Prime lenses have a popularity that’s hard to ignore. If you spend some time in any photography circle – be it online forums or local camera clubs – you’ll notice they’re a favorite. Not only are primes used by enthusiasts, but they’re also huge among professionals. Why is this? Why are prime lenses so appealing? Why are they the lens of choice for so many photographers?
As a professional photographer myself, I’m well-positioned to answer all these questions (and more!). I’ve used countless prime lenses, and in this article, I explain everything you need to know, including:
- What prime lenses actually are
- What makes prime lenses so special
- The advantages and disadvantages of prime lenses compared to zooms
- When you should 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?
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.
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:
6 reasons to use a prime lens
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 tend to be cheaper
If you’re just stepping into the world of photography, costs can pile up pretty quickly. That’s why the affordability of prime lenses is so attractive.
An entry-level prime lens often gives you great quality without emptying your pockets. For instance, you can snag a 50mm f/1.8 lens for anywhere between $100 and $300. This lens isn’t just affordable; it also delivers crisp images with nice bokeh.
Sure, there are prime lenses out there that can be quite expensive, especially those with ultra-wide maximum apertures (an 85mm f/1.4, for instance, can cost an arm and a leg!). But if you compare the quality you get for the price, primes often come out on top.
Think about it: a high-quality zoom lens with an f/2.8 maximum aperture can easily cost upwards of a thousand dollars. In contrast, for a fraction of that cost, you can get a prime lens that delivers equally stunning images (and with a wider maximum aperture, too!).
So if you’re in the early stages of your photography journey, a prime lens is an excellent place to start. It allows you to hone your skills without worrying too much about the financial side of things. Of course, there are also plenty of professionals who appreciate other advantages of prime lenses, such as:
2. Prime lenses let in lots of light
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:
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
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, so you shouldn’t assume that fancy new prime glass will be ultracompact.
But you can find plenty of small, 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
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!
6. Prime lenses will improve your compositions
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.
When should you use prime lenses?
Prime lenses shine in specific scenarios. The first situation that comes to mind is low-light photography. Most prime lenses have a larger maximum aperture, such as f/1.8 or even f/1.4. This allows you to capture more light, making it easier to photograph in dim conditions without bumping up your ISO and compromising image quality. Therefore, if you’re doing a lot of low-light sports photography, event photography, or astrophotography, prime lenses can be a huge help.
In addition to low light scenarios, prime lenses are fantastic for achieving that dreamy bokeh background. You can isolate your subject beautifully, drawing attention to it while the background melts away. This is a great asset for portrait photography when you want to emphasize a particular subject in your frame, and it can also be helpful for event photography, wedding photography, and even street photography (assuming you want to isolate a specific person or object).
Third, since primes help you quickly visualize potential shots without needing to zoom in and out, they’re great for fast-paced scenarios where you don’t need a lot of focal-length flexibility. It’s one of the reasons why many street photographers swear by their prime glass.
Finally, since primes are so lightweight and compact, they’re a top choice for travel photography and even casual walkaround photography, since you can mount one on your camera, hang the setup around your neck, and only use it when needed! (This is another reason why primes are great for shooting on the streets!)
When should you avoid prime lenses?
Prime lenses are great, but they have some disadvantages. One of the biggest drawbacks is their lack of versatility in rapidly changing conditions. Imagine you’re at a sports event. The action is all over the place, and you simply don’t have the time to swap lenses. In such scenarios, a zoom lens would be the better choice, allowing you to adapt to different focal lengths on the fly.
The fixed framing of prime lenses poses another challenge. Picture yourself in a small room trying to photograph a large group of people. Without the ability to zoom out, you might find yourself backed into a corner, literally. In such tight spaces, a zoom lens offers the flexibility you’ll need.
Speaking of flexibility, let’s discuss travel photography. If you’re heading out on an adventure and can only pack one lens, a zoom lens can give you a range of focal lengths, from wide-angle to telephoto. This way, you can capture landscapes, architecture, and travel portraits without the need to switch lenses.
In essence, while prime lenses have their merits, there are situations where the flexibility and convenience of a zoom lens would serve you better. So consider what you’ll be capturing and choose your lens accordingly.
Prime lens advantages and disadvantages: 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 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.
If you’re not sure whether a prime’s advantages are worth it, take a step back and consider what you want from your photography. Are you keen on low-light shooting? A prime lens may serve you well. Need to capture a range of images on the fly? A zoom lens might be your go-to. Your specific needs should dictate your choice!
As we wrap up, the bottom line is simple: to be a well-rounded photographer, equip yourself with knowledge of both prime and zoom lenses. It’s not about which is better; it’s about which is better for you. Keep shooting, keep learning, and you’ll find the perfect lens for your artistic vision.
Now over to you:
Do you plan to use a prime lens or a zoom lens? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Note: This article was updated in October 2023 by dPS’s Managing Editor, Jaymes Dempsey.