35mm lens – The prefect compromise lens that’s not a compromise

I’ve only recently discovered the prime 35mm lens. I feel a little stupid and embarrassed that it’s taken me so long; but if I could only have one lens on my camera for the rest of my life it would be my 35mm.

Slash and burn cattle rancher in the Amazon. Acre Brazil

Cattle Rancher. Acre, Brazil

As a young wildlife photographer, I was obsessed with long lenses to photograph animals and when I used wides-angle lenses I wanted everything as wide as possible. I’d shoot all landscapes on my 24mm and when I got older and got new kit, I’d shoot everything at 16mm on my Canon 16-35mm. I used to occasionally shoot images of people but never to any level and would always shoot them close and wide. I was never very happy with the results and would always crop in – to try and get them and the background working together. I think one of the problems was that high quality zooms became very popular and things always looked great when they were zoomed out; you could get more in and that ability would then influence composition – there’s always a compromise to be had between content and composition. The wide lens makes content more seductive in the way that it presents it – It presents content compositionally; meaning there can be more of it and it distorts it slightly (often bringing in attractive geometry) which can make the composition more exciting. The problem with this is that often the content is lost as it becomes a slave to a more exciting and slightly unreal image (composition).

Of course the wider the lens the more this occurs – which is why I hate fish-eye lenses. They present a world that doesn’t exist; content becomes stylised beyond reality. These lenses also present the mechanics of the photo to the viewer – never a good thing. 16mm to 24mm have their role. I use them for shooting wildlife probably more than any other. People always ask me about long lenses for wildlife – I have 500mm and 800mm but it’s the wides I shoot on. I want animals close (1 to 6ft away) with landscapes behind them. If the subject is really close and fills enough of the frame then these wides are perfect. I tend to zoom them in as much as I can – I’d now rather be shooting at 20 or 24mm than at 16mm. The closer the subject is and the tighter I can get the lens, the better – tighter means less distortion and more compression between the subject and the background, which is generally desirable.


Venice Beach, L.A.

Wide lenses for people photography (16-24mm) I generally don’t like. I used to have fun shooting weddings on 24mm lens; the images are bold, graphic and fun but they’re not flattering. 28mm is good – it gives a more flattering image with less distortion. I shoot a 28mm f2.8 Leitz Elmarit-M. It works really nicely for landscapes and some people stuff, especially when I want to show the enormity of a landscape behind the people. I have a nice little LEE Filter set for both my 21mm and 28mm Leica lenses which means I can set .6 ND Grads in front of them. I have used the 28mm for shooting people recently, especially tourists. However I am always disappointed by the results. I either have to get right in and shoot them close or crop in. I don’t want to do either; I don’t want to be in too close, it can burst the bubble of discreet observation and I don’t want to be relying on cropping to inform my work.

The 35mm is the next step up. To me it’s the perfect tool. As a landscape lens it works well – many landscape photos rely on foreground interest and an impressive background. The 35mm doesn’t throw that background too far and it’s just wide enough to frame the foreground. As a journalistic lens it works brilliantly, it doesn’t distort people or backgrounds, it allows a little distance from the subjects and it makes you the photographer work harder and concentrate more on the compositions. I like to get the background in when shooting people – as an incidental part of a picture it improves the story with context; its also a hugely important compositional factor – whether by geometry or balance or weight of colour. It is however not always wanted as a pervasive element of the frame; in instances when the subject is all important and the background is important but incidental – the 35mm lens does the job just perfectly.

My first 35mm prime was given to me by my Dad. It was a 50 yr old 35mm f2.8 Leitz Wetzlar Summaron ‘bug eye’. It was as sharp as a razor blade and it’s what got me hooked on the 35mm Lens. It was so versatile; I could go out on a shoot with no other lens. I used it a lot on my Leica M9 in the Amazon last year whilst shooting rainforest destruction; I found it perfect for the subject. If I was shooting burning rainforest then I could get images without burning my face off trying to get too close. Or if I was shooting people I could get nice contextual portraits of them. Shooting people at work was also a dream, I like to get in close and use action to frame images – an arm sweeping through a frame, feet, a chainsaw; actions that are often impossibly fast to consciously compose with but work if you keep shooting them. It’s a documentary style that National Geographic love as it brings reality to the frame.


Anna Clara. Acre, Brazil

The problem with the old Summaron was that I had had it repaired as the iris blades had broken, since then the focus always dropped off on either side of the centre of the image. I recently bought the Leica Summicron-M f2. It’s a stunning lens and I now rarely put anything else on the front of my Leica M. It is of course brilliantly sharp across the frame and works beautifully at f11 and f16. I tend now to shoot everything with small apertures, I want depth sharpness in my images – all the way through frame.

The depth of focus lines on the lens allow me to set infinity to closest acceptable focus, which then shifts the acceptable ‘close focus’ closer. This means that I can set the lens and pretty much leave it all day without re-focusing. At f16 I can shoot everything from 4ft to infinity and have it all in focus (at f11 5.8ft to infinity). It’s a great system to work and allows you the photographer to consider everything but the focus when taking a picture.


Anna Clara. Acre, Brazil

If you haven’t tried it before, shooting prime lenses, particularly the 35mm dictates a new way of working and seeing. It’s very easy as a photographer to get stuck in a rut. We find ways of getting out of our ruts – we inspire ourselves with other peoples work, we consider new subjects, we change up our lighting, etc. but changing the type of lens we use has a huge affect on how we see things and that often means forcing us into new ways of doing things. I rarely shoot zooms since moving to the 35mm prime. They seem lazy to me and the results when shooting ‘on the hoof’ tend to disappoint me.

Over the last few years my photography has evolved from pure wildlife to photojournalism. I shoot a lot of people these days and get great satisfaction from it. I get satisfaction from progression, taking on new challenges and learning them. As a National Geographic photographer you cant stand still, you continuously have to push your work and yourself as a photographer. Something as simple as changing kit is just one way of progressing. I was talking to David Guttenfelder a few weeks ago about shooting the Leica M with a 35mm prime (a system we both use). David is of course not new to the 35mm prime, but he said what I too believe, ‘shooting that system – the rangefinder and a 35mm prime, forces you to change your photography’ – and that can only ever be a good thing.

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Grand Canyon. Arizona, USA

I found this artivle by Seve Huff while writing this blog – definitely worth a read.


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