Wide Eyed, Nearly Normal, Or Terrific Tele – What’s Your Favourite Focal Length?

A couple of years back I fell into what, in retrospect, I realise is a common trap for beginner photographers.

I thought that to be a complete photographer, I needed a lens in every possible focal length, from super wide to extreme tele, so I could cover every possible photographic opportunity that arose.

This moderated a little when I found I didn’t enjoy anything wider than perhaps 24mm (too much to consider in the frame, plus too much distortion when up close) or longer than around 150mm (too much camera shake and needing to always stand three metres further away than I thought I needed to).

But still I was looking for a lens at every logical stepping stone between 24mm and 150mm.

I even made a chart and plotted what I had, then looked at which gaps I needed to fill.

I could of course have just used a decent zoom lens.

There are plenty of zoom lenses (either interchangeable or fixed in cameras) that run from 24 or 28mm up to 100mm or more.

Then I’d never need another lens again and would save a fortune on buying a prime lens for each of those common focal lengths between.

Indeed, a lens like the Pentax-A 35-105mm f/3.5 was more than adequate for my needs, and in my view punched above its weight at all focal lengths.

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The trouble was, it had the size and build of a bazooka, and weighed little less (615g).

Even on a small DSLR like the Samsung GX-1S, which also weighs around 600g, the two combined was just too heavy, awkward and bulky to use for any length of time.

I also had a Pentax-A 35-70mm f/4 which was far more compact and half the weight of the 35-105mm.

But the image quality wasn’t quite as good, and it was still bulky on a DSLR compared with a prime.

Another issue was the maximum aperture of f/3.5 and f/4 respectively on these two zooms.

You just don’t have the range of control over depth of field, and in the lowly lit ancient churches I often frequent, even at maximum aperture I was using slower shutter speeds than I’d like.

So I returned to the plan of building up my prime lenses.

At one point I think I had lenses at 24, 28, 35, 50, 55, 58, 105, 120, 135 and 150mm. Most of them Asahi Takumars!

The problem, for me, with having so many lens options is much the same as having too many cameras.

The more choice you have, the more difficult it is to choose.

Combine the 10 focal length options above with even a couple of camera bodies, and you have 20 different options.

For someone who likes to try to keep things lean and simple, this is just too much, and I’d end up spending more time choosing than using.

Plus of course having so many lenses isn’t quite as flexible as I, in my naivety, initially thought.

I like to travel light when I photograph, so rarely took more than one lens, and never three or more.

So if I saw an opportunity that might be well captured with a 135mm lens, but I only had a 28mm lens on the camera, and a 50mm in my bag, it was irrelevant that I had a 135mm lens sitting at home.

In time, I realised I didn’t need lenses in 10 different focal lengths, and came to find the ones I liked most.

In fact these choices were dictated far more by my enjoyment of specific lenses rather than their focal lengths.

My four favourite lenses are all in M42 mount.

A Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, Super-Takumar 55/1.8, Helios 44-2 58/2 and Jupiter-37A 135/3.5.

They’re all wonderful in their own way, and different enough from each other to be able to choose between them easily.

Shooting digital compacts, which I’ve moved even more towards in the last year or two, the classic 35mm focal length just makes most sense.

Aside from the Ricoh GRD III with its 28mm fixed lens, most other compacts I’ve used have zooms starting somewhere between 28 and 35mm.

So the vast majority of the time I’ll just power up the camera and use at their widest, not touching the zoom controls.

Some have the capacity to remember the zoom setting – like the Ricoh GX100 and Lumix LX3 – so I’ve set those up to stay at 35mm, and again treated them like a prime lens camera.

Because of how I’ve used zooms in the past (ie at a single focal length at a time, rather than zooming in and out every shot), it means I’ve got used to how particular focal lengths look, and how much will be captured.

Again, using only a few focal lengths, over time, this experience comes.

It would be far harder, if not impossible, to try and visualise a virtual overlay of any one of 10 different focal lengths on the scene before you, then choose the lens that best fits.

Which again shows my naivety I think in believing I needed a different lens to cover every focal length between 24 and 135mm.

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These days, my default focal lengths are pretty consistent.

With the digital compacts, their zoom lenses start at 35mm give or take a mm or two, so I’m very familiar with this field of view.

With my Pentax Q, I either use the 02 Zoom lens, set to 6mm, a 35mm equivalent of approximately 34mm, so again the same as all other compacts.

Or I use the 01 Prime which is 8.5mm, a 35mm equivalent of 47mm, around the 50mm focal length I’m well used to from using SLRs with 50mm lenses.

Currently I rarely use the M42 lenses at all, having struggled to enjoy them on my only compatible body (via an adapter), the Lumix GF1.

The sensor has a 2x crop factor, which throws out the original focal lengths anyway, so this is perhaps another factor why I’ve not gelled with this set up.

Perhaps a future body will give them new life, I don’t plan for them to stay dormant for long, they’re too special for that.

In summary, I think very few of us have the breadth of photography subjects and interests that mean we need a huge range of focal lengths in our cameras. 

Focusing on two or three (or even better, just one!) means we get to know and appreciate how the world looks at this focal length, and we naturally become more drawn to the compositions that work best there.

It’s just an other way of simplifying, honing down and focusing in on the type of photography we enjoy the most.

How about you? Which is your favourite focal length, and why? 

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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27 thoughts on “Wide Eyed, Nearly Normal, Or Terrific Tele – What’s Your Favourite Focal Length?”

  1. As you know I’ve had a lot of cameras, and lenses as well, in different makes and formats. My last “film kit” was Pentax, and the lenses were 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 135mm, and an 80-205mm zoom. I just wrote a piece about trying them out on my new Canon and the results I got.
    In general I used the 50mm most as it closely approximates the field of view of the human eye (although levels of peripheral vision vary of course). Not much difference between the 28mm and the 35mm really, but for wide-angle I prefer the 28. The 135mm is about as tele as the human eye can discern, and going beyond that requires some visual training before you can pick out something that far away for shooting.
    Now I have the Nikon P610 with its extreme zoom range, and this works for me as I’m often out in the wilderness and spotting something shy at a distance where the long length is a big advantage. Being able to go to the other extreme (including macro focus) means the amount of gear carried consists of one unit. It may not be excellent at all ranges, but it does achieve all ranges. As you know resolution over 10 MP doesn’t mean much for most displays, so the Nikon’s 16 gives me plenty to work with.
    I’ve just added a couple more filter to my kit and intend to do some more shooting as soon as I can. Just at the moment I’m recovering from an eye exam, and now the future weather is predicted to be bleak so it may be awhile before I get down to shooting again.

    1. Marc, thanks, I just read your post and left a reply.

      That Nikon is just bonkers, the lens goes from equivalent 24mm – 1440mm!! I think the longest lens I’ve ever used as a 200mm on an APS-C DSLR, so giving a 300mm field of view. I can’t get my head round 440mm let alone 1440mm ha ha, it’s a telescope!

  2. In my humble opinion I could not get as complicated as you in my photography.
    Apart from seven film cameras that I have kept after 60 years of photography. I keep them because I like the character and the feel of them, they look nice on my bookcase. I only use two and put through maybe six films a year.
    I enjoy the slow photography aspect of using them.
    As to digital. I use a Nikon d7200 with a 18-105 zoom. This is used manly for rugby photography every Saturday in the season. I also use it if someone asks me to be back up photographer at a wedding. Essentially where I need a bit more quality.
    For many seasons I only used a 50mm 1.2 Nikon lens also for rugby. It worked will, good on dull damp days but you had to keep up with play to get close to the action.
    Otherwise I use a Canon g16 for street photography which is my main enjoyment. I will flog it for four or five years, when it breaks I buy something new.
    Out of choice I would pick a good compact any day.
    Good quality pictures, modest zoom range, pocketable and silent.
    Again in my humble opinion the difference between this lens or camera and that these days is so small it is not worth getting worked up about. I shall never be published on the front of National Geographic. Seldom print but if I do never larger that 10×8. Most of the great photographers had one camera with a short lens. Who am I to say they didn’t get it right.
    My motto is keep it simple and take pictures.
    All the best
    Mike

    1. Mike, I often wish I could think less about these things – I often overcomplicate them! Maybe after another 45 years of photography I’ll have more wisdom!

      I love your motto too!

      Compact cameras with a modest zoom range make so much sense. Few of us need 24mm at one end and 200mm or more at the long end. Something like 28-80mm covers most occasions, and means the lens can be less complicated and hopefully perform better.

      1. I agree, the reason I picked my Lumix LX-7 was the limited zoom range. I purposely avoided the units with ridiculously long tele zooms as I never use prime lenses longer than 100mm or shorter than 35mm.

      2. I do suspect that one reason these “ridiculously long tele zooms” exist is purely down to a marketing ploy. I wouldn’t be shocked if major manufacturers had secret meetings with each other and scheduled their release dates to all try to maximise sales.

        Eg, Olympus releases a new 28-200mm zoom camera in January, Canon release a 26-230mm in June, Nikon release a 25-250mm in December, and so on, each deliberately and strategically upping the numbers and trying to convince customers that 250mm for example will give them so many more options than 230mm.

        Like you, I kind of glaze over after a certain point. Aside from a few old 135mm film lenses (which is now down to one, which doesn’t get used much), 95% of the time I’m somewhere between 28 and 58mm.

        Maybe I should try a really long tele just to see if/how I could possibly get my head around it!

  3. I’m still trying to figure this out with digital cameras Dan. I loathe zoom lenses for some reason that I can’t quite fathom. God knows I’ve tried but I’ve just learned to accept that it’s prime lenses for me. I just took a long zoom on vacation and gave it the old college try, but it just didn’t do it for me. I did however have a ball with my Olympus 15mm body cap lens, which seems to be universally scorned on the internet. It did take a bit of getting used to, it seems to only have two settings, macro and infinity. Usually anything like a 28mm lens is too wide for me, but for some reason this 30mm equivalent lens has been more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Is it sharp? No, but it has character. On film cameras my favorite was always 40mm or 45mm, all the better as they were usually compact pancake type lenses. I’ve taken some of my favorite pictures with the Pentax 40/2.8 that doesn’t exactly get rave reviews either.

    1. Jon, thanks for your thoughts! I’m not a fan of zooms as you know, but if you treat them like a prime they can make sense.

      How do you usually use a zoom in practice?

      I was looking at a Pentax 40/2.8 the other day, but the modern DA version. Are you talking about the M version?

      1. Hi Dan, actually the zoom on my LX-7 has a step function so I don’t mind it too much. Other than that I just played around with a long plastic zoom at the lake, but removed it after only a few shots. Yes, my 40mm Pentax lens is an M series that I got with a broken ME years ago (which it seems most are) very cheap. I must have gotten lucky because mine is very sharp. I’ve used it extensively on an MX and an LX and people don’t seem to even notice I have a camera. I have never mounted it on a digital camera, so that may be where it got such a bad rep.

      2. The step zoom function on some cameras is such a game changer. I hate it when it just says 2x, 3x etc on the display, or nothing at all!

        I think, personally, the only way to bond with a zoom is to use it at one focal length for ages so you forget it’s a zoom.

        Then a few weeks later maybe try it at another focal length, again like a prime.

        Just having all those options available for every single shot makes it too complicated, for me, but having one lens that can be a 28, 35, 40 or 50mm lens for any particular photowalk, does make sense.

        Re the 40/2.8, yeh I think people’s expectations are different with digital. Especially those who haven’t shot any film and whose eyes are just trained to see super clinical digital images. Anything less then looks “poor”, rather than having character or giving a different look.

        The 40/2.8 M series seem to be £70+ on eBay currently. I’m sure yours was significantly less!

  4. I vacillate between 35mm and 50mm (on a 35mm camera). 35mm lets me take more in when I’m in a tight spot, and I’m often in a tight spot. But no 35mm I’ve used matches even the least of the 50mms I own when it comes time to move in close.

    I have taken a real shine lately to the 35-70 zoom I have for my Nikons. It’s got wicked barrel distortion at the 35mm end but it’s easy to fix that in Photoshop. It has a macro mode, too, for when I want to move in close to a flower. I wish it were a little faster, for at f/3.3-4.5 it has its limitations as the light dims. But given that I shoot outside in good light 80+% of the time it’s fine. I use it like three primes: 35, 50, 70. I wish I had a lens like it for my Pentaxes. It’s not a bazooka. It’s longer than a 50 or a 35 but it’s not so long that the camera is all lens.

    1. Well the 35-70 f/4 Pentax-A lens I mentioned is a reasonable size, and not too heavy. The image above with the green leaves was taken with it, on the K10D.

      It’s not as great as a prime but more than respectable. I used it at 35,40, 50 and 70, which are all marked on the barrel (as is the more unusual 60mm). In fact I used it quite a lot at 40mm as it was much cheaper than a 40/2.8 prime!

      This is the one – https://www.pentaxforums.com/lensreviews/SMC-Pentax-A-35-70mm-F4-Zoom-Lens.html

      Mine was dead cheap with a little fungus inside but that didn’t seem to affect image quality.

      The main issue, as with most zooms, is the max aperture. But if you’re used to f/3.5-4.5 with your Nikon, and the Pentax is f/4 throughout, it won’t be a major problem.

      I can’t rave about it, but it’s worth a try if you find one cheap enough (like under $20).

  5. If I don’t know what I’m going to photograph when I go out I put a 50mm lens on my (35mm film) camera. If I do know what I plan to photograph I may take a 35mm, 85/90mm or 135mm if it better suits my plan, but I also take a 50mm lens, just in case.

    1. If in doubt I’d go with either a 35 or 50 too. On an APS-C DSLR more likely 35mm as this gives a 52.5mm field of view.

      50mm (or equivalent) covers more situations than any other lens I think.

  6. I think I’ve settled on 50-58mm however there are so many good vintage lenses in this focal length so I keep buying more.

    Having said that it does make a refreshing change to use something completely differently to 50mm and tried a 28mm recently and enjoyed it.

    1. Dan, I’ve felt your pain. It’s the double whammy of “what camera do I take?” Followed by the realization of having to then choose the lens(es) you think you’ll need.

      I’ve found that I have become a big fan of the short zoom. Most of the time I’m shooting landscapes or people, so this has become my sweet spot.

      My M. Zuiko 12-40 f2.8 rarely leaves my Olympus, and the same situation applies to my Pentax K-5/Tamron 18-50 f2.8 combo.

      The Olympus combo gives me a 35mm equivalent of 24-80mm and the K-5/Tamron gives a 27-75mm range.

      I also have a Pentax FA 35-70 that is tack sharp and wonderful for both digital and film. On my K-5, this one becomes a bit of an odd duck, having a 50-105mm equivalent, but it’s actually a cool place to experiment.

      1. Rob, thanks for your input.

        Yes, a short zoom I can deal with, then just use it at one of three or four focal lengths at a time. I had the Pentax-A 35-70/4 which I use either as a 35, 40 or 70mm lens. I didn’t really use it at 50mm, as I’ve always had at least a couple of 50/55mm primes to use.

        But long zooms (more than 2x!) just start to be a) overwhelming in the options they give and b) length, and cumbersome.

    2. Toby, I’ve used 28mm quite extensively with my Ricoh GRD III. Once you get used to it, it’s a very useful focal length. The only issue I have is sometimes up close there’s too much distortion compared with a 35mm. But 90% of the time it’s a great focal length.

      1. I got used to it from a fov point of view using an Olympus pen with their 14mm prime. I use this as a large sensor compact. But it’s got me using a 28mm on my A7II so much so that I bought an old cosina 28/2 which has a short close focus distance. Haven’t notice distortion but I don’t really look.

  7. An interesting read. I’m going to Rome for a few days and I’m taking just two lenses, with an Olympus 35mm OM2n film SLR, namely 50mm and 28mm. If I had a 35mm prime to fit the Olympus, I’d probably take just that one lens. I toyed with taking a 28-105 zoom (with a different camera) but just wasn’t engaged with the lens when I tried it out. It is a family trip so that helps to limit the amount of kit I think it’s worth taking – if I stop to change kit too often the family with leave me behind !

    1. It’s similar with bikes, I just realised. I have an ebike with just one cog on the front and eight on the rear, so it’s eight speed. But even then I use 6 and 7 95% of the time, dropping down to 5 if it’s a bit hilly, and using 8 if it’s a downhill where I can get more speed. In nearly a year, I’ve never used gears 1-4. I can’t see why some bikes have 27 gears plus!

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