When you’re dabbling in street photography, having a camera alone won’t guarantee the best results. Capturing a shot in public spaces without having control over the lighting, people, and circumstances can be tricky.
Due to the subtle and candid nature of the craft, you need to combine your camera with a proper lens. Two main options suit street photography best: zoom lenses, that allow you to change the focal length, and prime lenses, that have a fixed focal length (learn more about what prime lenses are and why they’re important).
Many street photographers agree, however, that prime lenses are the superior choice. These lenses have a much wider aperture than you would ever get in a zoom lens. 35mm and 50mm are the most popular prime lenses, but what’s the difference between the two?
Let’s compare 35mm vs. 50mm street photography lenses so you can understand the trade-offs and advantages of each kind (we also have an article about the best cameras for street photography if you’re curious).
Short on Time?
The Best 35mm and 50mm Lens
The Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art delivers exceptional sharpness and contrast. Designed with SLD and aspherical elements, it keeps lens aberration and distortion at a minimum.
- Designed for an APS-C sensor and full-frame camera
- Built with SLD and aspherical glass elements to minimize lens aberrations
- Hyper-Sonic Motor (HSM) for quiet and high-speed autofocus
- Nine blade diaphragm
- Sigma USB dock compatibility
- Mount Type: Sigma, Nikon, Canon, and Sony
Weighing 1.79 pounds and with a length of 3.9 inches, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM is one of the largest lenses in its class. The size can be attributed to its complex elements, which are designed to deliver exceptional sharpness and contrasts while ensuring color fringing, vignetting, and distortion are minimal.
These elements include one aspherical element and three Special Low Dispersion (SLD) elements. The lens’ build quality is astounding. The focus ring functions smoothly. However, it doesn’t have the tactile fluidity you would find in lenses such as a manual-focus Zeiss Milvus lens.
Perhaps the most outstanding attribute of the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM is how sharp it is when shooting wide-open. Lenses designed specifically for wide-open sharpness such as Canon 35mm f/2 lens would struggle to beat it. This lens also comes with a soft padded case for easy and secure transportation.
However, it doesn’t have an image stabilizer. That means you’ll need to be careful with shutter speeds when handholding it.
- Near flawless image quality
- Fast, reliable autofocus
- Quite big and bulky
- No weather seals
Overall, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM is an excellent prime lens. It is ideal for general-purpose photography, offering amazing results across the board. The autofocus is fast and reliably accurate, as well.
Overall Rating – 4.8/5.0
The Sony FE 35mm F1.8 is a luminous wide-angle prime lens that every photographer with a creative itch would love. If you are a video enthusiast, its quiet autofocus and tenacious tracking performance will astound you.
- 8 maximum aperture
- Full-frame and APS-C compatibility
- Dust and weather-resistant
- Construction: 11 elements in nine groups (including one aspherical)
- Diameter / Length: 2.6 x .9 inch
Not only is the Sony FE 35mm F1.8 dust and weather-resistant, but its’ dimensions also make it one of the smallest and lightest 35mm prime lenses you can find. Compact and lightweight, this lens is a great option for street photography and travel.
The compact size also means it is suitable for both APS-C and full-frame bodies, delivering a 52.5mm equivalent focal length. With quiet autofocus and first-rate tracking performance, this lens is an excellent option for both stills and movie shooting.
- Compact and lightweight
- Competitively priced
- Weather sealing
- Beautiful bokeh
- Exceptionally sharp
- Fast aperture
- No lens image stabilization
With weather sealing, fast autofocus, exceptionally sharp image quality, stunning bokeh, and cinematic picture quality, the Sony FE 35mm F1.8 is arguably the best 35mm prime lens you can ever use. It is also cheaper compared to its competitors.
Overall Rating – 4.9/5.0
35mm vs. 50mm Lens Overview
If you’re looking to capture a wider angle without strong distortion, the 35mm lens would be the ideal option. These lenses are perfect for photojournalists, wedding and street photographers, travelers, and landscape shooters.
Filmmakers typically use a 35mm lens for its ability to deliver a natural, undistorted image. These lenses also work great in low-light and close-up settings.
The 50mm lens has remained the standard for photographers for a long time. With this lens, you’ll see a somewhat better depth of field compared to the 35mm. That’s because the 50mm prime lens is a bit longer. It will also deliver a better background blur or bokeh.
A 50mm lens is considered universal and can work well for virtually all scenes. You would want to choose this lens if you’re not sure that you’ll be involved in 35mm lens photography and will need a wider lens.
What You Need to Know About Prime Lens
Kit lenses that come with cameras are excellent for learning the basics. However, as you gain experience, you’ll realize that you need a lens that offers better performance and allows you to be more creative with your shots. That’s where prime lenses come in.
A prime lens is a fixed focal length lens, meaning that you can’t zoom it in or out. You’ll need to physically move closer or further away from the target to get the image you desire.
Photographers prefer prime lenses as they are considered to be sharper. The lenses have less moving parts and glass, so the image appears more crisp and pristine when it reaches your sensor. The fixed focal length also helps you develop your creative eye without relying on zoom capabilities to frame your shots.
There are several other advantages of prime lenses you should know about:
This means prime lenses can collect more light compared to their zoom counterparts. It is possible to open the lens up and take pictures in low-light conditions as well, resulting in a bokeh background and shallow depth of field.
Compact and lightweight
A smaller lens gives you the ability to work lean and mean, ideal for the traveling or street photographer. With a large zoom lens in such situations, it’ll be harder to find your way through crowds and public spaces. You want to be able to move around with ease, without drawing too much attention from other people.
Prime lenses are very versatile, including 35mm and 50mm lens options. You can use them for video or still images, day or night photography, as well as for portraits or landscapes.
Besides the fact that you have to move closer or farther to the subject to take the desired shot, another notable setback of prime lenses is the price factor. Prime lenses are usually more expensive compared to their zoom counterparts.
35mm vs. 50mm – Overall Comparison
While 35mm and 50mm lenses have several things in common, there are a few distinct differences that you should be aware of. You don’t want to get stuck with the wrong lens.
Both 35mm and 50mm boast lightning-fast maximum apertures, of at least f/1.8. The aperture’s speed also translates into a fast shutter speed. With these specs, your photos will be fit with beautiful bokeh backgrounds and shallow depth of field.
When it comes to image quality, it’s difficult to side with either of the lenses. Both 35mm and 50mm are amazingly sharp, even at wider apertures. They have minimal chromatic aberration and distortion. Their image quality is consistently excellent.
As discussed, both 35mm and 50m lenses have high shutter speeds, even in low-light conditions due to the fast aperture. However, the 35mm is superior in this regard.
The 35mm is smaller and lighter. Therefore, you can handhold it, even at extremely low shutter speeds, and still be able to take sharp pictures. Conversely, the 50mm lens is larger and heavier, making it difficult to handhold in low light.
It’s worth noting that 35mm and 50mm lenses usually don’t have an image stabilization function. The sharpness of your images in low light settings largely depends on your handholding skills.
With a 50mm focal length, you get tighter, standard looking images. This is why the 50mm lens is an excellent all-around lens. It captures scenes precisely as you see them.
A 35mm focal length offers a wider field of view, which offers more variety in the potential of a shot.
In the 35mm vs. 50mm prime lens debate, it is hard to find a clear winner. Both lenses are impressive for different reasons. However, if we have to choose one overall lens that we would carry with us at all times, we would put our money on the 50mm.
Resting somewhere between a zoom lens and a wide-angle lens, the 50mm is a timeless lens that has long become an industry standard. It helps you get an impressive amount of blur to give your photos that polished look. The 35mm has great low light and close-up capacities, which makes it ideal for the niche photographer or filmmaker. Nonetheless, you have to make the final decision on the best lens for your needs.