I’ve always passed on 35mm prime lenses. On paper, they always seemed too close to what I could already capture with my phones or what’s duplicated in my 24-70mm professional zoom lenses. It turns out, I didn’t know what I was missing until I tried out the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens.
My own logic around 35mm lenses doesn’t hold water. I’ve purchased a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24mm f/1.8G ED lens specifically for astrophotography. I’ve even purchased the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G lens and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G lens. I’m still not sure why I purchased either but at least I was able to trade the 58mm for a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR.
But back to the 35mm focal length. The kind folks at Tamron USA loaned me what’s been dubbed one of the most “optically superior” lenses around, the new SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens. In the name of science, I forced myself to use a focal length I don’t usually park myself at, and in the process I discovered that yes, Virginia, there is a reason to own a fast 35mm prime, especially one that’s tack sharp all the way out to f/1.4.
f/1.4 Is the Original Night Sight
I can wax poetic about how great Google’s Night Sight computational imaging tech is in their Pixel phones but the truth is, Night Sight is still easily blown away when it comes to detail when paired with a large sensor camera (in this case, my Nikon D750). The large aperture lens means hand-holdable shutter speeds in most conditions, and cases where I could balance the camera on something, way more detail than the tiny sensor a phone could muster even with fancy software. Compared to my trusty Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens, the Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens is sharper across the board (as prime lenses tend to be over their zoom counterparts) but also lets in four times as much light.
Even in pitch black darkness, the wide aperture allows for a decent shutter speed, like the photo of the boat above at 5:40 in the morning, where I was able to get a 1/80 of a second at ISO 1250.
Shallow Depth of Field
Portrait mode is still somewhat of a gimmick on phones. There’s no substitute for good technique and a wide aperture lens when it comes to shallow depth of field, and the Tamron doesn’t disappoint. At f/1.4, images had a natural falloff that looked better than the f/2.8 I was used to on my zoom lens. In a tight space like the Home Depot above, it made it easy to pop the kids out of the rest of the store, and infinitely better than any computational imaging solution.
This works especially well for objects found against a busy background like the photo at the top of this post. The colorful Volkswagen Beetle was found sandwiched between cars in a repair shop. The Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens was able to pop it out of the surrounding area with ease.
Shutter Speeds Faster Than a Speeding Train
Even in broad daylight, fast moving subjects sometimes require extra-fast shutter speeds. To catch the train in the morning sunrise, I had to crank the ISO up to 800 and open the lens up to its widest aperture just to get a 1/800 shutter speed. With a little pre-focusing and a high-speed burst from the camera, I was able to freeze the train in motion against the wonderful lines of the tracks and bridges.
The Sweet Spot Between Too Wide and Not Wide Enough
Though I’ve purchased a 50mm lens for every system I’ve owned, the truth is, most of the time the purchases were made because the lenses were cheap. While the few times I’ve dusted off my Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G lens, the results have been good, the reality is that it’s not a practical day-to-day focal length. If it was, it would be the default on most phones. But the 35mm is another animal entirely. It’s just long enough to get good environmental portraits, but wide enough to take in landscapes without being the slightly-too-wide 29-ish mm of most smartphones. It just feels right on the camera.
If you’ve been writing off a 35mm lens as an unnecessary purchase, it might be time to take another look. The Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD lens is a solid choice for anyone looking for a 35mm lens to fill out their kit. It’s tack sharp and won’t break the bank compared to some of its competitors.