Classic Focal Length

The vast majority of Leica shooters are either 35mm or 50mm photographers. These two focal lengths were used to make many of the iconic images that people around the world recognize as Leica images.

For people just getting into Leica M photography many have to settle on just a single lens or focal length.  The question becomes,“Which type of photographer am I?”.

In this article we are going to look at a few different ideas and questions you can ask yourself to determine what the ideal focal length for your style and what you want to say with your photography is.

So let’s get into it.

Focal Length Questionnaire

focal length

1.  What do you plan on shooting?

Some people when they buy a camera have a very specific idea of why they are buying the camera and what they are going to use it for.  Others just want a camera they can use for all their photographic needs. Either way it is a good idea to sit down and figure out what you are going to be photographing the majority of the time.  Lenses (Leica’s lenses in particular) are expensive and you want to make sure you are getting the most bang for your buck.

If your answers consist of things like landscapes and architecture than you may want to lean towards the wider 35mm focal length.  The wider FOV can make it easier to get more environment in the frame and can lead to more powerful images.

If you had things on your list like portraits or documenting family gatherings then the 50mm may better suit your needs.  The 50mm has a tendency to be better suited for portraits as it has less distortion and gives faces a flatter feeling.

Just because you pick a certain focal length over another doesn’t mean you can’t use that lens for a certain image.  You can capture some great portraits on a 35mm and you can make excellent landscape images with a 50mm.  This exercise is more about picking a lens based on strengths and weaknesses.

Focal Length

2.  Shy or Bold?

If you are looking to use your camera for street photography than this is an important question.  New photographers tend to be very timid when starting out.  People are so used to being suspicious of photographers and people with cameras that confrontation is not abnormal if you are a street photographer.

The difference between the 35mm frame and the 50mm frame at 6 feet from your subject is somewhere in the region of 2 steps.  It doesn’t sound like a big difference but when you areon the streets trying to capture moments and people experiencing their world’s 2 steps can feel huge.

If you are shy or timid the 50mm may make capturing candid moments just that little bit easier.

Focal Length

3.  The Big Picture

What is more important to you? The subject or the subject as he relates to his surroundings.

Some people like focusing on people or things and it is their subjects that make their pictures shine.  These are the 50mm focal length crowd.

Others like the relationship between their subjects and their environments.  These people like nice subjects but they love how a subject is mixed in with his surroundings.   In street photography shooting with a 35mm means you really have to scan the perimeter of your frame to make sure you arrange all the components in an image to make it shine.  On a 50mm with a narrower FOV that can some times be a little easier for people just starting out.


4.  The Depth of Field Issue

If you are a photographer who loves to use DOF to manipulate the image than there are a few things you should consider before choosing a focal length.

If two lenses (one a 35mm and one a 50mm) are pointed at an object equidistant from the lenses set at the same aperture the 50mm will appear to have a shallower depth of field than the wider 35mm.  Why is that?  Well it gets a little complicated but essentially wider apertures on longer lenses produce an increase in the out of focus areas of an image.

There are a lot of factors in determining the depth of field in your images and focal length is only one of them but if you like throwing the background out of focus than you may want to start with a 50mm.

Focal Length

5.  Shooting Spaces

This last question falls in line with quesion #1.  What sort of environments do you plan on shooting the most?

If it is all indoors where space is tight and you may not be free to move around all the time than the 35mm and the wider FOV can make your life a lot easier.  IF you live in a city where the streets are compact and you may not have space to back up a few feet to get the image than, again, it may be better to go with the wider focal length.

If you have room to spread out or you are outdoors most of the time and you can roam around and move in and out without any issue than the 50mm is quite possibly your best bet.

Focal Length

Nobody Knows But You

There is no one focal length that is better than all the others.  It is strictly a matter of personal taste and style.  So my advice is to sit down and answer these questions and then go out and try them out.  You may find that your work is split 50/50 and you just have to have them both.  In my experience, no matter how hard you fight it, you are usually visually stronger at composing images using either one or the other.  Then the rest of your life you spend fighting that instinct until you just give in and accept you are a 50mm guy.

Tips & Tricks

Have you got any tips for determining the right focal length for you and your projects?  What focal length is your favorite and why?


One Response

  1. Pavel

    Thanks for the article. What focal lenght are these pictures shoot with?