35, 50, 90. Isn’t that all you need?

Some weeks ago, a friend of me went on a relaxed trip to France, visiting some small villages and cities. He took his Fuji X-T1 with him and some lenses. While he came back with beautiful images, he said he’d sometimes preferred his Leica M8 because that camera would be just “more fun”. A valid point, sure. I said why didn’t you just bring it there then as well. His reply: “Oh no, the M8 and another set of six lenses added to my Fuji setup, that would’ve been just too much.”

Rotterdam Market Hall. (A7R with 35mm.)
Rotterdam Market Hall. (A7R with 35mm.)

Sure. Six lenses? When travelling with a Leica? What on earth do you need six lenses for? Thinking of the Leica lens offerings, I recalled the classic Leica M2. Introduced in 1957, it was the second Leica M body after the mighty M3. The launch of the M2 fell in a decade that also saw another major development, as it was the 1950s where the rise of wide-angle photography started. Some very important wide-angle lens designs appeared on the market in that period. (Leica’s own first Summicron-M 35/2 arrived in 1958.)

And so the M2, released three years after the M3, brought an interesting novelty: Its viewfinder system was designed to include 35mm framelines (while the older M3’s  framelines were 50 + 90 + 135 mm).

Back then, Leica M viewfinders weren’t as cluttered as today, and every M body only offered three framelines for different focal lengths. Adding 35mm to the M2 – and in doing so, offering a slightly smaller viewfinder image overall – forced Leica to omit the M3’s 135mm framelines. So, if you bought an M2 and all lenses that the internal viewfinder supported, you’d have got a beautiful setup that included only three focal lengths:

35 + 50 + 90.

Here you see it in all its glory, a Leica M2 with a (modern-day) Voigtländer Color Skopar 35mm f/2.5 as well as Leitz Summitar 5cm f/2 (collapsible) and Elmar 9cm f/4 lenses. Yes it still were the days where lenses were marked in centimeters. (Many thanks to Donato Chirulli for providing the Leica M2 product shots. See his blog The Film Renaissance here!)

OK I have to admit, I don’t own a Leica nor do I really plan to buy one – I was just raised as a SLR photographer and macro and close-up photography is really, really important to me, something that rangefinder cameras never are good in. But the inherent beauty of that setup and the choice of these three focal lengths that the Leica engineers agreed upon back in 1957, strongly appeals to me.

Sony A7 II with 35, 5o, 90

The probably most compact and also one of the least expensive 35 + 50 + 90 setups for all Sony A7 cameras (with AF in every lens) is the one that you see in the pictures above. The Sony Zeiss FE 35/2.8 is a mightly little powerhouse. Everyone in the world including me would prefer it to be an f/2, but probably it was just that weird decision to sacrifice lens speed that made it so compact, affordable and still near-to-perfect in terms of optical quality.

The Sony FE 50/1.8 is, as far as I know, the cheapest lens in the whole FE system. It has very good optics but a somewhat sluggish auto focus – if you have M Leicas in mind, it’s still more than fast enough. :) In the USA, I’ve seen this lens on offer for as low as 155 USD (as of late 2016) so it’s kind of a no brainer. Really.

That leaves the 90mm – as we all know there is a myriad of lens adapters available for this camera system so what I ended up is the Contax G Zeiss 90/2.8 with Techart auto focus adapter. As of now, there’s only the Zeiss Batis FE 85/1.8 available if you want a native auto focus lens. A beautiful lens but quite expensive, and back when I shopped for my 9omm lens, the Batis wasn’t yet announced anyway.

So, there you have your 35 + 50 + 90 for the Sony A7 series. If you shop smart and/or used, the three shouldn’t be much more than 1.000 EUR (or 1.ooo USD) altogether. Including the Techart adapter for that Contax G lens. A very fair price overall.

A natural perspective

At the Dreifelder Weiher, Westerwald. (A7R with 35mm.)
At the Dreifelder Weiher, Westerwald. (A7R with 35mm.)

I really use these three all the time. It’s just because these focal lengths feel so right to me. So natural.

With a 35, a 50 and a 90, you can just do everything. While you call the 35mm a “wide”, the 50 a “standard” and the 90 a “short telephoto”, they all three deliver these natural fields of view: The 35mm never shouts “wide-angle” and the 90mm never shouts “super-telephoto”, being perfect for portraits but never giving an extremely compressed perspective.

Of course these three lenses don’t cover the insane super wide-angle as well as super telephoto ranges. I do like extrem focal lengths from time to time but to me, it’s not the essence of photography anyway. Also, I want to travel light. Enough reasons why I find that these three lenses capture the world in a way that is close to how I see it myself.

Don’t take so much stuff

Packing my bag for a photo day, I often even consider three lenses too much, preferring to concentrate on only two. Most of the time, I might bring only the 35/2.8 and the 90/2.8. If I know the 90/2.8 will be too tight for what I am looking to shoot, or not fast enough cause I’ll be shooting in the evening, I take the 35/2.8 and 50/1.8. The only pairing that is very unlikely for me is only to bring the 50/1.8 and 90/2.8. Any way, between these three lenses I never have the feeling that I miss something.

35mm

There’s not much to write about this classic focal length. Some people prefer the slightly wider 28mm – I also have a 28mm lens but I use that one mainly if I am going to use it in the evening: My 28mm is an f/2 while my 35mm is only f/2.8. (With AF, the Sony FE system currently only gives you the choice between that 35mm f/2.8 and a nice, but huge 35mm f/1.4.) Anyway: Especially when I really want to travel light – only the camera and one single lens – the 35mm is, overall, my preferred choice of them all. Always has been.

50mm

A 5 cm lens was what the first Leica from 1925 already was sold with. So this focal lengh looks back to almost a century of tradition! While a “normal” lens often is defined as having a focal length identical to the frame’s diagonal – which is 43mm for a standard 24x36mm frame – the 50mm is a little bit longer. Together with the fact that 5os often are very fast lenses (cause they’re so easy to design and build), it gives them already some character traits of a portrait lens. And if you do portraits or candids, the 50mm will make you move close enough to the person or action to get you really involved. For cityscape or landscape shots it often might be a bit to long already. But never say never. The pics above are a small series where I only used the 50mm walking through tight city streets in my neighborhood.

90mm

The 90mm is a classic portrait lens. (Even though I don’t show portrait shots here does not mean I don’t take them at all – it is only that they’re just private shots, so not shown in this blog.) It’s just a tad longer than the ubiquitous 85mm but I’d say they’re really just the same thing. Another portrait lens classic is 75mm and yes I find that one noticeably wider in framing! But I also find it easy to go back from 90 to 50mm if I really need some extra “wideness”. A reason why I find it so easy to cover all my subjects with only a few lenses is that I can always go back or forth a few steps – and if I can’t, I can try find just another perspective of the subject that suits the field of view of the used lens best. Anyway, I love my 90mm. This focal length makes me just calm down in a unique way.

Epilogue

My belief is: You can take your perfect shots with any focal length. I can’t stress that enough. :) So could I have done a blog post like this also about any other “classic” lens combo? 28+45+90? (The original Contax G lineup.) 50+90+135? (The Leica M3 lineup.) 31+43+77? (The Pentax FA Limited lineup.) I am sure. I do believe that having one lens shorter than 50mm is important, though. And the 35mm is a focal length that gives a very natural wide view which makes it so extremely versatile.

Anyway, the key is to get not too obsessive about the exact focal length you’re using. They are all going to work very well because you will easily adjust to any focal length, if you are willing to do so.

I also love these classic fixed lens combinations – no fancy super-wide-angle lenses or high-speed zooms – because 35s, 50s, 90s or the like are all easy to make in high quality while still being compact, easy to carry, unobtrusive to use and last but not least also very affordable.

Here’s a nice example for another small lens lineup that will give you any possibility, from Photokina 2016: The Zeiss Loxia lens lineup. These manual focus lenses for the Sony A7 system now come in four flavours. 21/2.8, 35/2, 50/2, 85/2.4. The 85/2.4 is the new addition for this year:

Zeiss Loxia 21+35+50+85.
Zeiss Loxia 21+35+50+85 as shown at Photokina 2016.

OK … you want to go wider than 35, sometimes?

Actually, 21mm would be a nice addition to 35+50+90 if you really want to go wide. See the Zeiss Loxia lineup above. I personally am not that much into wide-angle shots. But it does make sense. The classic wide companion to a 35mm lens is a 24mm lens, but a 21mm is just wider again without being too insane (like 16 or 18mm). If I were to bring such a wide-angle lens as well with me, I’d always leave one of the other three lenses at home. Don’t end up with four lenses in the bag when traveling places! 21+35+90, for example; or 21+35+50 if you are traveling tight old cities.

But I am not a wide-angle guy. And sometimes I just stitch or “brenzier” shots if I really need to go wide. (Or use my iPhone with panorama function.) That’s the nice thing with digital photography: You’re always super flexible!

Cheers,
Thomas

Many special thanks go to Donato Chirulli for providing me with the photos of the Leica M2 + lenses. See his blog The Film Renaissance – if you are into M Leicas, start with reading this blog post:
Leica M2 & Summitar 50mm f/2 – finally together!

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4 thoughts on “35, 50, 90. Isn’t that all you need?

Add yours

  1. Very nice post! And I deeply agree with your point of view.
    As you stated above, we can always get a good shot with every lens… so three are more than enough to get almost all we need. Expecially when travelling. I find useless and hard to waander around with huge bags full of tons of photo stuffs. Better just one lens… and focusing myself more on the subjects… and enjoy the trip, of course! ;-)

  2. With my 35mm I have had superb results turning the camera vertical and doing a quick panorama of 3-4 frames to get roughly the fov of a 21-24mm. Lightroom does a very good job of aligning and merging these into a seamless new raw file. It helps if you encounter a situation where 35mm just wont cover the scene. This was a prime example:
    Socrates sculpture park eaf16 installation in progress
    Williamsburg Bridge span looking North

  3. Your examples look splendid, yes! I also often use my 35 to “stitch” images. Especially with nature shots it works perfect. With citys and buildings, I sometimes have to edit the file afterwards with the “warp” feature in Photoshop to get some lines straightened out a bit. But overall, as you say, a good alternative for wide-angle shots. I also love the huge resolution of the stitched files. Thomas

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