The Dubious Origin and Uncertain Future of the “Standard” 50mm Lens

The Dubious Origin and Uncertain Future of the “Standard” 50mm Lens

2448 1506 James Tocchio

When Oskar Barnack needed a lens for the first Leica camera in 1923, he chose a 50mm. When Robert Capa shot the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach in 1944, he did so with a 50mm. When Canon sold twenty-trillion AE1s in the 1970s, they packaged them with their newest 50mm. And when DigitalRev’s Kai Man Wong told me to buy a prime lens in 2014, he told me to buy a 50mm.

So, I did. And I’m glad I did. But it’s time to move on. The 50mm lens is tired and boring. After all, it has been the “standard” lens for a hundred years, and a hundred years is a bit too long for a thing to go unchallenged.

And anyway, the “standard” title comes of dubious origin. According to most people who care to speak about this sort of thing, the 50mm lens is the standard lens because it is the photographic lens which most closely approximates human vision. Though if we ask anyone who makes this claim to kindly elaborate and elucidate, most can’t or won’t. 

The truth is, 50mm lenses do not accurately approximate what we humans see. They just don’t.

Ignoring the fact that our vision is binocular, and ignoring the fact that our retinas are concave and not flat like the plane of a film or image sensor, and ignoring the fact that we have foveal and peripheral vision, and that our overall field of view tends to be closer to 180º while a 50mm lens shoots a field of view of approximately 47º, ignoring all that…

Wait, I don’t recall where I was going with this.

Wait. Yes, I do!

Ignoring all of the physics and human anatomy stuff that I won’t claim to totally understand, we should’ve known by anecdotal evidence that the “50mm as human eye” crowd was wrong. They can’t even agree what’s standard amongst themselves.

For as long as the internet’s been around, every conversation around the 50mm standard lens eventually devolves into argument.

Someone somewhere tells someone else to buy a 50mm lens because it approximates human vision and some freak weirdo stumbles into the forum to claim that “AKSHUALLY” 35mm, not 50mm, is the standard focal length because that’s what the human eye really sees. And then they’re interrupted by the quirky freak weirdo screaming that the Konica 40mm is the standard lens because that’s what the human eye really sees. And then they’re interrupted by the rich freak weirdo screaming that the Leica 75mm is the standard lens because that’s what the human eye really sees. And then they’re interrupted by the—you get the idea.

The simple truth in the origin of the 50mm lens as “the standard” is that the 50mm lens was simply the most cost-effective lens for a camera company to package and sell with their cameras. Lenses of that focal length happened to also make images that looked good, and pretty normal, so we all called it the standard and dutifully proselytized that everyone should buy one and the camera companies sold a hell of a lot of nifty fifties.

Consequently, the actual reason that the 50mm lens has been “the standard” for almost a hundred years is because most pictures over that time were made with a 50mm lens, and we got used to it. Most of the shots we saw in magazines and family photo albums and slides and snapshots from holidays and everything else were made with a 50mm lens. The images, through their sheer ubiquity, made the lens that took them the standard.

And I think that that definition is much more useful and practical than some strange correlation between a camera lens and human vision. For me, the standard lens should always be defined as simply the most-used lens.

But something interesting has happened in the last decade or two.

The most popular cameras in the world aren’t made by Canon or Nikon or Kodak, and they don’t come with a 50mm lens, as they had between (basically) the 1930s until the late 1990s. The most ubiquitous camera in the world today comes attached to a phone with an half-eaten apple on it, and the focal length of the “standard” lens on this most-used camera has an equivalent full frame focal length of approximately 26mm. In terms of “real photographers” that’s perilously close to ultra-wide territory. Not even wide-angle. Ultra-wide!

So, without even trying, iPhone and smartphones at large have essentially shifted the “standard” focal length away from 50mm into the realm of the ultra-wide.

I, for one, love it. I love wide angle lenses. I think they’re more dynamic, and it takes more work to get a good picture. With a wide-angle lens we can’t rely on the crutch of subject isolation and bokeh. We have to concentrate on filling the frame with interesting things. We have to get close to our subject.

The result is that we have pictures which, in fact, don’t look like the everyday. The new normal lens makes images that contrarily don’t look like what we see with our human eyes. Which gets us closer to the whole point of photography, the very reason why we should even bother making pictures with a camera: that is, to show us something we can’t see every day.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
52 comments
  • I never understood this dogma anyways. When I started, I looked less for “what one has to have”, then, what I had. When a friend went to photo school, she told me, that the teacher said exactly what you wrote: The 50 mm is closest to the human eye – and I wondered and didn’t care much. I am just as easily annoyed by the faction that thinks 35 mm is the non plus ultra. Isn’t it, that one should take, what one likes the most (and can afford)? Sean Tucker made a video a couple of months ago, when he talks exactly about that: Try out different focal lengths, and find your own “standard”, means, the length you like and works best for you.

    Thank you for bringing another opinion to a discussion, which shouldn’t be one in the beginning.

    • I understand that we all have to start somewhere, and having a standard normal lens is very useful for new photographers. But yes, I think you’re touching upon the idea that we should learn quickly and then, just as quickly, do the opposite of what we’ve learned until we can find our own place. Your comment brought to mind this article on telephoto street photography (a realm which demands we use certain lenses with zealous fervor). https://casualphotophile.com/2020/04/22/the-colorful-telephoto-street-photography-of-ali-boombaye-featured-photophile-no-023/

    • Absolutely correct. Interesting that it’s the same Sean Tucker video I very recently saw (past couple days no less). On top of that Sean talks about, not only discovering your own best, most used and beneficial focal length but how he actual pistoned from one focal length (I believe he started with the 135mm or 85mm. Probably ideologically sceined by the wonderfully vibrant magazine portrait scene we have classically been exposed to, coupled with budget option, like so many of us when we start). All the way down through the 50mm to 35mm and in between, down to the 28mm and I think the 24mm he said, till he discovered where his creative engine revs best and that’s where he prefers to cruise to this day (and that it may change and even pivot back again by the way). Either way, he went all the way down and realised his “Standard” was his comfort zone of between 35mm and 50mm. It’s not even one specific with Sean. The 35mm may be his most used and favoured due to his own Artistic imagination/brain-to-eye view but he pivots between a favoured RANGE, so as to be consistently happy with his art/craft without being limited (by either himself or the influence of others). My two cents anyway. Cheers

  • A stimulating read, and always good to question the accepted ‘wisdom’. What the eye ‘sees’ is much more than the physics of transmission of light from object to retina, but rather more about the stages after, from retina to the brain, and how that information is processed thereafter within the cerebral cortex. And even that does not begin to take account of the effect of transference of that to a printed image.

    • As I was writing this article I did some reading on the “post processing” of images via the brain and cortex, and whoo boy, is that stuff above my pay grade. But interesting, for sure!

  • Let me add a quote from Yukio Uchida to this article: “People usually see the world at 28mm, and when they pay attention to something, it changes to 35mm, and when they gaze with awareness, it becomes 50mm. We don’t look at the world like the zoom lens, but we usually walk around city switching between those three focal lenghts. The charm of these three focal lenghts is that they give the feeling of being cut out of everyday life.” And when they gaze with awareness – I think that’s the bottom line. Point and shoot cameras, which were most often equipped with 35mm focal length lenses, were designed for a different kind of photography and a different kind of photographer than the more advanced SLR cameras. So it’s more about the purpose of use than anything else.

    • Interesting quote! The only modification I’d make is that, for me, when I focus on something I seem to be looking through a 105mm Macro! But that’s probably bordering on unhealthy fixation. Joking aside, great food for thought. Thank you for adding it to the comments.

  • Michael S. Goldfarb April 23, 2023 at 8:45 am

    Preach it, James!

    I have simply never cared for the 50mm angle of view, full stop. I haven’t mounted a 50 on my OM or Nikon bodies in decades, though I do own them. I’m always happier using a wide or long prime: they’re just way more interesting.

    I have a 35/2 for both systems that I call my “normal lens”. I also shoot about equally on both systems with a wider (24/2.8 OM, 28/3.5 Nikkor) and longer (100/2.8 OM, 105/2.5 Nikkor) lens. And I’ve got longer Nikkors I use less often. (But no zoom lenses. I prefer the discipline of shooting with primes.)

    Actually, on my Nikkormat and F2, my most-used lens is the tiny 45/2.8 GN Nikkor. Because it’s HALF the size/weight of any other non-AI lens – such a pleasure to carry! – its Tessar design produces razor-sharp images, and well… its 45mm angle of view is a touch wider than 50mm.

    • Your setup sounds perfect for me, as well! One of my favorite lenses ever is the Schneider 21mm, followed by the Leica R 28mm, and then I’m not super interested in anything until we get up to the 100mm threshold.

      That 45 GN Nikkor is a lens that I’ve wanted to test and write about for years. Even more so, now!

  • It doesn’t matter what the eye really “sees” or what a “standard” lens really is. It’s about your personal sense of aesthetics really. For me “26mm” has become so ubiquitous that it’s too common, too much like every other image out there. 50mm has a renewed aura. It is understated. “Trick” photographers depend on ultra wide angles, a too-sweet high contrast, and an unsubtle all-over sharpness.

  • Merlin Marquardt April 23, 2023 at 9:43 am

    Like the fifty. The retina is part of the brain.

  • Luckily, I’m head over heels for a Z 24-120 – so I don’t have to choose (when packing the bag at least, still have to choose in the moment!)

  • I agree that the nifty fifty isn’t the standard lens any longer. I usually have either a 85mm on my Nikon or a 28mm on my Pentax. Both work great, both make you think a bit extra about the type of shot you want to take, instead of just burning through frames.

    • Those two lenses are the one’s I use the most on my Canon A1. An 85 mm can be used for so much more than portraits. It has always been my go to lense. Glad to know I’m not alone.lol

  • I still have and sometimes use my first lens, bought new in the late 70s. A Canon FD 50mm f/1.8 which came bundled with its SLR. I gravitate to other focal lengths now but hold onto it for sentimental reasons.

  • canapedemondongo April 23, 2023 at 4:42 pm

    —”And then they’re interrupted by the quirky freak weirdo screaming that the Konica 40mm is the standard lens because that’s what the human eye really sees”
    —Pentax 43mm Ltd enters the room…

    • That lens really is a thing of beauty though!

    • I agree. I learned from the beginning (around 53 years ago) that the “normal” lens was a focal length equal to the diagonal measurement of the intended format. With 35mm the diagonal of it’s 24x36mm frame is 43.27mm, thus the true standard or normal focal length for the format. Thus, the Pentax lens is technically the closest to a true normal lens. Otherwise, the 50mm and 35mm lenses deviate about the same in either direction with both being around 7mm longer or wider than the normal.

  • Well…consider this: in the US, we are living through a period of unrest. If you carry a camera in public, you will, at some point, be challenged about your intentions. A 50mm places you at a safe distance from people while you still are able to make good street shots or candids. I just underwent spinal fusion surgery, and there is no way in hell I can outrun or get myself in a heated ‘conversation’ with someone who thinks I violated their ‘rights.’ Too unsafe. I’ll stick w/the 50.

  • Of late, I’ve been having a lot of fun with the Voigtländer 15mm 4.5 Heliar.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnandrewbennett/52832327500/in/dateposted-public/

  • Mark Santostefano April 24, 2023 at 12:50 pm

    My normal lens is a 28 mm… I used it the most. But the 50 mm is a great Portrait lens in certain circumstances. I wouldn’t be without it for shooting weddings, and other projects. That’ Focal length helps put a little context in the portrait. Plus, they are usually very sharp and very fast… Two qualities that can be helpful.

  • I understand that Oskar Barnack’s first camera was created as a ‘lightmeter’ for batches of movie film, the original shutter speeds of 1/20th and 1/40th corresponding to the shutter speeds on a Leitz 35mm cinema camera.

    Why Oskar made his camera double frame size, I don’t know, but that meant that he didn’t have a short lens capable of covering the full frame. He found that a 2inch cinema camera lens just covered the double frame. 2 inches is approximately 50mm and thats why the 50mm became standard.

    In the 50s when 35mm was in its peak of popularity over larger formats fixed lens cameras often used 42mm (or 40-15mm) lenses as they are just about the perfect length for 35mm cameras

  • Years after years I have discovered that 40 mm is the best for me.
    I like my 50mm too.

  • Cartier-Bresson said that he was using 50mm because it was the focal length used by Caravaggio. You can’t beat that.

  • Hi! I’m somewhat surprised that no one has pointed out what, at least when I learned the basics of photography, was generally part the standard definition of a normal lens. The standard or normal lens, somewhere between 40 and 60mm for 35mm cameras, not only approximates what the eye sees as a field of view, but also objects in the resulting photographs, whether they are anywhere between the foreground or the background, appear to be normal in size relative to each other. I think the second part of this is really what people have been referring to, rather than the field of view, when they talk about normal lens reflecting what the eye sees.

    • I agree. Historically I always liked the 35mm f/l as approximating my personal field of view but I prefer 50mm if I want the subject to have a more or less undistorted “normal” perspective.

    • Robert Spanjaard June 2, 2023 at 8:47 am

      Yes, I was searching the comments to see if I should add this. It’s not about the total field of view of the human eye. Because when you look at a picture, whether it’s printed or on a screen, that picture doesn’t occupy your full field of view either. The 50mm is a good average for picture size/viewing distance, and gives a natural perspective because the recorded angle of view matches the angle the print/screen occupies in your view.

  • It’s 43.2 mm anyway. The optimal ‘normal’ lens length. The diagonal of a 35mm film plane. Olympus did this (near enough) with their excellent 42mm rangefinders, the 35 SP and RC 35. I found when I started photography that I preferred this ‘neutral’ focal length – as I guess it was just more intuitive to pre-visualise, however, now I tend towards other focal lengths with more of a destinct look. 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, and less so, 50mm and 80mm. I rarely shoot 40mm or thereabouts these days, it just doesn’t seem wide enough.

  • Peter Bidel Schwambach April 26, 2023 at 9:17 am

    Interesting food for thought… I still have and use my nifty fifty quite a lot, mostly because it’s both compact and pretty fast, but I did realize after reading this that I’ve been using it less and less for the stuff that I really care about shooting, like trips and portraits. Still, I think the “50mm standard” isn’t without its merits for some of the reasons you listed in the article itself. It provides an accessible and easy to master starting point for new shooters coming into the hobby, a yardstick of sorts to measure up the images you make versus the images you want to make, and grow from there. Of course, it didn’t have to be a 50mm, but that’s what cameras came bundled with for decades, at least when discussing oldish film cameras

  • You’re totally right about the human vision bullshit! For years I was primarily shooting my 35mm Art and didn’t really care about anything else. But I’ve now come back to the 50mm and I’ve come to love it.

  • I think there always was a spot for a 50 or 55/58 mm during the days of film just for one reason: Speed!
    Shooting some 25 years ago in theaters, it was 1600 ISO (Push 2 on Tmax 400), so a 50/1.4 or 50/1.2 was preferred over any 2.8 zoom.

    Yes, in 2023 I can still shoot a 1.2 lens at 400-800 ISO ( Push’d Double X) in a car park, but now also at the same time a digital camera at 3200/6400 equivalent with 4 or 5.6 aperture value.

  • Victor Bezrukov, photographer April 28, 2023 at 3:21 pm

    Its how i moved – from my long time favorite Canon 50 1.8 on crop factor to 1.4 on FF. than to Sigma 35mm 1.4 for FF and after a few massive years photographing almost only with 35mm, i purchased the film Ricoh GR1s with 28mm and fell in love with this wide angle, so now use the Ricoh GRii with this amazing 28mm almost for everything that you can find in my blog posts.

  • My 1st SLR was bought in the 1980s (manual focus Canon T70 with a 50mm FD 1.8). Due to money constraints I used this combination for a year before I could add additional lenses. It had it’s limitations, especially during street photography: Occasionally I wished the 50mm could just be a little wider…However, I came to really appreciate and love the nifty 50. Today I use a multitude of lenses ranging from 17 to 600mm (primes and zooms) in full frame format. If I was to be dropped off on an island for a year with a choice of only one body and one lens, I would probably choose to have a 40mm with me. Wides and ultra wides are truly great as well but I still find myself regularly using one of three 50mm lenses, especially in B&W. B&W in itself does not represent reality – to me it has always been a step closer to an art form (even though you can create wonderful works of art in colour as well!). So many opportunities to change the image of the 50mm as being “standard” or “boring” to something special…. Regards philip jooste

  • I went to my local camera store in search of a 35mm prime. They had a cheap, plentiful selection of 50mm lenses, and zero (A-mount) 35mm lenses. Seems like everyone is ditching their 50mm primes for longer or shorter focal lengths. I ended up buying a 30mm prime but I’m considering getting a 50mm while they’re cheap and undesirable.

    • I think they’re less “cheap and undesirable” and simply more ubiquitous. Nearly all SLRs were sold with a 50mm f1.8 (or f2) kit lens, so literally every camera owner had one. You see them for everywhere (and cheap!) because they literally exist everywhere and there are more of them than any other focal length.

      But I think you’d be clever to buy one! 50mm is a great lens to have in the bag in certain situations.

  • 50s are cheap and plentiful because they are the easiest focal length to manufacture. And this is why they are also incredibly sharp and fast, even the cheap ones.

    If you can make interesting pictures on a 50, you’ve got some talent. Not everyone can do it. But I do think it’s a great lens for beginners for this reason. Makes them work for it without lazily falling back on dramatic distortion or super shallow depth of field… which is why most amateurs love super wide and super long.

    I personally love a 50. But I do prefer a 40.

  • This site always advocates shooting (with) what you love, and I just love my faster fifties. Both on digital and film and from various brands as well. The 100 and 120 mm are some other favourites, but the fifty mil is always the starting point.

  • Great write-up! Like a lot of things in this world, the 50mm became standard out of convenience and tradition.

    On your point about smartphones changing the standard to ultra-wide: I actually enjoy 50mm and longer lenses specifically because I find it a refreshing change from all of the smartphone photography and videography I see flooding my feeds everywhere.

    Which is not a dig at smartphones. More like I find the 50mm FOV and perspective as becoming counter-culture again 🙂

  • Nobody talked so far about realism … One thing is to photograph in “journalist/documentary” mode (e.g. shoot during your vacation to remember it later), another one is to express an “artistic vision” of the world surrounding us. Wider than 28mm hardly realizes the first option, but can be very effective for the second.
    Maybe phone photography pushes us to document an unrealistic vision of our experiences, sort of a “disconnected” from the real life memory

  • When i go out shooting (always a film SLR) i throw always a 50mm and a 28mm lens in the bag.
    With 50mm i have a concentrated view on the things. And it allows distance.
    With 28mm i have to go very closer to the things to see details. But therefore you get an exciting angle, especially in street photography or portrait photography.
    For landscapes 28mm is indispendable in any case.
    I don’t know any wide angle lens which could replace the 28mm.
    Sometimes i use the Hexanon 40mm on Konica Autoreflex T or T3, which is a multipurpose lens in some respects.
    But normally i love to exhaust the possibilities of the two famous and well known focal lengths 28/50mm.

  • Makes one wonder what Nikon’s thought process was when they standardised on a 1:1 viewfinder for a 50mm lens on their S2 rangefinder in the mid-50’s. Was it because 50mm was the most popular focal length at the time? Did they want to beat Leica sales numbers with a low cost (but profitable) alternative?

  • Matt “fotomatt” Lit June 2, 2023 at 10:49 am

    As a photojournalist I never owned a fiddy. 24, 105, 180, 300. If I couldn’t shoot it with one of these it couldn’t be shot. ;~) It was only after I started teaching photography in the mid 90s that I put a fiddy on my FM2n. I felt is was a way of forcing my vision…of being creative with just one view. By angle, distance to subject and aperture I could make it look 35mm or – my preferred – like a 75mm. I challenge my students this way, too…and suggest to them that as a prime lens companion to their slower variable aperture zooms, the fiddy represents an excellent low-light portrait lens.

    Thanks for the space…found my way here researching my beloved F4s. Glad to see a current and relevant camera/photo blog.

    linktr.ee/fotomatt

  • Having owned 17 through 300 mm lenses, a lot of my best pictures were made with a 50 or 35 mm. While your field of vision may be wider than a 50mm would show, a 50 mm view is about what you can look at at one moment and process. Your visual acuity falls off very rapidly at the edge of your visual field. Try reading print on a page 20-25 degrees off to one side of your line of vision while looking straight ahead..and no cheating. I think you will see what I mean. Wide angle lenses are fine if you want a wide view, but they give an unnatural appearance to most subjects, unless the image is later corrected for perspective and distortion..

  • Well, I thought that weird too about a focal length seeing as the human eye does. But I’ve tried many lenses and I always come back to my “favorite lens” which happens to be the 58mm 1.4 from Nikon. It’s because my favorite images were taken with that lens, and it has to do with the “character” of the lens. I’ve only ever kept a lens for that reason…the look that it makes. Thanks for another great article!

  • For years, a 50mm lens came with every new camera body. Period. I always assumed they were cost-effective for the manufacturer and useful (given we were shooting film and they were generally f/1.8). No one was arguing about the existential question of FOV vs. Human Anatomy (we didn’t have the internet then).They are still my first recommendation when someone is learning and wants to go beyond their pitifully-slow kit zoom, even if they can shoot at ISO 25,600 now. If you want to take pictures with a “real” camera that look just like all the other pictures taken with an iPhone, use a 28mm prime. But if you want to separate yourself from the pack, consider a fast 50mm!

  • I only see the 50mm as the ‘standard’ lens for 35mm and equivalents, because it is versatile, for a beginner, that lens can do a lot, and I feel like too many people dance around that with justifications of “it’s the most accurate to what our eyes see”, when it really comes down to being cheap and versatile, for beginners and experienced alike

  • “What the eye sees” is irrelevant. 90mm shows more of what the eye notices.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio