35mm: The Storyteller's Lens

I've been a photographer for a couple of years now.  I've learned a lot throughout all of it, mostly through experience.  I've also learned that 95% of what a photographer will tell you in regards to photography is opinion.  There is an infinite amount of ways to take a good picture, and all the expensive gear in the world won't make your pictures look great if you don't know how to take a picture.  However, if you're an aspiring photographer looking to expand your arsenal of gear beyond the basics, I'm here to tell you why 35mm is the way to go, and how it will make you a better photographer.

A 35mm lens is a fixed focal length, or more commonly referred to as, "prime" lens.  This means you cannot zoom with it.  If you've never used a prime lens before it may take some getting used to.  In fact, I might recommend getting a 50mm lens if you’ve never used a prime lens, mainly because it is significantly less expensive than your average 35mm and is also a good length to learn to shoot at.  For those not photographically inclined, the focal length, measured in millimeters, indicates the angle of view you will have with a lens, and how far zoomed in it is.  The lower the number, the wider and more zoomed out it is.  Conversely, the higher the number, the narrower and more zoomed in it is.  35mm is towards the wider end of the spectrum, but not so wide that it will distort every image.

So you’re probably asking yourself, “okay, what makes 35mm so damn special?”  The answer is versatility.  It is a lens for all occasions. Yes, even portraits.  And if you ask me, I’d say especially portraits.  Many photographers would argue you should shoot portraits with an 85mm, 105mm or even longer lens, and they’re not wrong.  I own an 85mm and I use it quite frequently for portraits, but the beauty of having multiple prime lenses is that they will all produce a unique aesthetic.  Another appeal of the 35mm is how close it is to emulating the focal length of the human eye.  The human eye sees at a focal length equivalent to 43mm on a full frame camera, so 35mm is just slightly wider.  I like this for many reasons.  Perhaps the best part about it is that when you use this lens, your camera becomes an extension of you in a truer way than with any other lens.  What you see is what you get.  You will begin to frame in ways you didn’t before when you had a zoom lens.  You are forced to zoom with your feet.  You will immerse yourself in what you are shooting to get the best possible shot.  All of this happened for me when I picked up a 35mm lens.  It’s wide enough to take stunning landscapes.  It’s perfect for capturing group portraits and candid shots at events, or for street photography when shooting from the hip. 

My favorite use for it though is intimate portraiture.  I see so many photographers shooting portraits with long lenses since they produce a flattering aesthetic due to compression.  There’s nothing wrong with this method.  In fact you will produce some stunning portraits that way.  What I love so much about shooting portraits with a 35mm is how you can essentially force your subject to interact with you, and in turn, with your audience.  I realized this after I’d done a few shoots where I only shot with a 35mm and 85mm lens.  In all of my 85mm shots, the subject looked reserved and withdrawn from the photo.  They looked good, but looked posed.  Nearly every shot with the 35mm, my subjects conveyed emotion I wasn’t even fully aware of when shooting.  With an 85mm you can get tight shots from afar.  For candids and live performances, I love it.  For any scenario I don’t want my subject to know they’re being photographed, 85mm is my go to.  To get tight shots with a 35mm, you absolutely must engage your subject.  Whether they’re welcoming, shy, excited, or anxious; whatever their reaction, it’s raw and it’s real and you will capture it.  It’s also much easier to move with your subject when shooting with a 35mm.  It’s wide enough so that as long as you’re within a couple of feet of your subject, it’s pretty hard for them to move out of the frame.  Without question, I feel most confident when shooting a 35mm.

So now the question is, “which 35mm lens do I get?”  Brand is one thing, and depending on what camera you’re shooting, you may have an array of options.  More important than the brand of lens is the speed of it, or F-number.  My recommendation is a 35mm f/1.4.  The most versatile lens should not only be able to shoot in any style, but also in any lighting.  Sure there are a few third party 35mm f/1.2 lenses out there, but none are on par with the sharpness and quality of a professional f/1.4 lens.  Plus, I’m yet to encounter a situation where I wished I had 1.2 instead of 1.4, and I shoot a lot of dim lit concerts.  I have the Sigma 35mm 1.4 ART lens for Nikon camera bodies.  I love it.  Depending on what camera you shoot and how much you’re willing to spend, there may be better options available.  However, after owning this lens for almost six months and shooting it more than any other lens I own, I am yet to find a single complaint about it other than its weight, which comes with the territory of a fast lens.  It is without a doubt my go to lens.  Regardless of brand, a 35mm f/1.4 is a staple that every photographer should have in their bag.