5 Reasons to Use Prime Lenses For Better Photos

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The difference between prime lenses and zoom lenses can often be a source of confusion for photographers who are picking up a camera for the first time.

I remember when I first started with photography, wondering why someone would choose a lens with a fixed focal length over one with a whole range of focal lengths built into one.

Surely that would mean creating more work for yourself?!

Fast forward a few years, and I’d stepped into the world of wedding photography with my chunky DSLR and equally chunky 24-70mm zoom lens. Shooting an entire wedding with just that one lens was a piece of cake – I could go from wide-angle shots of the church to a tight, flattering portrait shot with just a twist of the zoom ring.

I’d found the perfect tool for the job… but I had to admit – it wasn’t enjoyable.

Then I started reading more about prime lenses and their various advantages. The only compromise was that I’d have walk closer to my subject, rather than just zooming in with my lens. I looked down and remembered I had two good legs, so I decided to take up the challenge!

I’m not going to tell you that prime lenses are better than zoom lenses, as they aren’t. Neither one is better than the other – it just depends on your needs.

What I’d like to do with this article is to explain why I believe that using prime lenses has helped me to produce better photos. I hope that it gives you some perspective on why you may want to choose a prime lens over a zoom lens too.

1. Composition

5 Reasons to Use Prime Lenses For Better Photos 1

I’m not saying I couldn’t have composed this photo with a zoom lens, but using a lens with a fixed focal length helped me pre-visualise the shot before I took it, making the whole process much faster.

Some might think that being able to change your composition with a zoom lens without even moving your feet would be an advantage.

However, I found it confusing to have an entire range of focal lengths literally at my fingers, and wouldn’t know where to stand before I lifted the lens to my eye. After all, a quick swivel of the barrel would ‘correct’ any distance issues, so standing in just the right spot seemed less critical.

Prepare to spit out your coffee at your screen with my next statement: Zooms can make you a bit lazy with your compositions.

However, using a prime lens encourages you to envisage the composition by the constraints of your focal length. You get set in place to take the shot even before holding the camera to your eye.

The more you get used to using just one focal length, the quicker you’ll be able to visualize your final shot by looking at the scene (with your eyes, sans camera!). In my opinion, zoom lenses with their myriad focal length options don’t encourage you to develop this skill as much.

2. Light

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In the last light of the day, capturing this image without a fast prime lens (shot at f/1.4) could have proven difficult.

Prime lenses, in general, have wider maximum apertures than zooms. More light is let in when the shutter opens, meaning you’ll be able to get the exposure you need in a low light situation without having to increase your ISO or lower your shutter speed.

Being able to shoot with a lower ISO means clearer images, and being able to use a faster shutter speed will help to improve the sharpness of your shot.

If you’ve ever wondered why those indoor shots of your kids taken with your kit lens (I’m guessing it’s a f/3.5-5.6 zoom, or similar) are slightly blurry, there’s a good chance it’s because your lens isn’t letting in enough light. Your camera is slowing down the shutter speed a bit too much to compensate.

By investing in a f/1.8 prime lens, for example, you give your camera more of a fighting chance. You allow it to take advantage of higher shutter speeds to produce sharper images.

3. Depth of Field

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By shooting wide open (f/1.4), brings the viewer’s attention to the bride’s face, despite its unusual positioning in the frame.

Now, depth of field is the main reason most photographers love using prime lenses. Prime lenses have a wider maximum aperture than zooms, enabling you to take advantage of a shallower depth of field.

Depth of Field refers to the range of focus in your image. Shooting at a wide aperture of f/1.4 provides more out-of-focus blurring effect (‘bokeh’) than there would be if you were to shoot at f/2.8. Assuming that all other variables remain constant.

The ability to blur the area both in front and behind your subject using a wide aperture helps to separate your subject from other elements in the photo. The subject stands out more.

With a telephoto zoom lens you can still produce a good amount of bokeh, usually by shooting at the maximum aperture and at a longer focal length, but this, in turn, alters perspective and creates a different look to the image.

While shooting with a wide aperture won’t make you a better photographer, it does allow a higher degree of creative control over your image. Being able to fine tune what is and isn’t in focus in your picture using a wider aperture is just one other great way to take your photography to the next level.

4. Size/Weight

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You may require more than one prime lens to allow you to shoot subjects at various distances. The size/weight of each lens is usually much less than a zoom.

Size and weight of your lens is a subjective one. I think that in general, every photographer would prefer to have a lighter lens on their camera, given a choice!

When I switched from using a heavy 24-70mm zoom to a lightweight 35mm prime lens, it was as if I’d bought a whole new camera. The shooting experience just felt so much better.

Now I’m not suggesting that just by having a smaller, lighter camera in your hands, that you’ll be able to produce better photos. However, the shooting experience will undoubtedly be more pleasurable. Having fun with your photography is an excellent catalyst for taking more pictures, which will eventually mean you’ll improve. You see what I’m getting at here?!

One thing to note: a prime lens doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be small and light. Indeed, many fast (i.e., wide aperture) prime lenses are rather large and heavy. Similarly, there are plenty of small, lightweight zooms.

For the most part, you’ll be able to find a small, lightweight prime lens that offers all the advantages listed in this article. I guarantee it’ll feel better on the end of your camera than a zoom.

5. Image Quality

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Ok, hold your horses for a second. I don’t want to wage a prime versus zoom war here! The difference in sharpness and general image quality between these two types of modern-day lenses is, for the most part, indiscernible.

However, the above statement is only valid for expensive, ‘pro-grade’ zoom lenses – usually the ones with a fixed aperture, i.e., a zoom lens which doesn’t automatically change its aperture when you twist the zoom ring. Or only ones that contain a large amount of high-quality glass.

Fixed aperture zooms are bigger, heavier, more expensive, and usually on par in image quality with even the best prime lenses.

Instead, I’m referring to the difference in image quality between a cheap prime lens and a cheap zoom lens. For around $100, you’ll be able to get a much sharper image from a cheap prime lens than you would an equivalent zoom.

All the major camera brands offer a cheap prime lens that ticks the above boxes. It’ll be able to knock the socks off the zoom lens that came with your camera.

Final Comment

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

I currently shoot with a 35mm lens for 99% of the wedding day. When I can’t get close enough to the action, I use an 85mm lens. Having only two focal lengths to think about is incredibly liberating. Through consistently limiting my focal length options, I’m able to ‘see’ in 35mm or 85mm terms, whether the camera is to my eye or not.

I appreciate zoom lenses have their place and are an excellent choice for many photographers. That said, I encourage you to have a play around with a prime lens to see how it can improve your photography too.

Feature image:Alasdair Elmes

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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.

  • I agree with you if you’re able to move around. I use a zoom lens in my photo studio. But I have to say, I have two Diana’s and when I’ve used them, for fun, I got some very creative photos.

  • roger ramjet

    I have definitely gotten away from using my prime. Time to revisit them. Thanks for the reminder.

  • KC

    For “walkabouts” and convenience I’ll use a zoom. For detail I use a “normal” prime.

    I use Micro Four Thirds so double the focal length to get a 35mm equivalent. My prime is a 25mm, it’s very small, very light, focuses very fast and is very sharp. But, if I need a little flexibility I have a very compact 12-32. Not quite as sharp, but that 12mm focal length is great for scenic shots. I have a longer zoom, a 40-150. Nice lens, a little slow, sharp enough, and a good “people” lens. It’s that “sharp enough” that works for “people” shots. My prime will pick up every flaw and almost enhances them. Not the best thing for portraits.

  • Mark – Shotkit

    Yep I hear zooms are popular options for use in studios!

  • Mark – Shotkit

    haha you’re welcome Roger! Dig it out 😉

  • Mark – Shotkit

    Ahh interesting. Try reducing clarity in Lightroom by ’10’ to see if that helps with the over-sharpness of your prime.

  • KC

    Now “over sharpness” is something you just don’t hear about often. It’s easy enough to make a preset in LR.

    But keeping this to primes, I photograph a lot of antiques for catalogs. My prime lens is merciless if a piece has a flaw-and that’s good.

    We’re in interesting times. It’s hard to tell if a lens is good optically because the camera or Raw converter can be “fixing things”.

    I do the “dog hair test”. It’s hardly scientific. I have a white dog. If I photograph him and his hair looks real, it’s a good body/lens combo.

  • Nick Harman

    Primes are good if you can carry two bodies. I covered punk bands in around 1977 with a 135 on one body and a 28 on the other. That was all I needed. I also had to do my own focussing and that also helps you ‘focus’! And with only 36 shots in each camera, you didn’t spray and pray either. Less is more.

    Today I use the old manual focus 50mm on a dSLR, it gets a nice look

  • Nick Harman

    over sharpness is something I dislike a lot, we do not see that sharply with our eyes so why is it a virtue in a photo? I dont want to count the pores in someone’s face.

  • LarryD

    One of the down sides of using prime lenses that you didn’t mention is that every time you change a lens is that you exponentially increase the possibilities of getting dust on your sensor.

  • Clive CROSBIE

    All us old folk started off with fixed focal length! 1978 I had a Praktica MTL-3 + 50/(can’t remember f no., but less than 2.0 I think).

    One important area which isn’t discussed here is Macro. True Macro (ie prime) lenses are miles superior to “zoom lens with Macro” for the following reasons:
    1 – image quality
    2 – distance between zoom lens and subject is often too close
    3 – larger diameter of zoom lens tends to shade macro shots, exacerbated by effect (2)
    4 – due to (2) there’s little or no scope to add extension tubes (with a zoom lens, tubes bring the subject up against the lens or even try to bring it inside the lens.
    I use Sony A390 + Minolta 50/2.8 RS for macro. Good old film lens.

    I’m not famous, but I do get some nice macro shots which I occasionally exhibit, and have held a few local “workshops” in my time.

  • Anne

    So, I am thinking of getting a Nikkor 135 mm. You talk about the 35 and 85 use most of the time. Can you tell me why you might use those over the 135? Thanks

  • DJ10111

    I shoot mostly weddings, and i can’t imagine not having a zoom lens. I use a tamron 2.8 70 to 200 99% of the time during receptions, i just have being in people’s faces. When shooting indoors, i use my 35mm prime on a different body. If i could get a 24 to 70, i will probably use the 35mm only dor for details. I actually have two 35mm, a manual one f1.4 and the other one is f 1.8. The reason o havenot sold these prime is because i bought a kit for macro photography for them, otherwise i wouldn’t have needed them. No offense , but i enjoy being the invisible photographer at wedding ceremonies with my 70-200, on my D7100 i actually get even more reach cause it goes up to 300mm!
    My suggestion, use them both according to your needs.

  • KC

    For portraits, I completely agree. Allow the client their vanity. Even the ancient trick of a black screen in front of the lens works. It can save you a lot of time in post/retouching.

  • Mark – Shotkit

    yeah agreed – two bodies is best, although I’m managing ok shooting weddings with just the one (and one backup left nearby!)

  • Mark – Shotkit

    Great suggestion – I agree with using both zooms and primes according to your needs. I would argue though that anything over 85mm does give a very detached ‘spying’ look to the image. It’s great for capturing candids, but doesn’t really ‘involve’ the viewer in my opinion.

  • Mark – Shotkit

    The 85mm is more versatile in tight spaces. With the 135mm, unless the room is quite big, you’ll have to use it outside (or at least somewhere where you can back up enough to fit your subject in the frame!)

    This might be of interest to you Anne: https://shotkit.com/best-nikon-lenses/

  • Mark – Shotkit

    Ah yes, macro lenses aren’t something I’ve had that much experience with Clive – thanks for the comment! Good to have some input from a veteran 😉

  • Mark – Shotkit

    This is true! On that note, the Canon EOS R is the first mirrorless camera that closes the shutter when you change a lens. Hopefully more cameras will follow suit next year…

  • Nick Harman

    Well the great portrait painters of the past knew that a ‘warts and all’ portrait would not get them a second commission! Oversharp photos also end up looking like cgi.

  • Nick Harman

    I was told by a pro,when the first Nikon D1 arrived, to always point the body down when changing lenses, and I still do. I don’t know how effective it really is but I have not had any dust trouble in all these years. Oh that D1, it cost an incredible amount of money!

  • Nick Harman

    Yes I had macro nikkor primes back in the day, sold them I think. They weren’t cheap, I wish I had kept them.

  • Nick Harman

    I needed two not just to have the lens option, but because it gave me 72 exposures over 36. Very hard to change films at a gig. Also, if I was feeling rich, one could have Tungsten ektachrome in it! But what wasn’t very often

  • Anne

    Thanks, Mark. I read a long time ago that the 85mm 1.8 is sharper than the 85mm 1.4. Is this true, and if so, why the huge difference in the price? I understand the aperture, but which would you recommend?

  • Mark – Shotkit

    No problem Anne 🙂 Yes, most of the Nikon f/1.8 lenses are sharper than the 1.4s, but as others have commented here, sharpness isn’t everything! The f/1.8 lenses are excellent performers, but they lack any real ‘character’ in my opinion.

    Lens character isn’t often talked about, but it’s something that’ll give your images that certain something that takes them to the next level. The 85mm f/1.4 creates an almost 3D effect that’s hard to replicate with any other lens.

    The huge difference in price can be attributed to the difference in build quality, quantity of glass used, and engineering required to move that glass.

    I’d say that unless you’re shooting professionally or regularly in very low light, the f/1.4 version isn’t necessary. The f/1.8 is lighter, faster to focus and much better value for money.

    I actually use f/1.8s occasionally when traveling overseas for wedding photography work, to save weight on my carry on luggage.

    I don’t want to lure you away from this post, but for the sake of relevancy, if you have any specific questions, you can leave a comment on the respective posts on Shotkit. Here’s another excellent f/1.8 Nikon lens you should consider: https://shotkit.com/nikon-35mm-1-8-review

  • Anne

    Thanks Mark, for taking the time to explain the differences between the 2 cameras. I will definitely take your recommendations!

  • Ken McDougall

    Good article. I was aware of the depth of field and low light performance advantages, but your point about composition was very interesting and I hadn’t thought about that before. A bit like limiting yourself to black and white photography so that you learn to appreciate tone, so thank you for that, I learnt something new. I have two L series zooms that cover 28 – 400mm altogether, but four relatively inexpensive primes that cover 14, 50, 85 and 150mm. The primes generally need much less lens correction in Lightroom and they are the ones most often on the camera

  • DJ10111

    Is that not why we are told to wear black when we are photographers, to be invisible? So what a better way to do it with a spy lens??
    Iwill probably get an 85 one day, but not before i get a 24 – 70mm.

  • man mohan Khullar

    Thanks Mark for nice article. I use zoom lens more often as my prime interest is in bird photography. I also use 50mm prime for family pictures. No comparison, as you rightly said, between the two. However, i frequently observed focus hunting with my prime when shooting in low light with wider aperture. Am i doing something wrong?
    Also some times with 50mm i need to move sufficiently away from object because of composition needs to cover surroundings. 35mm would be better i think but why not even 24mm? I always have this dilemma. Any suggestions?

  • Michael Barnes

    hi Nick, would love to see your shots from 1977! do you have a site? what bands did you shoot?

  • Nick Harman

    Yes, but what lens do you use?

  • Nick Harman

    I have put a few up over the last year, scanning great big ring binders of negatives is hard work!
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/7202915@N04/albums/72157662414869927

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