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. This is due to 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 Are Prime Lenses?
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 point of convergence in your lens to the sensor or film in your camera.
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 – at the time of this writing).
Why Fast Prime Lenses 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.
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 essentially means that any full frame lenses (EF, FX, etc.) that you put onto a crop sensor body will have a cropping effect of approximately 1.6 (or 1.5). In real terms, this means that if you shoot at 24mm, the actual result will be closer to a 35mm image, a 35mm will be the equivalent of a 50mm, 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.
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.
Prime Lenses and Subject Matter
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. There is no distortion of the subject 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. 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 Prime Lenses
Now that you know the basics of primes, it’s time to sprinkle a little photo magic to top it all off. A great complement 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 use slow shutter speeds even in daylight. This is great for recording movement in subjects such as water. It will also decrease DOF 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. Primes take patience when learning. Catching focus consistently can be tough as there is a much narrower DOF to nail while shooting wide open.
What Primes Can Do For You
- Choosing the right focal length for your subject strongly emphasizes your point-of-view. 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. You are essentially using your body as the zoom, which has the power to encourage more creativity and see different angles.
- 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 DOF.
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 A mount.
- 85mm f/1.2 available in Canon and at f/1.4 in Nikon and Sony A mount.
- 56mm f/1.2 available in Fuji.
UPDATE: More recently-released portrait primes.
- Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Sony E Mount, Nikon, and Canon
- Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Sony E Mount, Nikon, and Canon
- Fuji XF 50mm f/2 R WR Lens
Street Photography & Landscape
- 24mm f/1.4 available in Canon and Nikon.
- 35mm f/1.4 available in Canon, Nikon, and Sony A mount.
- 25mm f/1.4 available for Micro Four Thirds.
UPDATE: More recently-released street photography and landscape primes.
Wildlife & Sports
UPDATE: More recently-released wildlife and sports primes.
- Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens
- Panasonic Leica DG Elmarit 200mm f/2.8 Power O.I.S. Lens
Get the prime experience even on point-and-shoot style bodies:
UPDATE: More recently-released point-and-shoots with primes attached.
- Fuji X100F with fixed 23mm f/2 lens
- Leica Q (Typ 116) with fixed 28mm f/1.7 lens
- RX1R II with fixed 35mm f/2 lens
Last modified: May 22, 2020