The reason is because such questions mainly come from beginner-enthusiast photographers who use APS-C sensor cameras. (Professional photographers with years of experience simply won’t need this guide.)
Note that since we’ll be talking about focal lengths, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Nikon fan, a Canoner, or holding gear of another brand.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
50mm Full Frame vs Crop
If you currently own an APS-C camera, then it likely has a 1.5 or 1.6 crop factor. In a nutshell, it describes the size difference between a 35mm full frame (film) and your DSLR’s sensor.
Have a quick look at the image below.
Basically when shooting with a APS-C (crop) camera, it captures less than a full-frame sensor camera. And because of the narrower view of angle, you get an impression that a longer focal length had been used (as if it was zoomed in on purpose).
I want you to remember about this when choosing the lenses because their focal lengths are set in accordance with full-frame 35mm sensors.
Now, let’s talk about 50mm lens on crop sensor vs full-frame. So…
50mm on full-frame sensor DSLRs
The nifty-fifty is considered to be a standard lens on full-frame (FX) cameras and you could use it in a variety of photography genres.
A lot of photographers use this prime because they like that it’s one of those that closely resemble the perspective of the human eye.
(Although, a 43mm corresponds more to the human eye but such lenses are rare.)
50mm on crop sensor
While the 50mm might be versatile for FX cameras, it’s not the case with APS-C sensor DSLRs.
Technically this glass will continue to display what you see, but the frame area itself will decrease in proportion to the size of the given sensor.
In the pic earlier, it seemed “zoomed in” solely because the cropped sensor captures less area than a full frame sensor.
Another example of a crop factor below:
As you can see, when shooting at the same focal length on a full-frame vs. APS-C sensor, the frame area is significantly different.
The viewing angle also changes on a crop sensor.
Therefore it would be incorrect to say that the 50mm on APS-C is same as 75mm (50mm x 1.6 crop factor) on a FX camera. Instead, it’s more accurate to say that the viewing angle of a nifty-fifty corresponds to 75mm on a crop.
If a nifty-fifty is pretty universal on a full-frame, then it becomes too narrow on a crop (in terms of photography uses/genres), so it’s likely you won’t be satisfied with it as much.
50mm on a crop = great portrait glass?
Here’s the thing:
Some people say that 50mm on a crop sensor camera is a portrait lens. It’s not exactly so.
As I mentioned earlier, only the viewing angle changes. However, this prime is not the best choice for shooting full face photos due to sufficient distortion.
(Remember that a nifty-fifty on an APS-C camera might be too wide and you’d have to get in tight and introduce more distortion.)
This being said…
If you own a APS-C (crop) sensor DSLR, it’s probably best that you do not get a 50mm prime. So, what to get then?!
So, what is the best portrait lens for crop sensor then? Well, it’s time to talk about the 85mm.
85mm on Crop Sensor (Prime For Portraits)
The 85mm perhaps is the most versatile focal length for portrait photography.
If you want to shoot awesome portraits, whether it’s a close up headshot or capturing more of the person, then I strongly encourage you to consider this prime lens.
However, it’s important to note that the 85mm is best to use outdoors or in large rooms/studios. Because if you were to use it in a small space, then it can be tight, should you need to pull back to take more of your subject.
Why the 85mm might be the best prime lens for portraits when shooting using an APS-C sensor camera body?
There’s a minimal distortion when shooting with 85mm lens on crop sensor. Therefore your portraits look as natural as possible.
Second reason has to do with the bokeh effect that (portrait) photographers love so much.
The thing is that the background blur is a lot nicer with a 85mm lens, compared to 50mm or 35mm prime. Therefore, your portrait photos look amazing.
Q: What is the 85mm on crop sensor equivalent?
A lot of people love the 85mm on FX bodies for portraits and may wonder, what is the equivalent focal length on an APS-C sensor body?
As we saw from the chart above, most crop sensor bodies have a 1.5 or 1.6 crop factor. So, anything between 50mm to 60mm would be close to get the equivalent of a 85mm lens on crop sensor body. (85mm/1.5 crop factor = 56.67 or 85mm/1.6 factor = 53.13)
But remember, just because we found an equivalent mathematically, it doesn’t mean that you’ll get the same image. The bokeh effect, the depth of field, and the general perspective will be slightly changed.
Prime Lens vs. Zoom: Which Is Better?
Are prime lenses better than zoom?
In this paragraph I’d like to talk a bit about zoom vs prime lenses, so you understand which one is better for your purposes.
As you may already know a prime lens is the one that has a constant focal length.
And this is something that scares some photographers off. They believe that because a prime has a constant focal length, then it’s less versatile than zoom ones.
Here’s the truth:
Fixed lenses compensate for the lack of zoom with exceptional optical properties and a wide aperture.
This means that the photos that you take with 35mm, 50mm or 85mm will be of excellent quality in a wide variety of shooting situations and lighting conditions.
Of course, many zoom lenses have a normal focal length, which is usually located in the center of their focal range. This allows you to shoot more or less the way the human eye sees.
However, this flexibility affects image quality and sharpness.
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Conclusion: 35mm vs. 50mm vs. 85mm
Here’s the typical photography journey of an average person.
We realize we have an interest in photography, we buy an entry-level DSLR with a standard 18-55mm kit lens (or standard zoom 18-105mm or 18-135mm kit lenses).
After experimenting with it, we soon realize that something is missing. What we’re looking for is that top-notch, QUALITY level images and we consider buying new glass, right?
After research and communicating with fellow photographers, we learn that perhaps we need to invest in prime lenses with fixed focal length.
But there are so many options out there, so what do we choose…
I hope that this article helped you understand the differences, how each prime works on APS-C cameras and what is the best prime for your (portrait) photography needs.
So, 35mm or 50mm or 85mm for crop sensor? To summarize:
If you have an APS-C sensor camera, I think there’s no point in taking a nifty-fifty. It will be neither a “normal” lens, nor a portrait lens. If you need glass for amazing portraits, strongly consider the 85mm prime. And if you need a “normal” fixed lens that closely resembles the perspective of a human eye, then consider the 30-35mm prime lenses.
Also keep in mind what kind of portraits you do.
A 35 mm on a crop is the most versatile (as is the 50mm on full-frame), but the 85mm would often be better for standard headshots.
Best Prime Lens for Crop Sensor: Your Thoughts?
I’d like to hear from YOU:
Are you in doubts between prime or zoom lenses?
Which is better for your portrait needs, 35mm or 85mm?
Do you now understand the difference between 35mm vs 50mm vs 85mm prime lenses on APS-C sensor cameras?
If you have any questions and/or suggestions, let us know in the comments below!
Founder & content creator at Digital World Beauty. My main objective here is to create a valuable resource for photography enthusiasts with honest tech reviews, course recommendations, and how-to tutorials.