Life if full of all kinds of debates, both practical and philosophical. Chocolate or vanilla? Dogs or cats? Paper or plastic? Window or aisle? Jazz or blues? The list goes on. Most don’t really have a definitive answer, because life without choices can get pretty boring pretty fast. The Great Debates rage on, though, throughout the photography industry as well, covering everything from camera brands and strap style to memory cards and lenses. It’s the lens debate, though, that I find particularly interesting. I’m not talking about Canon vs. Nikon or Sigma vs. Tamron. I’m talking about Zooms vs. Primes.
On the one hand, it doesn’t really sound like something that should be a topic of debate. In a perfect world, most of us would select our lenses based solely on the aesthetic we’re trying to achieve. Since it is a far-from-perfect world, however, most of us have a collection of lenses in our arsenals that probably do a pretty good job of covering most of the possibilities we are likely to face on any given assignment. One of the most basic solutions to covering our bases is the zoom lens. It’s a choice that makes sense from a versatility standpoint, but I think it’s still important for every photographer to have at least one prime lens in their bag of tricks
What Is a Prime Lens?
For the beginners among us, any discussion of the benefits of primes should at least begin with making sure everybody knows what we’re talking about. At its most basic, a prime lens has a single focal length and does not zoom. Zooms tend to be more attractive to the photographer on a budget who may be moving up to their first DSLR because of the wider variety of focal lengths that a zoom might have to offer, but as we’re going to see, primes have their own unique benefits and perspectives which shouldn’t be overlooked.
Better Build Quality
This is one of those areas where “heavier” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.” A zoom lens will almost always be heavier than a prime, creating the feel of a more substantial or higher quality lens (more on weight in a minute). But additional lens elements and more moving parts can sometimes add up to a greater likelihood of something going wrong than in the case of a prime lens. This becomes somewhat less of an issue with professional-level lenses, but it is still an important factor to consider. It’s worth pointing out that simpler construction can often mean lower prices in some classes of lenses. While it is worth considering, it also doesn’t always translate to the newer professional f/1.4 or 1.2 lenses.
Better Image Quality
Again, this is yet another debate-within-the-debate. Proponents of prime lenses cite images that are often more clear, sharp, and precise than those captured by their zoom counterparts. I don’t know that I necessarily agree with this contention across the board, but fewer lens elements will definitely reduce lens flare and chromatic aberration. For those who may not know, chromatic aberration is a type of distortion in which the lens fails to focus on all colors to the same convergence point. It tends to appear more frequently in lower quality lenses, manifesting itself as fringes of color along boundaries separating light and dark parts of the image (i.e., contrast). Generally, it’s mainly an issue at the combination of a lens’ shortest focal length and its widest aperture. While zoom lens technology has been improving in this area, prime lenses almost completely eliminate it. On a similar note, prime lenses also do a better job of maintaining sharper focus along the outer edges of the frame.
Primes Are More Comfortable
When was the last time you took out your camera, snapped one or two frames, and put it away? Most of us spend hours with our cameras– not minutes. On a typical wedding shoot, I probably have a camera in my hands for about 16 hours. A prime lens is going to be much lighter weight than a zoom, simply by virtue of its construction. The Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, for instance, weighs in at 1.98 pounds, while the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 tips the scales at a mere 7.05 ounces. Being able to lighten the load, even if just for a little bit, is going to make any shoot– professional or personal– easier on the neck, shoulders, and back.
Primes are Faster
This is where the rubber meets the road. The most often-cited, most practical benefit of prime lenses is that they are simply faster than zooms. Until fairly recently, the widest constant aperture available on a zoom lens was f./2.8. Sigma changed that recently when it introduced its 18-35mm f/1.8 zoom. I assume other lens manufacturers will begin following suit, but they still haven’t been able to open up a zoom lens to 1.4 or 1.2. For that kind of wide-open aperture, you still need a prime. I’ve head some photographers dismiss the light-gathering benefits of primes in this era of ISO’s so high that you can shoot in almost no light at all, but that doesn’t matter to the portrait photographer striving for the perfectly blurry background separation. The prime will almost always result in a much more pleasing depth-of-field.
Primes Push Your Creativity
Simply put, zooming with your legs pushes you to think more about your camera placement and composition. I’m not saying that zooming out and bringing your subject closer to you (rather than the other way around) is lazy. There are plenty of times where a zoom is the only way to get the shot you need. What I am saying, though, is that a prime lens can push you creatively in ways a zoom can’t. Don’t believe me? Zoom your lens either all the way in or all the way out and commit yourself to leaving it there for the entire duration of a shoot. Getting the images you’re after may be difficult at first, but thinking creatively will get you there eventually.
Which Prime Should I Get?
One of the great things about primes is the wide variety of available lenses. While I’ve used a 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 135mm, the 35 and the 50 are still my two favorites. In the days of 35mm film, the 50mm lens most accurately approximated the human eye’s field of vision. The same would apply to a 50mm on a full-frame sensor camera. On a crop sensor (APS-C), it is the 35mm prime that best approximates the same view. This is one of the reasons that a 50mm is one of the most popular choices for a first prime lens. Both Nikon and Canon have extremely affordable versions of the 50mm f/1.8, resulting in nicknames like the “nifty fifty” or “fantastic plastic.” These are great lenses for getting your feet wet with primes, before making the jump– both creative and financial– to f/1.4 or 1.2.
Fisheye lenses generally have a focal length of less than 20mm and capture an often surreal 180° field of view. It’s easy to go overboard with a fisheye, but when used well, it can create some truly stunning results.
Macro lenses, on the other hand, get in super close, creating unique perspective and larger-than-life images. Available in focal lengths ranging from wide angle to telephoto, macro lenses are specifically designed for extremely short minimum focus distances, and usually have focus mechanisms designed for very fine-tuned adjustments. Everyone from nature to wedding photographers can find a wide variety of uses for a good macro lens.
Other specialty primes include the many artistic, fixed-focal length Lensbaby lenses.
A New Way of Looking Through Your Camera
As already pointed out, a fixed focal length lens is going to give you a very precise view of the world in front of you. The only way to change that view is to move your feet or the camera. I know several photographers who use nothing but prime lenses, and each has a very unique approach to the limited view from behind a prime lens. For some, the limited view has a way of blocking out distractions, helping them focus on what’s truly important to them about the scene. Others get so used to “what fits” in the frame that they eventually learn to view the scenes in front of them with the same focal view offered by their primes.
Primes are awesome. So are zooms. There’s obviously plenty of room in the photography world for both. Shooting with primes is certainly an acquired skill– and taste– but in many ways we can all learn a lot from taking the time to see what a prime lens can do for our style and subject matter.
Do you use prime lenses? Which ones? Tell us in the comments.