When I predominantly shot 35mm film, my default lens was a 50 or 55mm.
The world just looked right when viewed through them, plus they’re compact, can usually focus down to around half a metre, and perform very well.
Then when I began experimenting more with digital – first with my Sony NEX mirrorless, then a Sony Alpha DSLR, then a couple of Pentax K DSLRS – I became curious about other focal lengths.
My first 135mm was the lovely Carl Zeiss S (Sonnar) 135/3.5, and there soon followed two or three other 135s, and maybe 10 since then.
I loved how with a 135mm I could get a more shallow depth of field with very dreamy backgrounds that almost became more like paintings than photographs.
In a word, 135mm lenses say “isolation” to me, as in isolating interesting subjects from everything around them.
What it took a while to get used to though was having to stand around 2m away from my subject every time I composed a photograph, having got so embedded in the much closer distances required for 50/55mm.
I’ve since explored a few focal lengths either side and found 150mm and 200m too long for my tastes (and the lenses too cumbersome and difficult to steady!).
Takumars in 105 and 120mm have delighted me and continue to do so, having most of that reach of a 135 but being slightly less extreme and distant from the subject physically.
Plus, being typical Takumars, they are both very compact for 105 and 120mm lenses respectively, so don’t feel clumsy or unbalanced at all.
My latest challenge is at the other end of the scale – wide angles.
Of course using APS-C sensors, the fields of view are different to that seen when using the same lenses on a 35mm film camera.
The two lenses I’m most interested in exploring currently are, inevitably, both Takumars. An old and amazingly tiny Auto-Takumar 35/3.5 and a somewhat newer Super-Takumar 28/3.5.
On film I dabbled with 28mm and struggled to get my head around it. There were just too many elements in the scene I had to consider and try to balance!
On the DSLRs it’s easier because of the crop factor – 28mm giving an equivalent 42mm (28 x 1.5) field of view, which is said to be pretty much exactly the “normal” view.
What I’m finding challenging is not to default to the same style of photography as I make with 50/55/58 and longer lenses, ie mostly close up, isolated subjects.
Er, like the image below.
The 28mm and to a slightly lesser extent 35mm Takumars (which is equivalent 52.5mm field of view on film, bang in the middle of where I’m most experienced in that medium) encourage seeing wider, more complete scenes than 50/55mm and certainly 105mm and beyond.
In many ways, the longer the lens, the easier it is to make beautiful images, especially close up.
The shallow depths of field possible, plus the magnification of the larger focal length compared with our “normal” view, mean it’s not hard to block out anything distracting and isolate that beautiful petal/leaf/dewdrop.
So I’ve been trying to capture complete scenes as opposed to isolated close ups with the 28 and 35mm, with, so far, quite limited success!
On the plus side, I love using these lenses, especially the 28mm which is divinely smooth to use, is plenty sharp even half a stop down at f/4, and gives very pleasing (to me) colours.
I’ll continue to explore in the coming days and weeks and see what I can manage to capture.
Walking around with any camera encourages us to look at the world more closely and discovery beautiful things we might otherwise ignore and pass by. This is a crucial aspect of myself as a photographer, and of 35hunter.
Using the 28mm is giving that ethos a jolt and a fresh impetus – still hunting for beauty, but in a different way, and a more challenging, and possibly ultimately a more rewarding one.
I’ve had enough positive results with the 28mm – and certainly enjoyed the new experience enough – to consider maybe selling one or two 50/55 or 135 lenses to fund something even wider – a 24mm or even 20mm lens – down the line, and refreshing and expanding my outlook all over again.
What focal length have you found most challenging, and most rewarding?
Let us know in the comments below.
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18 thoughts on “Wandering On The Wide Side”
My favourite lens for film is the Olympus Zuiko 24mm 2.8, it’s so sharp and contrasty. The most challenging lens I have is a Nikon af 20mm 2.8, really disappointed with it, corner sharpness is awful.
Thanks for your comments! Despite the poor performance of the Nikon 20mm, how do you find shooting with that focal length? Oh and why not sell it if it’s not much good?
I am thinking about P/X it for something, funny enough I’ve been using 50mm a lot recently, so maybe a nice 50/1.4. I like wide angle but find I really need to have some foreground interest so I tend to use the depth of field scale rather than focusing the lens.
Interesting you say that. I’ve tried shooting straightforward landscapes, but always seem to find them a bit dull, even if the photo technically comes out well. Maybe I need to explore your approach of having something in the foreground also, so a deep depth of field, and something of interest at a number of different distance points in the picture. Thanks for getting me thinking!
It’s hard to resist a 50/1.4 with that big front glass! I keep telling myself I don’t need a Takumar 50/1.4 as I have a Tak 55/1.8 and Pentax-A 50/1.4, both fantastic in their own right. But I still want one!
A lens that was practically glued to my Fuji X-E1 was the wonderful Voigtländer 15mm Heliar Super Wide f:4.5. Not a cheap lens but worth every cent. When I went full time film I tried it on my Leica III and was totally disappointed! The apparent focal length of 22.5mm on APS-C was perfect, 15mm on film was not.
Hi Frank, so what was the issue on film – just too wide? I can’t imagine using 15mm on film, you must have to get incredibly close to get the shots you want? The closest I’ve come was a few years back using an 18-55mm zoom (made for APS-C digital) on a Pentax 35mm film body. As it was an APS-C intended lens there was lots of vignetting, and I remember I was virtually touching passers but in the final image they still looked 5m away! Very challenging…
That was exactly the problem, too wide!
I picked up this strange semi fisheye lens attachment a few weeks back. Haven’t used it much yet but just peering through the huge chunk of glass it is, the world looks huge!
No, remember, it’s a small small worls 😉
I’m fascinated by your way approaching new focal lengths.
Your 28mm samples show perfect image composition … at least in my eyes 😉
I can follow your arguments about 50-58mm lenses and partially the one about 135-150. Your statement, that 150 is a little bit too long is twofold. Talking about Film/FF I agree and there I prefer the 135mm. Talking about APSC or MFT it’s a different story. Here I like having a stabilized 300mm lens, focusing down to 1.8m.
As I meant before, the challenge to me is using the same lens on film/FF and APSC/MFT, as it’s completely changing it’s character.
Hi Reinhold, thanks for your thoughts. And thanks re the composition. I think the wider the lens, the more thoughtful we have to be with composition as there’s so much more in the frame. I think this is the big challenge for me, along with the fact that even wide open there’s a fairly deep depth of field with a 28mm lens, so you can’t just blur out stuff in the background you don’t want there, like you can with a 135/2.8 say.
The only 150mm I have used is a Takumar 150/4, which was a lovely lens, but obviously not very fast. Equating to 225m focal length with f/2.8 even would be pretty fun, but the f/4 combined with that made it too unwieldy and difficult to shoot at fast enough shutter speeds to eliminate camera shake.
Of course on a tripod photographing still objects it would it have been much easier. But I like to travel light!
Using something like my Pentax-A 50/1.4 is great fun, as it’s like a super fast short tele. I’m avoiding anything faster than f/3.5 now, and preferably using f/2.8 or less when possible. The only exception is my Jupiter-11 135/4 that I can’t part with because it gives me results like this –
Like you say about lenses on APS-C and MFT, a lens like the Jupiter-9 85/2 becomes very appealing – a 130ish mm field of view with f/2 max aperture plus shake reduction on my APS-C K10D…
Of course the other plus is that most lenses, if they have a weakness, show it at the very edges of the frame. Using a lens on APS-C (or MFT) automatically crops out the extreme edges, so you’re only using the optimum part of the glass, even wide open.
… ah, … now you answered one of my never-asked questions … if you use a tripod for all your delicious shots 😉
I haven’t taken to 28mm or 135mm. 28mm usually has too much distortion, and I just can’t seem to find 135mm’s groove. I’m thinking I need to try 85mm. I’ll be that will be the longer lens that works for me.
You might want to look at one of these then Mr Grey…
I am mostly using an old F Zuiko 38mm 1.8 on my Olympus MFT which gives me an effective 76mm. I’m interested in more landscapes recently being close to the Angeles National Forest and struggling to find the right wide angle, I would like something in the low 20s which would give me 40 something.
hmmmm maybe me and @conspicari can do a deal 🙂
I keep thinking about a 20mm Takumar, but they’re just too pricey. I probably should have kept the 18-55mm zoom that came with my Pentax digital, although it was “just” a kit zoom, they’re pretyy well regarded and it would have given me some experience shooting at 18mm to see how I found it, before then deciding on a prime around that focal length.
Hey Dan, I agree with you about wides being harder to balance. You mentioned somewhere, maybe in another comment about bringing elements into the foreground to make images more interesting. I do love them though.
That’s certainly what I do. Maybe something to one side of the photo, or often I am grovelling close to the ground to get more feel and depth. I love lakes for giving depth, and sunsets with feature sky’s for the same reason. Remember that meadow I shared a link to on your other post, something like that with a whole meadow just across and through the entire meadow…..and a nice sky if I am lucky…..this is the UK after all!
I have a full frame 18-28 maybe 35 zoom. For that kind of width it has to be a special scene for me. Something dramatic with features not just fields. Though even with distortions great for architecture…..i thinking of maybe getting a tilt adapter too. Love the books and the graveyard shot. I love graveyards theyre a never ending supply of inspiration…..so much life from death…..really is spiritual
Toby, thanks for your interesting thoughts.
I love the idea of wide angles maybe more than actually using them. Sweeping landscapes, dramatic skies, soaring architecture, endless beaches…
I think sometimes I’m just looking for new inspiration, and hope by using a different camera or lens, or in this case focal length, it will give me a fresh angle and inspiration.
Hmm, yeh I seem to spend quite a bit of time in churchyards. I just like the quiet and yes the sense of spirituality. Plus that contrast between decaying hundreds of year old gravestones and buildings, and the new growth of leaves and flowers…