USES AND APPLICATIONS OF 35mm LENSES
By Mike Johnston
SMP: The Sunday Morning Photographer A monthly photo.net column posted on the first
Sunday of every month by Mike Johnston
Fisheye: No known uses, except to illustrate fisheye
effects in photo how-to books.
Ultra-wide rectilinears wider than 19mm: Occasional
interiors. Also used to stump gearheads trying to find stuff to photograph with the
Ultra-wide-angle (19, 20, 21, or 24mm): One of the four of
five essential lenses for pros, broadly useful for artists and accomplished amateurs. Used
for landscapes, interiors, street shooting, crowd shots, etc. Also used by bored amateurs
as the next thing to covet for purchase. Despite the ubiquity of this focal length,
relatively few photographers are practiced enough or visually acute enough to use this
type of lens effectively; lots more people own these than do good work with them. See
Brian Bowers Leica books for a rare example of a scenic photographer who actually
sees well with a 21mm.
Ultra-wide-angle zoom (wide end 20mm or wider): useful for
when the photographer would like to carry one heavy lens instead of three light ones, or
has a breezy, devil-may-care attitude towards flare effects. Secondary CYA
lens for pros who arent great with wide angles in the first place. (Exceptions do
exist.) Also sometimes paired with a fast 80-200mm zoom as a professionals only two
Wide angles: Now that 24mm is more often lumped with 20mm
and 35mm has become an alternative normal focal length, this class has
contracted down to one fixed focal length, 28mm. Useful as a do-anything lens (especially
for street and art photography, photojournalism, faux photojournalism, and environmental
portraits) where a wide look is desired, and/or to complement a 50mm main
lens, and/or for pressing into service in place of a super-wide when the photographer does
not own same.
Shift lenses: Buildings. Used for the overcorrection of
convergence caused by perspective.
Ditto, but with tilt: Ditto above, plus landscapes with
tons of foreground and tables laden with food.
All-purpose 28-200mm zoom lenses: Bad snapshots. Also great
for making five rolls of film last a whole year. All-purpose = no purpose.
Wide normal primes (35mm): Alternative normal. Often, the
thing replaced by a zoom. Easiest focal length to shoot with. Best focal length for
Not really "wide" by today's standards, 35mm is an alternative normal. Leica
M6, 35mm pre-ASPH., Ilford XP-2.
Pancake Tessar-types, usually 45mm: Good for
lightening the burden of photographers who would rather not carry an SLR at all.
Normal/standard (50mm): Useful for taking photographs, if
you have a thick skin. When used exclusively, classic hair shirt lens for
disciplining oneself needlessly. Strangely, when in skilled hands, can mimic moderate wide
angles as well as short telephotos. According to one far Eastern expert, lower yield of
usable shots than 35mm lens, but higher yield of great shots. Second best focal length for
Standard 5558mm: Shows you use a really, really old
Macros/micros: Flowers, bugs, eyeballs, eyelashes, small
products, tchotchkes. Dew-covered spider webs, frost patterns on windowpanes. Great hobby
lenses, as macro photographers are among the only happy photo enthusiasts. Also much
utilized by photography buffs who like to test lenses.
Superfast normals (/1, /1.2): Used for people
who like limited depth of field, as well as for people who like to complain about limited
depth of field. Also, especially when aspherical elements are involved, an effective way
to vaporize excess cash for almost no good reason.
Standard zooms (35-70mm, 28-105mm, 35-135mm, etc.): Used
for taking pictures in bright lightmainly snapshots, scenics, cars, travel pictures,
semi-naked women, underexposed pictures, and pictures blasted by uncontrolled on-camera
flash. Evidently very useful for clichés. Sometimes used to remove interchangeability
feature from interchangeable-lens cameras.
Fast medium zooms: For pros, bread-and-butter lenses. For
amateurs, often left at home rather than lugged around all day. If very expensive, big,
and heavy, may be almost as good and almost as fast at any given focal length as cheap
fixed primes. Good for making both hobbyists and their portrait subjects feel
Short teles (75, 77, 80, 85, 90, 100, or 105mm): Portraits,
tight landscapes, headshots, beauty and glamor. In skilled hands, can be used for general
and art photography, photojournalism. Essential.
135mm prime: Little owned, less used. Became a standard
35mm focal length when rangefinders were the main camera type because its the
longest focal length that is feasible on a rangefinder. Now vestigial, like a males
Fast 180mm or 200mm prime: Longest general use lens for
photojournalism. Sports, beauty, auto races, surveillance in film noire.
Slow 180mm or 200mm prime: Lightweight and easy to carry.
May project a certain image, i.e. that you are poor or cheap.
Standard telephoto zoom (70 or 80 to 180, 200, or 210):
Whether slow or fast, indispensable for most photographers, amateur or pro. Used for all
kinds of action, activity, fashion, portrait, headshot, reportage, sports, wildlife,
landscape, and nature photography. Covers all the telephoto range most photographers ever
need, at least until they become afflicted by the terrible urge to photograph birds.
IS (Canon) or VR (Nikon) standard telephoto zoom: Same as
above, but for photographers who drink lotsa coffee and/or do crank.
Fast 300mm: Fashion, catalog, runway, sports, nature, air
shows. Important lens for pros, also for nature photographers. Tough for amateurs unless
shooting surreptitious faces in crowds or critters. Status symbol. As fashion, looks grand
when accessorizing a photo vest.
Super-telephoto zooms (to 300mm or more on long end): For
adjusting FOV when standpoint is constrained. Replaces several heavy primes. Sometimes
pressed into service by amateurs who have burr up ass about having all focal lengths
400mm: Critters, sports, and birds. Landscapes, if
youre a nut. Also good for photographing football games when you dont want the
picture to show a dang thing about whats going on.
500mm: Critters and birds. Money laundering: can be bought
and sold to placate wife about questionable expenses. But I sold one of my lenses to
pay for it, honey, honest.
1200mm: No known uses.
- Mike Johnston
"Uses and Application of 35mm Lenses" is taken from Issue #7 of The 37th
Frame, which I hope to send in early September. There are two
companion articles, "Choosing Lenses: What's Seeing Got to Do with It?" and
"Why a 35mm is the Best Lens for a Leica." The Issue also contains a number of
lens reviews, plus a long article about the new Leica 50mm Summilux ASPH. To subscribe, go
If you're already a subscriber and haven't gotten Issue #6 yet, please don't
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