The 35mm lens. Simplicity. Perfection.

Posted on Feb 7, 2012 in Popular

After two years of testing, renting, buying and selling just about every level of Nikon and Canon lenses and cameras I have learned quite a bit about what works and what doesn’t.  Pretty much you can’t go wrong with Canon or Nikon and just about everything they make is top notch. You can buy one or the other and in the end you’ll have a great product even though I give Nikon a slight advantage in most categories.  One thing I have learned is that the more you spend the better the quality of the lens, the camera and the final pictures you take.  Well, that is until this week.  This week I discovered the Nikkor 35MM Manual Focus lens.  This lens has been around so long that it has reached legendary status (I believe it has been around since 1982 which is amazing considering how much technology and cameras have evolved from that point).  The lens was originally created for press photography and is one of the fastest wide angle lenses that you can buy even to this day.  This lens has one of the most superior color renditions of any lens I have used and creates great contrasty images with amazing depth of field when you dial the aperture to its lowest levels.

For years I have tried different focal lengths on lenses from super wide angle and fisheye to super 500MM zoom to find the perfect picture.  Even though I tried them all, I never had a 35mm lens.  I was convinced that the best focal lengths for portraits was my trusted 85mm lens and the best focal length for landscapes was my 16mm to 35mm lens.  I had 50mm lenses and almost everything in between but never a 35mm lens.  Now that I have one, I am surprised at what I was missing and I have changed my mind.  35MM lenses are a must have in my opinion for any photographer and videographer. I have a variety of reasons for saying that, and if you are looking for a great 35mm lens, I think the Nikkor 35mm AIS is as fine as any lens out there even more expensive ones.  Here are some of the reasons I am a big believer in 35mm lens photography.

Focal Length – In terms of composition, the 35mm lens is the closest to the focal composition of the human eye.  That is why it is used so often in movies because it gives a much more realistic vantage point for the viewer.  In terms of photography using a fixed 35mm lens requires you to get creative in terms of how you move your body around to get the right composition. You can’t be lazy but when you catch a shot with a 35mm lens it has a more artistic look to it than any other lens that I have tried.

Versatility –  The 35mm lens can be used for almost anything: Landscapes, portraits, travel shots, macro photography, street photography, real estate photography, product photography – just about everything.  The 35mm I use allows me to get great close up images but also allows me to get pretty decent wide angle shots.  Many photographers refer to the 35mm as the wedding photography lens because of its versatility indoors and outdoors.

Video –  I originally purchased the Nikkor 35mm lens exclusively for creating videos with my D3S.  I had read a few articles on the fact that it was the best lens for videography for a variety of reasons.   All of those reasons were spot on and I could see the difference I snapped the lens on the camera.  The focal length was wide enough where I virtually had no camera shake but not so wide that I could not focus on my subject. I could walk a foot away and get great close-ups and the video had an almost cinematic quality when you dialed in the aperture to its lowest levels.  I attached a test video to the end of this entry.  In short the video is just beautiful with a lens in this focal length.  If you use a DLSR for your video you know that the autofocus feature is nearly useless and will cause your videos to go in and out of focus quickly.  The fact that this 35mm lens only provides manual focus and no autofocus engine is not a problem since I rarely use the autofocus feature for my videos anyway.

Best Capture of Subject and Environment – One of the best features of a 35mm lens is that it allows you to capture your subject relative to their environment. I think this is another reason that it is used so broadly in film – it helps you tell a story with your video or your photograph. I brought the 35mm lens to a show I went to for my brothers band.  I was positive that I would not use it since the music was fast and I was positive I could never dial in the right focus to capture what was happening since autofocus was not on the lens.  When I got home I was amazed since my best pictures of the night came out of the lens.  The reason was that I was able to capture the subject and what was happening around them to the perfect degree.

Forced Interaction – You can always tell from someone’s photos if they were passively or actively engaged with there surroundings.  The best photos I see is where the photographer is actively involved in their environment – not changing the scene but involved in it somehow by getting in the middle of the action.   Zoom lenses can make a photographer a little lazy since they can zoom into their subject from far away and not get in the middle the action.  The 35mm is a lens really requires you to get in the middle of a situation to get a good photograph.  If you stand far away from your subject it won’t work since the angle is pretty wide and you won’t have a real subject in the end photo.  I find that the 35mm is perfect since it requires you to jump right in to find the perfect picture.

Low Light Performance – I am referring in particular to the Nikkor 35MM AIS when I refer to the stunning speed and low light performance of the 35mm lens.  I find that the combination of my D3S and 35MM lens which can be dialed back to 1.4 aperture level provides me with unreal low light performance.   I can take pictures in near dark rooms and the photos appear that they have been taken in great lighting conditions.  This is beneficial not only for photography but videography as well. I find that the videos taken with the 35mm lens have far less noise and are far less grainy than pictures taken with my other lenses.

Small, light and compact – When I put the 35mm lens on my camera it makes my camera feel small and light.  When I compare that to my more expensive prime lenses which make my camera feel about twice the weight it is really an added bonus to this lens. Since the lens is so light, compact and versatile it makes the perfect walk around lens for taking street photography or any type of photography when you are traveling.  Sure you might be tempted to break out your fish eye or zoom but this lens will force you to deal with your situation and take the best picture possible with what you have.  I find that always makes for more interesting photography.

Wide angle with constraint –  I was editing pictures once and a friend of mine advised that I turn the contrast up to exactly where I wanted it and then to dial it back slightly.  Constraint is ultimately very important in photography and is what differentiates an average picture from a great picture.   The 35mm lens is considered the very beginning of wide angle lenses.  It is the most subtle wide angle on the market and that is why it consistently delivers great shots.  It is certainly not fish eye, certainly not super wide angle, but it is wide enough to capture a subject interacting with their environment. I am often tempted to use a wide angle lens.  The 35mm lens is analogous to slightly dialing back the level of contrast that I feel is appropriate.  The 35mm keeps my wide angle nature in check.