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5 Easy Steps to Choose the Perfect Prime Lens for You

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“But how will I zoom in and out?”,  I blinked my eyes in disbelief.

“You’ve got feet, don’t you?”

85mm-canon-lens

My first encounter with the concept of fixed or prime camera lenses was when they were explained to me (a baby photographer) when I met with a local wedding photographer whose work I was (and still am) crushing on. I was so surprised to hear that there were lenses that (gulp) didn’t zoom. ‘What’s the point of that?’ I wondered. Why pay more for less?

Clearly, I had lots of catching up to do!

There are many merits to utilizing prime lenses in your photography. One is that you may find you can achieve mind blowing sharpness and quality with a lens that isn’t 10 lenses in one. I like to say that the 50mm prime lens doesn’t have to try to be anything other than 50mm. It only needs to focus on (pun intended) being the best 50mm it can be. Of course, there are many fantastically sharp and capable zoom lenses out there, but you will find that you’re not only paying for quality, but versatility. Prime lenses aren’t very versatile, but what they lack in versatility, they can make up for in quality which may leave you asking, “what zoom?”

How to choose

So with so many to choose from, how do you choose the perfect prime lens for you? You can be like me and buy-to-try a whopping 14 lenses in 5 years, to the tune of $10,250, (true story) or you can try these great 5 steps:

  1. Choose one of your existing zoom lenses
  2. Set it on a focal length and leave it there
  3. Shoot for a week or so only on that setting. Experience what it’s like to use your feet instead of your zoom. Photograph your typical subjects, ones you photograph the majority of the time, and see how that focal length feels.
  4. Repeat the exercise at different focal lengths.
  5. Assess your experience shooting at different lengths. The setting at which you felt most comfortable will be a great indication of where to start when purchasing the perfect prime lens for you.

50mm-canon-lens

Bonus tip!

If you use multiple lenses (or even just a few), there’s a super cool way to use Lightroom to see all the images taken with a particular lens. First, make sure you’re in the library module. On the left (under the smaller preview image) click ‘all photos’. Then on the top bar, click ‘metadata’. You’ll then see many sorting options depending on what photos you want to see. In the middle is the box which shows every lens you’ve used for all the images in your catalog (if you don’t see that use the pull down menu to select “lens”. How cool is that?! Then you can sort by focal length and see which one(s) you use most often.

50mm-canon-lens

My Final Choice

As I mentioned before, I’ve experimented with many different zoom and prime lenses. As for primes, I’ve owned the following Canon lenses: 50mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.8, and 24mm f/2.8. After all that, the only one that remains in my collection is the 50mm f/1.2. I personally love quite tight portrait shots so although I think the quality was fantastic, the 24mm was too wide. The 85mm had phenominal sharpness and quality, but I sold it to help pay for the 50mm. I find the 50mm great on my full frame camera for wideish family shots but also tight-enough portraits. The f/1.2 means it’s my best lens for ultra low light and the sharpness is a little mind blowing. For me, it’s the perfect prime lens.

Now, there are many lenses from which to choose and that’s where you fine people come in! If you’re a prime lens aficionado or even just a fan of a particular lens, get involved below and tell us what prime lenses you have experience with, and which are your favourites!

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Elizabeth Halford is a Hampshire Photographer and keeps a rockin'photography blog where she writes about photography and business in "real.plain.english". She's addicted to Facebook and can be found answering photography and business questions every day here on her page

  • Rob

    Yes. Quality.

  • Aaron Fritzinger

    Canon EF 100mm Macro2.8L.

  • Terry Henson

    That’s interesting….I own all of those lenses and have never heard anyone refer to the 35mm as being sharper. It is the wider angle that makes its awesome. However, it is hard to beat the 50 or 85 for sharpness. Dxomark says the same. They compare sensors and lenses. You should check out the Rokinon 85mm 1.4…its like $300 but manual focus only

  • Terry Henson

    The 85 prime lens is an whole different realm when it comes it picture quality!

  • Terry Henson

    I also noticed you decided to keep the most expensive of the primes…lol. Nice choice @elizabethhalford:disqus !!

  • toila

    Good point about camera against the train window.
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  • AmazoN14

    My perfect 50mm prime lens is the 50mm f/1.8 lens. There are many factors that I considered before coughing in my heard earn dollars: First and foremost the price. I got it in Panama for only $96.70 which is a bargain you can’t miss. My second factor was the small size and low weight. When I installed it on my Canon DSLR EOS Rebel T2i, it was almost invisible. That’s exactly what I needed.

    After taking street shots for more than three years, I had no problems zooming with my feet, so using the “nifty fifty” wasn’t changing my shooting habits at all.

    The third and last factor was the sharpness of the pictures and the soft and gorgeous bokehs. Considering these three factors led me to make the decision and to this day I claim it’s the best prime lens around. Period.

    I rest my case.

  • Anointed visual

    Thanks for this post.. i will like to kow the best prime lens to get for my Nikon D90 CAMERA.. i will like to hear from you people.. thanks

  • Leah Brett Dussault

    The Nikon 1 cameras are a little limited but I love my 18mm f1.8 it’s all I shoot with anymore.

  • Greg Sullivan

    How can you claim that ‘it’s the best prime lens around. Period.’, if it is the only one you have ever tried?

  • Greg Sullivan

    Pardon?!

  • The 50 1.2L is great between 1.2 and 2.8. As a general lens it’s poor because border sharpness is low even at f8. Also it has some focus shift…So overall it’s good only for portraiture which it’s not good considering 50mm is a classic everyday focal…

  • I use Panasonic G3 with a 14mm F2.5 for a while now mainly for my dance floor and uplighting pictures on here. Low light – wide angle and cheap. Just picked up a 45mm F1.8 To start messing about with for family shots. Love it. Only brought them as cheap alternatives to zooms, and absolutely love ’em. Looking to expand the collection of primes over the years to come.

  • Epiac1216

    I’m not the only one making this claim. If you look around photography forums you will find that this statement is shared by millions of photographers who have used this lens, including professional photographers.

  • Greg Sullivan

    Millions? Really?

  • Epiac1216

    I just checked in Amazon’s site and it’s their #1 Best seller of all their lenses. That’s a strong statement coming from Amazon.

  • Richard Taylor

    Back in my old days it was all primes, and screw mounts. I owned the following Takumar lenses;
    28mm f3.5
    55mm f1.8
    135mm f3.5
    300mm f6.3
    50mm macro lens
    and a 450mm f8 Soligor

    Nowdays I like the versatility of zooms however I stll have a bunch of fast primes that is my first choice for some shoots. Some are.
    35mm f2
    85mm f1.8
    135mm f2 – my favourite, but not moist used, lens.

  • TechGeek

    Best vs most popular aren’t the same thing. A lot more corollas are sold than bugattis… And I doubt any one would argue a corolla is the best car period. In popular things value is part of the equation. While I do like my 50mm 1.8g… If some one asked me to trade for a sigma 50mm 1.4… I wouldn’t hesitate to trade.

  • Epiac1216

    You have a good point. I absolutely agree.

  • Mary Ingham Dimitriw

    I purchased the Canon 50mm 1.2 earlier this year and love it for still life set ups and portraits. I wasn’t sure if I was missing out by not purchasing the 85mm 1.2 which I originally wanted but couldn’t afford. In the end I bought the 85 1.2 as well and I love it for portraits. I figure each prime has a purpose and I love them all for different reasons. I also use the 100mm 2.8 for quite a bit of still life photos as well.

  • Mali John

    I’m primarily a landscape photographer (amateur). Sigma 14mm is what I intend to buy.

  • Grant

    Hi – i own the Nikon 35mm f1.8 g dx prime lens. I love it for how light and compact it is, to carry around whole day. I love it for the extra wide angle it gives me. I dont like all my photographs to have a tight crop to it, like with the 50mm prime lens.

    I love it for the “surprise bokeh” i get with it, without concentrating on getting it. ..I simply love it.

  • Johan Bauwens

    I think the 50 mm perspective sucks, both on crop and full frame. I prefer the 35 mm f1.4 (sigma) and 85 mm f1.8 (canon).

  • Hello Everyone!

    I recently bought the Canon T5i and is very new to this. I do want to try a prime lens and the idea of it not being so heavy to carry around got me immidiately! I am think a out 50mm but what is the difference with the f1.8, f1.4, f1.2?

  • Mohsen

    Leave him, He is just spammer.

  • Harishankar Jagadeesh

    Hey Elizabeth,
    The question of which prime lenses would be best for me has come up quite often in my mind. Thanks for the idea of setting your zoom lens on a specific focal length and seeing if a prime of that focal length would suit your style.
    The link to your facebook page seems to be broken. Could you post a new link ?

  • Manish Bhoola

    The 50 mm is around for almost a couple of decades now. Don’t get carried away by the limited time line of the modern nifty fifty. Millions may therefore not be an exaggeration. Personally on a crop I use the 50mm mostly for portraits while the newly released 24 mm f/2.8 stays on my camera most of the times. While the op chose the infinitely expensive f/1.2 version enough experienced prime lens owners and reviewers will always hold the crappy plasticy noisy nifty fifty in high regard especially in the value for money bargain deals.

  • Emmy

    if you can find the Nikkor DX 18 – 105mm it is absolutely perfect for both. And, one of their best DX lenses, in my opinion.

  • jumbybird

    I hope you found about primes before you became a professional? That would be as bad as not knowing what an f stop is.

  • Amynta

    This is where I’m not sure what would work with the camera I have. Sounds fun and cheap to play with older lenses ice this, but with my auto focus build into the lenses, not sure I could handle that. I have a Nikon 3200.

  • Amynta

    May I ask why this is true for you?

  • Newbom

    I prefer prime lenses over zooms. They’re smaller, lighter and focus faster. They’re also usually sharper and cost less than high end zooms. I use Canon 28 mm f/1.8, 50 mm f/1.4, 85 mm f/1.8, 100 mm f/2.8 macro and 400 mm f/5.6 prime lenses. The 28, 50 and 85 are small enough to hand hold with no problem. The 100 and 400 are always used on a tripod. Absence of IS isn’t a problem because I use a tripod, mirror lockup and cable release when needed. Each lens fills a niche and I wouldn’t be without any of them but my favorite is the 28 mm f/1.8. It’s fast, tack sharp and can be handheld in almost every situation. It’s my walk around lens for street and landscape photography. I use both crop sensor and full frame cameras.

  • Newbom

    I’m a Canon shooter with 3Ti and 6D cameras. I have both wide and long zooms but I like my primes best. I have the Canon 28 mm f/1.8, 50 mm f/1.4, 85 mm f/1.8, 100 mm f/2.8 macro and 400 mm f/5.6 L. They’re fast, tack sharp and each one has it’s own specific purpose (I feel even the 400 @ 5.6 is fast for that focal length). I shoot mostly landscapes and wildlife so I use the 28 and 400 most often but each lens fills it’s own niche very well. I like the 85 best for portraits. I usually travel with both camera bodies, 28, 50, 85, and 100 mm lenses and a light tripod. That allows me to carry one bag and shoot anywhere from 28 to 160 mm in almost all light conditions.

  • Peter Truong

    I am having 35mm on crop d7100 and totally love it (more > my18105mm)

  • Josée Sévigny

    PhenomEnal

  • wri7913

    Bokeh. with 85mm its so much easier to get creamy bokeh than with a zoom lens. Sharpness is also noticeably better with less elements to deal with.

  • Andy Whiteman

    I’m sorry but I just don’t get this prime thing. I am travelling and shoot mainly with a Sigma 18-250mm. When I am out I can have Howler Monkeys in the trees above me, Iguanas about 10 feet away, friends to photo on the beach, sunsets to capture….I don’t go out with a specific idea most of the time and the zoom gives me the flexibility I need but I do have a 24mm (36mm FF) and 50mm (75mm) for specific needs and they are great. Also a 10-20mm Sigma for those big sky shots….try zooming with your feet when you want a 250mm shot of the sunset….out over the Pacific!

  • maxwave

    Here’s a tip I came up with for those who use Lightroom. In the Library Module, make sure you pick a folder with a LOT of images, click Metadata, choose Focal length for a column and see what focal length you shoot the most at. I have a 24-70mm and realized that 40% of my images were shot at 70mm and I know there were many times I wished it was higher so I am looking at getting an 85mm or 100mm as a prime. Cheers.

  • pincherio

    135mm f/2 L on FF and 85mm f/1.8 on APS-C when shooting portraits.

  • Terri Valkyrie

    My 90mm macro lens is by far my favourite lens.

  • Roberto

    I’m just starting with DLSR, and will need some time before buying something extra, but a 50mm sounds good so far… 😉 thanks

  • @parablade

    Enjoyed your article, thank you. Hopefully it will assist my zoom-junky father-in-law, who’s researching his 1st prime.
    Being so portrait-centric, 85mm is my default, with a 28mm as back-up.

  • jdizzl

    cheap? haha no…leica is WAY more expensive than your nikon. I would shoot a Leica 28 50 90 kit if I could afford it.

  • jdizzl

    I mostly like shooting with primes for effects and quality over zooms. I prefer the 28mm / 50 mm / 85mm combination.

    I use the 28 for street photography/architecture/landscape
    I use the 50 for general photography, artsy photos, group portraits, street photos when I want bokeh and small lens.
    I use the 85 for flattering portraits, crazy bokeh yet still having some background, and a short telephoto.

    Other primes (24 and under, and 100+ are too niche) are just too niche to have in my bag and are covered with zooms. I do like the 35mm, but having both a 28 and a 50 is more useful.

  • jdizzl

    coke is the best selling carbonated drink, but it doesn’t taste as good as champagne.

  • jdizzl

    the problem with the sigma is the size/weight. For me it defeats purpose of shooting a 50 on slr (lightweight, discreet)

  • jdizzl

    not surprising, you’d be surprised at the people getting paid for photography/videography know very little sometimes about their equipment.

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