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7 Tips to Help When You’re Stuck with Only a Prime Lens

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As a photographer you must have flip-flopped back and forth between prime and zoom lenses. “Should I choose a prime today, or a zoom for its advantages?” If you have not done this for a purchase, you must at least have read the numerous articles which weigh the pros and cons of each. But what about when you are stuck with a lens that is not ideal for an event? For the sake of discussion and for this learning opportunity, let’s choose the 50mm prime lens, which is one of the most popular and affordable primes, and is made for every camera body known to man.

Canon-EF-50mm-f1.8-STM-Lens.jpg

If something comes up that is unexpected, that’s a good thing! Not ideal if you don’t have a long enough zoom or wide enough lens, BUT it could be worse. What if you didn’t even have your camera at all? So stay upbeat and realize with some ingenuity you can overcome the confines of being stuck with a prime lens.

As a personal note: This tutorial was inspired by a real event in Guatemala. I had chosen my 50mm for a walk-around lens as it is light, and I wasn’t expecting much as I went out to get a cup of coffee. Well, with a caffeine buzz I climbed a hill, and at the top an ancient Mayan ritual of sacrifice was being conducted for the dead. Maintaining cultural sensitivity I knew that it would be totally inappropriate to get my lens in their face. It was pertinent to maintain my distance for respect.

1. Use shallow depth of field

Prime lenses are known for being sharp, especially when you close down your f-stop. Yet when you are confined, or have limitations about how close you can get, or how agressive you can come across as a photographer, using your lens creatively is important. Thus, you may sacrifice some sharpness, add a little chromatic aberration (CA), etc., but you will also get a different style of shot from a lens that inherently has focal length limitations. Go for bokeh.

001 F1.4 landscape resized from Lightroom (750px)

2. Panorama for wider angles

Use panorama techniques to combine images later in post-processing. If you can’t get a wide angle view, make one. Yes the feeling of the final composition will not be exactly the same as a true wide angle, as your foreground and background compression will be greater, but you will be able to give a cinematic effect. Combining images is an easy way to encompass more into your scene when you are limited by your focal length.

006 Panorama resized 1

These two images were combined to show the whole event of the shaman and the fire along with the family members.

3. Shoot with the intention of cropping

Be conscious that cropping is available to you in post-processing. Don’t worry if a hand creeps into your frame, or there is a plastic bottle in the corner. If you consciously shoot for a crop to be performed later you can zoom-in on something specific. This again gives you flexibility and diversity. If you combine this with a shallow depth of field (suggestion number one) you will find that you can achieve a telephoto effect.

003 Crop Before resized

003 Crop After resized

This image was shot for a crop, so cutting off the top of the head is not a problem if you know you will crop in closer in post-processing.

4. B-roll footage

Get photos of activities, reactions, or environmental surroundings which will add to the narrative of the event. If you can’t get any closer, and you have pushed your boundaries of being discreet, then look up, down, and turn around. In film (movies), these are generally called B-roll shots, which helps to transition from one camera angle to another, while also telling the story.

004 B roll resized

The smoke rising up, into the sun, amongst the trees, gives a feeling of the environment around the ceremony.

5. Frame your subject with something in the foreground

Use a leaf, a stone or even another person to cut into the frame, which will both highlight your subject, by leading your eye to what you want the viewer to look at, and it will also create layers in the photograph. Layers add a sense of style and depth to your photography. Trying to use different techniques to create different perspective styles will really improve the overall quality of the group of photos you finally decide to keep.

005 Layer resized

The gravestone, then the grandmother, and finally the fire give layers to the photograph.

6. Use both horizontal and vertical photographs

Again this is about creating diversity in a final product. So turn the camera sideways and you definitely have a different style going for you. Some people get stuck in horizontal mode, or in vertical mode. This is a great opportunity to make a change of pace. When your eye sees a photo it follows a pattern, generally starting in the top left corner then moving, left to right (just as you read) looking for areas of light, contrast, lines, color and patterns. A vertical photo will automatically create a different reading experience to the photo. Or why not crop them into a square even?

002 Verical resized

A simple vertical photo changes the pattern during your final composition. Think both horizontally and vertically.

7. Just enjoy the event

See the event not only through your camera, but also with your own eyes. Experience the event, and it will not only give you great memories, but will allow you to feel the mood as well. Understanding the event will give you insight into what out-of-the-box shot may really highlight the event.

Summary

The general idea is to work with what you have, don’t lament what you left at home. If you do, you might just start lugging around simply too much gear to enjoy yourself. Think of how to diversify your perspectives. By confining yourself (in this instance, when confines are placed upon you) there is great opportunity to use your most advantageous feature… your creative brain!

For most people, photography is a hobby turned passion, and enjoying photography should really be priority one. Photography is always a game of tradeoffs, which can be simply exemplified by the basic lesson of the exposure triangle. By gaining one thing you lose another. So begin gaining something even when you are stuck with just a prime lens.

Maybe we could say, you are challenged to be better at what you love!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Branson Quenzer has chased bygone eras in a vastly changing Chinese landscape for over a decade. He has a Master’s Degree in Economics, whereby he uses a paradigm of seeing the world through a system of interlinking processes and changes, to explore photography and the world. Please visit his website to see more or contact him through Facebook.

  • Dre Mosley

    Nice. My 85MM f/1.8 pretty much stays on my D7100.

  • I have to say that I don’t agree with the word ‘stuck’ with a prime lens. It makes it sound bad. Now that this is said, the tips in the article are good but could probably also be used when ‘stuck’ with a zoom lens that doesn’t cover the range someone needs at the moment. Personally, I switch between my 50mm f/1.4 and my 100mm f/2.8 macro for my own shots and I never really find myself needing a zoom.

  • Branson Quenzer

    I frequently walk around with the same two lenses… really love the 100 2.8 macro! Trying to persuade others to look at the upsides of primes and be creative in their function.

  • Branson Quenzer

    Great! Inspired me to get out my 85mm 1.8 next time I go walk around!

  • ovicostea

    I’m really happy with my 35mm / 1.8 DX on D7100. I have 2 years of use of this lens and I do not intend to change it soon πŸ™‚ Great article !

  • Branson Quenzer

    Fantastic… i dont have a 35mm prime. One thing I love about primes is how many there are to choose from and how people get attached to specific ones. Share a photo?

  • ovicostea
  • ovicostea
  • mtphill

    I just force myself to go out with “a” lens. One day a 50mm 1.8, or my Tokina 11-16 2.8 or 60mm 2.8 macro…all on my old Nikon D300. This makes me use the lens within it’s restrictions. I like the idea of B-Rolling. Will give it a try.

  • I’ve gotten more into the idea of carrying a few primes when shooting rather than a full zoom. I usually only operate at the far ends of the zoom anyway, and don’t need everything inbetween. Now that I have a good feel for where most of my pictures are done it’s nice carrying 2-3 primes that have the same size and weight of 1 nice zoom.

    Although I don’t like how often I end up swapping lenses.

  • Thanks for article Branson. . I have a Fujifilm X-T1 camera along with the Fujinon XF18-135mm F3.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens as well as an XF 23MM F1.4 R prime lens… So everytime I hit the pavement (or trail) to take photos, I usually make a decision between the two… Although my bag always has the other, I usually stick with what I’ve chosen.

    Saludos,
    John

    Find me at jaxchile.tumblr.com
    Life in the true deep south… SOUTH AMERICA!

  • Branson Quenzer

    I like giving myself challenges. confining myself to something that is not ideal and getting out of it. for example going out in the mid day sun and trying to see light differently. Or just going out with one prime and using my feet to help me fram the shot. challenges bring out the best in us photographers!

  • Branson Quenzer

    I can’t agree more… i like the concept of seeing the world through a certain focal distance… primes really help with that!

  • Branson Quenzer

    Word up to the DEEP south all the way from the FAR east! ??

  • Dre Mosley

    I’ve been eying that Tokina myself.

  • petervandever

    When you get find me a zoom at 1.4, we can talk πŸ™‚

  • petervandever

    and I would recommend cropping to anyone. Fill the frame.

  • Marina

    Hi, I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing it. You can make your shots even more amazing with a free mobile application – PicsArt Photo Studio (http://picsart.com/).

  • Having become tired of lugging around a heavy pair of “decent” zooms and a 60D, I have recently acquired a 24mm Canon EF-S lens. This makes a useful pairing with the 50mm mentioned above on a crop sensor system, especially when attached to a lighter weight DSLR like the 450D. On both bodies the quality is good enough for some substantial cropping, and the whole kit is just so much lighter.
    Don’t get me wrong – the 60D plus two zooms (Sigma 17-50 f/2.8 and Canon EF 70-300 IS ) is still the main system, but losing the weight just makes walking and shooting so much more pleasurable.
    i “grew up” on 35mm film, so prime lenses are old hat.

  • Branson Quenzer

    I am not selling any of my zooms any time soon either…haha. I have the 40mm pancake lens that really like. not fast at only 2.8 but photos are super sharp and the lens is TINY! Makes it a great carry around lens. I think i will put it on today!

  • Tim Lowe

    That’s lugging? Get a 4×5 or even a Hasselblad with a few Zeiss hunks of glass. THAT is lugging. πŸ˜‰

  • Tim Lowe

    Stuck? Lordy. I feel “stuck” when I only have a zoom with all the optical compromises designers had to make. Give me a bag full of Zeiss every time!

  • Colin Coleman

    Thanks for your article I found it interesting and thought provoking and if I may I would like to share a few ideas from my own very recent experience.

    A couple of months ago I decided that there was one lens I was simply not using, the 50 mm F1.4. I had been primarily using the F4 24-105 mm on my Canon 5 Mk3. Yes the two together are quite heavy.

    So I set myself a challenge, 50 days @ 50mm, to get to know the type of little prime lens that I had been so use to back in the days of film, when every camera was sold with one as standard.

    What I have discovered so far, (apart from the reduction in the weight I am carrying and the undoubted quality of the lens), is that I have become much more mobile. By that I mean I am using my feet to get into the best vantage point, I’m bending my legs and body to obtain different views and angles.

    I know I have the power to crop in post production but other than straightening the horizon, I don’t. The reason is that cropping has the potential to start me down the same path I had been on with both of my zoom lenses.

    You see that very soon after starting this challenge I got the very strong feeling that I had previously got lazy, relying on the zoom lenses to get me out of trouble. Don’t get me wrong I love those zooms but I do feel my photography with them had become a little stale.

    I would agree with everyone who has said you are not “stuck” with a prime lens. I think a prime lens, whatever the focal length is something that should be embraced, nurtured and practiced with as often as you can. A prime lens actually has the opposite effect, it frees you and challenges you to look at an image in different ways. I would recommend everyone to spend as much with their chosen prime lens as they can.

    I believe if I stick with the no crop (other than to straighten the horizon), keep moving my feet, changing the angle and height from which I take images I’m sure my images are only going to improve as the challenge continues.

  • Rob

    I keep by ‘bigma’ (Sigma) 150-500 telephoto ‘howitzer’ in the car with my Manfrotto tripod., but I carry the 50 in my bag and i usually leave the kit lens on (18-200) on. it lets me nab a broad range of shots, but I can swap out if I have the time to something more specific. I’d rather get a fair shot of something happening than no shot while swapping glass around. I also carry my monopod, tablet and cable. For crowd work or just when events need it, I can combine them for ‘Camera on a stick’
    also shooting with a 60D

  • πŸ™‚ True. I’m long past an age where i would even consider that!

  • Tim Lowe

    I’ll be 60 this year and I just got the 30 lb 4×5 monorail. Like Ansel, I need to find me a youngster to carry my gear. πŸ˜‰

  • Branson Quenzer

    I have to lug myself sometimes… depending on how much breakfast… I guess lugging is a real relative idea.

  • Branson Quenzer

    Thanks for your thoughts… Gotta move those feet and get up or down! I generally never feel stuck with a prime and generally have freedom of movement while in markets, on the street, and inside at events. But in this particular case there was a ceremony that I needed to use some restraint for cultural sensitivity. So “stuck” was referencing this case. I also feel more free when my primes are on my body. Light, lovely and luscious!!!

  • Branson Quenzer

    quite the parliament! that’s with your 35mm?

  • Yes. I used ND 400 filter with 9 stops.

  • Depends on what version of the 70-300 he’s using.

    The pro-grade 70-300 L (white) is pretty heavy, but the consumer-grade (black) 70-300 is much lighter.

    Don’t get me wrong. I often carry three lenses with my Pentax K-3 II: DA 18-135, DA 50mm f/1.8, and DA* 60-250mm f/4. The latter is just as heavy as the white 70-300 L.

  • Branson Quenzer

    Lucky us that we get soooo many options to choose from. And the big white lenses from Canon sure do get heavy!

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  • Andrus Chesley

    Love it. Brings back the mems when I had a 50 , two 2x’s and a 400 on my first major film cam back in the ’70’s

  • Branson Quenzer

    Please let me know too. Why not even something like 35-50 1.4??? Go physics!

  • Branson Quenzer

    Awesome… that is a huge piece of glass. i will think about that when i have a car that they let me check on the airplane.

  • Branson Quenzer

    Don’t let those memories fade… get those old photos out and share them!

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