Favorite focal length: a reality check

In the early days, when my photography moved beyond capturing simple shots of my life as it happened, and I got a little deeper into the hobby, I thought I was a 50mm guy. If I had to pick one focal length, it would be the nifty fifty. Whenever I made any gear decision, I built out my setup around 50mm as the starting point. Human vision is supposed to be somewhere between 40mm and 50mm, and when first looking through the viewfinder with a fifty attached to the front, it feels familiar.

Classic 50mm scene [Leica M240, Leica Summicron 50mm F2]

Before we go on, I need to share that I was never a fan of zooms. I can certainly see their usefulness but I just never felt drawn to lugging around a 24-70 F2.8 lens. I told myself this was partially due to weight saving reasons, but truth be told, when you carry a few primes, it doesn't really matter that much. I just didn't like the feel of a zoom. It felt difficult to pick a focal length to shoot a scene with. With primes, it is much simpler. If you brought a 35mm and a 50mm, then those are your two choices. With a zoom, there is endless choice on how to frame a scene and I found that the sheer amount of possibilities that a zoom offers paralyzed my decision making.

A fifty provides room for context [Leica SL, Leica Noctilux 50mm F1]

Fast forward a few years later and I felt my fixation on the fifty was changing. I shot mostly with a Leica M at that time and I was introduced to the somewhat peculiar focal length of 75mm. I loved it from the start. A little more compressed than a fifty, but still enough room to play with. I paired it with a Leica Q, which provided for a great two camera, two lens setup. I have another confession to make, I hate swapping lenses when I am out shooting. Together with my lack of love for zoom lenses, this makes fitting out a workable setup that stays within a certain weight limit not easy. The Q and M with the 75mm worked very well though. And in that setup, I always felt that I was more drawn to the 75mm vs the Q. Later, when I would use different setups, I always believed the 75mm was the go to lens.


Great for people [Leica M240, Leica Summicron M 75mm]

I also used other primes, I dipped my toes in the wide end but always struggled to find my way with anything under 28mm. I am warming up to wider shots though and I will share more on that in a future post. I also often added a longer tele option to my setup, usually a 135mm lens. I really like the compressed view and the ability to isolate parts of a scene. Bringing that along did not really help with keeping the weight down though. One of the 135mm lenses I owned was the Sigma 1355mm F1.8. It delivers fantastic images but at 1130 grams it was not the most enjoyable walkaround lens. Especially with a Leica Q, and a Leica M with a 75mm lens also in the bag because of my repugnance of changing lenses.

Isolation in action [Nikon Df, Sigma 135mm F1.8]

Speaking of weight, I have been having more and more backpain in recent years. I am currently looking at my setup and looking for options where I can reduce weight. But without sacrificing on the things that I appreciate in a camera and lens. I started to put together a list of camera and lens combos that would work for me, and I ranked them on weight. But before I took that further, I thought it a good idea to count the keepers by focal length from a series of trips. Because I had this nagging feeling that my dedication to the 75mm focal length as the must have first option in any system, might no longer be true. I read the data from my Capture One Pro image database and I compiled the view below. It shows two tables, one with a 2 camera and 2 lenses setup I used on a number of trips. The second table has the view on a 2 camera and 3 lenses setup. What I saw surprised me.

My use of 75mm had not been as dominant as I expected. As a matter of fact, if any conclusion can be drawn from this table, it is that I shoot pretty much equal across the focal range of whatever I have with me on a trip. This really made me think and I am currently assessing my options. The data tells me I enjoy shooting at a wide variety of focal lengths. And when I see the hard numbers, it does confirm a feeling I've been ignoring for a while; I am no longer as dedicated to 75mm as I used to be. I guess it is part of the evolution of photographic preferences. Shooting on the wider or longer end of the focal range is definitely something I have had to learn, and something I have had to warm up to. But I do love it. I actually love it all. Wide angle, normal, tele, I appreciate the things these focal lengths give me. It seems I have some homework to do to figure out what setup works best for the kind of photographer I am today. I highly recommend looking at how your focal length preference might have changed.

Shining a bright light on the world [Leica Q]



Sharing insights on the art of photography - Erwin Hartenberg Photo