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Prime Lenses: Everything You Need to Know

everything you need to know about prime lenses

Prime lenses are wildly popular, but why? Why are prime lenses so appealing? Why are they used by so many professional photographers?

In this article, I explain everything you need to know about prime lenses, including:

  • What prime lenses actually are
  • What makes prime lenses so special
  • When you should (or shouldn’t) use prime lenses in your photography

So if you’re thinking about buying a prime lens or you simply want to understand why prime lenses are insanely popular, then read on!

What is a prime lens?

prime lenses photography Canon 60D with a 50mm prime lens

A prime lens is simply any lens with a fixed focal length. A 50mm lens, a 28mm lens, an 85mm lens, and a 400mm lens all offer a single focal length and are therefore prime. Look through a prime lens, and you’ll always get the same field of view (assuming your camera doesn’t change!); if you want a different field of view, you must switch to a different lens.

A zoom lens, on the other hand, features a range of focal lengths. For instance, a zoom might span from 24-70mm, 70-200mm, or 14-24mm. To go from one focal length to the next, you merely twist the zoom ring, and – voila! – the field of view changes.

two cameras one with a prime lens and one with a zoom

Note that most manufacturers offer prime lenses spanning the entire spectrum of glass, from ultra-wide to super-telephoto, though the most popular primes do sit in the 24-85mm range. (In fact, the 50mm prime is the most popular lens of all time!)

But as you can imagine, prime lenses are not very versatile. With a zoom lens, you can get closer or farther from a subject with a twist of your hand. But with a prime lens, you have to physically move to change the composition, or you have to spend precious time swapping lenses. So what gives? What makes prime lenses so special?

Well, prime lenses do have several key advantages, which I explain below:

5 reasons to use a prime lens

four lenses on a table

In this section, I explain why I love prime lenses, and why you might want to consider grabbing a prime (or three!) for your own photography.

Do I believe that primes are better than zooms? No. I think both lens types have their advantages and disadvantages. Primes are better for certain photographers in certain scenarios, and here’s why:

1. Prime lenses will improve your compositions

prime lens photography bride and groom
I could have composed this lens with a zoom lens. But using a lens with a fixed focal length helped me previsualize the shot before I took it and made the process far faster.

With a zoom lens, you can change your composition without ever moving your feet. You can stand in place, make adjustments to your lens, and capture a series of wildly different images. That’s a good thing, right?

Maybe not so much. You see, when I bought my first zoom lens, I found it confusing to have an entire range of focal lengths literally at my fingertips. I wouldn’t know where to stand before I lifted the lens to my eye, and I got pretty relaxed about it, too; after all, a quick swivel of the barrel would “correct” any distance issues and help me fine-tune my composition, so standing in just the right spot seemed less critical.

In other words…

Zooms can make you lazy with your compositions.

But if you use a prime, you have to constantly think about compositional arrangements. A prime lens encourages you to envision the composition while keeping your specific focal length constraints in mind. That way, you figure out what you want, you position yourself so that you’re in the right place, and you get ready to take the shot even before you hold the camera to your eye.

The more you get used to a single focal length, the faster you’ll be able to visualize your final shot. You’ll start to see the images with just your eyes, and you’ll be quicker on the draw.

2. Prime lenses let in lots of light

prime lens photography bride with backlit veil
Capturing a low-light image like this one would have been difficult with a zoom lens – but with my fast f/1.4 prime, it wasn’t too tough.

Generally speaking, prime lenses offer wider maximum apertures than zooms. Many prime lenses can open to f/1.8, f/1.4, and even f/1.2, whereas zooms tend to max out at f/2.8 or even f/4.

This makes a huge difference if you like to shoot indoors or at night; the wider aperture will let in more light, which means you’ll be able to get the exposure you need without needing to lower your shutter speed (risking blur) or increase your ISO (risking noise).

If you often use an 18-55mm kit lens, you may have noticed that indoor photos of your kids and other subjects turn out slightly blurry. That is why. A kit lens can’t open up the aperture to f/1.8, so your camera drops the shutter speed, leading to motion blur or blur caused by camera shake.

But if you purchase a prime lens, you give your camera more of a fighting chance. No, it won’t always produce outstanding results – sometimes, the light is so low that you’ll be forced to increase the ISO and/or drop the shutter speed anyway – but an f/1.8 prime will certainly handle the situation better than an f/2.8 or f/4 zoom!

3. Prime lenses offer a shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field is the reason most photographers love prime lenses.

Remember how I said that primes tend to feature wider maximum apertures? Well, in addition to letting in more light, a wide maximum aperture such as f/1.8 will decrease the depth of field and increase the background blur. The results look incredibly artistic:

shallow depth of field low-key portrait of a bride
By shooting wide open, you can bring the viewer’s attention to the subject’s face.

And while an f/2.8 or f/4 aperture – like those commonly found on zooms – can create decent blur, it just can’t compare to the blur created by an f/1.8 or f/1.4 lens.

Note that a shallow depth of field effect isn’t just about artistry. If you can blur the foreground and the background, your subject will stand out, and the viewer will know exactly where to focus.

Of course, you don’t have to shoot at a wide aperture. If you prefer a deeper depth of field effect, you can always narrow your lens’s aperture; what’s important is that you have the choice!

While shooting with a wide aperture won’t make you a better photographer, it does give you a higher degree of creative control over your images. And if you can fine-tune the area of your photo that’s in focus, you’ll have yet another way to take your photos to the next level!

4. Prime lenses are small and light

prime lens photography gear on the table

Would you prefer to shoot with a small, compact lens? Or a hefty, bulky lens? While the size and weight preferences are pretty subjective, I do think that most photographers prefer to keep their kit as light as possible (especially if they spend long hours on the job!).

And most prime lenses are way smaller and lighter than their zoom counterparts. When I switched from using a heavy 24-70mm zoom to a lightweight 35mm prime lens, it was like I’d bought a whole new camera. The shooting experience just felt so much better.

Now, I’m not suggesting that a lighter setup will help you produce better photos. But the shooting experience will undoubtedly be more pleasurable. You’ll be able to stay focused for longer, plus you’ll have more fun, which will encourage you to take more photos, which will, in turn, help you improve. Do you see where I’m going with this?

One thing to note, however: Not all prime lenses are equally small and light. Many fast (i.e., wide aperture) prime lenses are rather large and heavy.

But you can find plenty of ultra-small, ultra-light prime lenses, so if you like the idea of keeping your gear bag and camera setup as lightweight as possible, primes are the way to go!

5. Prime lenses boast better image quality

sunset long exposure

Let me be clear:

There are zoom lenses that offer amazing optics. In fact, if you compare some zoom lenses with their prime counterparts, the difference in sharpness and general image quality will be completely (or nearly) indiscernible.

But that’s only true for expensive, pro-grade zoom lenses – the ones that feature a fixed maximum aperture. And fixed aperture zooms are bigger, heavier, and very expensive.

Instead, I’m referring to the difference in image quality between a cheap prime lens and a cheap zoom lens. If your budget is in the $100-$300 range, you’ll be able to get a much sharper prime lens than a zoom; that way, you can capture pro-level images without ever worrying about optical problems!

When should you use prime lenses?

I love primes, and they’re especially handy in a few situations:

  • When you want stunning bokeh backgrounds (i.e., portrait and event photography)
  • When you’re working in low-light conditions (i.e., event photography, wildlife photography, and astrophotography)
  • When you need to be able to quickly visualize potential shots (i.e., street photography)
  • When you need a compact, lightweight kit (i.e., travel photography and street photography)

That said, primes aren’t always the best choice. Primes tend to fail if:

  • You need to photograph different parts of a scene but don’t have much much room to maneuver
  • You need to capture different compositions but don’t have time to move

If you’re frequently faced with either of the above issues, a zoom may be the better choice.

Prime lenses: final words

I used zoom lenses for the first few months of my career as a wedding photographer. Then I switched to primes, and I’ve never looked back.

I currently shoot with a 35mm lens for 99% of the wedding day. And when my 35mm lens doesn’t get me close enough to the action, I use an 85mm lens. Using just two focal lengths is incredibly liberating. By consistently limiting my focal length options, I’m able to “see” at 35mm or 85mm, even when the camera is away from my eye.

I certainly appreciate the value of zoom lenses, and they’re an excellent choice for many photographers. But don’t ignore the power of primes! If any of the above reasons appeal to you, a prime lens might be the way forward.

Do you plan to use a prime lens or a zoom lens? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Mark Condon
Mark Condon

Mark Condon is a British wedding photographer living with his wife and kids on the Tweed Coast in Australia. He loves to combine his passion for photography and writing with his camera gear blog, photographer marketing guides and wedding photography site.

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