While there is no shortage of variety on the lens market, three particular focal lengths have a guaranteed place in every photographer’s bag (and heart).
Deciding between them depends on your use case, budget, and taste.
But how do you choose between 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm? Which one is best for a given purpose and what should you consider before pulling the shutter (sorry!)
If you’re just starting to build your lens collection, fret not. In this article, we’ll highlight the pros and cons, typical use cases, and show you some of the best fixed prime lens offerings in every price bracket.
This should clear things up, and help you decide which focal length to choose—35mm, 50mm, or 85mm. Or even all of the above, depending on your appetite and ability.
Reasons to Consider Fixed Prime Lenses over a Zoom Lens
As with all things optical, it comes down to concessions.
Even when manufacturers develop and produce an advanced zoom lens with all the bells and whistles, its optical performance will be suboptimal at the extreme ends of the zoom range. Not to mention the extra weight and higher price tag.
This is where standard primes, especially 35mm or 50mm get to shine.
With much fewer elements and fixed focal length, they offer razor-sharp image quality. While it depends on factors like maker, model, and aperture setting, a prime lens typically runs circles around its zoom version in the same price class.
With a zoom lens, you can simply twist to raise your focal length to 35, 50, or higher. However, this would often come at the cost of unwanted effects like less light, optical defects, or, god forbid it center softness!
With a prime lens, you can elegantly steer around those issues altogether. Instead, you get a master-of-one, jack-of-none kind of solution.
A prime lens is minimalism at its finest. It involves commitment, constraint, and simplicity. It does only one thing but does it like none other.
It invites you back to the time-tested basics, cuts out the fluff, and gets the essentials just right; having fun, connecting, and maybe – just maybe – creating great photography in the process.
Oh, and let’s not forget…when shooting with a standard prime, you can wave goodbye to sore shoulders and wrists (unless wielding an exquisite yet chunky Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM).
What’s more, primes come in all shapes, sizes, and price categories. Starting with as little as 50 bucks, and up to several thousand for something like a Leica 50mm f/0.95 ASPH.
Truthfully, though, it’s entirely doable to create anything from jaw-dropping portraits to intense or moody feature films, with something like a NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G.
The Differences Between 35, 50, and 85mm Lenses, and How to Use Them
When and Why to Use a 50mm Lens?
The short answer is Field of View (FoV). The 50mm is widely recommended as the go-to option for first-time prime lens buyers and new photographers, as it mimics the natural FoV of the human eye.
Try to form a square with your hands half an arm’s length from your face, and you’ll see what you would get with a 50mm prime.
Even more importantly, it encourages best practices like planning and composing the shot using your feet and experimenting with angles. It also provides excellent background blur, especially at wide open.
Just be mindful that on a crop sensor camera, it’s 85mm full-frame equivalent. Meaning, that’s what 85 would look like on a full-frame body.
Main Issues With Using a 50 Prime Lens
Let’s be honest. Although the numerous benefits of prime lenses are hard to overlook, they have some drawbacks, in comparison with zoom lenses.
As for 50mm, in particular, the most notable problem is running your back against the wall. That’s due to the relatively narrow, semi-telephoto Field of View.
When trying to compose a group shot or interior photo indoors, you’ll often find yourself having to back up more and more. Eventually, you’ll run out of space, and be leaning straight up the wall.
That’s not the only problem with a 50mm. While the exact numbers vary according to specific models, minimum focal distance leaves something to be desired.
Often, the front element has to be up to 20 inches away from the subject. As you figured, this is less than great for close-up shots, let alone macro photography.
Yes, the bokeh is great and at 50 mill sucks light like it were some photon-eating monster from another dimension. But be sure you understand these limitations before you exchange your hard-earned cash for a new prime lens.
Why Choose 85mm Over 50mm?
With the middle option out of the way, let’s discuss the 35mm and 85mm.
As you might’ve guessed, the 85 creates a narrower Field of View. In other terms, it’s more ‘zoomed out’. Due to this, it has more compression, which results in better background blur—or bokeh, which means blur in Japanese.
This smooth, creamy blur, is precisely what makes the 85mm the golden standard for portraits. The background separation helps guide the viewer’s gaze to the subject (often, the model’s eyes).
What’s more, it gives a flattering look with no distortion but all the natural beauty you could ever want to squeeze in the frame.
Challenges With 85mm Lenses
The main issues are similar between 50mm and 85mm. Except, they are exaggerated.
More specifically, you can expect a minimal focal distance of around 30 inches, rendering it practically useless for close-ups.
Of course, you still get stunning bokeh, but not so much indoors. That’s because the further away the background is relative to the subject, the creamer it gets.
If you intend to use an 85mm indoors, you’d better live in a mansion, or at the very least, have a generously sized photography studio.
Due to the long-ish minimum focal distance, you’d either run into a wall or be unable to compose the shot. A portrait, after all, is of little value, if the only thing in the frame is an eye or a nose.
Last but certainly not least, there is a lack of flexibility. This goes for pretty much any prime lens. Since there is no zoom feature, you’re forced to zoom with your feet.
Granted, foot-zooming is a boon for newcomers, as it teaches proper technique. But eventually, you will run into a situation where you just need the extra distance – in one direction or the other – to grab a successful, meaningful capture.
Therefore, it’s crucial to plan and understand the requirements of the shoot, before selecting which glass to bring.
Naturally, 85mm lenses typically sit slightly above both 35mm and 50mm in terms of size, weight, and cost. Due to the fairly narrow FoV, they are the least versatile of all three focal lengths.
But if all you want is to shoot gorgeous portraits and beauty shots, an 85mm standard prime should be glued to your camera. Unless you want to venture into the unconventional territory, which segues us right into the next topic…
When Is a 35mm The Right Lens for The Job?
Sometimes, you need to go wide, to tell the story. For this reason, 35mm is easily the most versatile focal length. It gets just enough context, without going ultra-wide.
The 35mm stems from the good old film camera days. It’s the perfect companion for a walk around the city and everyday photography, due to this versatility. That said, it certainly has its place in portraiture, too.
While 50mm is generally considered the go-to choice for those newly ‘exposed’ to the world of photography, the 35mm is a close second.
Typically, it has a slightly smaller maximum aperture, letting in less light and producing less bokeh. And yet, if you get close enough to the subject, and open the lens up to or near fully open, it can deliver gorgeous bokeh all day long.
You can’t go wrong with something like the Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art DG HSM, which comes in Sony, Nikon, and Canon versions.
Thankfully, you don’t even need to cough up that kind of dough, to get a light, well-built 35mm piece of glass with stellar optical quality.
For just around a hundred bucks, you can get the YN35mm F2 from Yongnuo, the newer kid around the block.
If you’re on a shoestring budget, you could even start with a preowned, vintage, fully manual Nikkor. Just make sure that you get it from a reputed seller, and that there are no mechanical flaws or fungus.
Older lenses are often superbly built, have similar optical performance, and might even have distinct characteristics that can make your photos stand out from the crowd.
Common Problems When Shooting With a 35mm Lens
Now that we know when a 35 mill is the perfect tool for the task, let’s look at situations where it might not be.
As you would expect, the relatively wide FoV means that you can’t get up and close to your subject, other than by foot (or if you can levitate, in which case, it would be the ultimate prime lens to rule them all).
Jokes aside, this drawback is not to be taken lightly. I can’t count all the times when I had a spectacular compo lined up – golden sunset, interesting subject, all the boxes ticked.
Except, there was water or a sheer vertical drop between us, making the 35 mm. Useless, unless cropping in post.
Yes, cropping is not the end of the world, but throwing away ⅔ of the pixels can feel somewhat wasteful, and the more you crop, the less sharp it gets. Especially, if you didn’t attain perfect focus, and your sensor is not a gazillion Megapixels, like the one in the Sony Alpha 7R IV.
Believe it or not, the (usually) tiny footprint of a 35 mill prime lens conveys less ‘pro shooter’ and more ‘artistic hobbyist’.
Compactness is certainly an advantage, when roaming the streets for that elusive candid photo, but is also a potential turnoff for clients.
They’d feel much more comfortable, if you showed up with 50 ounces of glass, wielding dual bodies, speedlights, and other trinkets. That might not be exactly fair, but it’s a reality.
Fortunately for us photographers, not all clients have this bias to such an extent. If you can deliver excellent work, you can deliver excellent work, period.
Be aware that some 35mm lenses have barrel distortion, curving edges, and messing up body proportions. This can be solved with distortion correction, either in-body or during post-production.
Sometimes, it can even be used creatively, for example, to exaggerate the size of a foreground object. Nonetheless, keep this in mind before taking the plunge.
To touch on minimal focal distance on the 35mm, it is essentially a nonissue. Meaning, you can mostly get real up close and personal—down to a couple of inches, which is semi-macro territory.
Not too shabby at all, for such a versatile lens in the first place.
Now that we’ve covered both the strong suits and the shortcomings of fixed primes versus zoom lenses, let’s discuss which one is right for you.
Which Lens to Get First, 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm?
The short answer is: it depends. In general, it’s advised to start with a 50mm like a Nifty Fifty, for the reasons stated above.
But say your camera came with a mediocre kit lens, and you are looking for something truly versatile, timeless, and ultra-compact? In that case, a 35mm is your best bet.
Before committing to any given focal length, you can always try one out, compare photos on Flickr, or simply grab a handful of cheap, vintage primes off of eBay.
Then, you can upgrade them in order of preference, and join the rest of us photographers, with your case of emerging Gear Acquisition Syndrome.
In a nutshell, for stunning portrait photography, 85 or 50mm should be at the top of your shortlist.
If you are into visual storytelling, travel, architecture, and everything else in between, then start with 35mm.
All three are widely available, no matter if you are a Canon, Nikon, Sony, or even Fuji shooter. And keep in mind that your glass is your primary asset, next after your skill.
Camera bodies come and go, but once you invest in a given camera system, your lens collection stays with you for years or even decades.
If you ever decide to upgrade or thin out your glass warehouse, rest assured that there is always an eager buyer ready on the other side.
Our Top Prime Lens Picks for Any Budget and Situation
Best First Prime Lens to Get for Cheap
Arguably the best ‘first lens’ for budding photography enthusiasts: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM, aka Nifty Fifty.
It is also available in an even cheaper version with a noisier motor and plastic construction with a metal mount! Still, the plastic version features the same optics, essentially giving you the same image quality.
Best Value 35mm Lens for Nikon Cameras
Nikkor is renowned for its great build quality and crisp optics. For example, the Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G is a revered lens with 5-star reviews and a lively second-hand market.
There is also a 50mm version, that’s equally impressive. Both are truly staples in any Nikon shooter’s bag.
The Ultimate 85mm Lens for Serious Portrait Photographers
For some of us, only the absolute best is good enough.
Perhaps you’re after pin-sharp images with saliva-inducing bokeh, the durability of a Sherman tank, weather sealing, and a dead-quiet, precise focus motor.
If so, then the Sony SEL85F18 85mm F/1.8-22 would be right up your alley.
In the same price range, there is Samyang SYIO85AF-E 85mm F1.4. It works great on both CMOS and full-frame bodies and comes with ultra multi-coating to filter out glare and enhance contrast.
Should You Buy Your Standard Prime Glass New or Used?
This question always comes up from those just getting their feet wet in the exciting landscape of photography.
On the one hand, buying new gives you a warranty, and a brand spanking new product with zero scratches, dents, or defects.
There is also the unboxing experience and the joy of holding a sparkling new product in your hands. It’s almost like getting a new car. And potentially, nearly as expensive.
Furthermore, by buying new, you’re getting peace of mind in terms of appropriate, lawful sourcing, via official channels.
If you go the pre-loved lens buying route, there are certain risks involved. For one, you have no warranty from the manufacturer or seller (in most cases).
There is no way of knowing how much ‘mileage’ the lens has left in it, nor how it has been treated during its life cycle.
Sitting in a dusty environment or improper handling after use in cold weather could induce mechanical problems or fungus.
Both issues would require repair services and downtime—the latter being utterly critical for a working wedding or portrait photographer.
Also, you never know if the lens is hot goods acquired through theft. Luckily, there are websites and apps to check whether a given lens or camera body has been reported stolen, or register your product.
Ultimately, it comes down to budget and risk tolerance, when deciding whether to buy pre-owned or new glass.
Which Portrait Lenses Do The Pros Use?
If you ask ten different professional photographers, you’ll likely get ten different answers.
Some might use a top-of-the-line 50mm prime like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM. Others, consistently dish out front-page worthy shots with an old Soligor or Helios, using an adaptor.
In all honesty, though, your clients deserve your best work. And your best work deserves the best equipment. It ensures reliability, high resolution, and fewer out-of-focus shots.
Few things are more frustrating than importing a day’s worth of work, only to find that half the captures are unsharp.
If you take your (future?) upcoming photographic career seriously, you might just as well get the best gear you can.
Then, there is the whole debate of professional versus amateur photographers. When does one qualify as a pro?
Is it when the images are on par with the industry standard? Or is it when one’s income, or part thereof, comes strictly from photography bookings, print sales, or other related avenues?
Some would even argue that being a professional is a mindset, not a hard-defined status. If you take your work professionally, the rest will naturally follow.
Should I Get a UV Filter for My Lens?
In short, no. Here’s why.
Adding an extra layer of glass degrades image quality. Also, most lenses have built-in coatings, including ultraviolet.
But won’t a UV filter protect my new lens? The answer is twofold. To protect the front element from scratches, it’s better to install a lens hood.
It also has the added benefit of reducing stray light from hitting the sensor at an angle, thereby affecting image quality and introducing flaring. Although, in most recent lenses, the latter is less of an issue.
However, if you plan on using the lens in a dusty environment, and the unit doesn’t offer protection against it, then a UV filter could prevent dust from entering the enclosure. At least, from the front.
To reiterate, you’re generally best off investing in a lens hood instead of a UV filter that does little to nothing good.
There is little difference between an original one from Tamron, Nikon, Sigma, or whichever maker you go for, and a third-party hood. Just be sure that the size is correct, and preferably go for a plastic one.
A metal hood could strip the threading on the lens, and significantly reduce its functionality and second-hand market value.
Lastly, a lens hood adds credence to your appearance as a photographer, due to unconscious bias. While the validity of this perception is highly dubious, clients often view you as a dedicated, probably professional photographer.
As someone willing to invest heavily in gear (through well-paying, happy clients), if you show up with a chunky beast of a body, with a heavy lens, hood, and all. Although, in the end, your portfolio should do the talking.
Many newer full-frame bodies are much smaller, compared to what they used to be. When it comes to lenses, though, there is no substitute for high-quality glass.
It simply needs to have certain dimensions and undergo time-consuming, costly manufacturing processes, to let in enough light, and achieve optimal quality while keeping Chromatic Aberration and fringing at bay.
Which Focal Length Is Best for Video?
Standard primes like 35, 50, and 85mm, don’t only excel at stills. They are equally capable in the videography department, too.
Many filmmakers swear by their 50mm prime lenses and even mod them out with extra focus rings for easier operation while shooting. However, in tight scenes, a 35mm or even wider is often the only way to get the shot.
It should be noted that clickless aperture comes in handy when shooting video. That’s because it allows for gradual, stepless exposure control, which is vital during changes in lighting.
Some lenses come clickless from the factory, but most can be modded. We would discourage you from taking apart your brand-new G Master, with the intent of modifying it.
Rather, experiment with less expensive, perhaps vintage glass, instead. Unless you know what you are doing and have the proper environment and equipment to disassemble and put together a lens.
The Top Reasons to Avoid Fixed Prime Lenses
We have already covered the most common issues with the 35, 50, and 85mm standard primes, but let’s quickly run over the problems that are general for all of them.
Stuck With One Focal Length
First, there is an obvious lack of a zoom feature. If you need versatility and footwork is not an option, then swapping lenses is all you can do.
Frequent lens changing wears out the mount of the lens itself. But even more so, the mount on your camera body.
Also, there is the downtime while changing lenses, and in a professional setting, this time costs money—both from the client’s, model’s, and your own perspective.
Dirt Accumulating Due to Frequent Lens Swapping
Another concept to keep in mind is that every single time you dismount the lens, you expose your camera’s internals to elements like dust and moisture.
Sure, DSLRs have a physical shutter in front of the sensor, but mirrorless bodies don’t. Regardless, you never want to invite dust particles to chill out on your camera’s sensor.
If you accidentally do, carefully use an air blower with a filter, to blow them out, while holding the camera face down.
How to Clean Your Camera Sensor and Exterior?
Over time, it’s completely normal that grime eventually builds up in there, almost no matter how careful you are. This can be solved with purpose-made single-use sensor swabs, but make sure to get the right size for your sensor.
It’s a rather delicate and risky operation, but if you follow the instructions carefully, you should be fine. Be sure to regularly inspect the inner workings of your camera, to tackle the issue before it becomes a serious problem.
Dirt eventually also builds up around the lens mount. To keep things neat and reduce the risk of dust inside, it’s standard practice to carefully dust off your gear with a brush, and wipe it over with a soft, clean, damp cloth.
Some photographers are quite religious about it and clean the outer body and lens after every single session.
The less dirt there is on the exterior, the less chance of it getting in. Keep your camera and lenses sparkling clean, and you’ll prolong their life span and preserve the resale value when it’s time to upgrade.
And if you’re starting from scratch, you can get a high-quality, complete cleaning kit, for the modest price of under 20 bucks.
Whatever you do, never touch the front element with anything but specifically designed, and preferably unused fiber cloth.
If the glass surface gets greased up over time, there is only one safe way; meticulously do the whole thing with pure isopropyl alcohol and q-tips, carefully moving in tight circles, while rotating them as well.
It’s a time-consuming ritual, but a good way to increase sharpness on a filthy lens!
Even though there is a certain lightness and ninja-ness about rocking one single prime, dragging along a whole collection is not always practical.
Needless to say, it’s heavy, and there is always the added risk of theft if you find yourself in a dodgy part of town.
By now, you hopefully have a solid understanding of the differences and respective pros and cons between 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm prime lenses.
When it comes down to picking just one, the primary use case and budget are the most crucial aspects to consider.
- 50mm is the ‘middle way’, mimicking the Field of View of the eye.
- 35mm is the timeless classic and works like a charm for anything from documentary to street and videography.
- 85mm is the most sought-after focal length for portrait shoots.
With all that said, nothing is cut in stone. Being creative is all about bending the rules and trying out new things.
Therefore, it’s entirely possible to do street photography with an 85mm, and portraits with a 35mm. You would simply have to adjust (and sometimes, literally have your back against a wall when composing).
Standard prime lenses have perks like great optical performance, accompanied by comparatively small size and cost. But swapping lenses gradually wears out the mount, and lets dust inside.
Still, every photographer should own at the very least one standard prime. Which one will be your first?