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Let’s Talk Prime Lenses

Hey. Here’s a quick post on the wonderful prime lens. If you don’t know what that is, a prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length i.e a lens that does not zoom. You can’t move in from a wide angle of 24mm to a greater focal length of 70mm, nor can you zoom out from 35mm to 18mm. No, it is a fixed focal length lens. It could be a prime lens fixed at 35mm…or 50mm…or 85mm…you get the idea…but that’s it. One focal length. One field of view. No zoom

“No zoom?!”, you say? Yeah, no zoom. These days, most new ‘photographers’ are all about zoom lenses! That’s all people talk about. Got a new camera? What’s the zoom on it? How much zoom does it have? 5x? 10x? Some of those questions don’t even make sense, but it seems like people who don’t know much about photography actually care more about the zoom of a lens/camera than the image quality and usability. Ridiculous when you think about it. Anyway, a prime lens must seem pretty lame to these people…right? Yeah. Well, if you’re one of them, or you simply want to know more (which is wonderful), you really need to try out a prime. Do not dismiss prime lenses in favor of more zoom lenses. Most professional photographers would tell you that they’d much rather use a prime lens in most situations unless the job absolutely demands a zoom. Why? Alright, let’s talk prime lenses

Prime Lens Vs. Zoom Lenses

Ok, I already covered what a prime lens is.  Why do I, and many professionals, prefer to use prime lenses? Ok, I’ll go through some of the benefits that I find so wonderful about these fixed focal length beauties :

Image Quality: The biggest benefit. Why else would you buy a lens, if not for good image quality? Prime lenses always deliver on this. Compared to zooms, prime lenses produce images that are sharper, have less distortions, and generally produce more pleasing images than similar priced zoom lenses

To get a zoom lens that produces the image quality in terms of sharpness and distortions, you’d have to spend a lot more money – and even then I doubt you’d find a zoom lens with absolutely negligible distortions at the extreme ends…not to mention these lenses would probably be physically huge and weigh a ton

No, for pure image quality, nothing beats a solid prime lens. Even the $100 Canon 50mm f1.8 prime lens produces much sharper images than the ordinary Canon kit lens, the EF-S 18-55mm standard zoom, and compares to many zoom lens that cost 5x the price. Not to mention it handles distortions better than most zooms, and just produces great quality images in general

Aperture: Almost any prime lens will come with a very fast aperture. Most will open up to f2.0 or f1.8, some of the pricier options will open up to f1.4 and in some cases even f1.2. Few zooms can match up to this…from what I recall, the fastest zooms currently available are f2.8…which is pretty fast, but prime lenses are even faster, and gives you much better control over depth of field and low light performance

Most zoom lenses are much slower, though. An average zoom lens has a maximum aperture of f3.5-5.6 – meaning it changes maximum aperture as you change the focal length. The standard 18-55mm kit lens has a maximum aperture of f3.5 at 18mm, which is reasonable…but it slows down to a max of f5.6 at the 55mm end! Compare that with the cheap 50mm f1.8, which has a maximum aperture of f1.8 at 50mm! That is a LOT faster

Helps You Improve The Shot: This seems like an odd ‘benefit’, but it’s true. I’ve always found a prime lens helps improve my composition, by forcing me to think of different ways of getting the shot. Why? Because I can’t simply zoom in and out to get the composition I want. My lens is fixed. If I want wider, I got to step back…if I want a tighter shot, I got to move in closer…but if I can’t move back, or move in? I start to think of different ways of getting the shot, different ways to say what I want to say with this shot. It helps improve the current shot, and it also helps you out as a photographer in general…it makes you ‘think before you shoot’ one of the best ‘rules’ you can follow…and that’s wonderful. It gets harder and harder to think before you shoot when you shoot digital, but using a prime lens definitely makes that happen

They’re lighter, smaller, cheaper: Prime lenses can be considered cheap, compared to the high end zooms that perform almost comparably with prime lenses…however, some primes can cost a bomb too. But they’re definitely lighter, and smaller. Zoom lenses have to pack in so many more lens elements and other moving parts and mechanisms (don’t ask me the details) that make them perform like they do…this all adds up to the size, weight…and to the cost too. Prime lenses don’t


Well, there must be many more benefits to using prime lenses! But to summarize what I just wrote above: Quality. Speed (aperture). Weight. Size. Price. Technique. Isn’t that enough already to make you want to go get all the primes you can get your hands on?! Especially when you look at the negatives…or THE negative: fixed focal length. That’s it. Ok, so it can be a hassle at times…you’re indoors, you need a wider shot…you can’t step back, and your 50mm lens isn’t doing the job. Or you’re shooting a sunset and you can’t quite easily walk in to the horizon to get a closer shot. But like I said, I prefer using a prime unless the job demands a zoom…so don’t blame the equipment if you chose to use a prime lens for the wrong job. If your particular shoot requires a zoom, you should know that as the photographer and pack a zoom along with your primes. But in many cases, a prime will do great. Another minor negative you might think of when using primes is the space it might take in your bag. Although each lens is compact individually, you might find that to cover the focal length you need for a particular shoot, you need maybe 2 or 3 of these primes…which could collectively add up to more space than just one large zoom. Just keep that in mind

So instead of buying a fuzzy, heavy, expensive zoom lens and lugging that around, do what most professionals prefer to do: get a good collection of prime lenses. It might cost you the same in the end, and (maybe) take a bit more space in your bag, but your shots will be better for it. And you will be too. Instead of a hefty 24-70mm f2.8 zoom, get a 24mm prime, a 50mm, and an 85mm…perfect

Alright, I’ve made it pretty clear that you should get some prime lenses, at least one…right? But should you get a zoom? Yeah! Don’t take this post as a Prime Vs. Zoom battle – even though I think I titled it such in the beginning! I don’t say that zoom lenses don’t have their place. There are some very good (and fast) zoom options out there, and although these are a bit pricey, they give you very good image quality too…and like I repeatedly mentioned in this post, there are times when a prime is just not right for the job…and in these cases, a zoom is obviously the lens for you. I mean, I love primes and all that – but personally, I find a good walk-about zoom lens, something like a 17-55mm on a crop-sensor DSLR (or 24-70mm on full-frame) is something that I always need with me, especially when street shooting etc. – so there’s always the right lens for the job. Zooms like those all-in-one 18-200mm lenses or similar – ah, I don’t have a place in my bag for those – but a nice walk-about zoom plus a set of primes…that’s all I need

So think about what you shoot. Zooms are not the only thing out there…and they’re not even the best…so don’t fall for these people telling you to buy zooms, zooms, and only zooms. Think about what you shoot, and if a prime lens can do the job, you know the benefits. Build up a collection…a smart combination of primes and a zoom or two, and you’ll be set for anything you know you’ll need to shoot! Until next time

Oh, and please – if you enjoyed this post, and you have any questions or thoughts, please take a few seconds to leave a comment below – you just need to enter your name!

By Heshan Jayakody
All content in this post is my own, except where noted

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9 Responses to “Let’s Talk Prime Lenses”

  1. Thanks for the article. This year I have almost exclusively photographed with a Voigtländer Ultron 40/2 on my Canon 5D Mark 2. The lens (a “pancake”) is so small, the camera has been with me at more venues than ever before. And that’s really what it is about – having the camera with me! I also find that a focal length of 40 mm (on”full-frame” or 135-film) is just about exactly what I perceive with my eyes. All in all, highly recommended.

    Posted by jabcam | August 27, 2012, 13:06
  2. nice post! i love prime lenses! i primarily use a set of primes for most of my work, although i do have a backup zoom too. if i require quality and nothing else, i go for primes

    Posted by Kilroy | February 10, 2013, 15:21
    • Thanks! I use primes quite often too – the 50mm focal length is one that I love and works great on the streets. For wider work, I use the wide end of my zoom, though

      Posted by pixelogist | February 10, 2013, 18:12
  3. Good post! Prime lenses are often used by professionals and are considered better than zooms, right? I want to get myself one… or two Hahaha!

    Posted by Roger B | February 11, 2013, 20:05
    • Thanks! Yes, that’s basically right. I mean, there’s a time and place for everything, like I said…and zooms can be super useful, and can shoot very high quality too (although the highest quality ones cost a BOMB!) but primes have many advantages, and these advantages are unfortunately not seen by many amateurs…at least not in the beginning…and they all go for zooms, which is a shame, coz prime lenses really are amazing!

      Posted by pixelogist | February 12, 2013, 07:35


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