Focal length feud: 28mm vs 35mm for telling a story

Feb 22, 2021

David Babaian and Simon King

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Focal length feud: 28mm vs 35mm for telling a story

Feb 22, 2021

David Babaian and Simon King

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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From April to August 2020, our small co-operative of photographers decided to apply our documentary photography skills to tell a story about what seemed to be coming together as one of the most unique summers in recent memory. We started out with the intention of documenting an account of life under the shadow of an emerging pandemic, along with the adjustments required to prevent its spread. We looked at the consequences of lockdown, social isolation, supply shortages, and a permeating sense of unease towards the status quo.

Our story began slow, considering we were constrained to the situations in our immediate vicinity, but quickly escalated once restrictions began to ease. These easements coincided with displays of civil unrest from many discontented and marginalised voices, which also offered insight into some of the scars the pandemic was causing — the changes necessary to form large gatherings, under constant threat from authority, but also the spread of disease.

Our collective effort to document the summer as holistically as possible came to a close on August 31st, and after a lengthy curation phase we are ready to present the finished body of work in the form of a zine, titled BARDO: Summer of ’20.

David Babaian – Zeiss 28mm Biogon – Civil Unrest Kodak Tri-X 400

An interesting aspect of the curation phase involved examining the ways that work from different artists, made with different gear, and through different methods, could correspond in harmony with one another. It is essential for a photo-book to flow from one image to the next, one page to the next, in a way that feels natural to the reader. While one artist working independently may control every spread working as a co-operative collective means compromise for the sake of the final product.

The project contains images made on focal lengths ranging from 24mm to 300mm, but interestingly we faced more of a challenge in pairing images made at very similar lengths, rather than ones at opposite ends of the spectrum. We thought it would be worthwhile to share some of our thoughts on the use of lenses that are so similar that you may expect any difference to be marginal at best – and yet our experience and individually vehement preference of one option over the other would point towards there being more nuance than assumptions would allow.

David spent the summer shooting mostly with his Zeiss Biogon 28mm f/2.8 on his Leica M4-P, while I did my best to force more use from my 7artisans 35mm f/2 on my Leica M6. The distinction between these lenses on paper is a stop of light, and 7mm of length; seemingly a marginal difference, but in our workflow, and end result, our signatures are very apparent.

This article presents some of our photographs made during the summer, as well as a few from our other projects, and David and I make our case for the use of our preferred wide-angle length, explaining what works about it to fulfill our vision.

David Babaian: Carl Zeiss Biogon 28mm F/2.8 ZM

I like to be close.

David Babaian – Zeiss 28mm Biogon – Civil Unrest Kodak Tri-X 400

When it comes to finding any moment of real human connection, the only way to honestly and empathetically document it is by being a part of it: being literally within the scene.

Face to face, eye to eye.

I spent years using nothing but a 50mm lens, but felt that something was missing from my work. There was a sense of disconnection from my subjects that was often almost voyeuristic; I was trying to create a sort of intimacy but I was just always physically too far away from what was happening. I was the onlooker rather than somebody within, and this could be felt in the framing and perspective of the images. Although subtle, people really do pick up on these things when seeing a photograph, and it can make all the difference between an emotional response that lands and one which just feels off.

I first delved into the world of 28mm at the very start of 2020 when I tried a Zeiss Distagon ZF.2 lens on my Nikon F2. Unfortunately, whilst the lens is spectacular and a stop faster than Zeiss’ ZM (Leica M-mount) offering, it is also a great big lump of glass and metal, and when fixed to a bulky SLR the problem only gets worse. In order to achieve the level of intimacy I need with my subjects, I need to be close but crucially, unobtrusive. This SLR setup left a lot to be desired on this front. To put it into perspective, the hood on the front of this lens perfectly holds a beer can. It is anything but subtle.

After a very short amount of time I had fallen in love with the focal length, but out of love with the SLR setup (which incidentally, I had only moved to after burning a hole through my rangefinder’s shutter which caused me to shy away from delicate cloth in favour of the protection of a mirror). I took stock of all my equipment and decided to purge absolutely everything that I either didn’t use or didn’t need. A fair bit of eBaying later and I ended up with a Leica M4-P and the wonderful Zeiss Biogon 28mm f2.8. This was exactly what I had been looking for and it finally felt like I was using the correct tool for the job.

David Babaian – Zeiss 28mm Biogon – Civil Unrest Kodak Tri-X 400

I fully understand that 28mm on a rangefinder is simply not possible for many photographers who either wear glasses or have other sight issues – the framelines are basically everything that you see through a 0.72x finder so glasses may mean that you physically cannot see the edges.

Whilst this can be a challenge, I feel that it’s also sort of the point of 28mm: it’s a focal length that lends itself perfectly to an almost scrappy look, certainly less formal than 50 or 90mm. It isn’t a focal length that demands precision in the same sort of way as a 90mm scalpel for example. This isn’t to say that no thought or compositional care goes into using it — quite the opposite in fact.

However, the nature of being close makes for a more intimate feeling where the viewer is transported into that very slice in time. As such, I feel that traditional and precise compositional “rules” almost go out of the window; and can in fact end up making a photograph feel somewhat jarring or disconnected. The beauty of the 28mm focal length is that it takes your viewer directly into the centre of your scene. It puts them right in the midst of what’s happening, so making everything “perfect” can somewhat take away from the atmosphere and authenticity within the image itself.

David Babaian – Zeiss 28mm Biogon – Civil Unrest Kodak Tri-X 400

On June 6th 2020 I had my M4-P and 28mm to document a BLM protest outside Downing Street which, in the blink of an eye, turned from a completely peaceful demonstration into one of the most dangerous situations that I have attended. As the heavens opened, a flare was thrown over the Downing Street gates and the police retaliated with an extreme (and in my opinion disproportional) show of force, bringing mounted officers charging into a very dense crowd.

YouTube video

Unsurprisingly this ended in injury when one of the horses was sadly spooked, and bolted causing their rider to collide with a traffic light. The officer fell hard onto the ground and the horse carried on charging through the crowd. Chaos ensued.

David Babaian – Zeiss 28mm Biogon – Civil Unrest Kodak Tri-X 400

I was within touching distance as these events unfolded, but an issue with my M4-P’s rangefinder caused it to internally fog up from all the moisture in the air to the point that I couldn’t see through it at all. However, as the 28mm focal length is pretty close to my eye’s field of view (including periphery) I decided to continue and shoot blind. I was already pushing my film by a couple of stops (Kodak Tri-X 400 at EI1600), which allowed me to close down the aperture and pretty much zone/zen focus. I was happy that the images would have that scrappy feel to them but I still did my best to try and make out basic shapes through the finder so that I knew what information I was including within my frames.

David Babaian – Zeiss 28mm Biogon – Civil Unrest Kodak Tri-X 400

After I got home, I left the fogged up camera in a bag with some silica gel pouches, and after a few days the fogging had reduced enough that it meant I could continue to use this camera and lens setup throughout the rest of the summer at a number of protests and events. It has entirely changed my style and approach to photography.

Whilst I can appreciate the aesthetic of some new-wave street/documentary photography, I feel it lacks real depth: it always feels distant and whilst we may be able to transport our minds into the silhouette on an horizon or the figure walking through a patch of wonderful light, I often struggle to find anything more than a metaphor in these images.

David Babaian – Zeiss 28mm Biogon – Civil Unrest Kodak Tri-X 400

Conversely, the 28mm forces you as a viewer into the scene: you become a part of what’s happening, in the same way the photographer had to have been. You cannot look away. I personally feel that this transportation engages you in a far deeper way, and I would not compromise by using a lens in these situations that would cause me to be even a few more steps out of the scene. Seeing the expression on faces that are literally inches away from a lens; the tears, the anger, the joy. You cannot do anything other than connect with these on a very human level.

Simon King: 7artisans 35mm f/2

Over the last few years I’ve written quite a few articles on my thoughts on the 35mm focal length, and although my issues have remained more or less the same I have managed to figure out the applications for this lens that work best for me, which means it’s closer to being a tool than an experiment.

My confidence using a 35mm comes and goes depending on the situation I think I will find myself in, but the occasions it’s really delivered has been in crowded, energetic environments where I’m able to balance more than one thing happening in the frame at a time.

I prefer using longer lenses in most cases; anything >50mm gives me precision and a flatter frame to compose in two dimensions, which means a very horizontal or vertical use of space. The 35mm focal length gives me depth in the Z-axis, and demands interest throughout the planes of foreground, midground, and background — ideally interest that engages and complements the other aspects of the frame, rather than simply filling the space.

It’s entirely possible for me to work with a 35mm lens and capture flatter images the way I do with 50 and 90mm lenses, but I like the challenge of approaching a deeper scene. I’ve written a lot about my dislike of lenses wider than 50mm on a rangefinder – the chief offence being that I physically cannot see the framelines with my glasses, which makes framing a bit of a faith-based exercise. SLRs have their downside, but for wide-angle lenses, they really do allow you to see everything you’re capturing.

Simon King – 7Artisans 35mm f/2 – Street Documentary Photography

The 7Artisans 35mm f/2 lens on my Leica M6 is pushing it, so 28mm framelines are basically invisible and unusable to me. With 35mm, shooting quickly more often than not, I’ll have to assume that everything I see to the edges of my viewfinder is my frame — annoying when I prefer precision, and also influencing me to weight my compositions towards the centre of the frame, and leave the edges mostly free of important details.

I understand that 28mm has some really fantastic applications, and the heritage it represents in classic street and documentary photography is simply iconic. It really is a shame it’s closed off from my rangefinder workflow – but when I’ve used it previously on my Leica Q, or on SLRs, I think there is still something about it that doesn’t fit for me. I think part of my negative association with the lens comes from the fact that it’s so difficult for me to dissociate the length from its current most popular use: mobile photography.

As far as I’m aware, most phones use something close to the 28mm equivalent as their standard length. A few years ago I was framing another photographer’s work for a small exhibition, and while looking at the work something just clicked in my head. I knew the work had all been made with a 28mm Summicron, a few thousand pounds worth of glass, but I wasn’t seeing that tangible quality I am used to from Leica lenses – instead I couldn’t see the work as anything other than snapshots. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s still an intrusive factor in my ability to use such a lens. It’s not something I can ignore. If I see a 28mm shot, my first thought is: phone snapshot. Regardless of how good that image may actually be.

For documentary work indoors, or for environmental work where context is important to the story that’s being told, the 35mm is the best balance I’ve found to offer a precise, controlled, wide perspective. Where 90mm acts as my elegant scalpel, perfect for singling out exactly the balanced and clean frame I want, 35mm is rougher, but still refined enough to allow me to produce a carefully constructed composition.

Simon King – 7Artisans 35mm f/2 – Street Documentary Photography

Constant practice with the 35mm has allowed me to become more comfortable with a length I genuinely find difficult to use, and use well. I’ve worked my way towards classic applications, using the field of view and depth to construct a more three dimensional scene. Currently I’m using my 7artisans 35mm f/2 very often as a daily carry, but before that I had my XA in my shirt pocket for every day of 2019. I used it for colour snapshots, but it also guided me towards thinking in terms of wider applications. This really helped me feel out the space of the frame, and to be more playful with the way I worked with it – it felt a bit more disposable and less serious in a way.

Simon King – 7Artisans 35mm f/2 – Street Documentary Photography

In fast paced situations where I need to keep track of many moving elements I need to be a certain distance from what’s going on, which allows me to more easily use foreground elements in a way that actually incorporates them into the scene, rather than existing as distracting elements. The wider one shoots, the closer they need to be to achieve the desired framing – being further means more opportunities for distractions to enter the frame without you being aware and ready to incorporate them somehow.

Simon King – 7Artisans 35mm f/2 – Street Documentary Photography

With a 50mm, and especially a 90mm, a clear line of sight is essential so I can make my image without worrying about that sort of thing. 35mm allows me to step closer but not into the scene, and pull all the strings together with more chaotic happenings in a way that still makes sense.

My perception of the 28mm focal length is exemplified by some of David’s best work; that you really need to be inside the scene, and produce work that pulls the viewer in as well. With a 35mm I am able to get close and observe, but not be within inches of any foreground, I still have the space to piece my elements into the arrangement I want. I feel it gives me more control over my results, and that’s what matters to me.

Those are our perspectives, we hope you appreciate our respective thoughts. As a little bit of fun before we go, here are two images side by side, one by David, and one by Simon, on 28mm and 35mm respectively.

Guess which is which in the comments!

About the Authors

David Babaian is a British photographer and photojournalist with a background is in literature and creative writing. Since he studied for his degree at UKC; his passion for poetic narratives and the written word serve as a strong framework for the stories in his photos. You can find more of David’s work on his website and Instagram, and he’s also a member of the New Exit Group collective

Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. You can follow his work on Instagram and read more of his thoughts on photography on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which you can read about here.

This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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2 responses to “Focal length feud: 28mm vs 35mm for telling a story”

  1. Scott McDonald Avatar
    Scott McDonald

    My guess…the left is the Zeiss and the right is the 7artisans. The 35mm is also my own favorite. Although I have a 28mm, I find the 35mm in front of my camera a majority of the time. I’m smitten with my Summilux ASPH because it is so usable in just about any situation.

  2. Peter Blaise Avatar
    Peter Blaise

    Whatever lens/sensor angle of view/capture I have with me works just fine, I’m gonna crop later if appropriate anyway, and I may also change the aspect ratio of the presentation image.

    I’ve had wonderful photographic photo sessions with ANY focal length, with zoom-lock ( I notched my Tamron super zoom at 28mm, 50mm, 100mm, 200mm and 300mm to lock each focal length and use it as a single-focal length lens on demand for any photo session ), or a single focal length lens.

    I like a kit with a 50mm and a 24mm where the 24mm collects what can be considered a 2x50mm panorama.

    Same with my 40mm and 20mm combination.

    More importantly, capture wise, is that the other critical element is viewfinder magnification, where a 20mm or 24mm lens in my cameras results in the feeling of the camera disappearing, where I can keep both eyes open, and see the same scene with both eyes at once, no magnification difference, and make my image capture choices and decisions with both eyes open.

    So, capture wise, for me, it depends on the viewfinder magnification.

    Its’ easier to crop later than to stitch, so the wider the better, given a choice.

    The only way to really do this article would be in two same-same shooting sessions, one session with two lenses, and the other session only cropping the wider capture afterward, then compare the sessions – does the narrower angle lens during capture offer a significant difference in capture qualities by any measure?

    If not, then go wide, and crop in post if appropriate.

    Thanks for exploring this and sharing.