The New Normal

This is Nikon's 35mm f/1.8 lens mounted on one of my D80s. As you can see, it is compact, and I can attest that it is also very lightweight.
This is Nikon’s 35mm f/1.8 lens mounted on one of my D80s. As you can see, it is compact, and I can attest that it is also very lightweight.

During the heyday of 35mm photographic film, single lens reflex (SLR) camera bodies were very often sold with a “normal” lens on them, a 50mm. There were several reasons for this; the 50mm was small enough that it fit into most photographer’s hands easily, it was cheap to manufacture, it was lightweight, it usually sported a fast (meaning large) maximum aperture, and, most significantly, its angle of view on a 35mm film SLR approximated the perspective of human vision. When you looked though a 50mm lens mounted on a camera, you saw a bright, clear image that was akin to what your eye saw.

Abby made this wedding portrait in evening light. As you can see, even with the tree-filtered sun in the image, there is little flare or ghosting, and the image is perfectly sharp.
Abby made this wedding portrait in evening light. As you can see, even with the tree-filtered sun in the image, there is little flare or ghosting, and the image is perfectly sharp.

Enter the digital SLR camera. Unlike the ubiquitous 35mm film camera, digital cameras continue to be sold with several sizes of sensors, and as a result, the 50mm is a normal lens on some cameras, but a short telephoto on others. On some early digitals like the Kodak DCS315, a 50mm lens gave the field of view of a 130mm on a film camera. Most of the digital SLRs in the field today have sensors of the so-called APS-C size, which is about 24mm x 15mm, or approximately 1.5 times smaller than a 35mm film frame. As a result, the 50mm gives a field of view equivalent to about what a 75mm lens gave on a film SLR.

That left the photographic world with a gap. What was the new normal lens? As it turned out, advances in computer aided manufacturing allowed lens makers to build small, cheap zoom lenses to sell with their new digital SLRs. These became known as “kit lenses,” since they were sold with a DSLR as a kit. These zooms, typically 18-55mm focal length, filled in for the normal lens on the APS-C sized sensor, which, if you do the math, is about 33mm.

Shallow depth of field can isolate a subject very effectively, like with this pair of reading glasses in our living room.
Shallow depth of field can isolate a subject very effectively, like with this pair of reading glasses in our living room.

What is decidedly lacking in the kit zoom is a large maximum aperture. Why does this matter? Large maximum apertures give a nice, bright viewfinder images, allow us to shoot in low-light situations, and can give us shallow depth of field to isolate our subjects. To this end, last year before Abby’s family reunion, I bought her an AF-Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX, since I knew there would be many low-light situations coming up for which her superzoom would be too dark. It turns out that this is one of Nikon’s gems, and everything we shoot with it is solid gold. Abby misses the ability to zoom, but at a wedding we worked Saturday night, she did a great job of “zooming with her feet,” and she made many great images with the 35mm f/1.8.

As I started to pen this piece, I prowled around the house and the pasture for a few minutes to come up with a few new examples, and once again had no difficulty at all making some rather nice images. The examples I shot today were made at f/2 or f/2.8, since that is exactly the point of having such a lens.

Finally, the price is right. I think we paid $199. I highly recommend it.

I found this board with rusted screws in it down by one of the barns where Dorothy recently had a garage sale. This image is sharp, with that nice large-aperture selective-focus effect not possible with smaller-aperture zooms.
I found this board with rusted screws in it down by one of the barns where Dorothy recently had a garage sale. This image is sharp, with that nice large-aperture selective-focus effect not possible with smaller-aperture zooms.
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2 Comments

  1. I spent a while looking for a “new normal” for my crop-sensor camera, and ended up with a 28mm f/1.8. For my camera, that’s a 44mm equivalent — just a tad wider than the old normal. But 35mm (56mm equivalent) was a little too tight for me.

    I’m glad you’re happy with the 35mm.

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  2. I believe your Canon sensors are 1.6x smaller than a 35mm film frame, while Nikon’s “DX” sensor is 1.5x smaller, so 28mm on your camera isn’t far from 35mm on mine.

    Also, Michael (zig81.com) has a Sigma 28mm f/1.8 and I have used it; it is an excellent lens.

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