Zoom lenses are everywhere in modern photography — from mobile devices to point and shoot cameras to entry level DSLRs, a zoom lens is pretty much a standard marketing companion. Even many higher end DSLRs typically feature a zoom lens as part of the kit. Sure, you can always buy just a camera body and choose your own lens, but, with a few exceptions, it seems that the days when cameras came with a simple 35mm or 50mm lens are a thing of film photography’s distant past.
This isn’t an effort to denigrate zoom lenses because that would be pointless; zoom lenses play a vital role in photography. But given the dynamics of modern (digital) photography, it is quite possible that many new photographers have never used or even heard of a “prime” lens.
If you happen to be one of those who have never used a prime lens — a single focal length lens — you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. Is it just hype and no substance? Is the awesomeness of prime lenses all in other people’s heads?
Both of those questions can be assuredly answered, “No.”
So let’s go over the reasons why you should give prime lenses a try and why I’m confident that you will absolutely love the results.
Prime Lenses and Image Quality
One of the things you will hear most often when it comes to why photographers adore prime lenses is for their superior image quality. To be sure, there are indeed a handful of zoom lenses that produce images of a quality approaching — if not matching — some prime lenses. But this isn’t the norm and doesn’t apply to the majority of zoom lenses.
The main reason exceptional image quality is associated with fixed focal length lenses is because they contain less glass, a less complicated optics formula, and fewer moving parts than their zoom counterparts. This all translates to better contrast (which most people interpret as sharpness), less distortion, and more pleasing bokeh (out of focus areas).
There is probably no zoom lens in existence that can match a prime lens in every aspect of image quality, and if such a zoom did exist, it would likely weigh a ton and be out of the price range of all but the richest 1%. Both Nikon and Canon make highly regarded 70-200mm zoom lenses, yet both companies also produce comparatively cheap 50mm lenses that are held in high esteem for their optical qualities.
Prime Lenses and Maximum Aperture
This could, perhaps, compete with overall image quality as the number one reason photographers love prime lenses. Having a wide maximum aperture (small f-number) gives prime lenses two very important advantages:
1. They can capture more light, meaning you won’t have to sacrifice shutter speed and you can keep ISO levels lower.
2. Their wider apertures allow more control over depth of field and, thereby, subject-background isolation.
It is not uncommon to find a prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or f/2.0. If you are willing to pay a little more, you can get a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.2. In 2013 Sigma lenses introduced the first zoom lens with a constant maximum aperture of f/1.8; all other zoom lenses on the market max out at f/2.8, with the average maximum aperture being f/3.5 to f/5.6.
Prime lenses simply hold a distinct advantage in the lens speed department. When you want to isolate your subject from the background, shoot indoors under poor lighting, or shoot outdoors at night, a prime lens is the way to go.
Prime Lenses and Your Compositional Skills
If one were to cast an aspersion of some kind on prime lenses, it would probably be that they aren’t as versatile as zoom lenses; they can’t change focal lengths. Whether that is truly a “con” is debatable. No, you can’t twist the barrel of a prime lens and suddenly be closer to your subject; you’ll have to use your feet to do that, which will change the shot’s perspective and framing. All of this means that when using a fixed focal length lens, you need to be ever so conscientious of your composition. Sometimes just taking a step forward or backward is all you need; other times, that’s not going to work at all and you’ll need to reframe/recompose the shot. The bottom line is that you will be forced to think before you shoot. If it sounds like too much work, just remember that most things worth doing aren’t usually easy. But the perceived “inconvenience” of using a prime lens may very well end up making you a better photographer.
Prime Lens Weight, Size, and Price
Prime lenses are smaller, lighter, and cheaper than zoom lenses. There are, of course, exceptions to this, particularly in terms of price, as there are some f/1.2 prime lenses that can put a real dent in your bank account. As a guiding principle, however, if you want a small, lightweight, affordable lens, you are very likely to find all these traits in a prime lens.
What Are Prime Lenses Used For?
Almost anything you want, really. And this is where prime lenses’ supposed lack of versatility becomes more a matter of perception than an objective fact.
- General purpose/walk-around lens. Sometimes you just want to grab your camera and go; you don’t have any specific themes or subjects in mind, you simply feel the urge to go out and shoot, unencumbered by a heavy lens.
- Street photography. Size and weight make a prime lens the perfect candidate for street photography. You want to be comfortable, not lugging a weighty lens around your neck; and you want to be discreet, not bringing undue attention to yourself, a feat considerably less attainable if you’ve got a foot-long lens protruding from your face.
- Close-up photography. While not true macro photography, you can use a prime lens in conjunction with a close-up filter or a set of extension tubes to approximate the look of a macro lens. You can also reverse mount one lens onto another to achieve a similar result. And just so there’s no confusion, true macro lenses are, in fact, also prime lenses.
- Portraits. Lenses 85mm and longer are often considered traditional portrait lengths. But there’s no right or wrong here; you can also use a 35mm or a 50mm lens for portraits, just be aware of the distortion that may be introduced at shorter focal lengths and compose accordingly.
The benefits of using a prime lens are many: image quality, aperture, cost, improved technique. We can’t deny, however, that there is a time and a place for zoom lenses; there are situations that simply demand them. If you shoots sports, you will likely find a zoom lens perfectly suited to what you’re shooting; a similar case can be made for wedding photography. The real drawback of prime lenses might be that you would need to carry two or three primes to cover the same focal length of one zoom.
Yet, for some photographers, the image quality of a prime lens is enough to override concerns about having to carry multiple prime lenses. If you are interested in building a collection of primes, you simply need to know what you shoot so that your collection is a smart collection. And it will almost certainly be a sharp collection.