The 35, 50, 70 Game

There's something to be said for history. 

Historically, photography had a long stretch where the go-to lenses were 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm (eventually that latter focal length pretty much became anything modestly telephoto out to 85mm or 90mm). One thing about these focal lengths is that they produced smallish and simple optical designs that are quite decent.

Historically, a lot of imagery has been made at the 35mm, 50mm, and short telephoto focal lengths. A lot. As such, that base of images forms a sort of collective "this is what images should look like," and establishes a norm that many are very comfortable shooting with. 

So, can you put together that kit today? 

This is the DSLR version of this article. The mirrorless version is on sansmirror.

I'm going to set the bar at f/1.8 to f/2.8. To play you need a 35mm f/1.8, f/2, f/2.4, or f/2.8, for example. Ditto for 50mm and 70mm, and I'll accept 70-85mm for the focal length on the long end. 

Nikon DX
Nikon DX users can't really play the game without cheating into older FX lenses. We only have one native DX lens that fits the bill—the 35mm f/1.8G DX (52mm equivalent)—so we have to sub in full frame lenses for the others. The 50mm f/1.8D or G (75mm equivalent) can give us the telephoto, but what happens for our wide angle? We need a 24mm, and the only lens we can really opt for there is the very old and not-as-good-on-DSLRs 24mm f/2.8. The 24mm f/1.8G is far too big to be the wide angle prime for the DX system, IMHO.

So:

  • Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D (US$399)
  • Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX (US$199)
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G (US$220)

That's US$818 to have a small kit of lenses that lets you party like it's 1959. Uh, shoot, not party. 

I haven't tended to do that because I think there are better options for non-full frame shooters. That old 24mm isn't the greatest of optics on DSLRs, though it was darned good with film SLRs. It's clear that you readers think there are better options, too, as many of you have sampled/leaked out to mirrorless cameras that produce a better trio than Nikon has. 

Shame on Nikon.

Nikon FX
So does Nikon FX do a better job? Sure it does, mostly because of the series of generally excellent f/1.8G lenses.

  • Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G (US$529)
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G (US$220)
  • Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G (US$479)

We're up to US$1228, but the bigger issue is these are not particularly small lenses. Oh, they're certainly smaller than the big zooms you're probably carrying. In terms of small primes, though, they're not as small as they could be. Nikon has opted for a broad outer protective barrel around optical designs that try to reflect Nikon's bokeh obsession with the transition from in focus to out of focus. The latter is a good thing for the most part, but the combination of factors just mentioned produces larger-than-expected simple primes.

Pricewise, Nikon is actually in good shape here, particularly considering how good optically these lenses are.

Canon EF-S
Canon's crop sensor DSLRs do a little better than Nikon.

  • Canon 24mm f/2.8 EF-S (US$149)
  • Canon 35mm f/2 (US$549) or Canon 35mm f/2.8 Macro EF-S (US$300)
  • Canon 50mm f/1.8 (US$125)

Once again we get an odd mix of lenses rather than a straight set of similar made-for-EF-S lenses. We're sticking in a full frame lens for the telephoto, the wide angle is a pancake, and in the middle we actually have three choices: full frame, macro with smaller aperture, or another full frame pancake that isn't quite as "normal" as we'd like (the 40mm f/2.8 really works out to about 64mm equivalent, which isn't normal and isn't telephoto).

The good news is that the least expensive route is US$574, which is less expensive than what we got with Nikon DX. The bad news is that the 1.6x crop distorts all the focal lengths into something not quite 35,50,70 (now 38mm, 56mm, and 80mm). 

Canon EF
Full frame Canon shooters, like the Nikon ones, actually get a nice full set of lenses:

  • Canon 35mm f/2 IS (US$550)
  • Canon 50mm f/1.8 (US$125)
  • Canon 85mm f/1.8 (US$349)

Again, Canon beats Nikon price (US$1024), plus you get image stabilization with the wide angle. As with Nikon, these are a bit awkwardly big in the autofocus era, though. 

text and images © 2019 Thom Hogan
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