more creative options than just portraits and close ups.
They also let you shoot in low light without a flash or tripod
Remember how those low f-numbers mean a wider aperture – aka a bigger hole in your lens to let in the light?
Aside from the shallow depth of field discussed earlier, another benefit to these is that they allow you to let in more light over a given amount of time. Like the amount of time it takes to take a photograph, for example.
Some simple mental arithmetic will tell you that if more light can get in over a set time, the length that time needs to be to make a well-exposed photograph becomes shorter. If you need it explaining, I did so in the post I linked earlier.
This shorter length of time translates to a faster shutter speed, which helps you to make photographs in lower light without a flash. If you have steady hands you can make them without a tripod too.
In low light, that could well make your shutter speed too slow. You could raise your ISO level to compensate, but doing that will bring more visual noise and compromise on image quality.
All this is not to say there isn’t a time and place for a flash and a tripod, but there are plenty of times when using them is impossible for what you’re trying to achieve in low light.
And again, the wider angle you get with a wider lens means being able to include more of your low light scene than you could with a 50mm one.
35mm is arguably the most versatile focal length
This is one man’s opinion but, if I were going on a multi-day trip and could only take one prime lens, there’s a high likelihood it’d be a 35mm. And if the choice was extended to include my kit lens, I’d still go with the 35mm or another prime.
There are the limitations we talked about earlier, but I value the increased creativity and consistency more. The question then becomes why the 35mm over any other single focal length, though.
The answer is its versatility. Roughly speaking, lenses 28mm and wider might be too wide to be a real multi-purpose option that you could use to capture everything you’d want to on a trip.
You’d get some very cool images, be they landscape, cityscape, or even wide-angle street shots, but to have your whole trip captured in that way with no closer-up shots might be a little too much. Personal taste of course, but I think it would be for many.
Conversely, you don’t need to go much over 50mm before you find yourself with a focal length that restricts what you can shoot by virtue of it being too long.
The next commonly used length past 50mm is probably 85mm, and by the time we get there we’re well into telephoto territory. Not inherently a bad thing, but not ideal for covering a trip away.
35mm and 50mm lenses are both in the sweet spot of not-too-wide and not-too-long, and anything in between them is going to be highly versatile too. 35mm and 50mm are just the most readily available and often the cheapest.
A 50mm lens is a great option too, and there are plenty of reasons to go for one of those instead. But the extra width a 35mm gives could well sway the choice, for me.
There is one final point to add to this section, though. If you want to get an actual 35mm field of view from your 35mm lens, you’ll need to use it on a full-frame camera.
As explained in this post, the effective field of view of any given lens is multiplied by the smaller sensors in APS-C and DX cameras by around 1.5 times. This means your 35mm lens becomes more like a 52mm one.
For an Olympus micro four-thirds camera where the effective field of view is doubled by the half-size sensor, you’ll be looking at 17mm.
35mm lenses help you produce more interesting portraits
The most common focal lengths for portrait shooters tend to be 85mm and 50mm. They both allow the photographer to focus in on the head and face and isolate the person from the background with those aforementioned blurred backgrounds.
That’s all well and good if you’re doing corporate headshots, but what about if you want to tell more of a story? That’s where a 35mm lens can help by allowing you to shoot environmental portraits – shots that include the subject’s surroundings to add more interest to the image.
Probably not necessary for a LinkedIn profile picture, but think of the possibilities if you do family portrait sessions or include portraits in your street and travel photography especially.
Despite the shallow depth of field you can achieve with a 35mm f1.8 or 35mm f1.4 as discussed above, a lot of environmental portraits are shot with most of the image in focus. The advantage of using a 35mm for these shots comes in the wider angle it gives you.
The photograph below was taken with a 28mm Super-Takumar lens on a Sony mirrorless camera, which made it effectively a 42mm. With a 35mm, you’ll have even more scope to include the environment around your subject.
They can be very small and lightweight
Because there is no zoom mechanism to worry about, primes are often more compact than your kit lens. Not always lighter, but often shorter in length.
The actual dimensions and weight of course depend on the specific lens, and you’ll notice a difference even between 35mm f1.8 and 35mm f1.4 models due to the latter’s more complex design.
That size difference shouldn’t be the only consideration if you’re deciding between an f1.4 or an f1.8, though. You should also think about what you shoot and where, how much you really need f1.4 instead of f1.8, and whether you’re prepared to pay the extra to get it.
If you have crop sensor camera though, you’re in luck as far as size and weight go. Canon do a tiny 24mm pancake lens, while Nikon’s 24mm lens is pretty small too. Fujifilm also do a nicely sized 23mm if you’re in their ecosystem.
Overall, 35mm lenses aren’t typically as compact as 50mm ones, although the f1.8 versions are close. Having said that, my personal experience is that lens size and weight becomes irrelevant once you’re out shooting anyway, within reason.
Of course you’re going to be hampered more by the size and weight of a huge telephoto lens, but the difference between a 50mm and a 35mm is in reality negligible once you’re actually using them.
This vintage Minolta 35mm lens is about 50mm long, which is comparable to a lot of the standard modern ones.
A 35mm lens is great for travel and street photography
This section is going to be an amalgamation and reinforcement of a few of the previous points. Simply put, if I were looking for one single lens to use as my go-to for travel and street photography, most of my requirements would be met by a 35mm.
Packing light is a huge consideration for me, in both my overall luggage and with what I carry around during the day. I’ve never travelled with multiple lenses as I don’t want the extra weight or the worry that something may happen to them.
I don’t like changing lenses once I’m out shooting either. Carrying the extra weight is again a reason here, but it’s more the constant subconscious thought of ‘should I change lenses for this?’ that I prefer to avoid. It’s distracting and I prefer to just choose one lens and get what I can with it.
If I’m going to do that, I need a versatile one, which is where the 35mm comes in. Small, lightweight and, as we’ve already discussed, possibly the most versatile focal length out there for your street and travel photography.
Wide enough to get some landscape shots or wider street scenes while letting you shoot those environmental portraits too, and allowing you to mix it up with blurred backgrounds and low light shots too.
Great travel photo sets include a mixture of image compositions, but having a consistency to hold them all together is also important. A 35mm lens will allow you to capture most of the former while at the same time maintaining the latter.
The photograph below was shot on film with a 35mm fixed lens camera.
They’re good value for money in the long run
35mm lenses aren’t quite as cheap as 50mm ones, especially if you go for a 35mm f1.4 version, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any less value for money.
50mm lenses are a great introduction to primes, but you might find them to be a touch restrictive if you’re doing a lot of the aforementioned travel photography. If that happens and you find yourself switching to a 35mm, how much value are you getting from that 50mm anymore?
There’s also a multitude of zoom lenses out there that would be an upgrade on your kit lens with longer focal lengths and slightly wider apertures than that gave you. You’re looking at a lot of money for something like a 24 – 70mm f2.8, though.
Whether that amount of zoom is important enough to spend multiples of the cost of a 35mm f1.8 on is up to you, but I’d be wanting to use it very often and on photographs a 35mm wouldn’t be capable of to make it seem worthwhile to me.
Spending far less on a 35mm f1.8 that I could then get highly comfortable with shooting, with knowing what I can and can’t do with it, and with all the benefits already explained in this post still applicable, is more appealing to me.
Then the real value for money comes in falling in love with the focal length and enjoying producing great work with it for years and years on end.
They’re a great introduction to vintage lenses
Having done the majority of my own photography with vintage lenses – be that on a digital camera body or just shooting film – I really have to include a section on this.
As 35mm lenses have been one of the most commonly available focal lengths for a long time now, there are plenty of vintage ones to choose from should you want to go down that rabbit hole.
With prime lenses being a relatively simple design and usually solidly built, you can pick up one with decades of shooting under its belt and find it still works perfectly well.
Depending on the brand you buy, you might need an adapter, but that’s really no issue at all.
A bigger thing might be to learn how to focus manually and how to shoot in aperture priority mode, if you don’t already know. It’s not too difficult though and is really another step to helping you become a more well-rounded photographer. You can learn how here.
Another reason to go for a vintage 35mm lens is the character it will give your photographs when compared to a brand new one. Today’s are made to be sharp as a tack, which isn’t a bad thing, but how about using a lens that gives your work a look that’s a little different instead?
The final reason to go for a vintage model is the price. Yes, new ones aren’t that expensive, but there are plenty of bargains to be had by going back in time. Take a look on eBay to see for yourself.
That’s probably enough reasons to have a 35mm lens
Picking up a prime lens is one of the best things you can do when you feel your photography has plateaued with your kit lens, as far as bang for your buck is concerned, and one of the very best choices is a 35mm.
While a 50mm is arguably a more common first purchase, there are plenty of reasons to go for a 35mm instead – least not that your work will look different when so many other people are using a 50mm.
Generally speaking, the faster the lens is at a given focal length, the more expensive it will be. This means a 35mm f1.4 will cost more than a 35mm f1.8.
Those lower f-numbers will help you achieve even more blurred backgrounds and give improved performance in low light, but whether they’re necessary for a first-time prime lens purchase is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
I think the price jump to 35mm f1.4 is too much for me personally, so would likely go for an f1.8. If that’s what your budget affords you too, you’ll still love what you get for the money and will find a huge difference in the results you get compared to your kit lens.
And there are your eleven reasons why you should have a 35mm lens, or its equivalent based on your camera’s sensor size. 😀
Here are some of your options, sorted by brand and focal length needed: