Most starter cameras come with a 50mm lens as standard, as do a lot of our cameras.
To somebody who has used film cameras before, they’ll know what that means. But what about the rest of you? Well this guide aims to explain everything you film newbies need to know when choosing which lens or lenses you want for your camera.
First of all you’ve got to know a prime lens from a zoom…..
Back in the 50s and 60s, everybody shot with “prime” lenses. A prime lens is one with a fixed focal length – in other words, if you want to crop your picture a bit tighter, you need to get closer to your subject.
People didn’t really want zooms, and those zooms that were around were expensive and didn’t produce good pictures, so the prime was king.
Back in these early days somebody somewhere decided that 50mm was a good “all round” focal length – it was the right length to mean you could use it in most situations. This soon became the standard focal length lens that nearly all cameras were sold with.
As such there are thousands of different 50mm lens out there to choose from, and they are generally very good value and the cheapest focal length you can find.
People soon realised though that some instances called for longer focal lengths – such as if you are wanting a tight portrait shot from a distance – and others called for much shorter focal lengths, given you a wider angle, such as with landscapes or street photography. Over time 135mm became the go to for portrait work, and 28mm became popular for wider shooting.
These 3 focal lengths – 28mm, 50mm and 135mm – are the most common focal lengths you’ll find for old manual focus film cameras, and they are therefore often the best value focal lengths too. If you were to buy only these 3 you’d be well covered for pretty much any type of photography you fancy.
There’s plenty of great focal lengths outside of these three though. Personally we love having a 24mm as it is superwide – wider than your eye sees we think – and you can get some incredible shots from a 24mm lens. But it comes at a price as that focal length is far less common than the popular 28mm.
Over time zoom lenses became more popular, as the image quality improved and manufacturers worked out how to make zoom lenses lighter, smaller and more affordable.
People began to appreciate that rather than carrying round 3 (or more) different prime lenses, they could simply carry a zoom that covered the same range, and without any gaps in between.
There’s no denying there’s a slight drop off in image quality with these older zooms compared with the primes of the day, but there’s no denying that they offer great convenience, and even greater value for the money – these days you can get a reasonable zoom for the price of one prime lens.
Zooms typically fall into two camps. Most manufacturers produced a zoom that starts at somewhere around the 28-35mm range, moving up to something like 70-85mm. On top of that they would then also have a zoom covering the longer range, like a 70mm-200mm for instance.
Comparison of Focal Lengths
We know what you’re thinking though – what does 50mm mean for me? And what does it look like?
Your phone,, without any zooming in, will shoot at somewhere around a 28mm focal length. Here's what that looks like on a film camera:
Now here’s the equivalent focal length on a film camera at 50mm;
Now here’s the equivalent focal length on a film camera at 135mm;
So, have a look at those shots and think about which focal length is going to suit you best.
What situations do you think you are going to take most photos in? Are you happy to carry more than one lens with you? Or do you want an all-rounder to try and cover as many bases as possible?
If you’re still not sure, try and make a mental note of what you do most often when you use your phone camera. Do you tend to zoom in, or crop it a lot afterwards? If so, and if you’re thinking about a prime lens, you’re probably going to find a 50mm most useful. If though you’re forever leaning backwards to try and get more of the shot in, or finding yourself cutting out stuff you’d like to get in, then 28mm is going to be better for you.
Of course, part of the fun is buying loads of lenses and trying them all out, but we know to start with it’s probably going to be a choice of one or two lenses, so we hope this helps you make that initial decision.