What is a “normal” lens anyway?

A “normal lens” for a 35mm camera, either film or digital generally refers to a lens with a focal length of 50mm. When you look through the viewfinder of a camera with a 50mm lens attached, the scene looks about the same as it does with the naked eye. Although a 50mm focal length is considered to be a normal lens for a 35mm film or DSLR camera, the same could not be said for all other formats. That’s why you don’t see a lot of 50mm lenses for Micro-Four-Thirds (MFT). A 50mm lens on MFT behaves likes a 100mm full-frame lens, because of the crop-factor, or basically because the sensor size is smaller. Of course “normal” lenses on a 35mm format camera are not exactly pigeonholed into a single focal length, instead they range anywhere from 40mm to 60mm (although this too may differ slightly depends on who describes it).

The standard idea has always been that the focal length of a normal lens should be about the same as that of the diagonal of the film frame/sensor, i.e. the measured distance from one corner of a negative’s frame to the corner diagonally opposite, in millimetres. For example the diagonal of a 36×24mm full-frame is 43mm (although most SLR cameras use a 50mm lanes as “normal”). Even other formats don’t hold true to this mathematical idea. The Olympus PEN F, half-frame camera should have a standard lens of 30mm, however the three lenses offered are instead the 38, 40, and 42mm, equivalent to 55/58/60mm (on a 35mm camera) respectively (there were also 25mm lenses, but they were considered wide angle).

Every different sized sensor has it’s own “normal” lens. Here is a list of normal focal lengths (FL) for various film/sensor sizes (D=digital; F=film), based on commonly used lenses for each system:

FormatDimensions (mm) H×WDiagonal (mm)Normal lens (mm)
16mm cine (F)7.5×10.312.725
Micro-Four-Thirds (D)13×17.321.6325
APS-C (D)15.1×22.727.335
Half-frame 35mm (F)24×183028
APS-C (F)16.7×25.130.128 (+30)
35mm film/DSLR (F,D)24×3643.350 (+55, 58)
Medium (D)33×445565
645 (F)56×4271.875
6×6 (F)56×5679.280
6×7 (F)56×6787.3105
5×4 (F)93×118150.2150

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