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.
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.
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).
Why a Fast Prime Lens Matters?
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.
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.
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. To learn more about the differences between crop sensor and full frame sensor-designed lenses, see our article on full frame vs crop frame sensors before choosing a lens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 you’re in need of photography inspiration or if you want to go for a particular look exclusive 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:
- 50mm f/1.2 available in Canon and at f/1.4 in Pentax, Nikon 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
Get the prime experience even on point-and-shoot style bodies:
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