In an age when zoom lenses are all the range – I’ve been surprised to be getting more and more questions about prime lenses of late.
Perhaps there’s a return to a more ‘pure’ or ‘back to basics’ form of photography going on?
A Definition of Prime Lenses
For those of you unfamiliar with the term ‘prime lens’ – lets start with a simple definition. A prime lens is one that has just one focal length only (in contrast to a zoom lens that covers a wider range of lengths).
Prime lenses come in a wide range of focal lengths from wide angles through to the very longest of tele-photo lenses used by many sports photographers and paparazzi.
While zoom lenses are ever popular and come as the standard kit lens with most DSLRs sold – prime lenses remain the favorite of many.
The main two reasons given by prime lens lovers are:
Maximum Aperture – one of the biggest arguments used by prime lens lovers is the speed that prime lenses are able to offer. For example, in the Canon range the fastest lenses available are all prime lenses (down to f/1.2) where as in the zoom range f/2.8 is as fast as you’ll get.
Quality – traditionally prime lenses are known for their advanced optics and quality. They generally have less moving parts and so manufacturers are able to concentrate their efforts on adding quality glass and menanisms.
Keep in mind however that just because it’s a prime lens doesn’t mean that it is going to be of the highest standards. Manufacturers make a range of lenses at different price point (zoom and prime) and some are always going to be better than others.
Price – in general prime lenses are simpler in terms of construction and as a result they can be cheaper to buy. Of course it’s not as simple as this and quality is determined by many factors and as a result price varies a lot even in the prime lens range of most manufacturers.
Weight – once again, a simple lens with less moving parts can mean that in many cases prime lenses are smaller and lighter than zooms.
Prime Lenses Combat Lazy Photographer Syndrome – when you have a zoom lens attached to your camera the temptation is to let your zoom do all the work and to leave your feet attached to the same piece of turf. This is what is attractive about zooms – however it can also lead to laziness and I’ve heard a few prime lens users argue that when they have a prime lens attached that it makes them more creative with their framing as they are forced to look more actively for the best shot.
There’s a lot to like about Prime Lenses and most serious photographers will own at least one or two. However there are of course those who argue against them with some of the following arguments:
Weight and Price – while the arguments above on price and weight are fairly convincing – it’s also worth considering that you might need to buy two or three prime lenses to cover the same focal range as you could achieve the same spread as could be achieved with a zoom lens. This means the price can add up and that you might end up hauling around more weight in your camera bag than you would with just the one lens.
Flexibility – perhaps the most convincing argument against prime lenses is that they can limit the possibilities of the photographer. I still remember the time that I had a 100mm prime lens attached at a party when the speeches started and where I was separated from my camera bag. I was just too close to the people giving speeches to get anything other than tightly cropped shots of their facial features. Had I had my trusty 24-105mm lens attached I’d have been able to get those tightly cropped shots as well as some full body shots.
There is rarely a ‘best’ in photography when it comes to either technique or equipment and those considering the purchase of a prime lens will want to think seriously about their own needs and circumstances.
Some questions to ask might include:
- What will I use the lens for (what style of photography)? – If you’re into macro you’ll probably want a purpose built macro prime lens, if you’re into photographing kids then the flexibility of a zoom might be handy)
- Do I need fast aperture? - if you shoot a lot in low light and f/2.8 is not enough – a prime lens will be your best bet
- Do I want to be changing lenses all the time? – three prime lenses means a lot of swapping over of lenses which opens your camera up to the risk of dust.
- How many lenses do I want to carry? – is weight an issue?
- How much is my budget? – the cost of either option can be prohibitive depending upon the quality and number of lenses that you’re after.
I’m a Canon user and have three prime lenses that I’ve used and love:
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II – my first prime and a superb little lens that is light, cheap yet produces great results considering it’s price tag. The perfect lens to test out what it’s like to have a prime lens.
- Canon EF 50mm f1.4 - exceptional quality and really great in low light.
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro – this lens opens up all kinds of possibilities for macro work and is brilliant in that field. It’s also not bad as a portrait lens strangely enough!
- What prime lenses do you own? (I’m particularly interested in the recommendations of non Canon users to help balance the recommendations)
- Do you use them?
- What do you see as their advantages and disadvantages?