Why Use a 50mm Lens?

According to now commonly accepted history, Henri Cartier-Bresson (“HCB”), Magnum Co-founder and Leica doyen, is claimed to have used a 50mm Summicron exclusively (he didn’t; he sometimes used a 35mm and in later years increasingly used a 90mm). Certainly, it is true that HCB found the 50mm ‘normal’ perspective conducive to his way of seeing the world, where all things could be put in their proper place to create a harmonious whole. According to HCB, the 50mm perspective on 35mm film “corresponds to a certain vision and at the same time has enough depth of focus, a thing you don’t have in longer lenses. I worked with a 90. It cuts much of the foreground if you take a landscape, but if people are running at you, there is no depth of focus. The 35 is splendid when needed, but extremely difficult to use if you want precision in composition. There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place. It is a beautiful lens at times when needed by what you see. But very often it is used by people who want to shout. Because you have a distortion, you have somebody in the foreground and it gives an effect. But I don’t like effects. There is something aggressive, and I don’t like that. Because when you shout, it is usually because you are short of arguments.”

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A famous HCB photo that, in HCB’s words, “shouts.” While he took it with a 50mm lens, it’s characteristic of the foregrounded aesthetic he claimed to dislike.

Born in 1908 HCB, came from an affluent French family who made their fortune in French textiles. The Cartier-Bresson family lived in upscale Paris, Rue de Lisbonne. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer, whose Cartier-Bresson thread was a staple of French sewing kits. His mother’s family were Norman cotton merchants descended from minor royalty.

Think of HCB as a spoiled rich kid of bourgeois Parisians. Since his parents were providing financial support, Henri pursued his creative interests without concern for finances. HCB spent his twenties in Paris, pursuing a career as a painter without much success. In the 1920s, schools of aesthetic realism in both painting and photography were ascendant in Europe, each with a different view on the direction visual imagery should take. Influenced by the nascent Parisian surrealist movement – founded in 1924, Surrealism was the catalyst for the aesthetic that would define HCB’s photography – it championed the ordered emphasis of otherwise incongruous details of everyday life. Cartier-Bresson began socializing with the Surrealists and met a number of the movement’s leading protagonists, and was drawn to the Surrealist movement’s emphasis on order to influence his work. Surrealist theoretical training later helped him identify and resolve problems of artistic form and composition in photography.

Diploma of Merit in Embroidery Issued by Cartier Bresson Textile Company, 1930, just about the time HCB was cultivating his initial interest Surrealist painting and photography. I found this in a flea market in Paris.

In 1932 HCB bought his first Leica with a fixed 50 mm lens. It became his exclusive tool for photography. He felt that its relative anonymity photographing in a crowd or during an intimate moment was essential in overcoming the often unnatural behavior of those who were aware of being photographed, enhancing his ability to capture the world in its actual state of movement and transformation. He painted all shiny parts of the Leica with black paint, giving birth to a Leica affectation that lives on today.

He photographed throughout Europe. In the beginning, not much in his native France. It would be years before he photographed extensively France. The surrealist photos taken during his travels in Mexico and Europe in the mid-30’s brought him recognition in New York as an European ‘art-photographer’. Upon his return to France in 1937, he turned increasingly to ‘straight’ photojournalism after apprenticing as a film director with Jean Renoir.

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Madrid 1932 – and example of ‘normal 50mm perspective. Everything in its place with no dominant foreground. Yet. like many of HCB’s iconic photographs, there remains the illusion of depth.
Hyeres, France, 1932. Dominated by the ‘foregrounding’ HCB claimed distorted reality.

From HCB’s photographic youth until the dawning of the digital era, the 50mm perspective was considered the ‘normal’ focal length for 35mm. When you purchased a 35mm film camera, invariably it came along with the manufacturer’s 50mm, either a cost-effective f2 or 2.8 or a ‘fast’ f1.8 or 1.4. This was true even of the era of the M film Leica, where the standard first lens for Leicaphiles would be a 50mm, Summar, Summicron, Elmar or later the fast 1.4 Summilux. I attribute this to HCB, even for those who were buying Nikons and Canons. Optical manufacturers claimed the 50mm reproduced ‘normal’ vision, and, as such, constituted the perfect optic for amateurs who were content to use their cameras to document normal life – family, travel, the ubiquitous beach and sunset photos in the manner of the naturally oriented, uncluttered and easily scannable documentary aesthetic of Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Kertész etc.

As an aside, part of what made Robert Frank’s photography so unique was its skewed perspectives so unlike to mannered 50mm look, all while still using a 50mm Nikkor on his Leica III. He did so with tilted horizons and de-centered and defocused subjects and, of course, a unique vision. From there it was a easy movement for 60’s era street photographers like Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand to further Frank’s aesthetic via use of wider optics, Winogrand known for his use of a 28mm, Friedlander a 21mm. Now normalized, 60’s and 70’s era ‘documentary photographers like Josef Koudelka, less interested in aesthetics than including the necessary, took to 35 and 28mm optics as their standard lenses. Remember, at this stage in optical development, zooms were a non-issue due to bulk and grossly inferior optical quality.

Seville, Spain, 1933. Foregrounded, but everything in its place.

Beginning in the 60’s, wide angle perspective increasingly came to dominate among ‘serious’ documentarians and those giving birth to the nascent category of photography we now refer to as ‘street photography.’ These ‘wide angle’ lenses – 28, 24, 21mm – gave a perspective with heightened foregrounding and decreased linear conversion. Set against this change backdrop, they also caused the 35mm Summicron to be increasingly seen the ‘standard’ lens to mate with the Leica M. At the same time, the 50mm became a secondary ‘short telephoto’ lens, something to be used when the subject needed to be pulled closer in, when more linear perspective was needed ( in layman’s terms a ‘flatter’ image where receding converge), or when shallower depth of field took on an aesthetic characteristic (the larger the mm perspective a lens possesses, the shallower the inherent depth of field).

And so, we are where we are today. The ‘standard 50’ is a thing of the past. Variable focal length lenses (Zooms) are now preferred options, fixed lens of any length mostly an historical curiosity limited to hard care Leica users. Most new cameras come with a ‘kit lens’ zoom that starts with a wide focal length (usually something around a 21mm but often even shorter) and runs up to 70mm and beyond. In the pre-computerized era, where lenses were designed without recourse to computer modelling, zooms were of bulky and of questionable optical character. Modern optical technology has made choosing a standard lens superfluous; modern zooms mostly equal the optical quality of fixed focal length lenses without the added bulk.

Of course, for a traditional optical rangefinder like a digital or film M, a zoom isn’t a choice (The live view M240 being an exception), but even so, quick perusal of the average ‘street photography’ internet forum is dominated by wider optics – the 28 and 21mm focal lengths in particular, probably a legacy of the aesthetic pioneered by Winogrand, Friedlander et al. Granted, there are purists who still bemoan what they consider the convoluted perspectives of wider lenses, where foregrounds dominate with everything behind them in focus, but they tend to be naive photographers using their cameras for recordation of fact and not primarily aesthetic purposes, except maybe to engage in comparative bokeh exercises. They are the heirs of HCB.

For myself, I still prefer a fixed focal length lens on my Leicas and Nikons and Sigma Foveons, but don’t find much need for a standard 50 and actually try to avoid it when using lenses on APS-C sensors like my Nikon D220 (I use a 24mm which, wit crop factor equals a 35mm on a film camera) or a 20mm on my 1.7 crop Sigma SD15 (which works out to approximately 40mm on a 35mm film camera). For my M240 and M9 Monochrom, I use a 35mm VC 2.5 exclusively (like most VC optics for the Leica, a remarkable optic for the money). Having come of age photographically in the 70’s, my standard optical length is a 35mm, which I consider to give a normal perspective. If I want wide I’ll use a 21mm. As for the 28mm focal length, I’ve never gotten on with it. It seems a perspective in need of a subject, an inferior substitute for a 21mm capable of slamming foregrounds in the viewers face. If you’re going for that look, why do it by halves? I do own a number of 50mm optics ( for my Leica I have a few cheap Jupiter-8’s and an impressive TTArtisans f1.1 50mm) but they stay on the shelf rarely if ever used except when I take an occasional portrait or need to isolate detail at the expense of the whole. Or when I want bokeh (which is never). In this sense, I’m a photographic heir of Friedlander, Koudelka, Trent Parke. As I’ve noted before, while I admire HCB, I find his work too flat and mannered for my tastes. That probably has a lot to do with the 50mm perspective he employed.

34 thoughts on “Why Use a 50mm Lens?

  1. Thomas Rink

    Wasn’t the real reason for 50mm to become the “standard” lens that it was far easier to produce than wide-angle lenses? As far as I know, the first 35mm lenses appeared about 20 years after the introduction of the first Leica, and were of questionable quality.

    I find the “natural perspective” argument in favor of the 50mm hard to understand. Because if you practice a relaxed gaze – this means also including peripheral vision in your perception – then the angle of view is more like a 24mm to 35mm lens. It is for a reason that smartphones come with 26mm – 28mm lenses as a default.

    Reply
    1. Hank

      No, the 3.5cm Elmar was available pretty early on. It’s a great lens, very much the companion to the 5cm Elmar.
      Leica had real issues making wide angles lenses – they licensed the Super Angulon for their 21mm, and they didn’t make a “great” 28mm until the 1970s.

      Reply
  2. Rob Campbell

    Hmm…

    Well, my first real interchangeable lens camera was an Exakta Varex 11a, which I bought without a lens because I couldn’t afford one. Came the day, and the very first lens that I bought was a 3.5/135mm Tele-Xenar. Why? Because my greatest interest was headshots of girls – not that I’d any of them yet hanging scalp-like from my photographic belt. However, I was clear in what I wanted. The next lens was a 2.8/50mm Tessar, I think, with which I once shot my cousin’s art school dance. You know, flogging flash pix to boozed-up students. After that, I got into my first real photographic job and learned how to print properly.

    Time served there, it was imperative that I either went solo or called it a day, and got a proper job, whatever that might have been. In the event, the gods smiled and I left Exakta behind and Nikon said hello in the form of a brand new F. That came with a 2/50mm as standard, and of course, the first additional lens I bought was a 3.5/135 Nikkor. Next came a 2.8/35mm Nikkor and the 50mm pretty much never got used again. Why? Aesthetics: mid-Sixties fashion photography, in magazines if not in brochures, made a thing about getting seated models filling the frame. This led to a certain degree of distortion, intentionally, such as elongating the head. I doubt if the models dug that much, but they got paid anyway, and the obvious effect was clearly understood by the local competition, which was, at times, as important as the money from the gig. Nope, we were not all always the best of businessmen.

    Next came the 4/200mm Nikkor. I loved that lens: not the sharpest, but a great look. Today, I have a 2.8/180mm instead, but sadly, nobody to photograph with it. Ditto the 8/500 Reflex, the second time I have bought this optic. But hey, it does setting Sun over sea beautifully, presenting you with enough glorious doughnuts to make anyone’s day complete.

    That said, the same corresponding focal lengths didn’t work too well on 6×6 format: I found the 2.8/80mm far better than the 4/50mm for people, and the 4/150mm too short for heads. Unfortunately, the 180mm that I’d been using for headshots on the Mamiya was a far better focal length, but at the time, didn’t yet exist in the ‘blad stable.

    Staying with that Mamiya TLR and using that long lens was almost enough to make me suicidal. Parallax, to be guessed as corrected thanks to a moving red line was a concept distinctly made for tennis stars: “ You can not be serious!” Anyhow, by then, I was pretty much totally into Nikon and Kodachrome, so 6×6 became so much lovely weight. Never did get to use what turned out to be short-lived Kodachrome 120. I have been told it was very unreliable due to processing problems. That said, even Kodak’s own Kodachrome labs were different: the Spanish one must have been built on the site of an old hairdressing salon, and that meant that anything not in a hurry was sent to Lausanne. For calendar gigs, I used to go to Hemel Hempstead and get an overnight pro service for the film.

    Focal length preference seems to be very much a personal decision; zooms have never interested me after my one and only 2.8/24-70 Nikkor turned out to be crap. Boy, was it heavy and physically large! Not something I’d want to carry around all day. Not living in a capital city, most of what I bought after coming to live in Spain was bought sight-unseen, not a good thing. I could not get my money back for that zoom, and had to trade, and got the 180mm instead. You B&H customers don’t know how fortunate you are.

    Reply
  3. Hank

    I love the 50mm focal length, and I love the subtle way HCB used it. His photos often do have great depth to them, just not exaggerated. Natural feeling, concise compositions.

    I also love Frank’s use of the 50 in a completely different way.

    With regard to wide angles, like 28mm, you’d have to blame Klein, Winogrand and Moriyama for the vast deluge of shitty street photography that we are “blessed” with today. So easy to copy…so hard to do right.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Hank, I think part of the problem is time itself: K, W and M made their name in a different era. It seems that it’s no longer possible to work openly in their manner: too many people uptight about being exploited over social media networks, being held to ridicule, and I honestly can’t say I blame them for objecting to being free models. Okay, freedom on the streets shouldn’t mean you can override another’s right to an equal moral freedom from intrusive cameras. Bruce Gilden: why does he bother? I have yet to see anything where he hasn’t blown it by overexposing. The thing that surprises me is this: in their heyday, how were these street guys, famous today, earning their crust? Surely nobody was actually paying them to produce that material? Klein was a fashion great; what kept the Americans streeters who stayed at home alive?

      Last evening was largely devoted to a study of the work of Trent Parke. At the end of it, my conclusion was that he has basically been using the same “expose for the highlights and kill the shadows” technique that’s so popular with some street shooters today, especially in London. They make some interesting architectural images, and I did spend some time last summer – or was it the one before? – copying the technique in my decidedly not big city area. It worked, but then of course it would: it was nothing more than just a technique. I’m afraid that’s pretty much all I can see in much such work when applied to people: even Ernst Haas did it in colour, as has Meyerowitz. Is that enough for greatness? What is greatness in street photography?

      Perhaps greatness is Moriyama, Klein; their interest in grain sure removes them from much of what goes down today from the silky Leica prophets. Is it only genre, in the sense of snaps in the street, or is it much more about impact and anxiety, the clear sense of the photographer at risk? Does a viewer’s own fear create the belief he is witnessing greatness?

      Reply
      1. Dan Newell

        “Does a viewer’s own fear create the belief he is witnessing greatness?”

        That’s a hell of a question you got there Rob.

        Reply
      2. Andras Ikladi

        Rob, just a tiny remark with Trent Parke: I wouldn’t put him in the same basket as Garry “Machine gun” Winogrand or Bruce “Y’got a problem?!” Gilden, who (at least for this street work in the comment) focused in single shots. Look at the Minutes to Midnight book and find work with an intriguing structure, a profound commentary about what outback Australia means, the light, death, dryness, and a celebration of water. Maybe I’m biased as I have personal experiences to fall back on, but even objectively, the book is a masterpiece far beyond the one trick pony “exposing for the highlights, man in stride in front of a building” crowd.

        Reply
        1. Rob Campbell

          Andras: yes, of course Parke does more than the straight street shot using the exposure technique we both recognise. However, he still uses that exposure technique in that book; it was one of the books I researched a couple of nights ago, which prompted my comments. If anything, it’s the curse of style: it can easily become a crutch, even if no crutch may be required at some given moment.

          Reply
  4. Dogman

    Under the impression that the 50mm was too normal, I didn’t get one with my first Leica. Instead I sprung for a 28/2.8 and 35mm and 90mm Summicrons. I hated the 90mm and found it flat, dull and soft compared to my 85/1.8 Nikkor. The 28mm was okay but I preferred my Nikkor 24mm. So I mainly used the 35mm as my normal. But I sold the whole Leica outfit to help finance an escape from my newspaper job. I seldom used a 50mm on my Nikons and someone stole the only one I owned for them anyway.

    I didn’t really come to terms with the 50mm for a few years. When I started using one I found it pretty versatile. It’s a simple documentary focal length, one that doesn’t add any lens effects to a photo. It’s boring on its on but it can be make really great photos. Today I’m a 35/50 guy. Those are my main lenses, augmented by a few wide angles and a few longer than normal lenses. But when I leave the house with one camera and lens, the lens will be either a 35mm or a 50mm. Someday I may try just using just an 18mm or 20mm and see what kind of mischief I cook up. But I doubt I could do that for very long.

    You know ole HCB was also against cropping his photos too. I’m not. I’ll crop the hell out of them if it makes them look better to me. Some of HCB’s pictures could have been improved with judicious cropping, I think. Okay, that makes me a heretic but I think it’s true. Any time somebody becomes dogmatic about any thing it’s time to reconsider how much credence you hand them. Bring on the lynch mob.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      I never crop. But that’s just me. The photo is the photo. But that’s just me. I’m sure there are iconic photos I love that have been significantly cropped. So what. All of these hard and fast rules are stupid. We make good photos any number of ways.

      Reply
      1. Robert Coscia

        Getting Older has changed my, to crop or not to crop that is the question. Wearing glasses it is hard to now see exactly what the heck is in the viewfinder exactly to avoid taking a crop. I sometimes shoot a bit wider knowing what I want is ” in frame” but I have a little extra insurance of excess real estate if needed later, instead of not getting what I wanted in frame. I used to shoot and print full frame, not with these eyes so much and miss it. It takes me much longer to compose and focus now, so its a whole nother ballgame with the Leica 3 for timing, focus, dof, snap. I must confess the auto focus of the F5 is a physical crutch for me and my eyes, but knowing thats taken care of, razor sharp focus, lets me move on to composition, and depth of field. One less thing to worry about in a time sensitive moment. I still love my 80/200mm lens as the natural flow of feeling is there instead of people absolutely noticing you with a 35 or 50mm lens in their face. Its subtle but noticeable being invisible vs being noticed. I also love reading your stuff, you are a rare breed to many of us, and I appreciate and understand and respect much of where you are coming from. I wish you were my neighbor I have good wine and bourbon.

        Reply
          1. Robert Coscia

            I’ll come to you, Id love to have a drink with a legend. Im not kidding. There is so much to still say, with so few now, who are old enough to have really lived it or understand us, or even care.

        1. Rob Campbell

          Your reply to Tim speaks for all of us. Proof of what you say is all around us, shouting from the Internet at every moment. You just need to visit any of the youtuber sites to understand, quickly, that it’s all about self-promotion, perhaps living proof that at last, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, the medium really is the message.

          Reply
          1. Leicaphila Post author

            You guys are ruining my curmudgeon reputation, although I do appreciate the thoughts. It’s good to know people find something of value in it. And yes, there doesn’t seem to be many places to go that aren’t crammed full of self-aggrandizing stupidity. I think all the people who want thoughtful discussion about Leicas and photography come here. There aren’t many of us, but what we lack in numbers we make up for in….something.

            Plus, it’s my sole means of reading Rob Campbell every morning with a cup of coffee and an smoke (I’m smoking again. What’s it gonna do? Give me cancer?)

            So, when I read nice compliments like Robert’s and your’s Rob, it’s a good start to my day. I honestly think its part of what’s keeping me going at this point. Thanks.

  5. Rob Campbell

    Tim, was HC-B really a street photographer in the sense of that word today? I tend to think not: what he was, I believe, was a reportage photographer with an interest in people, at home and abroad. His work was commercial: he was mostly commissioned by a pretty much Communist press. Quite why a rich kid would work for them remains a mystery to me; perhaps it was himself literally slumming it; he could hardly cruise down to Harlem, so the slums of Paris would do just fine, thanks very much. I bet he’d have had an Amex card if they had been around at the time…

    Originally supplying the political fodder required by the press arm of the left didn’t later, with Magnum, prevent him from becoming, in practical terms, as much a capitalist as anyone else for whom that agency supplied work.

    Reply
    1. Hank

      Rob, I think HCB was more interested in composition than feeling or emotion, like Klein was, for instance. HCB’s photos are so tidy, with elements placed exactly where they need to be. They’re a little detached.
      Of course, we only get to see the good ones. There are plenty of shots with crooked horizons and blurred subjects, probably, that we will never see. He destroyed a lot of negatives, the “bad ones”, I recall reading.

      Reply
    2. Rob Campbell

      Tim, don’t overlook the fact that your readership needs your input every bit as much as you might enjoy ours; this is decidedly a two-way contract! Were you not giving us something that’s pretty unique on the Internet, there would be far less reason for us to check in every day.
      Sowing, reaping…

      Reply
    3. Bill B

      Rob, I had also wondered about your question ‘Quite why a rich kid …’ so I read his biography. Apparently he did not want to go into the family business and his father said I will support you at a low level for a certain amount of time to get started and then you are on your own. He wanted to be an artist (everyone knows that), encountered the Leica and discovered that he could support himself by taking photos, especially after Robert Capa told him to put away the little surrealist. To me he was first and foremost a documentary photographer and time and time again insisted that photographers must tell the truth, hence the objections to manipulation and cropping. Many assume he was supported by family wealth all of his life and did not have to make commercially successful work to survive, but as you note his work was commercial. Why bother co-founding Magnum if your bills are paid by an industrial giant.

      Interestingly, most of his famous photos that are printed over and over come from that ‘little surrealist’ phase of the early 1930s. He never gave up geometry but there had to be more to the photo than just geometry. The next generation of photographers could and did rebel against that. Cheers.

      Reply
  6. Keith Laban

    I own five lenses in the range 40mm to 58mm and rarely use anything else, so, I’m either an idiot or I’ve found my own range of preferred focal lengths. All are very different, ranging from a compact 40mm f/2 with a plastic mount that nobody takes seriously but delivers a particularly nice look, a 50mm which is beautifully corrected, a ludicrously inexpensive 50mm Chinese lens which is ludicrously fast but is ludicrously uncorrected, an ancient 55mm macro that is still capable of making stunning large prints and a 58mm that is capable of almost anything and everything and so is rarely removed from one of my two identical bodies.

    Of the above five lenses, the compact 40mm, the Chinese 50mm and the very adaptable 58mm are particularly suited for my ‘street’ and associated work. In terms of ideal focal length I prefer the shorter 40mm length and the 58mm longer length rather than the standard’ 50mm.

    Thankfully the bodies are capable – via adapters – of mounting virtually any lens known to man.

    From the plastic mount 40mm f/2
    https://www.keithlaban.co.uk/Z7(2)_0870_Morocco22.html

    From the inexpensive Chinese 50mm f/2
    https://www.keithlaban.co.uk/Z7(2)_0777_Morocco22.html

    From the very adaptable 58mm
    https://www.keithlaban.co.uk/Z7_2830_Morocco_Oct2022.html

    I didn’t feel a need to identify any of the lenses, I’m sure we all have personal favourites, for whatever reasons. Thankfully I’m not an ambassador or influencer and have no influence.

    Please forgive any typos or broken links, I’m still somewhat broken.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Hi Keith. You may or may not still be physically broken, but your photography gets better and better, and starting from an already high datum line, that’s pretty impressive!

      I also like to see a hidden (forgotten?) love for your old 6×6 ‘blads there, in the perfect square crops. If I’d had any sense I’d have clung onto mine, and waited until Hassy introduced their digital back. Okay, I had no way of knowing that they would, and lost them before I realised digital was the future. Still, I guess it was just another dumb, middle-age crisis point where I imagined the changes in photo fortune were all about me, not realising until many years later that I was just another amongst the thousands whose livelihoods were about to be changed, often demolished, for ever. But yeah, that square, when you get it right, is fabulous.

      Reply
      1. Keith Laban

        Rob, those ‘blads have never and will never be forgotten. Neither will my love of the square format.

        The Leicas, by comparison, pale into insignificance. I’ve never been enamored with 3:2, particularly when shot in portrait orientation, although that said, it does sit well with widescreen displays in landscape mode.

        Happily I can decide on format prior to shooting or after the event, either works well and continues to work well.

        Reply
  7. Andras Ikladi

    Tim, I would be curious what you think of Ralph Gibson’s claim that the 50 behaves differently on the digital sensor: to achieve his “normal”, he would have to be using something closer to a 60 on digital…although the argument gets a little confused with the claim that the sensor flattens the image AND also having to use a longer lens (I would think the other way). Not that it matters…just want to hear your thoughts.

    Reply
      1. Dan Newell

        “To say digital means compression. With my mono digital camera and my 50mm lens I realized that a slight telephoto event was occurring, a compression as if it were functioning like a 58mm or 59mm lens. This is when I started realizing that digital compresses. In general, we’re using digital as a compressing form—banking is compressed, video is compressed, Netflix is compressed, your telephone compresses information. You can put your whole life story onto a little chip. That’s a compression.”

        Reply
  8. Ron Himebaugh

    I could be very happy with just a fifty. A friend does well using only a 35 and for the same reasons. Simplicity, predictability, familiarity. No quandaries about what to take and then what to use. But I am not a pro and don’t need the tools a pro does: in my case the limitations are a bonus.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      Ron, in your reference to not being a pro, you say that you don’t need the tools. Much truth lies in that!

      I never bought anything for which I did not have a real use. Nevertheless, I accumulated a lot of stuff that was not regularly in use. It broke down to two focal lengths carrying the bulk of the work: in the 135 format, those lenses were the 35mm and 135mm. The rest were often just excess baggage, a weight in the camera bag. Truth to tell, It really all depends on the type of work that you tend to specialise in, and what you think your client expects from you.

      In the couple of years before Brexit, I did buy a few lenses that I hoped would spur me on to continue making pictures as amateur. None actually had any lasting effect, something I guess I knew was going to be the case, but like buying lottery tickets, you gotta have some kind of faith! Now, I think I enjoy looking at pictures much more than shooting ones that I know have no importance to me, even as I press that button. Post-Brexit, buying stuff from my reliable source in London, cost- and tax-wise, makes no sense. There remains no camera shop, here in the part of Spain where I live, where I can deal face-to-face with anybody who knows anything about the stuff he sells. That has saved me from making more desperate attempts at buying enthusiasm for what’s now a lost cause. Be happy, and embrace minimalism!

      Reply
  9. Lee Rust

    Musing about lenses and HC-B is fun, but I wonder how many discussions like this one will be happening after another couple of decades have passed. It seems like the era of the ‘famous photographer’ is done. Smartphones and digital tech have made everybody their own favorite picture taker and movie maker, so how many people are still taking the time to look at anybody else’s stuff for more than a second or two?

    Anyhow, I just ordered a ‘vintage’ 60mm macro lens… just for fun.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      I think we are already there, Lee. The surfeit of images the internet throws at us constantly is the death knoll of contemplative, tangible photography as an artistic medium. It’s now a form of communication: “Look at what I’m eating right now” or “look who I’m hanging with” or “look at how fetching I look.” The traditional function of photography is past i.e. where tangible something was made to be a look into the subjectivity of the maker, and if it resonated, it was turned into a physical object whose importance we signaled by matting and framing it and hanging it on a wall.

      Kids these days don’t even think of photographs in that physical sense. My exchange students, who all had reams of photos on their phones, were intrigued by my curious habit of 1) shooting exclusively in B&W (“WHY”?) and especially of my printing, framing and hanging…and of giving prints to others. They never even thought of the medium that way. Curiously, each of them at some point asked me for a photo they could take home with them and hang on their parent’s wall, I suppose as a memento of their time spent with me. But it was also something more than that, maybe the dawning of a idea of the photo as an aesthetic experience.

      Reply
      1. Dan Newell

        I tried a work around with the kids. I told them I wasn’t going to photograph them in color or in any posed group portrait. I told them that this was called ‘serious face’.
        I told them I want you to think of a serious issue in your life….I’ll wait.
        At first it was a novelty but after awhile they started to request it and that generated into prints.

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  10. Bill B

    I have used a 50mm focal length lens in 35mm camera format for 90% of the photographs that I’ve taken. I started with a 50mm and that was the only lens I had for thirty years. That’s more due to photography being a hobby rather than a way to earn money. It was the standard lens in the 80s and when I shifted to Nikon in the 90s I was not tempted by the standard zoom lens. It was a lens that gave me all the flexibility I needed and I could frame by moving. I don’t mean ‘zoom with your feet’ which is nonsense, as any fule kno a zoom lens gives you different results to ‘zooming with your feet’. I was attracted to the 50 because the relationships between sizes of objects in the visual field stayed the same. A 50 also gets rid of a lot of visual clutter.

    I did feel that for architecture something wider was needed especially in cities, so I got a 28mm lens. I thought that would also be good for landscapes and discovered that it gave too much foreground and too much sky. What I actually wanted was an undistorted panorama and that stitching together a series of 50mm photographs gave a better result. I did buy a 35mm focal length lens to compare to the 28mm because I was going to get a Leica camera and I was only ever going to buy two lenses and needed to know whether the second lens was going to be a 35 or a 28. I chose the 35 because there is a wider range of Leica lenses at that focal length. I have bought lenses of other focal length for my Nikon cameras but usually have the 28, the 35, or the 50 fitted.

    When taking photographs of strangers in public places I find that the main difference between these focal lengths, operationally, is how close you have to stand to your target. With a 28mm your target is so close that they may not realise that they are the target because the camera can be pointed obliquely away from them. In that famous photograph of Bruce Gilden’s of the woman at the beach in her underwear pointing into the distance, she is pointing at what she thinks Bruce is photographing. From 50mm upwards, while you are standing further away you will be unambiguously pointing the camera at the target and when you get into long lenses it may appear like surveillance photography to the person being photographed.

    Lastly, I’m going to be tendentious and suggest that the notion of 35mm as being the natural focal length for the Leica camera is mainly an adaptation to competition from SLRs. Firstly, the 35mm fl is either the natural focal length for all 35mm cameras or it’s not, it can’t just be for the Leica. I know that you didn’t say that it’s the natural focal length of the Leica but that’s what people say. Secondly, the view through a rangefinder window does not depend on the maximum aperture of the taking lens whereas for the SLR, maximum aperture is key to how bright the viewfinder is. When Nikon brought out the Nikon F they had an F1.4 but at a 58mm fl, and a few years later a 50mm fl retrofocus lens of classic quality. They marketed the 50mm as the natural standard lens of the 35mm camera for obvious reasons. Throughout the 60s Nikon in particular pounded Leica at 50mm and larger focal lengths but had no 35mm fl lens at F1.4. That occurred in 1971, a date for Leica worth remembering. This meant that Leica had an open field during the 60s with their small, high quality 35mm Summilux double gauss design. This was a competitive advantage and they made the most of it. They altered the default viewfinder and focused attention on the quality of their 35mm fl lenses. In 1971 Nikon were able finally to make a 35mm fl F1.4 lens of sufficiently high quality using Thorium lens elements, which altered the balance of power. Thorium was only used in the first few years and was replaced in the K and AI lenses. Leica had been stumbling for some time playing catchup with their own SLR system and then decided to bring out the M5 in 1971. Many have said that the failure of the M5 in 1971 was due to the larger size and the unflattering aesthetics. Personally, I have no beef with the aesthetics of the M5 and if you think the Nikon F is a good size then how can you hate the M5. I think the so called failure of the M5 was a combination of producing a Leica CL/Minolta CLE at the same time, a camera Garry Winogrand said was evidence of a company that wanted to fail, and the presence finally of a high quality 35mm fl F1.4 from Nikon. That lens became a standard for PJs for decades and could be bought new until recently. Companies don’t operate in isolation and developments are always relative to what the competition is doing, take for example the effect of mirrorless cameras and phone cameras on DSLRs and compact cameras respectively. Leica chose to compete after that time by focusing on optical quality, lifetime servicing of their cameras, and the well heeled amateur market as we all know. Somehow they’re still around.

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  11. JamesP

    I used to hate the 50mm, but mainly because that was all I could afford as a kid. Now that I’ve used everything from 18mm to 300mm, I rather like the 50 and use it often.

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  12. David Zalaznik

    Just to let all of you know, it is always a joy to drop in on the conversations on this blog. I believe I have only commented once before but rarely do I stop by without leaving with at least a morsel of information to consider or reconsider. If you should look out your window, there are many of us out here ready for more. Thank you for these many conversations.

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