All things held constant, prime lenses are far sharper at any given focal length than their zoom counterparts. The trade off, of course, is that you don’t have the convenience of changing the composition of an image with only a twist of the wrist.
One field where zooms seem to make the most sense is in photojournalism, since you’re oftentimes constrained with where you can shoot. But the truth of the matter is many photojournalists prefer primes. Myself included.
The reasons will vary from photographer to photographer, but two reasons I prefer fixed focal length lenses are that they tend to offer faster apertures, which help in do-or-die situations where light is all but nonexistent, and that the constraint of primes often leads to better images, as it makes me use my own legs as a means of composing images.
Regardless of why I, you or any other photographer chooses primes, I’ve decided to bring together the top five prime lenses for anyone looking to get into photojournalism.
To ensure I leave out as few people as possible, many of the lenses I’ve chosen were done so with a bit of leniency so that I can provide lenses for as many mounting options as possible across Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Sony. The lenses presented are done so in order of focal length, from smallest to largest, all based on a full-frame camera system.
Fisheye lenses aren’t for every occasion. Many times, I’ve seen them overused or used in a situation where a wide-angle lens would better get the job done. That said, there are times where fisheye lenses can truly make for a unique visual experience.
A few examples from personal experiences are using a fisheye for ultra-wide stadium shots at sporting events and using them inside/behind a net during a match. The former allows a far more expansive view of the entire environment. Rather than capturing only the band or only the stadium or only the sunset in the background, you can capture all three while adding a unique twist. The latter works because it gives a perspective that no human could ever experience within the constraints of a game. There’s little better than seeing a hockey puck slip between the legs of a goalie as he looks back in terror as it slides across the plane of the goal.
Of course, fisheyes can be used for non-sporting events, such as concerts and events that draw large crowds. But it’s always important to keep in mind that less is more. One or two fisheye images in your portfolio is more than enough. Too many and things can get extremely boring extremely fast.
Sometimes you want to go wide, but don’t care to have the distorted fisheye aesthetic. It’s in these moments that a wide-angle lens such as a 24mm is the focal length to reach for.
I’ve had the Canon 24mm f/1.4 in my bag a few times throughout my career and in every instance, this low-light beast became my go-to lens for wide-angle sports shots and wider portraits where I’m also trying to capture a crowd behind or beside the subject.
One particular instance I can think of is a shot of IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves and his daughter as they were dancing together below the pagoda at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500. Isolated in the center of the frame were Helio and his daughter; behind and beside them were camera crews galore. Unfortunately, I’m unable to share the exact image I’ve mentioned due to the licensing specifics, but below is an almost identical shot taken shortly after the aforementioned one.
By using a wide and fast lens, such as the 24mm f/1.4, I was able to capture a tack-sharp image of Helio and his daughter as they were having an intimate moment between a shaded sea of cameras (mine included), without the need for a harsh flash. I also had my 16-35mm in my bag at the time, but the f/2.8 aperture wouldn’t have allowed me to have nearly as fast a shutter speed in the shaded hallway.
All of that to say that the 24mm focal length is perfect for those times when you want to go wide, but not too wide, to show just enough of the environment and/or subject in an image.
I don’t think I need to say much about the 35mm focal length on a full-frame camera. There’s a reason it’s become all but a staple in the industry.
Of any prime I’ve ever shot with, the 35mm f/1.4 is, hands down, the most versatile prime lens I’ve come across. I’ve used it for sports, I’ve used it for hard news, I’ve used it for feature shoots. With a field of view roughly equivalent to the human eye, photos captured through a 35mm lens appear natural. This leads to a much more immersive and first-person perspective than most other primes can offer.
If I were to shoot with a single lens from now until the day I die, it would be the 35mm on a full-frame camera. Compact, fast and, for the most part, affordable, it’s hard to beat the value of a solid 35mm lens. If you can shell out the dough for an f/1.4 version, do so. The quality is exponentially better than any f/1.8 or f/2.0 options, regardless of manufacturer. Also, that extra 1/3rd stop of light makes a difference when it comes to those ultra-low light situations. That said, if you just want to dip your toes in the water, a slower version will get the job done and get you acquainted with the focal length at a much smaller cost.
This focal length might seem like an anomaly, but it has more than earned its keep in the time I’ve spent with it.
There are times in the world of photojournalism when all you need is a portrait. Many times, these tend to be needed while the subject is inside a poorly lit building. I know I’ve had my fair share of these experiences and I’m sure I’ll have many more.
One situation wherein I’ve used a 85mm more than any other is in press conferences. Oftentimes, press conferences are held in less than ideal locations and journalists need to stay back at least a dozen feet or so. The 85mm focal length is perfect in terms of distance and at either f/1.2 or f/1.4, the low-light capabilities are incredible for terrible lighting situations.
Another unconventional use I’ve come across for 85mm lenses is for indoor sports, such as volleyball and basketball. The autofocus tends to be slow compared to other lenses, but if you know where the action will be, or who it will be going to, the shallow depth of field and mid-range zoom make for a wonderful combo.
Like the 35mm lens, if you have the means to do so, go all out and get the f/1.2 or f/1.4 versions. They’re a bit bulkier than any f/2.0 or 1.8, but the low-light capability is key here. Still, if you want to try something a little more affordable to get used to the focal length, you can do so with other, slower options.
Words can’t describe how beautiful a 300mm f/2.8 lens is on a full-frame camera. I’ve never owned one, but more times than I can remember I’ve rented or borrowed one. And every single time, I’ve considered selling a kidney for one.
There’s a reason these (and the 400mm versions) are a standard in sporting events across the globe. They are fast. They have reach. And they can create some of the most beautiful bokeh you’ve ever seen when shooting wide open.
I’ve shot fullbacks running full steam ahead downfield, quarterbacks dropping back for a pass and hockey players winding up for a snapshot. And each and every time, the compression of the lens combined with the fast aperture makes for one of the most stunning aesthetics I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Outside of sporting events, 300mm lenses have also come in use when needing to get shots from far behind a police barrier or from the back of a crowd during a speech or presentation.
They aren’t cheap. They aren’t tiny. But I’ll be damned if this isn’t something every photojournalist will have in their arsenal at some point in their career.
These are simply my thoughts on some of the best lenses available from the time I’ve spent as a freelance photojournalist. There are hundreds to choose from and there are plenty more that could’ve easily made the list, but didn’t for one reason or another.
Share your thoughts below and let us know what primes are your favorites for photojournalistic endeavors!