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Normal lenses (also called standard lenses) have a kind of mystique amongst photographers. Perhaps it’s because Henri Cartier-Bresson was famous for using one. Maybe it’s nostalgia for the days when most cameras came with a 50mm kit lens.
If you are looking for a versatile prime lens for travel or street photography then a normal lens is an excellent choice. My 35mm prime (a normal lens on an APS-C camera) has become my favorite lens for street and travel photography.
What is a normal lens?
Let’s start with some definitions.
A normal lens for a full-frame or 35mm film camera is a 50mm prime (one exception – Pentax makes a 43mm f1.9 lens).
For an APS-C system a 35mm prime lens (such as the excellent 35mm f1.4 lens made by Fujifilm) is a normal lens. Some photographers also consider a 28mm lens to be one.
For a Micro four-thirds camera you need a 25mm prime.
Normal lenses for travel
A few years ago I took a wide-angle lens, a normal lens and a short telephoto lens with me on a five week trip to China. The idea was to keep the weight of my gear down, but also to see which lens I used the most.
When I analyzed the photos afterwards I discovered that over 90% of them were taken with the standard lens (a 35mm f1.4 prime). That trend continued during a later trip to Spain.
After that experience I would be happy to go on a similar trip with nothing but a small mirrorless camera body and a normal lens if I had to. In reality, it makes more sense to take a second camera body fitted with a wide-angle lens to open up more shooting possibilities, especially for landscape photography (and in case the first camera stops working).
Here are some of the reasons that I used the normal lens so much more than the others, combined with some tips for making the most from them yourself.
1. Normal lenses have wide maximum apertures
Normal lenses typically have a maximum aperture somewhere between f1.2 and f2. This helps you take photos in low light, or use the wide aperture settings for selective focus, or both. This is really useful if you take photos in a street market or some other lively location at night, or inside a dimly lit building.
The photos below are a good example. The light was so low in both cases that I had to use a wide aperture (f1.4 and f1.6 respective) and set the ISO to 6400 to take the photo.
2. Normal lenses let you take photos in the street without getting too close to people
Normal lenses let you take candid photos of people in the street without getting too close. In China, I found that most people ignored me as I took photos with my 35mm lens. It may have helped that the Fuijfilm camera I used (an X-T1) is much smaller than a digital SLR and less intimidating. It may also have helped that the Chinese are such keen photographers that another person with a camera doesn’t draw much attention.
From a practical point of view, the normal lens lets you take photos of people without getting so close to them that you invade their personal space.
I spotted this man by the entrance of a restaurant in Hangzhou. His clothing and thoughtful pose caught my eye – I believe he was there to encourage people to come into the restaurant. It was only afterwards that I realized there was an interesting juxtaposition between him and the statue to his left.
Here are a couple more examples of this.
3. You can use a normal lens to simplify the background
Street scenes are naturally chaotic, and it’s the photographer’s job to make some kind of visual order from this. The narrower field of view of normal lenses (compared to wide-angle lenses) means that you naturally include less background in your images. You can also throw the background at least slightly out of focus by selecting an aperture of f2.8 or wider. This is much harder to do with wide-angle lenses.
An image like this, taken in a street market in Xi’an, has a much tighter background than you would be able to get with a wide-angle lens. That helped me exclude other people from the scene and focus attention on the woman.
Here are a couple more examples.
4. You can use a normal lens to capture details
Normal lenses are good for capturing details. Street photography is not just about making portraits. You can build up a feeling for a place by photographing details that capture its character and spirit.
Most normal lenses can focus quite closely to the subject, making them a very versatile lens for travel photography.
These photos of fish taken in a market in Cadiz, Spain are a good example.
5. Use a normal lens to make a portrait of somebody with permission
Normal lenses are ideal for portraits. They work well if you stop people in the street and ask if you can take their photo. While you could argue that a longer focal length will help you take portraits with a more flattering perspective, the advantage of a normal lens is that it is smaller and less intimidating to the person that you have approached. You are much more likely to get a natural response.
A few years agoI went to Carnival in Cadiz. When I saw somebody who looked interesting I asked if I could make a portrait. Every time I asked, the person said yes.
Here are two of them.
6. You can capture scenes including people for scale or context
Normal lenses are good for capturing scenes which include people to give scale or context. The angle of view is wide enough that the people in your photo, if you are far away, are not bothered about being in it. They will probably think you are taking a photo of the scene behind them, especially if it is picturesque and worthy of a snapshot. If the person is positioned on a third, or at the edge of the frame, then the camera won’t be pointing directly at them. Even if they notice you they don’t feel threatened by it.
Here are a couple of candid portraits from China that show this idea in action.
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Thanks for another interesting and helpful article Andrew. Pity I don’t live in the UK. I’d love to meet for coffee and photography! You’ll have to come to Australia 🙂
I have a Canon 50mm prime 1.4 f which I love but am now thinking of getting a 35mm prime as I have a APS-C sensor. Do you think it’s worth doing that? I’ll see if I can try one out first.
Hi Cecilia, it depends on what you like to take photos of but I definitely think it’s worth considering. The 50mm prime is effectively a short telephoto on your camera and you’ll find a 35mm lens much more versatile. Trying one out first if you can is a great idea so you can see if you like it.
I’m puzzled. How can I not get in the face of someone I wish to capture with a normal lens? Wouldn’t I be better off in this respect with my Canon R and f2.8 24-70L? Or even the f2.8 70-200 (except, yes, that is big and heavy). With a prime 50 I would feel like I need to ask permission all the time. I guess if I were “street shooting” I would need to overcome my shyness and let it all hang out and ask and foot zoom into their faces. But for travel?
Not trying to be over critical. It’s just an edifying discussion that I would ask you to delve a little deeper into. There’s a fine but important line there in the sand somewhere. I’m guessing that your lean in this context is toward lower gear weight where my lean is if that is the issue I guess I would just do the cell phone thing and learn how to use it with genius. Otherwise, my big hands don’t mind the weight (and advantages) of glass.
Thanks for your expansion if you wish.
Hi John, the photos in the tutorial provide a lot of the answers. First, travel photography is about more than just people. And when it comes to people, there are two approaches. One is to ask permission to take a portrait. That’s when you can move in close and take portraits like the ones in the article made in Cadiz. If you don’t have permission (i.e. the photos are candid) then stand back so people are smaller in the frame and capture more of the environment. That’s what happened with the other photos of people in the tutorial.
You’ll also notice that in the other photos the people are preoccupied with whatever it is they’re doing. That makes it easier to take photos without them noticing. It’s also to do with “seeing” the photo before you take it and then being prepared – make sure you’re standing in the right place, that the camera’s in the right exposure mode and that you know which AF point is active. Then it only takes a second or two to raise your camera to your eye, frame the photo, press the shutter button and lower it again. It takes practice but it’s an easily acquired skill.
Yes, you can use longer lenses, often successfully, although they photos will have a different look if they’re made with a telephoto zoom. And they’re not nearly as useful in low light as primes.
Hope that helps,