Which prime lens to buy? 35mm or 50mm?


35mm or 50mm?

If your budget only allow you to buy one prime lens, which will you buy? 35mm or 50mm?

Again, to answer this question, it routes back to your need.
What you shot the most?
Where you use it the most? and
What kind of result (perspective) you wish to see in your photos?

Throughout this context, both 35mm and 50mm focal length are referred to the full frame sensor. For crop factor APS-C sensor, you can cross reference it with 24mm and 35mm respectively.

Which Will I Pick?

As you know, I am not a full time photographer nor event photographer. Most of the time I capture photos as memories of life and persons surrounding me. For me to answer this question, I would choose 35mm first.

Seriously, with the 35mm view angle, it is the most versatile all around lens. With its view angle of 62 degree compared with 46 degree in 50mm lens, it generally capture more surrounding contents of your scene of interest. If I can only carry one lens for travel, 35mm would be my lens of choice.

However, in term of photographic result, I like the 50mm the most. It gave a more pleasing view on after the optical perspective compression (pull the background nearer to the subject), and easier to achieve creamy bokeh, when you shot at low aperture number, as compared to 35mm.

In comparison to 85mm, 50mm is much easier to shoot around for all around from indoor to outdoor. Even though the 85mm perspective compressed, more bokeh and so on, its nears to “zoom lens range” make it harder to shoot indoor. Larger in size and heavier in weight also make it uncomfortable to carry around.

The 35mm Prime Lens

This is the classic for journalism, documentary and reportage type of lens. The semi-wide angle lens get both subject and its environment in the frame, so the viewer can see and understand what is happening in the scene.

The shooting distance is comfortable distance between photographer and subject. With 2 steps distance, you can capture half body portrait photo.

This also benefit you from shooting from short distance to your subject, or in the crowd. In event like wedding, bride and bridegroom walking into the hall, or street performances, or even street photography, you need to react fast and any delay of even a second, the “event of interest” will pass away.

Even you have chance to step back few steps to gain wider angle, other photographers with wider angle lens (I mean those those with camera phones), will just step in front and block your view. In these scenarios, it can’t be better to equip your camera with 35mm view angle.

Suitable to shoot 3-4 people, especially if you are within a small or medium room/space. I doubt 50mm able to do what, unless you are in a more open space. So, it was ideal for group photos.

Compare to zoom lens or even 50mm, it gives better (larger) depth of field (DOF). Which give photographer a peace of mind when using f/1.4. A quick illustration extracted from DOFMaster below shown that DOF at 35mm is 7cm, while same settings used on 50mm, the distance reduced to only 3cm.

35mm vs 50mm Depth of Field

Comparison of 35mm and 50mm depth of field (DOF) @ f/1.4 with subject at 1 meter distance. Illustration credit to DOFMaster.

Another benefit of using 35mm is minimum focus distance is lower. In this case, you can focus closer to your subject and leave your background blur.

Lens Min Focus Distance
 Sigma Art 35mm F1.4 DG HSM

30 cm / 11.8 in

 Sigma Art 50mm F1.4 DG HSM

40 cm / 15.7 in

 AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G

30 cm / 11.76 in

 AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G

46 cm / 18.0 in

 Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM

30 cm / 11.8 in

 Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

45 cm / 17.7 in

The distortion from a 35mm is very minimal (compared to wider angle lens like 24mm or even 16mm). It makes it easier to compose and give a pleasing look on the photograph.

In general, the 35mm is generally small in size and light in weight. I said in general because if you compare the classic 35mm to Sigma Art 35mm, that’s is not the case 🙂

The 50mm Prime Lens

Also commonly known as classic portrait lens. Most people will buy this lens as their second lens, after first kit lens. This is it the “widest open aperture fast lens” (f/1.8) that come with a low price tag (ranging from $100-plus for original Nikon and Canon to 3rd party lens from Yongnuo as low as $50).

50mm is closer to human eye view and perspective as compared to 35mm. With its 46 degree view angle, normally you need to step 1-2 steps back when you are shooting, in order to obtain similar subject and environment view. It isn’t great for shooting group of people but still suitable to shot 1-2 person.

Compared to 35mm, where you get wider view on the environment and more background distraction; while 85mm give you a great isolation and blur out your background with higher perspective compression at low aperture number; 50mm provide the most adequate result among three of them. It is adequate in isolating your subject and bokeh the background, with f/1.4, while giving you a pleasant view.

My Experience with 35mm and 50mm

I adopted the Sigma Art 35mm F1.4 DG HSM the most when I first turn into full frame user. Even though I owned the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D and AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor
105mm f/2.8G IF-ED way much earlier, the former was designed for film era and hence can’t give me a satisfying sharpness and autofocus speed while operate in Nikon full frame 24MP sensor resolution; while the latter was in zoom range, which make it harder to use across various situation.

Only after 2 years with 35mm, I bought in the Sigma Art 50mm F1.4 DG HSM, which is now stuck with my Nikon D750 most of (can say all) the time. As mentioned above, I am the kind of people that will accommodate with the lens tight view angle (by stepping back 2-3 steps) if shooting in event, in order to gain the perspective compression and bokeh that I am hungry for.


So in short, I will pick:

35mm: if you can only carry one lens for entire travel trip.

50mm: if you like the compressed perspective (with creamy bokeh), and don’t mind stepping back a few steps while shooting, this lens would give you the most pleasant photos, at least is what I like the most.

Enjoy shooting and pick the tools that give you the most satisfaction.

For Canon

For Nikon


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