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The Sunday Morning Photographer
August, 2004

A Monthly Column By
 Mike Johnston

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USES AND APPLICATIONS OF 35mm LENSES

Fisheye:

No known uses, except to illustrate fisheye effects in photo how-to books.

Ultra-wide rectilinears wider than 19mm:

Occasional interiors. Also used to stump gearheads trying to find stuff to photograph with the things.

Ultra-wide-angle (19, 20, 21, or 24mm):

One of the four of five essential lenses for pros, broadly useful for artists and accomplished amateurs. Used for landscapes, interiors, street shooting, crowd shots, etc. Also used by bored amateurs as the next thing to covet for purchase. Despite the ubiquity of this focal length, relatively few photographers are practiced enough or visually acute enough to use this type of lens effectively; lots more people own these than do good work with them. See Brian Bowers’ Leica books for a rare example of a scenic photographer who actually sees well with a 21mm.

Ultra-wide-angle zoom (wide end 20mm or wider):

Useful for when the photographer would like to carry one heavy lens instead of three light ones, or has a breezy, devil-may-care attitude towards flare effects. Secondary “CYA” lens for pros who aren’t great with wide angles in the first place. (Exceptions do exist.) Also sometimes paired with a fast 80-200mm zoom as a professional’s only two lenses.

Wide angles:

Now that 24mm is more often lumped with 20mm and 35mm has become an alternative “normal” focal length, this class has contracted down to one fixed focal length, 28mm. Useful as a do-anything lens (especially for street and art photography, photojournalism, faux photojournalism, and environmental portraits) where a wide “look” is desired, and/or to complement a 50mm main lens, and/or for pressing into service in place of a super-wide when the photographer does not own same.

Shift lenses:

Buildings. Used for the overcorrection of convergence caused by perspective.

Ditto, but with tilt:

Ditto above, plus landscapes with tons of foreground and tables laden with food.

All-purpose 28-200mm zoom lenses:

Bad snapshots. Also great for making five rolls of film last a whole year. All-purpose = no purpose.

Wide normal primes (35mm):

Alternative normal. Often, the thing replaced by a zoom. Easiest focal length to shoot with. Best focal length for Leicas.

Not really "wide" by today's standards, 35mm is an alternative normal. Leica M6, 35mm pre-ASPH., Ilford XP-2.

“Pancake” Tessar-types, usually 45mm:

Good for lightening the burden of photographers who would rather not carry an SLR at all.

Normal/standard (50mm):

Useful for taking photographs, if you have a thick skin. When used exclusively, classic “hair shirt” lens for disciplining oneself needlessly. Strangely, when in skilled hands, can mimic moderate wide angles as well as short telephotos. According to one far Eastern expert, lower yield of usable shots than 35mm lens, but higher yield of great shots. Second best focal length for a Leica.

Standard 55–58mm:

Shows you use a really, really old camera.

Macros/micros:

Flowers, bugs, eyeballs, eyelashes, small products, tchotchkes. Dew-covered spider webs, frost patterns on windowpanes. Great hobby lenses, as macro photographers are among the only happy photo enthusiasts. Also much utilized by photography buffs who like to test lenses.

Superfast normals (ƒ/1, ƒ/1.2):

Used for people who like limited depth of field, as well as for people who like to complain about limited depth of field. Also, especially when aspherical elements are involved, an effective way to vaporize excess cash for almost no good reason.

Standard zooms (35-70mm, 28-105mm, 35-135mm, etc.):

Used for taking pictures in bright light — mainly snapshots, scenics, cars, travel pictures, semi-naked women, underexposed pictures, and pictures blasted by uncontrolled on-camera flash. Evidently very useful for clichés. Sometimes used to remove interchangeability feature from interchangeable-lens cameras.

Fast medium zooms:

For pros, bread-and-butter lenses. For amateurs, often left at home rather than lugged around all day. If very expensive, big, and heavy, may be almost as good and almost as fast at any given focal length as cheap fixed primes. Good for making both hobbyists and their portrait subjects feel self-conscious.

Short teles (75, 77, 80, 85, 90, 100, or 105mm):

Portraits, tight landscapes, headshots, beauty and glamor. In skilled hands, can be used for general and art photography, photojournalism. Essential.

135mm prime:

Little owned, less used. Became a standard 35mm focal length when rangefinders were the main camera type because it’s the longest focal length that is feasible on a rangefinder. Now vestigial, like a male’s nipples.

Fast 180mm or 200mm prime:

Longest general use lens for photojournalism. Sports, beauty, auto races, surveillance in film noire.

Slow 180mm or 200mm prime:

Lightweight and easy to carry. May project a certain “image,” i.e. that you are poor or cheap.

Standard telephoto zoom (70 or 80 to 180, 200, or 210):

Whether slow or fast, indispensable for most photographers, amateur or pro. Used for all kinds of action, activity, fashion, portrait, headshot, reportage, sports, wildlife, landscape, and nature photography. Covers all the telephoto range most photographers ever need, at least until they become afflicted by the terrible urge to photograph birds.

IS (Canon) or VR (Nikon) standard telephoto zoom:

Same as above, but for photographers who drink lotsa coffee and/or do crank.

Fast 300mm:

Fashion, catalog, runway, sports, nature, air shows. Important lens for pros, also for nature photographers. Tough for amateurs unless shooting surreptitious faces in crowds or critters. Status symbol. As fashion, looks grand when accessorizing a photo vest.

Super-telephoto zooms (to 300mm or more on long end):

For adjusting FOV when standpoint is constrained. Replaces several heavy primes. Sometimes pressed into service by amateurs who have burr up ass about having all focal lengths “covered.”

400mm:

Critters, sports, and birds. Landscapes, if you’re a nut. Also good for photographing football games when you don’t want the picture to show a dang thing about what’s going on.

500mm:

Critters and birds. Money laundering: can be bought and sold to placate wife about questionable expenses. “But I sold one of my lenses to pay for it, honey, honest.”

600mm:

Critters.

1200mm:

No known uses.

— Mike Johnston

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"Uses and Application of 35mm Lenses" is taken from Issue #7 of The 37th Frame, which I hope to send in early September. There are two companion articles, "Choosing Lenses: What's Seeing Got to Do with It?" and "Why a 35mm is the Best Lens for a Leica." The Issue also contains a number of lens reviews, plus a long article about the new Leica 50mm Summilux ASPH. To subscribe, go to www.37thframe.com.If you're already a subscriber and haven't gotten Issue #6 yet, please don't despair — I'm making steady progress in contacting people and setting up accounts. If you do not receive an e-mail from me, you will receive a letter. Thanks for being patient!

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See Mike Johnston’s website at www.37thframe.com. Also, check out his monthly column in the British Black & White Photography magazine! (Usually available at Barnes & Noble bookstores.)

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Want to read more? Go to the SMP Archives

Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.

You can read more about Mike and find additional articles that he has written for this site, as well as a Sunday Morning Index.

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Concepts: Photography, Focal length, Telephoto lens, Photographic lens, F-number, Angle of view, Zoom lens, Wide-angle lens

Entities: Leica, Barnes & Noble, Nikon, Michael Reichmann, Mike Johnston, Mike, Brian Bowers, football

Tags: focal lengths, standard, 35mm, best focal length, amateurs, standard telephoto zoom, photography, Leica, useful, wide angles, Easiest focal length, skilled hands, limited depth, art photography, 37th frame, longest focal length, Mike Johnston, photojournalism, fast 80-200mm zoom, picture, landscapes, photographer, Great hobby lenses, leica 50mm summilux, cheap fixed primes, Dew-covered spider webs, heavy lens, uncontrolled on-camera flash, fixed focal, do-anything lens, moderate wide angles, sports, main lens, happy photo enthusiasts, quarterly ink-on-paper magazine, Important lens, essential lenses, Sunday Morning Index, main camera type, White Photography magazine