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The Focal Length Closest to the Human Eye: If You Had to Take Just One Lens…

September 29, 2012 — Published by

Which one single lens would you take to the proverbial island? Say you have to travel, want to go compact and have to make a decision. One lens. To cover your basic needs. Which one would it be? Which one fits your style best and poses the least possible compromise? In other words, if the human eye was a camera lens, what would it be? Which focal length offers the “most natural” vision and field of view?

anthony suau The Focal Length Closest to the Human Eye: If You Had to Take Just One Lens...

What focal length? You’ll learn further below. It’s the Picture of the Year by Anthony Suau that won him the World Press Award 2008. The photo shows a detective sweeping a house to make sure evicted residents have vacated their Cleveland home. Suau shoots one single focal length exclusively. My favorite. Which one?

What lens is considered to be closest to the human eye? That’s the lens I’d take to the famous island. Sure, it’s an impossible question.

50mm is definitely the equivalent to the human eye, says the camera salesman who is trying to sell you a camera with a 50mm lens. Look around. Yes, a 50mm lens could offer a similar view as the human eye. But so could a 24mm, a 70mm, a 200mm. Still, let’s give it a try.

To not get into the slippery territory of dogmatic equivalence, focal lengths in this article refer to 35mm film. So your Olympus 12mm F2 for Micro Four Thirds is a 24mm. The Canon 50mm F1.2L is what it says, a 50mm, but only when mounted on a “full-frame” 35mm sensor. On a Rebel/Kiss the 50mm becomes a longer 80mm.

This article is also not talking about zoom lenses — that would be boring — or which lens offers the best sharpness and smoothest bokeh. It’s strictly about individual characteristics of a given focal length. Let’s get started!

Fisheye up to ~15mm

olympus 7 14mm f4 The Focal Length Closest to the Human Eye: If You Had to Take Just One Lens...

Olympus 7-14mm F4 for Four Thirds, shot at 7mm (14mm in full-frame equivalence): distorted, but still looking OK.

A single lens for the island? Forget anything in the range of 15mm and wider. That’s highly specialized glass with substantial barrel distortion. Having a 180° view may be fun once a year. Wisely used a fisheye may achieve the exact effect you’re after, but you soon grow tired of distorted angles, people and faces. Nah, won’t make it to the island.

But then again, you wouldn’t consider the Carl Zeiss Distagon 15mm F2.8 super wide, a crown jewel in its class, to be a fisheye, would you… You get the optics you pay for. Another wide classic is the Olympus 7-14mm F4 for Four Thirds. That said, super and ultra wide lenses can be great for nature, landscape, architecture and interior shots. Street or even people photography? Difficult. So I’ll pass the widest focal lengths for the island.

~21mm

Still wide, very wide. Chances are you might see your own feet in the frame. But it’s getting interesting — but really only on a full-frame sensor. Great 21mm lenses would be the manually focusing Carl Zeiss and Leica. Also not too shabby: the Canon 20mm F2.8. Distortion’s well controlled and lens flare minor. Again, too specialized.

~24mm

Well that focal length is neither fish nor fowl, even though Canon’s and Nikon’s F2.8 standard zooms start at 24mm. Panasonic has the exact equivalent with its 12-35mm F2.8, whereas Olympus lenses seem to generally like a base focal length of 12mm a.k.a. 24mm. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Zuiko 12mm F2. A 24mm crown jewel is the Canon 24mm F1.4 L. Not less spectacular the Nikon 24mm F1.4. Such nice glass, but massively big and expensive. For my taste a 24mm lens is not wide and never long enough. Neither fish nor fowl. For the island? Nope.

~28mm

Home run? While the 28mm and more popular 35mm both seem to have a great sense of space, the 28mm loses less of the surroundings and seems more intimate than the 35mm. Great for portraits and people shots. Not your piece of glass if you absolutely want to see every wrinkle, but the 28mm focal length offers enough space to show a person in its surroundings without the subject/object appearing too distant.

Personally, but that’s my unimportant opinion, a 28mm lens offers the “most natural perspective” that reflects the way the human eye sees most naturally. Seeing through and composing with a 28mm lens is like seeing it with your own eyes. A 28mm lens on full-frame just seems natural, closest to real life.

Also consider this: The more popular 35mm is better for relatively static shots, the 28mm with its zone focusing better for fast moving situations with less control over subjects or anything.

Here’s award-winning street photographer Anthony Suau who exclusively shoots a 28mm on his Leica, saying the combo “doesn’t interfere” and is “an extension of my eye, part of my body, part of my being”:

The 28mm is more of a documentary focal length that draws the viewer into the scene and allows to experience what the photographer was experiencing at the time. It’s not as good in the sense of aesthetics for beautifying a picture with bokeh and shallow depth of field as the 50mm allows. The 50mm rather “paints” an image whereas the 28mm documents it.

Why not shoot a 28mm for some weeks or months. Over time, your knowledge of composition and reading light will improve just naturally. A 28mm lens can portray anything. It’s never too close and never too far away. Just go with it for a while. It will teach your eye to see. Shouldn’t it be wide enough there’s always stitching.

Last but not least, mounted on an APS-C sensor you’d get a 45mm, just the right mix between the 35mm and 50mm classics.

~35mm

Classic focal length. In the textbook either the 35mm or 50mm is a photographer’s most important single lens. Shooting exclusively with a 35mm will most likely improve anyone’s photography. This focal length can tell great stories. But is it wide enough? I call it a good compromise. If you’re not really the person to go up close but a 50mm is too long for you, then this is your lens. And if you want to tell a “wider” story there’s always stitching.

~50mm

That’s classic old school focal length. Leica calls it “the natural image angle.” Photography History teaches us that the 50mm prime lens was once the “staple” of the photography industry. The simple science behind the 50mm? It’s said to create natural looking images, especially when creating portraiture.

Often called the “standard” or “normal” lens, it’s said that it renders images that closely match the true perspective of the human eye. As noted at the outset, that’s debatable. It’s certainly easier to make an image shot with a 50mm look nicer than shot with a wider lens — for the simple reason that composition with a wider lens is more challenging. The longer the lenses, the easier to fire.

Overall, you can’t go wrong with a nice 50mm prime. Nice for expressive portraits. Fast aperture? Depth of field is awesome — but it’s more difficult to tell “a whole story.” Try, go wider. Sure Henri Cartier-Bresson shot with a 50mm lens. But he was shooting at a time when streets and cities were less crowded as nowadays. So to 35mm — or even the 28mm — today is what the 50mm once was.

~85mm

That’s classic portrait range. Great to make people look nice and to easily isolate them from the surroundings and background. Close-ups, however, get boring over time.

120mm and Above

Everything above 120mm is really for sports photographers, birders and wildlife shooters — or anyone too lazy to use one’s own feet as a zoom. Even though, using one’s feet is more like cropping. We’re talking different perspectives.

Conclusion

So which lens to take to the island?

The 28mm. Or 24mm. Period. Even though at 24mm distortion kicks in.

Or a 35mm, with occasional stitching. But I’d prefer cropping to stitching.

And as a rule of thumb, if you find a focal length that suits you most, always go for the best glass you can afford. Remember, glass lasts, digital cameras don’t.

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Posted by on September 29, 2012. Filed under Featured,Photog/Techniq. A word on our own regarding comments: Please practice mutual respect and nice grammar is never wrong. And why not support THEME. We love what we do and hope you enjoy our takes on photography. If you get new gear — or anything else for that matter —, please do so by clicking our AMAZON affiliate link — or shop via our trusted partners. Doesn't cost a cent more. Appreciate!
  • marco

    take the 50 mm 1.4 asph by leica, thats everything you need. not more not less

    • http://the.me/ DanTHEME

      I’ll give a fast 50mm another try. Feel it’s mainly for portraiture. For faces and expressions it’s a fantastic focal length, but it’s not embedding the surroundings. It’s not the great story teller a wider lens can be. The 50mm is just what everyone wants. They’re the must haves. I wonder why.

    • http://the.me/ DanTHEME

      Thinking of it Marco, if only one and one only, why not the 50mm APO me thinks…

  • Don Springer

    This is a real nice read. This points to the beauty of a camera like the Ricoh GRD4. You just spend a little time learning to see like the camera sees and then you never have to look at other lenses, just for your next image.

    • http://the.me/ DanTHEME

      Exactly Don. Am shooting the D600 right now, with the 24mm F1.4. What a pair, don’t even feel like mounting the 50mm 1.4. It’s all there has to be and all I ever want… well for the moment at least… And if one has to zoom in, crop. Worst case? Bicubic interpolation, the human eye can hardly tell the difference.

  • Bengt Nyman

    My answer depends on the camera.
    Obviously with a cropping, sub FF sensor the answer changes from that of FF. With an FF sensor my answer varies with the resolution of the camera. With the 36 MP Nikon D800E I am happy to shoot the excellent Nikon 24 f/1.4. I can crop to my hearts delight before anybody complains. Shooting with the Canon 5D Mark II or III I feel that I can crop down from 24 MP to 16 MP without loosing too much. I would prefer to shoot with a 28 mm lens to minimize cropping, except I haven’t found a 5 star automatic 28 mm prime for Canon. So I use the excellent Canon 24 f/1.4. I could also use the Canon 35 f/1.4 except DxO and I agree that it yields a lesser quality image than the 24. With the older 5D sporting 13.1 MP I felt almost forced to use the 35 f/1.4 in spite of its lesser quality, because after an occasional cleanup crop I did not want to drop much below 10 MP. Some say: “Why MP beyond sufficiency?” Because you can shoot wide with the best primes and crop if you have to. No more zooms for me. MP and primes make for an excellent and fast way to shoot. No tinkering with zoom to frame. No focus and re-frame, compromising focus on the main target. Stay center-focused on target and shoot. Off-center crop in post if absolutely necessary.

    • http://the.me/ DanTHEME

      Right down my alley Bengt. Despite bordering on distortion, the good fast 24s are stellar all-round performers. The Nikkor for instance produces an even nicer, creamier bokeh than the 50/1.4.

      But where are the fast 28s!

      Well there’s the Leica Summilux with that three-dimensional look and even weird bokeh. This lens alone could be a reason to sell one’s kidney to get a digital M.

      Cropping? Depending of the images intended use you’re fine with a few megapixels left. 7MP and not printing large? I wouldn’t worry.

      For voyeuristic assignments, such as a fashion show, I still have to rely on zooms. But that’s just sitting there and firing away. Boring. A zoom doesn’t engage, doesn’t make part of that look and frame I’m after.

    • Gorodish

      Bengt, I agree that high-resolution FF cameras open up a wealth of flexibility. I am considering purchasing the Sony A7R, and with that superb sensor I would mount a sharp 21-24mm prime, like one of the FE manual focus primes Zeiss is bringing out in Sept. With a high-quality 36 MP (no AA) sensor like Sony’s, I could easily crop to almost any focal length without losing too much as you say.

      • http://the.me/ DanTHEME

        Only “half” the Sony’s pixels, but did you ever consider the Nikon Df?

        • Gorodish

          Sorry Dan, the Nikon Df is not for me… too large and too much clutter with all the buttons and dials. Also I am now firmly in the mirrorless EVF camp. I prefer live-view where “what you see is what you get” in terms of exposure settings, depth of field and focusing accuracy.

          If I were to settle for 16 MP in a single camera, I would get the Leica T with its beautiful minimalist design, touch interface and superior lenses. I am very impressed with the preliminary IQ I’ve seen. Leica’s approach to user experience gets the camera out of the way and lets me concentrate totally on the art of photography.

      • Bengt Nyman

        The Nikon Df is a fine camera. However if you, like me, prefer to shoot with primes and crop when necessary, I agree that the Nikon D800E and the Sony A7R top the list. The only time I compromise on MP is to gain ISO without loosing too much IQ in the dark.

        • Gorodish

          If I were to compromise on MP, I’d go with the new A7S. In fact, I would consider two bodies: A7R for landscape work on tripod and the A7S with its low-light capabilities for handheld photojournalism, travel photography and video.

          • Bengt Nyman

            Agreed.
            I wish Sony would offer an A7M.
            A7M = A7S without a Bayer filter for “No Light” B&W.

  • Sam Kanga

    If it has to be one lens then 50… or if I could afford, it the tri-elmar 28-35-50, as I typically use 35 & 50 the most

  • S.Yu

    Perspective wise it should be the 85. As Erwin Puts put it, the focal length of the human eye is between 8mm (give or take a few mm) and 120mm(give or take a dozen or two mm, I don’t remember the exact number). Looking into the viewfinder with an 85 mounted gives you almost the exact same perspective as looking straight ahead at a similar viewing angle with the naked eye. The size of a subject directly in front of you and the size of some background at infinity behind it is in proportion with what you perceive with the naked eye. Any longer than 85, and everything seems compressed, the background seems larger in comparison to the subject when the subject maintains the same size in the photo, any shorter, and the background seems further away, space in front of the subject seems stretched. So I don’t understand how somebody could possibly replace a zoom with crop. The perspective is different, and you don’t get enough subject separation if the subject is somewhat far away.

    • curiosity

      interesting, never knew that before :)

  • Dillan

    I’d have to say that on a ‘full frame 35mm camera’ my choice would be a nice, sharp 50mm lens. A 50mm lens can be used for nearly anything: it’s not too wide for portraits and it’s not so long that it makes taking landscapes awkward. 50mm lenses are also generally compact and light too. Most are quite fast too, so they can be very helpful in low light situations. For a fixed focal length lens, that’s very useful.

  • http://www.majid.info/ Fazal Majid

    It’s the difference between one eye and both eyes. That said, it is pointless to compare the human eye, which works as an ultra-fast scanning camera (think a Horizon panoramic camera), to a fixed rectilinear lens. The retina is also very different from a sensor, having most of the resolution concentrated in the center (fovea), a mere 3MP’s equivalent. That does not mean the eye is equivalent to a 3MP sensor, due to the aforementioned saccades. Finally, the human vision processing system in the brain is able to narrow the field of view depending on the task at hand, e.g. when you are driving at high speeds on the freeway, your field of vision contracts significantly.

    Still, I prefer the 50mm-e FOV. 28mm is very difficult to compose for adequately with the right balance of foreground to background.

  • Gorodish

    I just found this two year old article and agree 100% with the author that 28mm offers the “most natural perspective”. I have very wide peripheral vision and always felt constrained by the 50mm focal length… too generic, claustrophobic and visually boring (to my eye), it does nothing well. I have only two lenses for my Leica: 28mm and 90mm. I have never missed the intermediate range at all. The 28 I consider my “normal” lens and I keep it on my camera for 80% of my shots. For portraits or when I want bokeh or to zero in on a closeup detail, I use my 90 Summicron. But otherwise the 28 allows me much more flexibility in composition and I prefer the deeper focus. If I had to rely on only one lens, it would be a 28 or maybe even a 24. Should I get another lens, it will be even wider, either a 18 or 21 prime.