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Ask any number of longtime photographers what the most versatile focal length is, and they will give you an amazing array of answers for the best focal length. What’s cool about that is that all of the answers will be correct! There are many versatile camera lenses.
What makes the most versatile type of lens can change from photographer to photographer, and can also vary depending on budget, shooting style, and the format of the camera. Here are a few ideas of the most versatile focal length lens.
The Normal Lens
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What makes a lens the normal lens? The answer depends a lot on the format of your camera. Why would that matter? Because how a lens presents what it sees changes with the size of the format, among other things. A certain focal length will present one angle of view in one format and another angle of view on larger or smaller ones.
A normal lens is expected to show us an image that resembles what we saw with our naked eye. This thought can also be a little misleading since our eyes also have a whole lot of peripheral vision so that our complete field of view is much wider than our focus of view. What our brain makes us pay attention to though, is close to the math definition of what focal lengths are normal -ish.
The definition often used to describe the focal length of a normal is that it corresponds to the diagonal of the film or sensor format. Measuring across the format from one corner to the other.
The Nifty Fifty
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For the popular film size of 135 film, also called 35mm, and which is exactly the same as Full Frame 35mm digital format, the actual image size is 24mm by 36mm. Measuring across the diagonal from corner to corner, we get a measurement of 43.3mm.
Now, the focal length of 50mm is what a lot of photographers learned as the normal lens for 35mm cameras. This is due to the fact that a lens of that focal length, or close to it, was a simple design and it also gave a 1:1 ratio of viewing the viewfinder of 35mm cameras and viewing naked eye. Other close lengths considered normal are 55mm and 58mm, which were also simple designs.
So, even though a true normal for Full Frame 35mm format, based on the diagonal measurement, would be a little bit wider, the Nifty Fifty quickly became a more common choice. It was that simple design of optical formula that also helped, since it meant they make more budget-friendly lenses, and they could usually be fairly fast in maximum aperture, too.
Based on crop factor up and down from Full Frame 35mm format, we can choose other focal lengths as normal lenses for other formats. An APS-C format camera would see 35mm as the normal lens, 24mm or 25mm for MFT format.
A 2 ¼ in square format (6x6cm) format gets 80mm as normal, 105mm for 6x9cm, and the view camera format of 4x5 inches gets a 150mm lens which was also called a 6-inch lens in the early days of film photography.
Why Is Normal Versatile?
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So, that’s what the math, optical designers, and popular usage by photographers calls the normal lens. Why do so many photographers actually recommend the normal lens as the most versatile focal length?
Multiple reasons come to mind. Normal lenses are budget-friendly lenses. Normal lenses are usually very fast in maximum aperture, especially compared to zoom lenses. Normal lenses provide an angle of view that appears natural. Normal lenses are relatively compact, even when designed as a very fast aperture lens.
Since they are compact you can easily carry a normal lens attached to the camera. The fast aperture means you can shoot in lower light and also have more exposure triangle options open to you in any lighting condition. The natural angle of view makes it simple to capture undistorted views of the subjects being imaged. That’s a lot of versatility.
As for being budget-friendly lenses, take a tour through the used lens pages on MPB.com and you will find several dozen examples of normal lenses for several different brands, types, and formats of cameras, all of them very reasonably priced.
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While the 50mm lens for the Full Frame 35mm format is one great choice for the crown of the most versatile focal length, an argument can be made for other focal lengths as versatile camera lenses.
If you like the field of view of a 50mm lens, switching to a slightly wider lens will probably also be useful for you. A fast 35mm lens can be an excellent lens for candid photography, street photography, and for groups of people. It’s also a great choice for small product photography.
A macro lens in a normal focal length adds the extra versatility of extreme close-focusing with the needed optical corrections, though you will lose lens speed and they will be bigger in general and more costly.
The range of focal lengths encompassed by the kit lens is extremely versatile, which is why these kit lenses are included in so many entry-level and more advanced camera kits. But they are usually very slow in maximum aperture.
The faster zoom lenses in similar focal lengths will cost more, but they have what many consider the most versatile focal lengths in their ranges. These lenses are often quite a bit more expensive, but you can find budget-friendly lenses at a used camera store such as MPB.com.
What lens will you choose to talk about when you get asked what is the most focal length lens for photography?