For the 35mm format, the normal (or standard) lens is anything between 45 to 60 mm and is called by that name because it most closely approximates what the human eye sees, with no perspective distortion... Of course, the human eye has a wider viewing angle, but a lens with the same viewing angle as the eye would produce an apparently distorted image. Usually, the 50mm which has a 46° picture angle is selected by most manufacturers as their normal lens.

If you are into older cameras, you would probably have come across a few 55mm (43° picture angle) normal lenses, like the Olympus Zuiko 55mm f/1.2, or even a 58mm f/1.4 (an under-rated lens that came with the Minolta SRT 101) but they are relatively rare. The older fixed lens rangefinders and point-and-shoots pocket cameras from the late 1960s’-early 1970’s era had lenses of less than 50mm focal length – they were usually 40mm, 42mm or 45mm, making them very compact and ‘pancake’-like in appearance. Think Olympus Trip 35 and the Minolta 500G (both with their flattened 40mm f/2.8 lenses). Here is a simple lens angle table from

Don’t ever be fooled by the seemingly throwaway costs of the Zuiko 50mm lenses on Ebay and elsewhere. There are lots of discussion threads regarding the apparent superiority of the later, redesigned 50mm f/1.8 Zuiko lens over the older models. Like everything else, lenses underwent a continual redesign as better materials and lens coatings became available, leading to better manufacturing efficiencies and lower costs. The fact is, there are NO bad Zuiko 50mm lenses (unless of course, we dropped one – on concrete). They are wonderful lenses, superbly engineered, and will give great results every time.

Once upon a time, it was thought that all lenses gave their best, sharpest results stopped down – that was true in the 50’s and 60’s perhaps, but by the 70’s, the computerized lens design tools and improved optical glass permitted lens designs that were sharp even wide open. Of course, we would have a very shallow depth of field with the 50mm f/1.8 wide open – only a few inches. If we desire greater DOF, we have to stop down to f/8 or lower.

Before zoom lenses became ubiquitous, most people just had a camera body and a 50mm normal lens that came bundled with it. If they were serious enthusiasts, they would probably plunk down the money to eventually purchase a wide-angle — a 35mm or perhaps a 28mm (both are similar in construction, the 28mm is nothing more than a stretched 35mm) and of course a “portrait” lens. More often than not, this was the 135mm f/2.8 lens. At one time, this must have been the most commonly manufactured medium telephoto, that’s why there are so many around. Apparently, Rangefinders with interchangeable lenses could only go up to 135mm without fancy adapters… that probably had something to do with the 135mm mindset as well. What other reason could there be for the existence of such an odd focal length?

Thus, the vast majority of pictures were taken with the 50mm normal lens – the production runs for these lenses were huge, leading to lower costs, better designs and ever larger apertures, going up to f/1.8 for Zuiko (there are some f/1.7 lenses as well – I have a Maxxum AF 50mm f/1.7) for the low end kit lens. If you were a serious amateur and willing to pony up a little more, perhaps you got a sweet little Zuiko 50mm f/1.4. There were even larger apertures available. of course… I already mentioned that Olympus made a Zuiko 55mm f/1.2 lens and a 50mm f/1.2 – but they’re expensive, and in the realm of the professional photographer. Pick up a Zuiko 50 or 55mm f/1.2 lens, and you’ll see why – they are serious glass. For that matter, pick up any 50mm f/1.2. 😀

The extremely large aperture of the 50mm lens makes them ideal for available light photography – indoors or outdoors, in conditions where artificial lighting is not possible or where Flash is undesirable because they would destroy the ambiance and mood of the scene or subject. Natural (or available) light photography gives a sense of naturalness and realism to photographs, and has a certain unmistakable quality that is very attractive – this is true for color or black & white photos. It is possible to buy lenses in other focal lengths with large apertures, of course, but they are prohibitively expensive.

Many professional photographers have adopted the 35mm lens as their standard shooting (or normal lens). The 35mm has a 63° picture angle, which means the photographer can get closer to be subject, or include more of the subject’s surroundings from the same shooting distance as a 50mm. The 35mm is well-corrected for perspective distortion and can be used wherever a 50mm can. The disadvantage, of course, is the lens speed and cost. The commonly available versions are 35mm f/2.8, although a fast professional grade 35mm f/2.0 lens is also available. But why bother? I am a big advocate of high quality, low-cost lenses, and there’s no better deal than the Zuiko 50mm f/1.8.

For outdoors daylight photography with medium speed (100-200 ASA film), both the 50mm and 35mm are very useful, and the 1/2 stop difference between the 50mm f/1.8 and 35mm f/2.8 has no impact since we are most certainly shooting at f/16 or f/11 (perhaps f/8 on a cloudy day, certainly no wider than a f/5.6 for a very overcast day). Both the lenses serve well as normal lenses and are very good for architectural and street photography.

Sample pictures with the Zuiko 50mm f/1.8. You can also check out my earlier post Landscape Photography with the 50mm lens.

Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 #1
Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 #2
Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 #3
Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 #4
Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 #5
Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 #6
Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 #7
Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 #8
Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 #9
Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 #10

Photographed with an OM-1, 50mm f/1.8, Kodak Gold 200 film, Fuji Superia Xtra 200

text and images © 2007 ajoy muralidhar. all names, websites, brands and technical data referenced are the copyright or trademark of their respective owners.