My first lens was a manual focus 50mm f/1.4, and from day one, it was true love. It went everywhere with me, attached to my shiny, chrome body Nikon FM2. We shot everything together, mostly because that was the only lens I had.
Then I bought a 28mm wide angle, and shortly after, a 70-210mm. I was drawn to those lenses because they showed the world in very different ways than my eye saw it. As my style developed with action and adventure photography, this “normal lens” view fell out of favor and my poor 50mm got shoved into my camera bag where it sat, neglected and rarely used for a long time.
However, as the years have passed and my style continues to evolve, my excitement for the “normal lens” has been rekindled, and I’ve come to see just what a versatile tool the regular old normal lens is. Today, my normal lens of choice is the little tiny Fujifilm XF35mm f/2. If you look inside my camera bag, you’ll see that my 35 f/2 is fixed to my main X Series camera body much of the time.
I’m just wild about the form factor of this sexy little lens, and I’ve fallen in love with that “normal view” once again. Over time, I’ve learned how to use it to its full potential.
Normal lenses are called normal because they see he world in a similar perspective and angle of view as the human eye. The beauty of this kind of lens is that if you get in close, it will blur the background and make your subjects stand out beautifully against a soft wash of color. This makes it an amazing choice for shooting portraits or details out in the world.
Move in even closer and your depth of field becomes extremely shallow. This gives you an ideal effect for closeup photography and shooting still life subjects. It won’t get you as close a macro lens, just close enough to isolate your subject matter against a very soft background.
Back up a little bit and you’ll show more of the environment. Not too much, just enough to help flesh out the story of your subject. I love shooting landscapes with my little 35 lens, because it allows me to narrow down the world and create a nice, concise and focused scene.
Normal lenses do have one big limitation, they’re not always the best choice at medium and longer distances. They simply can’t bring distant subject in very close. Also, since depth of field begins to widen out, you end up with what I call the classic “postcard look,” where the subject matter is all presented in the same, flat perspective.
For this reason, when shooting subjects that are far away, normal lenses tend to produce rather amateur looking imagery. This makes them tricky to use for shooting adventure, sports and events, because further than about 20-30 feet, you can’t isolate your subjects from the background anymore. Everything ends up being in focus.
However, if you’re able to move in relatively close, you start to get those shallow depth of field benefits back. And you can always shot how they relate inside the bigger world. This is how I use them for landscapes and adventure; as I said, I try to create a nice focused scene that tells an abbreviated story of the greater environment.
The ease of shooting with a lens like this is that it shows the world in a very familiar view. It sees the scene as your own eyes see it, without distracting you with all that stuff in the peripheral areas of your vision. Your approach with normal lenses is pretty much “look, see and shoot.”
In today’s photography world, fixed lenses are often cast aside in favor of zoom lenses, which obviously allow you to change your focal length and adjust your framing without moving your feet.
However, I like moving my feet. I also love the simplicity of having one look with prime lenses like the Fujifilm XF35mm f/2, and I believe that it forces you to work your creative muscles a bit more. By removing any possibilities for changing focal length, your compositional and framing skills get a better workout, and you limit the number of choices you have to make when you’re shooting.
In addition, I feel that if you use a fixed lens on a regular basis, you’ll really get to know how it sees the world. This can dramatically increase your confidence and efficiency with composition. In the end, there’s something really cool about having a tried and true piece of photography gear that you know so well.
The Fuji system in general perfectly matches my fundamental “fast and light” approach to photography, and the little 35 f/2 fits right into the kit. For a guy who often depends so much on wide angles and zooms, I’m sometimes a little surprised at how much I love this little normal prime, but I guess that’s how love works.
Even if you don’t shoot Fuji, I encourage you to embrace the challenge of using normal lenses and explore the creative benefits they can offer you.