Written by Rob Mynard
Images by Rob
When you buy a new camera these days, you’re usually presented with the option of taking the body by itself or bundled with a kit zoom lens. There’s no doubt that a zoom lens is a very convenient choice, with a large range of focal distances available at the twist of your wrist. Couple that with the benefit of not having to change lenses, exposing the inside of your camera to the elements, and you can see why they are the preferred choice for many professional photographers… But this convenience usually comes at a cost, and with zoom lenses the sacrifice comes in the form of overall image quality.
The alternative to zoom lenses are prime (or fixed) lenses, these are a range of lenses that offer no zooming, and instead provide only a single focal length (35mm, 50mm, etc.) but rather than trying to do a range of things well, they can be built to do one thing exceptionally. For specialists that don’t require a range of focal lengths or photographers that want to get the best image quality possible there are a number of reasons to consider a prime lens over a zoom.
- Sharper images
Less glass, with less moving parts, leads to images with less distortion to the images, especially in the corners and edges, and an increase in micro contrast which is what most people see to as sharpness. Modern, higher-end, zoom lenses can come close to the levels of sharpness offered by prime lenses but to do this they restrict the amount the lens can zoom by, this is why you’ll see professionals opting for the 24-70mm + 70-200mm combo over the 28-300mm.
- Low light performance
With prime lenses regularly stopping down to f/1.4 or even f/1.2, you get the benefits of low light performance. F/1.4 gives you an additional 2 stops of light over f/2.8, the usual bottom aperture of a professional zoom (although Sigma have started offering f/2 and even f/1.8 zooms in smaller zoom ranges)
- Shallower depth of field
With wider apertures comes shallower depths of field, so for beautiful portraits with soft creamy backgrounds or glowing circles of confusion (Bokeh) the smaller apertures of primes offer a larger range of creative choices. This is usually the main reason for people to get into the world of primes and is why professionals who favour zoom lenses will often carry at least one portrait prime in their kit. This is less important for standard landscape photographers, who told to favour a larger depth of field, but helps in getting a faster shutter speed for Astro photography to prevent star trails.
- Cheaper, smaller and lighter
This point is of course subjective, and anyone who’s ever looked at the 55mm Zeiss Otus knows that it is neither cheap, small, or light, but generally speaking prime lenses can offer more bang for your buck. For example, most camera companies will offer an equivalent of the traditional 50mm prime (usually at f/1.8) as one of the cheapest lenses in their range. Usually referred to as a “Nifty Fifty” these are the starting point for most people thinking of getting into primes. For years now, the 50mm f/1.8 has been my go-to street lens, you need to work around the lack of wide angle but it’s the smallest and lightest lens I own so I’m more likely to carry it with me, and it’s a very capable lens in a large range of situations, from environmental street shots, to low light, to portraits with good background blur. I’ll list most of the standard nifty fifties below.
- Restricted Focal Length Forces Creativity
At first having less choice seems like a weakness but like the blind kung-fu master, limitations in one area can build strengths in another. Not being able to stand in one spot and zoom in and out to get your framing keeps you literally on your feet, having to move to get the right angle helps you see the scene in a way you might have missed and you learn to preempt the scene as you’ll need to be in the right spot just as the action is. Many teachers advocate learning photography on a 50mm lens with some courses not allowing students to use any other lens initially to fast-track their creative eye.
But if primes are so awesome, why do so many pro photographers still rely on a zoom as their main workhorse lens?
Well everything is give and take, and for all the benefits of a prime lens you do loose the convenience of having a single lens capable of covering nearly anything you can throw at it. A standard Pro lens like the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8, covers everything from the landscape 24mm, environmental portrait 35mm, half body portrait 50mm, to the headshot 70mm range. That’s quite a lot of shooting in just one lens and if you wanted to cover this with primes you’d end up paying and carrying more. To get the best of both worlds you’ll often see wedding/event photographers carrying two or even three bodies, usually one with the safer 24-70mm workhorse and another with either a longer focal length or a specialist portrait prime.
If you’re considering your first prime lens I would suggest coming into one of our stores to talk to the staff and have a play with some of our display models, otherwise consider picking up a nifty fifty and see what you think.
The 50mm or equivalent prime lenses for most of popular camera brands are -
- Nikon Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.8G (I bought one of these over 10 years ago now and it’s still in my pro kit and going strong.)
- Fujifilm XF 35mm f/1.4 (due to the APS-C crop factor the 35mm will give a similar field of view to a 50mm lens on a full frame camera)
- M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8 Portrait (due to the M4/3 crop factor the 25mm will give a similar field of view to a 50mm lens on a full frame camera)
- Lumix G 25mm f/1.7 (due to the M4/3 crop factor the 25mm will give a similar field of view to a 50mm lens on a full frame camera)