What’s ‘normal’ anyway?

So what constitutes a normal lens anyway? Many people will tell you that normal means 50mm or so, at least on a full frame camera. But that image at the top of the page? That was shot on 35mm film using a 58mm lens – significantly longer than most people think of as normal.

Featured image: Ships, Aberdeen harbour, circa 1983. Fuji Super HR 100, Zenit E, Helios 44 58mm.

I used that 58mm lens for over 10 years. And when I say I used it, I mean I used it exclusively. I only had one camera. I only had one lens. 58mm was normal. I used that lens to shoot friends and family. I used that lens to shoot holidays. I used that lens to shoot long-running photographic projects. If the field of view was too narrow for a normal lens. I certainly never noticed.

Of course, in time my Zenit was replaced with a Canon EOS 3000. A basic camera by the standards of the day, but a big step up for me – and of course the lens that came with it was a zoom. Only then did I realise how restricting the 58mm lens had been.

Fast forward to today, and I’ve found myself exploring prime lenses again. So once more, I’ve been asking myself exactly what is meant by a normal lens.

44mm
Olympus OMD-EM10 Mark 2, Panasonic 12-60mm f3.5 to 5.6, set to 22mm. The full frame equivalent is 44mm.

That image was shot at a full frame equivalent of 44mm. That’s the wide end of normal. It’s a great field of view, which allows me to set the railway carriage in the context of its surroundings.

50mm
Minolta X370, shot on Lomography 400 with a Minolta 50mm f1.7.

And here’s an image that was shot at 50mm – the classic definition of a normal lens. I think this is my favourite focal length for this image. It feels significantly closer than the 44mm, and yet the carriage still has space to breathe.

60mm

Olympus OMD-EM10 Mark 2, Sigma 30mm f2.8. The full frame equivalent is 60mm.

And here’s an image shot at a full frame equivalent of 60mm. Give or take a mm or two, that’s exactly the focal length I was shooting all those years ago on the Zenit. I think it’s the weakest of these three images. I had to stand further back than when I took the other images, and I was perched awkwardly behind two trees, trying desperately not to get them in shot. The result is a claustrophobic image, with the railway carriage filling the frame.

For all that, I’m quite taken with the idea of shooting at this focal length. I’ve only used it a couple of times so far, but it feels ‘normal’ to me. Maybe all those years of using the Helios 58mm have never really left me. It feels like home.

What focal length feels normal to you? Let me know in the comments.

5 thoughts on “What’s ‘normal’ anyway?

  1. Good question. I shot 50s on my SLRs for a long time and felt fine about it until someone gifted me a 35. After that 50 felt far too confining, and now 35 feels normal to me.

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    1. I’ve thought of 35 as normal for a long time now, but a photowalk late last year made me reassess that view. So I’ve been shooting mostly 50s for the last month, and I’m surprised by how much difference it’s made to my “hit rate”. Time will tell whether this is a permanent change.

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  2. I had an old Zenit E with that lens as well – it was a great little camera!
    It’s an interesting post.I used to love 50/58mms primes and still use them to a degree, but now if I had to choose just one lens to own on full frame it’s have to 28mm – I love going wide.

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  3. I’m trying to love 50-60mm again. It’s strange – I find my photography is both harder work, and more rewarding, at that focal range. But 35mm has been my comfort zone for a long time. I’m going away to Perthshire next week, and I’ve already decided that the only lens I’m taking is my wide zoom (9-18mm on micro four thirds, so 18-36mm full frame equivalent).

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    1. That’ll be a nice range – certainly in a place like that. I hope you enjoy your trip. I’ve shot very little telephoto over the years, I keep thinking I should try but I tend to like to put the subject into context of where they are.

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