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The 50mm focal length is garbage, OK? Wide talk ruffles a few traditionalist feathers

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Chris Gampat has said that the 50mm focal length is “just garbage”. Heresy? The accepted “normal” focal length, the one that the great HCB used, the one that was supplied as standard with countless film cameras in the pre-digital age. Garbage?

Model X marks the spot for the wide view on life. Get more in with the 28mm lens and you can always crop afterwards (Leica Q2)
Model X marks the spot for the wide view on life. Get more in with the 28mm lens and you can always crop afterwards (Leica Q2)

Wide boy

Chris has gone provocatively wide: “I like 28mm more than 35mm and 50mm is just garbage.” It’s all part of the way Chris sees the world, and I have some sympathies with his view, even though I do have more 50mm lenses than you could shake a stick at. They’re just so collectable and I do have a real soft spot (or should I say sharp spot) for the incredible 50mm Apo-Summicron-M.

The traditionalist: Leica's 50mm Apo-Summicron-M represents the pinnacle of "standard" focal-length photography. It's a good compromise, just about wide enough for general use and just about good enough for effective and undistorted portraits
Where angels fear to tread. The traditionalist: Leica’s 50mm Apo-Summicron-M represents the pinnacle of “standard” focal-length optics. It’s a good compromise, just about wide enough for general use and just about good enough for effective and undistorted portraits

There is no doubt that 50mm can be restricting, especially if you have become used to 28mm, a focal length that has increased in popularity for general usein the past ten years. Some of this is down to the adoption of this focal length in smartphones. More and more people are used to 28mm and see it as the new norm.

The nifty fifty can feel a little claustrophobic on occasion, much as I love it. Yet even more people cleave to 35mm as the “ideal” focal length, especially for street photography.

Happiness

I used to think this, too, but increasingly I find myself happy with a fixed 28mm lens as in the Ricoh GR (actually 18mm) or Leica Q (the full Monty). And, even, the 18mm pancake on the CL is a popular all-round choice with its 28mm equivalence.

But the Leica Q (this is taken with the original 24MP sensor, can be cropped effectively, here to an approximate 50mm focal length equivalent
Images from the full-frame Leica Q (this is taken with the original 24MP sensor), can be cropped effectively, here to an approximate 50mm focal length equivalence

As Chris says, 50mm is the centre of his vision, 35mm is “mostly my vision and what I tend to pay attention to the most“, and 28mm represents his full vision.

Portraits

As Chris admits, portraiture isn’t the forte of a 28mm lens and you need to take care to avoid the turtle effect. On the Q2, using the 50mm crop lines achieves the most natural image when getting close to faces.

Leica Q at 28mm
With the Leica Q at 28mm. One obvious shortcoming of this wide lens, illustrated here, is the wide depth of field. It is an asset most of the time but makes it difficult to isolate subjects as effectively as can be achieved with, say, a fast fifty or, ideally a 75 or 90mm. David Babsky pointed out this aspect in his comments on our recent London climate change article . He made a good point

But as an all-round lens, especially when combined with modern sensor technology as in the Q2, 28mm is gaining traction. Even Mr X1, John Shingleton in Australia, grudgingly gives credit to his Leica Q and seems happy enough with 28mm in preference to his previous 35mm ideal.

What do you think?

Have a read of Chris’s full article and let us know what you think? Are you about to sell all your 50mm primes and move over to the wider picture (I would need a whole stall in Portobello Road if I fell for this one) or do you still adhere to the classic 50mm, good for a bit of street and general work, pretty damn fine for portraiture?

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The Leica Q at Grindelwald station in the Swiss Berner Oberland

38 COMMENTS

  1. My favored focal length is 35-40 mm (full frame equivalent). When I was using film my favored camera was a Fuji 645 GS; nowadays a Olympus em10ii with the 17 mm (but I also bring with me the 45 mm). The 35 mm may not be the best lens you can have with you, but it surely is the most useful!

  2. I would not go as far as saying that 50mm is garbage but the evolution of some photographers,quite a few in the lfi gallery and on other sites seem to follow that 28mm route (including myself).
    I started photography with a minolta srt 100X with a 45 mm attached. I then moved on to the original CL with its 28 and 40 mm lenses. at the time I didn’t use the 28mm that much. Then with the contax G1 35 and 45 mm were my favorite lenses. I then got addicted to the 35mm FOV until I bought the first ricoh grd . That’s where addiction began. The 28 angle of view is a bit wider than the 35 and suits many of my needs. If I had to choose a one lens only today it would be the 28mm.
    I also think that this turn might have to do with age (and not only smartphones). A few photographers friends of mine down here have gone wider with age. This is no PhD thesis but as far as my friends are concerned the older they are , the wider they get. We might turn into 21 or 18mm shooters in our next reincarnation if such a concept exists.
    However I do wish camera companies would produce again these pancake 45 mm lenses which are amazing protrait lenses.
    Jean

  3. The 50mm ‘standard’ (Max Berek’s ‘ELMAX’) was designed by a man.

    It’s generally acknowledged – we-ell, by those who acknowledge it! – that women tend to pay attention to a wider field of view (men were the centre-focused food hunters, while women were the wider-awareness child-minding home-keepers) so women’s field of view tends to be more like a 35mm view rather than the ‘standard’ or ‘normal’ 50mm view of predominantly male photographers (how many women normally comment here? How many Josephines and Susans and Katies and Margarets have you seen here?).

    Looking thro’ my own photos a few months back, I found that the majority have been taken with 21mm (equivalent) or wider lenses.

    My most-used lens on micro4/3 is the Panasonic 7-14mm f4 ..similar to a 14-28mm on ‘full-frame’.. and I use it nearer to the 7mm end than the 14mm end.

    My most-used lens on an M3/M9/M10 is a 21mm (..and I’ve an assortment of those, including the small Leica 16-18-21mm). That ‘Tri-Elmar’, plus a couple of Voigtländers (f4 and f1.8), a Zeiss, a Kobalux, a few Leica 21mms and others. 21mm seems to have about the right amount of width to fit in everything I want, whereas 24mm, 28mm, 35mm just aren’t wide enough!

    Mike shoots 28mm and crops to, say, 50mm. I’ll shoot 10mm, and crop to, say, 21mm.

    I s’pose I don’t want a picture which looks like what the male human eye normally sees ..because that’s what I see anyway. I want pictures which show MORE than anyone would normally see, and thereby making them more interesting to look at than just a slice of ‘normal’ or commonplace life.

    But 28mm isn’t wide enough for me.

    (But I do use a 75mm or 90mm occasionally, for a face-on portrait, or else zoom in to that range (or closer) on a camera which takes a zoom.)

  4. Clickbait bs attitude. 90 is the best everyone knows this. All other lenses should be recycled. Opinions are not facts.

    When Leica matured as a system, the first lens was a 50, the second a 90 and the third a 35 or 135 even split.

    50’s are fast, affordable, natural and distortion free bu, if you prefer 28 or even 12mm so be it it is your style and your style is not everyone else’s style

    • Yes, there is click bait about the original article but it does make for an interesting discussion as we’ve seen already today.

  5. Well, I wouldn’t say the 50mm focal length is garbage, but it is usually the longest focal length I carry. I will occasionally use a 75, but that’s about as far as I go. When I used to shoot sports, a 400 and 560 Telyt were my favorites.
    With the M, I usually have a 35mm or 28mm on at all times. I have always used a super-wide as well, usually a 21. Now that I have had the WATE for about a year, it is my new favorite travel lens. I just wrote an article about it for the LHSA Viewfinder. I call it the ideal travel lens.

    • Hmm interesting. The WATE one of the few modern Leica lenses I haven’t tried and I’d really like to get my hands on one. Must be nice to Leica. I do have the old MATE and find that a very interesting lens for the M.

  6. Recently acquired a 1971 vintage Canon FD 35/2 SSC Breechlock ‘Concave’ (front element) and it’s my new fast (ish) standard lens for the SL 601. I have not used the ancient but superb Leitz Summicron R 50/2 Mk I in years … my very first Leitz lens purchased from Jessops Peterborough in 1986. Much prefer the 35mm lens … which is why I had no hesitation in buying the Leica X1 when it was first available. However, the SL 601’s superb EVF and the FD 35/2’s better full aperture differential focus whoops the X1.

    • Except in size and weight, that is! You had a veritable shedload of gear attached to your SL when I spied you at the recent TLS do. I admire your fortitude.

      • Mike, Just one Leica SF 58 flashgun on a bracket with SL/24-90 … but looked bigger ‘cos Micro Apollo diffuser fitted. BTW … Leica SF 58 works fine as TTL metered flash with SL 601 provided SF 58 has Firmware V 2.0 … original SF 58 with V1 firmware cannot be updated to V2. TLS AGM pics are posted to TLS website ‘Picture Gallery’

  7. Most lenses have their uses — it is preference if a photographer tends to prefer one or the other. It is ridiculous to designate a focal length ‘garbage’, especially one in the moderate range.

    Cropping is not an ideal solution because different focal lengths will have different levels of compression, transitions, and distortion. Cropping 28mm to 50mm may achieve the basic composition, but will have a different look than using a 50mm lens.

    • I think elsewhere the term clickbait was used and I am sure Chris Gampat wrote that tongue in cheek. It probably brought in the readers.

  8. Mark Kronquist nearly has it
    75 is the correct focal length for almost everything – capable of catching the essence, flattering for portraiture, splendid for detail, 28? Pah!

    • I find 75mm to be a very natural level of compression and perspective. Obviously, it does not cover the full field of human vision, if that is what one is trying to achieve, but what it does show, it shows very naturally.

    • And just look what the 28mm lens has done to that woman in the sample pictures Mike posted!
      In the 50mm shot she looks like an angel but in the second image taken with the 28mm, even with the cropping to replicate a 50mm frame, she’s no longer an angel! That 28mm lens is definitely garbage!

  9. I love the Nikon 50mm 1.8G that came with my Df, yes it has limitations, but that is why I have the X typ 113 for those occasions where I need something a little wider. I prefer the 50mm for any portraits, or family events, purely because of the look the lens gives.

  10. Garbage ? Non-sense. Every lens has its utility. 35 mm for street photography, 50 mm for about everything, 75 mm for portraits. And if you want to shoot unnoticed – and it’s a requirement more and more often – a 21 mm set at f 5.6 and you shoot “from your hip”. I rarely use 28 mm.

  11. I mostly do travel photography, which really means a little bit of everything, and if I’m absolutely honest, looking back at all my shots after a trip, and this surprised me really when I evaluated the images, if I had to choose only one focal length ( I don’t ) it would be 35mm. Wide enough, fairly natural perspective and still ok for portraits. 28mm is just the flavor of our times, meaning of course it is a popular focal length right now, probably thanks in no small part to Ricoh and it’s GR series. But they didn’t start the trend, My Olympus XA4Macro ( look it up! ) was already taking 28mm scenes long before that. On the other hand my Leica M has a 50mm collapsible Elmar almost permanently attached, again because of the ‘natural looking’ perspective.The wonderful thing these days is really how the quality of standard zooms has improved to the point that you can cover everything from 28 – 80 without fear and don’t actually need to become fixated on a focal length. Slower apertures are not such a problem with digital as they were with film now that we have amazing high ISO performance. But if you are a member of the Bokeh club and must have that f1.4, then I’d say a 35mm or a 50mm is still a nice choice especially if you like people and faces. I’m glad the good old 50mm is still around. There are lots of times when 28mm is much, much too wide.
    Then of course it suddenly becomes garbage too. Ha ha!
    (That’s the sound of the Leica Q2 laughing, not me.)

    • Steve, you make a good point about the improvement in zooms. Lenses such as the 24-90mm SL and many others are now good enough to satisfy and, to some extent, make a bagful of primes redundant (unless you want really fast glass, that is). Unfortunately, with improving performance, zooms have grown (as have primes for that matter) and a trio of, say, M lenses is lighter than high-quality zooms covering the same range. But then there’s convenience to add to the mix.

      • Very true. Some of those zooms are more metal, glass and plastic than I’d want to tote around all day.They have to be TL sized to find a place in my bag along with the other essentials.. chocolate, flask of green tea and Teriyaki chicken sandwiches.

  12. The linked article is, indeed, flimsy, but it has generated nearly 60 comments between its original location and here, so there must be something in the subject matter of interest to photographers.

    The Ur Leica had a Mikro Sumar lens of approximately 42mm. Then Berek designed the 50mm Anastigmat which was replaced by the Elmax and, finally, the 50mm Elmar. Barnack kept testing and developing the Elmar and there are records of notes from the head of the optical department to Barnack about the true focal length of samples being produced. Indeed, Elmars (and some other Leica lens models) have a numeric code under the infinity stop which indicates the actual focal length of each sample and this was rarely an exact 50mm.

    The most common lens in my collection is a 50mm. I have about 40 of them (mainly Elmars and Summars) as they often come as ‘bottle tops’ on my favourite LTM models (IA, IID and c/f Sharkskins). That being said, my most used focal length is 35mm, most commonly a 35mm Summicron which is the ‘bottle top’ for my M10. A typical outfit for me would be a 24mm Elmar, 35mm Summicron and a 75mm Summarit, which I used to take that photo of Editor Mike Evans and Dr Kaufmann. Dr Kaufmann said that the 75mm Summarit was a great lens, but when I told him that the previous week I had been using a 50mm Elmar from 1926, he said that Leica did not make any money out of that. I should have said that it had come from Westlicht which is owned by Leica AG, but we were at a lovely social event organised by LHSA, so I let it go. Enough of that, I would typically use the 35mm Summicron all day and adjust my photography to that and leave the other two lenses in my camera bag. I also have the WATE, but I rarely bring that with me except where there are indoor or tight locations. I bought a lovely little Voigtlander 21mm Color Skopar lens in Heidelberg last year, which gives almost the same performance as its Leica equivalent for about one fifth the price. The only downside is that care is needed with the pancake design to avoid getting fingers into the image frame. My most commonly used Leica M lens, is the 35mm Summicron, but my ‘best’ Leica M lens is a 50mm Summilux. My ‘favourite’ Leica lens is the 5cm Summar. I have the 28mm Summicron, but the 24mm Elmar is used much more often for the ‘wide angle space’.

    There was a feature in Lightroom some years ago where one could extract statistics concerning the lenses used and it was possible to rank them. The 35mm Summicron came out on top for me. I am not sure whether this is still available in the latest ‘dumbed down’ CC version which I am now using. Another way of finding out about this is to do a day’s shooting with a modern digital camera equipped with a 24 -70mm or similar zoom and then look at the most commonly used focal lengths. One caveat here, though, is that I find that I adjust my shooting to the lens that I have on my camera.

    Finally, on the male/female issue of field of view, I have never been able to leave a shop with my wife without her stopping to view something before we reach the door. On the other hand she says that I have very poor peripheral vision. My excuse is that I have had four operations on my left eye and I’m sticking to it. Thankfully, I focus and frame with my right eye, although my eye doctor tells me that I have a cataract developing in that eye. All to play for, really.

    William

    • I had an op or two on my right eye, but due to some clerical stupidity at Moorfields – refusing to schedule me for a follow-up exam – I’ve now next to no vision left in my right (..if you see what I mean..) so had to switch to being LEFT-eyed for photography. (Bit of a nuisance really, as I keep fogging-up the screen on the back of every viewfinder-camera ..every digital camera, that is.)

      So now I understand what left-eyed photographers have to put up with.

  13. All very interesting, but (unless I have read too quickly) I don’t see anyone linking the question of focal length to the matter of picture format. When I use my Zeiss Touit 12mm (=APS-C 18) in landscape orientation, I almost invariably stick to 16:9 format – goes with the feeling of “wide” for me. If I am working with 50mm or more, I am much more likely to find 3:2 or 4:3 more natural (the latter especially in portrait orientation). I find it absolutely fascinating to vary focal length and picture format according to subject. John N.

  14. As much as I love my 28mm on my Leica Q, my favorite focal length is my 35mm – My (now sold) Leica 35 ASPH FLE on my m10 was a superb field of view.

  15. My most used focal length is in the normal range of 50mm plus or minus 10mm. All focal lengths have value depending on artistic goal and subject. I quit reading Chris Gambet some time ago because he may be doing clickbait with some of his silly articles but I feel sorry for people that are learning that they will be mislead by him.

    • At least we’ve all had a good discussion. Of course Chris’s article was provocative and I realise only too well why he chose that word rather than “I’ve gone off 50mm”. I know some people who prefer 90mm for street photography, for instance, and I’ve tried it and find it restricting. But it can work and it’s clear that you choose the focal length that suits you. It’s wonderful we have such a wide range of lenses (particularly in the M world).

  16. “The 50mm is garbage.”

    I can’t believe anyone would be so ignorant and arrogant as to say that.

    Oh, wait. That was on The Phoblographer site. Okay. Now I see.

    Carry on.

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