An interesting quote about the 50mm (or equivalent) lens, from the great Magnum and National Geographic photographer, David Alan Harvey –
“…when i was shooting slow iso colour transparency film, i could not use the 50 in the same way that let’s say HCB used the 50 with b&w…simply a low iso thing…for anything w low iso the 50 is not the same tool as it is with higher iso’s with either Tri-X (400 iso) or with digi….of course one can use the 50 with low iso , but it then must be used wide open most of the time (at least in my case)…it then is not a great candid street lens (no depth of field)…but with high iso digi it becomes a street lens again, just as it was for the old b&w photographers..i like the more “compressed” look of the 50…in short, digi makes it so that i can use the 50 in a way i could not w colour film…for colour film, the 35 became my 50….now the 50 is my 50…”
The thread and context of this quote can be found at Mr. Harvey’s Burn Magazine site, for this photo essay –
A quick note: this article is discussing the 50mm lens in terms of its field of view in Full Frame, which is 46.8 degrees diagonal. For the Fuji X APS-C sensor size, the 50mm equivalent is the XF 35mm or Touit 32mm.
So for the purposes of this article, the full frame focal lengths (first figure) are the same as the Fuji X equivalent (second figure):
50mm FF = 32mm Zeiss Touit or 35mm Fuji X
35mm FF = 23mm Fuji X
28mm FF = 18mm Fuji X
As Mr. Harvey said in his quote above, the 50mm can be used on the street with higher speed, (mostly) B&W film back then. Tri-X at ISO 400 was very usable in daylight. Great street photographers of the 60’s to ‘80’s like Joel Meyerowitz and Gary Winogrand would often push the ISO up to 1000, to keep the shutter fast and the aperture small (although Meyerowitz generally preferred the 35mm and Winogrand, the 28mm).
When I started shooting as a kid, I also used high-speed, B&W film back then (in the ‘80’s). Again, the depth of field was usable outdoors, and the grain was attractive for city shooting.
After graduating college, one of my first jobs in the early ‘90’s was as photojournalist and documentary photographer, working in Asia. My first assignment was to shoot for UNICEF, and they wanted everything shot with colour slide film, mostly Ektachrome 64.
Prior to this, I had done a couple years of assisting, and had gotten to know the characteristics of Ektachrome sheet film, when setting up 4×5 and 8×10 view cameras for the photographer. While the 35mm size is less demanding on a technical level compared to view cameras when using slide film, I knew it was still going to be a challenge when using a film with an ISO of 64 rather than 400.
By the time of that job in Asia, I had acquired a 35mm Summicron for my Leica M system. While I brought both the 35mm and 50mm with me on assignment, this is when I started to gravitate towards the 35mm. At such low ISO, the 35mm wide angle simply had more apparent depth of field, when shooting at the same aperture. For candid, street and photojournalism work, it was more forgiving and the wider field of view also gave more context to the subject. During those days of colour slide film, I agree with what Mr. Harvey says: the 35mm became my 50mm, due to the challenges of its slow ISO.
Fast forward to the present: for the last few years, digital sensors in quality cameras have started delivering ever-cleaner, noise-free, files at high ISO.
When I acquired my first Fuji X camera at the beginning of 2014, I knew that it had very clean, noise-free RAW files up to 800 ISO. And even shooting up to 3200, it’s astonishingly good. For those of us, like myself, who grew up during the days of grainy high-speed film, today’s camera sensors are nothing short of miraculous.
With the clean, high ISO, the “50 is now my 50” again, as Mr. Harvey says. Shooting at smaller apertures and maintaining high shutter speeds makes it practical for street photography again. At 800 ISO, it’s even faster than non-pushed Tri-X. And if I need to raise the ISO higher, I’ll do so without hesitation.
In previous years, both for the early digital cameras as well as film cameras, I would’ve chosen the 35mm as my “normal” lens. Knowing about the Fuji X’s sensor, I choose to start my X system around the Fuji XF 35mm, which is their 50mm equivalent. And being an APS-C size rather than Full Frame, there’s a touch more apparent DOF at the same apertures for the 35mm Fuji lens, compared to a Full Frame 50mm lens.
Please keep in mind that a 50mm-e supplanting a 35mm-e or 28mm-e will only work for you if the narrow field of view works for you. If you tend to shoot a lot of indoor scenes, I usually find a 50mm-e is too long, as I can’t back up enough to include what I want. So in that sense, a 50mm-e wouldn’t be an option, no matter how much better DOF is with higher, cleaner, ISO’s.
While I find the 28mm-e (18mm on the Fuji X) is my default lens when shooting in dense crowds on the street, I always supplement it with the 50mm (35mm or 32mm-e for the Fuji). I have no shyness shooting very close with a 28mm-e when streets are packed and very busy.
But when streets are not so crowded, I feel uncomfortable shooting ultra close to people in public, which is what ‘s required with a 28mm-e, for compelling street photos. That’s where the 50mm-e shines, as it can fill the frame with its subject, at a more respectful distance.
All street photography is a difficult challenge for me, but shooting with a 50mm-e means there are fewer elements to deal with, when standing from the same spot as my 28mm-e. Sometimes, I love the chaos of competing elements with wide angles, but for some subjects, the more selective field of view provided by the 50mm-e is what’s called for.
The 50mm is also great for street portraits, especially when a subject is aware and participating in the making of the photograph. The longer focal length, over a 35mm-e and certainly over a 28mm-e, makes portraits a distortion-free (due to perspective and distance) event.
In my experience, I can close in on a person on a vertical shot, to include their entire face and upper body, without any distortion. For a horizontal shot, I can easily do head and shoulders, with a lot of space to one side, without any disturbing effects. Vertical images of the head pretty much filling the frame are best done with lenses longer than 75mm-e, however.
While the higher and cleaner ISO of today’s digital cameras can now provide excellent DOF with a 50mm-e, don’t forget you can go back the other way. When I want to isolate a subject through narrow depth of field, it’s much easier to do so with a 50mm-e wide open at f1.4 or f1.8, compared to a 35mm-e and definitely a 28mm-e at the same aperture.
Talking about the Fuji X system in particular, regarding 50mm-e in X mount lenses, we have the fantastic Fuji XF 35mm f1.4 and the equally great Zeiss Touit 32mm f1.8. They are both premium, high-speed optics at a reasonable price, compared to pro quality DSLR FF 50mm lenses, and especially when compared to Leica M 50mm prices. The Zeiss Touit 32mm price has dropped considerably since it’s initial release in 2013, making it almost as good a value as the beautiful Fuji XF 35mm.
There’s a slightly different look between the Fuji 35mm and the Zeiss 32mm. The Fuji 35mm is more neutral in colour and has a slightly longer tonal range. The Zeiss 32mm is perhaps a touch more vibrant in colour and marginally better in micro contrast. The Zeiss is slightly sharper wide open than the Fuji, but then the Fuji is sharper overall at the optimum, mid apertures of f5.6 or f8.
As I said, these differences are very slight, and I would suggest you get one or the other based on how you like the build quality and feel of the barrel, as well as price. Both are great, you can’t go wrong with either.
Coming up soon the Fuji X Lens Road map, we also have the compact, XF 35mm f2.0. From the rumours and illustrations of this lens, it looks like it will be about the size of the tiny 18mm f2.0. Those two lenses would make a fantastic, small and light combination for street photography in daylight conditions.
There is speculative talk about a really crazy Fuji XF: the 33mm f1.0!!! Have you ever owned a Leitz or Leica 50mm Noctilux f1.0? This would be the Fuji X equivalent of that wild lens. Depth of Field wide open would be razor thin. If anything, shooting on a Fuji mirrorless system, with the focusing based on what the sensor’s actually seeing, should be more accurate a mechanical rangefinder.
So if the field of view of a 50mm equivalent can work for your needs, give it a try. Depth of Field can be achieved with clean, high ISO on today’s digital cameras, and this lens can be used for street shooting in a similar manner, decades ago, when high ISO B&W film was the stock of choice.
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