Don’t Just Shoot 50mm Because Henri Cartier-Bresson Did So

It is no coincidence that Henri Cartier-Bresson preferred a 50mm lens on his Leica 35mm rangefinder camera. His special ability was to use a 50mm lens but allow the photo to “breathe” almost as if shot with a 35mm. HCB just seemed to know how to frame so that it looks wider than it should.

A lot has been written ever since why HCB mostly used a 50mm lens. Well, it produces a true 50mm field of view, delivering an image similar to a scene as seen by the human eye and with minimum distortion.

Henri Cartier-Bresson using a 50mm F1.2 Noctilux when he shot the riots in Paris in 1968.
Henri Cartier-Bresson using a 50mm F1.2 Noctilux when he shot the riots in Paris in 1968.
Remember that Henri Cartier-Bresson started and ended his life as a painter. The 50mm lens is the widest lens that allows you to take pictures that look like paintings without distortion.

Yet, for many photographers who appreciate the quality of a standard prime lens have abandoned the 50mm (on a full-frame sensor) and prefer the wider 35mm for their everyday standard shots. Some even say the Leica is designed for 35mm.

A 35mm focal length lens will provide a wider field of view and the scene is further back from the lens. Personally, I’m a 28mm guy. Good glass shows no distortion at 28mm and the wideness of the frame enables to capture and tell a “wider” story than a 50mm that shows about half the 28mm’s field of view. HCB shot many known examples with other focal lengths, but always gravitated towards the 50mm focal length.

HCB is HCB not because of his preference for 50mm, but because of his eye and skill as a photographer. Don’t just shoot 50mm because he did. Not everyone visualizes the world in the same way. You’d be forcing it. Winogrand shot with 28mm and sometimes 35mm. Find the focal length that speaks to you. And BTW, how was HCB shooting his 50mm? He didn’t have his camera hanging round his neck most of the time. It is hidden, in his right hand, until he sees the shot. If you go round with a camera people don’t see they will behave different.

Although Henri Cartier-Bresson shot with several different lenses, he mostly used a 50mm. By being faithful to that lens for decades, the camera truly became “an extension of his eye."
Although Henri Cartier-Bresson shot with several different lenses, he mostly used a 50mm. By being faithful to that lens for decades, the camera truly became “an extension of his eye.” | Henri Cartier-Bresson

So, a 50mm is not in everyone’s hand the same 50mm. For HCB, the 50mm was simple, discreet and easy to carry, giving him everything he wanted and needed. HCB never made any bones about the fact that the intricacies of photography equipment just didn’t much interest him. It’s all about a camera and lens that he could operate blindly.

In his own words, from a recently discovered interview:

I am completely and have always been uninterested in the photographic process. I like the smallest camera possible, not those huge reflex cameras with all sorts of gadgets. When I am working, I have an M3 because it’s quicker when I’m concentrating (…) If you have little equipment, people don’t notice you. You don’t come like a show-off. It seems like an embarrassment, someone who comes with big equipment.

And why the 50mm lens?

It corresponds to a certain vision and at the same time has enough depth of focus, a thing you don’t have in longer lenses. I worked with a 90. It cuts much of the foreground if you take a landscape, but if people are running at you, there is no depth of focus. The 35 is splendid when needed, but extremely difficult to use if you want precision in composition. There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place. It is a beautiful lens at times when needed by what you see. But very often it is used by people who want to shout. Because you have a distortion, you have somebody in the foreground and it gives an effect. But I don’t like effects. There is something aggressive, and I don’t like that. Because when you shout, it is usually because you are short of arguments.

HCB doesn’t fancy gimmicks. No effects, no distortion, just plain natural rendition.

Same goes for distracting electronics. Why would he need a photometer:

And photo electric cells in a camera — I don’t see why it is done. It is a laziness. During the day, I don’t need a light meter. It is only when light changes very quickly at dusk or when I’m in another country, in the desert or in the snow. But I guess first, and then I check. It is good training.

So, to 50mm or not? HCB’s photography is all about unobtrusiveness. The 50mm matched his style and what he wanted. No one operates the 50mm like he did. And no one operates a 50mm like you do. It’s all up to the photographer what a 50mm is. There is no bad 50mm lens. There are just bad photographers.

Good photography has nothing to do with brand or focal length or price. Train yourself to be a better photographer. Stick to one lens. Get to know your lens. You’ll find your own “50mm.” Mine’s the 28.

  • Rich Owen

    I had never seen that comment about a 35mm lens from HCB before. I have to agree with him. Since leaving newspaper work where I used everything from 18mm (in FF terms) to 450mm for work, I am trying to return to simpler times. Using a Fuji X100S and a Fuji X-E1 w/Fuji’x 35mm f1.4, I find I am more comfortable with the 50mm FOV over the 35mm. What HCB said makes sense on one level to me. Just going to keep trying with both (along with my Yashica Electro35 GS!),

  • I’m too more a 50mm guy, though lately I’m appreciating the 28mm angle of view of my RicohGR. Perhaps it’s simply because the camera is a fun.
    On the other hand I could never get used to zoom lenses..

  • Marvin Christian

    Two thoughts. If you work long enough with only one focal length lens you will know exactly what it covers before you look through the viewfinder. Position yourself accordingly. Secondly, HCB was working at a time when there were no really sharp good zoom lenses compared to today’s standards. Leica had none available and only M bodies to work with. Today he would take advantage of the possibilities particularly in street or war zone photography.

  • Andy Umbo

    I’ve been a 35mm lens user (as a normal) for years, and when I shoot film in a 35mm film camera, as of lately, it has a 50mm lenses with it. I have gotten so accustomed to using that old 50mm, that I see the beauty in it. I’ve admonished people for years, if they want to just take pictures for themselves, to just concentrate on using an old Rollei with one lens. One camera, one lens…I could sell it all and work like that, if I didn’t have to depend on making a living and the clients whims…

  • Great article. Let me just add that times change, we live in much more crowded cities than HCB.
    Historically, the Korea War was still mainly shot with a 50mm Leica. In Vietnam war reporters used mostly the 35mm, to convey more involvement in the massacre, and thus some images are unforgettable. Distances continued to shorten, till Street shots were done with a 28mm.
    Very clever to remark that with a 50mm you need to control Composition a lot, and that is typical of a painter.
    However I see in 35mm so to me not a constraint. Rather I would keep the habit of shooting like HCB with one lens only, although it might be terribly frustrating for the unwashed :)

  • Fri13

    The wide angle lens distortion isn’t about flaw like pillow or barrel distortion but it is about rectilinear vs cylindrical distortion by lens. So when using lens what gives wider angle of view than 46° you start seeing rectilinear distortion what our eye don’t have.

    That is reason 46° is the normal angle of view as it is closest to our comprehension. And on small format it is achieved with 50mm focal length, on medium format it is about 85mm and so on.

    But no one should use specific equipment because someone else is doing so someone else suggest so. Only you know what works for you and you need to use that.

  • Rich

    Shooting with one lens is, as you said, “might be terribly frustrating”. I know that now that I am no longer working for a newspaper I am finding this to be true.But it is a challenge that I am trying to overcome. After decades of shooting with SLR/DSLR gear and zooms, I find the lighter weight of my mirrorless gear liberating!

  • I am not going to teach a pro, but there’s a lot to say not only for size, but also for the precision of the composition in depth. How can you ever be sure about what is the hyperfocal with a zoom?

    I think also that HCB’s generation saw the picture as a theater scene, so the placement of the actors is essential. The 50mm FOV is therefore the scene, the set. Then enters this one or the other.

    Today we are much more Freestyle, but it’s good to know the rules of classical composition.

  • Ironymous

    Your (theoretical) second point is (theoretically) wrong.

    From the article itself: “And photo electric cells in a camera — I don’t see why it is done. It is a laziness. During the day, I don’t need a light meter. It is only when light changes very quickly at dusk or when I’m in another country, in the desert or in the snow. But I guess first, and then I check. It is good training.”

    HCB said that about using built-in meters. Plus taking what he thought of the 35mm lens and extrapolating from there, we could say with reasonable certainty that he would have held the same view about zooms (and autofocus).

  • Toby Madrigal

    The main reason I use my 50mm f2.8 Elmar on my M3 is because it’s retractable. For street shooting, if I see police/security, off comes the hood, down goes the lens and the whole contraption goes in my pocket.

  • jdizzl

    I personally do not like 50mm…at all. To me it is just wrong. I just don’t see the world that way. I have used it walking around the streets of NYC and just …not for me, too long all the time, esp when going to shoot from the hip (which I do sometimes for great candids), where it is basically unusable. I’m not sure if I naturally see that way, but I’ve tried tests and where I can kind of see in my vision is more like 35mm than 50mm to me. My first film camera was a 38mm lens :)…so maybe that’s what it’s from. For fast glass, I really like 35mm and 85mm focal lengths.

  • 38mm, now that’s an unconventional length.

    A 50mm, to me, is mainly only for people, emotions, expressions. To get “the bigger picture,” to embed the subject / object in an environment, even a 21mm adds a whole lot of possibilities. 35mm again feel a bit on the longish end — or just take a few steps back to widen the angle.

  • jdizzl

    I agree, but I like an 85mm more for that. or even a 135, where i can focus on the person and blow out the background.

  • Or you could use a shoulder bag…

  • Mostly Junk

    Great article. Like others here I’m more a 35mm kinda guy but I totally understand how working with a single FL could transform your photography.

  • E A H K

    Hmmm I use a 50mm lens with some frequency, but maybe I have to go to an ophthalmologist, as I notice more distortion than usual when looking at HCB pictures that aren’t up close with subjects. Perhaps the old 50mm 1.2 noctilux aren’t true 50mm but a bit less? 48mm perhaps? it’s usual that camera-lens makers just show an approximate. Could it be also some focus breathing? It was an old lens after all.