Without an H

Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell

A year (and a bit) at 35mm

hanoi colour x9

(Hanoi, 2014-5)

Since I came back to Hanoi in September 2013, I’ve been shooting only with a 35mm prime lens. I wanted to test myself by limiting my camera to one focal length, 35mm, for an indefinite period of time. I like to set myself challenges or projects occasionally, whether it’s sticking to one lens for a particular trip, shooting in black and white for a while, or photographing a specific neighbourhood. It helps me to think about things in a different way and to take pictures that I otherwise wouldn’t have taken.

Having spent four months mostly using my zoom lens while travelling down the Mekong in the summer of 2013, I felt like it was time to do something different by the time I came back to Hanoi. I’m proud of the pictures that I took on that trip, and some of my favourites are environmental portraits, wide angle pictures that show a person in context. These pictures were often taken at around the 35mm mark on my zoom, and it was largely these pictures that prompted me to invest in a 35mm prime.

The 35mm is perfect for these environmental portraits, where you see a person in their everyday surroundings, such as a market stall or cafe. I’ve taken a lot of this sort of picture over the last year or so, as I’m always inclined to take portraits, whatever lens I’m using. When searching for this kind of picture, I’m not just looking for an interesting face, but also for a complementary background, one that either says something about the subject’s life or one that simply has an interesting colour or texture. With a 35mm lens, the image can be about the place, not just the face.

hanoi b&w x9

(Hanoi, 2013-4)

There’s plenty of not-very-interesting discussion online about what exactly constitutes a standard or normal lens, and which focal length most closely matches what the human eye sees. I don’t want to join this debate, but I will say that, for me, a 35mm lens on a full-frame SLR gives a very natural field of view. It’s wide, but not too wide; you can get close to your subject, and still include plenty of background, without any of the distortion that is sometimes produced by wider lenses. It’s also a very versatile lens, good for photographing street scenes, details and patterns, as well as the portraits that I most like to take.

From a practical point of view, the 35mm – or any other physically small prime – is well-suited to city shooting. I love to take street portraits in Hanoi, and I always try to engage a little with the people I photograph; I like to get physically close to the person whose portrait I’m taking, without invading their personal space. While my standard zoom lens, a big, serious-looking 24-70mm, can be quite intimidating for the person at the other end, the 35mm is smaller and friendlier. This is especially useful in Hanoi, where people are often understandably wary of camera-wielding strangers.

bangkok x9

(Bangkok, February 2014)

I don’t often write about the technical or practical side of photography on here, as I prefer to show the pictures themselves, rather than dwell on the processes behind them. This site isn’t intended to be a “how to” site; the last thing the internet needs is another self-appointed photography expert. I’ve also deliberately avoided mentioning specific brands and models in this post, as it’s certainly not intended to be a product review; but for the benefit of those who are interested (and I know that I’m always interested in what cameras and lenses other people are using), these pictures were all taken with a Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM lens on a Canon 5D mk I.

Now it’s time to move on. Over the last week or so, I’ve started using my 85mm lens again, to take some tightly framed head and shoulders portraits (coming soon to the blog), and next month I’ll be taking my standard zoom with me when I go away for the Tet holiday. I stuck with my self-imposed 35mm challenge for a lot longer than I expected, and it’s been a rewarding experience, but now it’s time for a change.

64 Responses to “A year (and a bit) at 35mm”

  1. ms. diplomacy

    Wonderful photos! Congratulations to this project. I guess it was quite tough to stick to the 35mm in some situations…

  2. Jo

    I have been reading about prime lenses trying to figure out which one is good for me. I think 35mm would be the closest. I am aiming for somewhere around 20-25mm if there is such a thing!

    I once chatted with a random lady and our conver was going great but as soon as I asked to take a picture of her she got up and left.. Hah

  3. Carissa

    I recently invested in a 35mm prime as well. I love it. Thanks for giving us all a little insight into your thought processes. As always, your work is wonderful.

  4. geoch1

    Very good photos! And the boundaries you set (35 mm, black & white…) are very interesting!

    • Carol Dunnigan

      My next lens is going to be the 100mm and then either the 35mm or 85mm. I tried to cover all my basic bases first and just purchased the 70-200mm f/2.8L lens already having the 24-70mm.

  5. dbranco84

    Amazing pictures. Do you have 500px account? Also I been thinking about getting a X100T, same focal length, for street photography and seeing your pictures just makes me wanna buy it as soon as possible.

  6. bodgoing

    I just recently got into photography. I don’t know too much yet, but I can easily appreciate how beautiful and how much thought you put into your work. Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. Admin

    Great article and images, I tried this myself using the 50mm prime, by doing this i found it made me a much better photography as being stuck with a prime lens it made me focus alot more on the actual image and composition rather than using a zoom lens.

  8. Nest Nearly Empty

    A wonderful catalogue of images you proud of. They hang together well and have really thoughtful compositions. Love them and thank you for sharing.

  9. keebslac1234

    Love your eye, and I loved reading your comments. As a photographer myself for a small weekly newspaper, it’s good to see and read about other photographers’ experiences. Individual persons are an endless fascination.

  10. travelnatural

    Beautiful images, I love environmental portraits. That lens is perfect!

  11. Rina Macasaet

    beautiful photos! I am visiting Hanoi this coming March. Looking at your photos makes me excited!

  12. Jessica


    Thank you for sharing your amazing photographs! I was wondering if this WordPress blog that you use is the free version or if you paid.

    I’m looking at the different options for low cost or free ways of putting photographs online preferably with a domain name for Australia.

    If you have any other suggestions and are willing to share some ideas regarding this feel free to let me know.

    Thank you

  13. DitchTheBun

    I really like the energy and life in these photos. The street photo with the hanging lanterns is my favourite!

  14. nivs24

    A great way to learn. It shows even with limitations, we can bring out the best in a given situation. Thanks for sharing.

  15. saigon1968

    Nothing complicated about your info…..are you just starting or been at this for a while? Good capture of your subjects

  16. macky

    These are really nice shots! I’ve been meaning to get myself a 35mm but I’m not sure if I can limit myself to one focal length. I’ve been using a 50mm one and I feel so limited. But I guess it’s part of the learning process, and honing one’s photography skills.

  17. bluebrightly

    It’s interesting to hear about your choice to shoot only with the 35mm lens for a period of time. I recently got a really nice 20mm lens and am enjoying the brightness and detail – I’m new at switching lenses, so it’s a good opportunity to think and see differently. Glad you were Freshly Pressed – not enough photographers are!

  18. dawnjbenko

    Really beautiful work. When I’m in a photographic rut, I will do the same thing. I’ll either use a particular lens or shoot just B&W. .

  19. Jal

    Very inspiring! I recently decided to shoot a wedding in 35 mm, mainly to avoid the hassle of changing lens and focus on only the moments. Must say, I loved the results. 🙂 Congrats of being Freshly Pressed!

  20. uwerichtersfotoblog

    Thank you for the words and the great pictures. Such a challenge is a good recommendation to all photographers.
    After I limited myself to one lens, I decided to sell my big, heavy DSLR and bought a mirrorless camera with one lens. 35mm on APSC … So 50mm at full frame.
    Now I love the leight weight and I take other (perhaps better) pictures in People and Street Photography.
    Nice to see, that other photographers make the same experience.

  21. Kelsi | Savour the Sweet

    I love your images, and I think that you chose a very difficult but agreeably a rewarding challenge! I have a Canon 50mm F/1.8 and have been interested in a 50mm for awhile! My purpose is for food photography, but I also enjoy portrait photography! Thank you for your input!!

  22. Mun Sun

    Very beautiful and gritty pictures, it gives the city a soul.

  23. Claudiu C.

    I love many of your shots. This is something that I plan to do myself, to limit myself to one focal length for a period of time, so that I can challenge myself to shoot better.

  24. mona01fm

    I love your photos, and I feel like every photo has a story.

  25. Barry

    Great photos and an inspiring project. I picked up a 35mm 1.8 for my APS-C Nikon to take on a similar project. Thanks for sharing, I’m all the more excitied about my own project now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: