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Prime Lens Basics and Why You Should Ditch Zoom Lens Photography

Gear Talk

Prime lenses are a not-so-secret weapon favored for their fast apertures, crisp detail, and creamy bokeh.  They differ from the more commercially popular zoom lenses because of their ability to better maximize available light and separate foreground from background with aesthetically pleasing crispness.  They also possess the power to be a catalyst for creativity since they force the shooter to be more physically involved in their compositions.

50mm f/1.8 used in two different ways.

What is a Prime Lens?  

A prime lens is a fixed focal length lens that does not allow you to zoom in or out.  In short, the determined focal length of the lens is the distance between the camera’s iris and the subject matter being photographed.

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35mm f/1.4 @ 1/640th of a second

Prime lenses allow a handful of benefits compared to their zoom counterparts.  The first, and most desirable, is the availability of fast apertures.  With a fast aperture, a  lens is able to maximize the amount of available light by opening its aperture to an f/2 – f/1.2 or even f/.95 range! Most zoom lenses do not shoot any faster than a f/2.8 (a notable exception is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8).

50mm f/2.2 @ 1/500th of a second

Why Fast Primes Matter

Being able to shoot at a fast/wide-open aperture also allows the shooter a more shallow depth-of-field. Depth-of-field (DOF) is the distance between the foreground, subject, and background.  Shooting wide-open gives a narrow DOF, isolating the subject from its surroundings in terms of sharpness and clarity.  The closer the lens is to the subject, the softer the foreground/background will become.

irianiandance

85mm f/1.4 @ 1/640th of a second

The three most popular and widely used standard primes lenses are the 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses.  They are available in an array of aperture speeds and their value is dependent on their maximum aperture and overall build quality. Rounding out the category is the 24mm for wide angle lenses and the 105mm micro/macro for close-up work.

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Nikon G series primes.

How to Choose Your Prime Lens

When choosing a prime lens, the style of camera body it is paired with will have a great effect on the final image.  If you are shooting with a crop sensor body and a lens that is not built specifically for crop sensors, like EF-S lenses for Canon or DX lenses for Nikon,  then there will be a visual multiplying effect on your focal length. This will effectively increase the focal length of the lens you are using and could potentially affect your intention as a image maker.  For example, a 24mm lens will read more closely to that of a 35mm on certain crop sensor bodies, a 50mm will read more as an 85mm, and an 85mm will be roughly a 130mm, and so on.  If you are shooting with a crop sensor body do not be deterred by this – you will still be able to get tremendous imagery. Like anything else, crop sensors are a tool and, to some, even a desired feature – definitely NOT a bug.  You can always compensate for cropped sensors by using a shorter focal length lens than you would on a normal 35mm sized sensor.

50mm f/1.4 on a full frame sensor vs. a crop sensor camera.

Another consideration will be subject matter. Portrait and food photographers tend to crop in closer to their subjects in camera. The 85mm and 100mm lenses are great for this purpose as there is no distortion to the subject matter and the bokeh is soft and flattering.  This affect brings even more emphasis to whatever is in focus.

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85mm f/2.2 @1/640 sec

For environmental and editorial work, the 35mm and 50mm seem to be the focal lengths of choice.  They are versatile and interpret the scene in a way similar to how your eye perceives it.  They are ideal for shooting both street photography and interiors since there is minimal distortion towards the edges of the frame and are generally wide enough to take in the context of a scene.

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35mm f/2 @ 1/1000th of a second

Wider angle lenses are ideal for larger crowds of people or tight indoor spaces. There is more lens distortion towards the outer corners of these kinds of lenses, so if it is important for something to maintain its shape make sure to keep it in the center “sweet spot” of the lens where distortion is less noticeable.

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35mm f/1.4 @ 1/200th of a second

Using Filters on Your Primes

Now that you know the basics of primes, it’s time to sprinkle a little photo magic to top it all off.  A great compliment to primes lenses are ND and polarizing filters.  A filter paired with a prime lens will cut down the amount of light that reaches the sensor, allowing you to utilize slow shutter speeds to record movement in subjects such as water, as well as decrease depth-of-field by allowing wider apertures to be used in bright light situations.

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35mm f/2 @ 1/1000th of a second

There are many options out there in terms of lenses and, as in any craft, multiple ways to achieve the same thing. What’s important to remember is that prime lenses are your friend and not to be shied away from for lack of focal length convenience. They can help if you have begun to plateau with your photography aspirations or give you that look particular only to prime lenses. Primes take patience when learning to catch focus consistently as there is a much narrower depth-of-field to nail while shooting wide-open.

What Primes Can Do For You

• Choosing the right focal length for your subject matter can strongly emphasize your point-of-view,and being aware of what body type you are pairing a prime lens with is crucial for compensating for a potential crop factor.

• When shooting with only primes you are forced to be more physically involved, essentially using your body as the zoom which has the power to encourage more creativity and see different angles that you may have otherwise missed.

• Being aware of available accessories such as filters will allow you to use primes in difficult lighting situations or enhance the environment around you without sacrificing depth-of-field, maintaining your creative control.

Want to give primes a try? Here are some of the fastest in the field and personal favorites among BL staff and customers alike:

Portraits

50mm f/1.2 available in Canon and at f/1.4 in PentaxNikon and Sony.

85mm f/1.2 available in Canon and at f/1.4 in Nikon and Sony.

56mm f/1.2 available in Fuji.

Street Photography & Landscape

24mm f/1.2 available in Canon and at f/1.4 in Nikon.

35mm f/1.4 available in Canon, Nikon, and Sony.

25mm f/1.4 available for Micro Four Thirds.

Wildlife & Sports

135mm f/2 available in Canon and Nikon.

200mm f/2 available in Canon and Nikon.

Ultra Fast

Shoot at f/.95 in 17.5mm, 25mm, and 42.5mm for Micro Four Thirds.

All-in-Ones

Get the prime experience even on point-and-shoot style bodies:

RX1 with fixed 35mm f/2 lens

Fuji X100S with fixed 23mm f/2 lens

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Cortigiano is a food, lifestyle, and event photographer with a contemporary aesthetic. She received an undergraduate degree in photography at Drexel University and has gone on to work as a freelance photographer and teaching artist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Comments

  • GKWilkins says:

    Great article…All I own are Prime Lenses…for all the reasons listed. LOVE my PRIMES!

  • […] Note: This post was originally published on Borrow Lenses’ Blog. It has been republished with […]

  • Bill McMillan says:

    Good article, but I’ll correct one thing: the focal length of the lens is the distance from the iris to the sensor, not iris to subject.

    • Thank you for this technical correction. I was more trying to point out how focal lengths relate to subject matter, however I could have phrased that with more distinction. Thank you for your contribution :)

  • Neal F Rattican says:

    Like anything else, zoom lenses are tools and, to some, even desired – definitely NOT to be ditched. Obviously, primes have their decided place. One uses the tools that best help accomplish the project at hand.

    • This is a great point! Everything has its purpose. This article was meant to inspire those who lean so heavily on their zooms and to take more of a risk with primes. Its best to try everything before deciding what works best for you :)

  • Deirdre says:

    No one ever mentions the 20mm lens. When I shot with my Nikon FM I hade one and loved it. Now I own Canon and have the EF 20mm 2.8 that I use with my 7D and MK3. I personally love the distortion of wide for certain situations.

    • Yes! The 20mm prime lens is a great option, and under-rated I agree!! It was my goal to mention some of the most commonly used primes, but of course there are a slew of others out there to be experimented with and then added to your arsenal :) Thanks for your input!!

  • Pierre Robert says:

    I love my primes, when I started photography, there was no zooms. I love my primes : fast, sharp, fast focussing, light, ,,, just perfect

    Nikon D-610
    Nikkor 24mm. AF-D f/2.8
    Nikkor 35mm. AF-D f/2
    Nikkor 50mm. AF-D f/1.8
    Nikkor 85mm. AF-D f/1.8
    Speedlite SB-700
    Photoshop Elements 12

    Thanks for the article

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