A guide to prime lenses and why you should use them

Jun 22, 2017

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

A guide to prime lenses and why you should use them

Jun 22, 2017

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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After getting one’s first camera and kit lens, the first question that inevitably follows is “What lens should I buy next?”. For any given manufacturer, there’s such a huge variety. And that’s before you even consider the 3rd parties who produce lenses for that system. And, barring speciality glass like fisheye, macro and tilt shift, they generally fall into two categories. Zoom or prime.

Understanding the advantages that each has over the other can help you to make a more informed decision. This video from Craig Roberts at e6 Vlogs goes over those differences. What advantages they offer over zooms, as well as their pitfalls. With this information, it should help you narrow down your choices to at least a type of lens.

YouTube video

First one needs to understand what prime lenses are. They are lenses that offer a fixed field of view that does not change. This is the opposite of zoom lenses which have a range that covers different fields of view. This makes prime lenses feel quite limited by comparison, but there are benefits to each.

Advantages

When it comes to the advantages of primes, they perks are fairly obvious. They’re often quite small and compact, which means they also weight a lot less. Primes also have wider apertures than even most of the processional zooms, too. This means you can use them in darker conditions, and get shallower depth of field when you want it.

If carrying a small, unobtrusive lightweight kit is important to you, then a prime lens is often an easy decision. A small 35mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.8 lens is usually going to attract less attention than a 24-70mm f/2.8. They’re also generally much less expensive, if you only really need one or two prime lenses.

Also, as mentioned above, you have the benefit of at least a stop more light hitting your sensor over the f/2.8 pro zoom. Compared to the typical 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zooms that most people start with, you’re gaining potentially just over 3 stops of light. This allows you to shoot in much darker conditions than you otherwise would. And along with that aperture increase comes the ability to get a shallower depth of field.

Disadvantages

But there are disadvantages to prime lenses, too. For a start, they only have one field of view. So they’re less versatile.

A single field of view means that if you want to make something larger or small in the frame, you have to physically move. “Zoom with your feet”, as they say, which is a horrible phrase. Moving isn’t the same as zooming. When you zoom, you’re essentially cropping down into a smaller section of what you see in front of you. But when you move, you’re completely changing the perspective of your shot.

But, as beginner photographers, it will make you think more about your composition. Craig says in the video that zooms can make you lazy, because if you want to get closer to something, you can just zoom in. But, personally I don’t agree with this. It’s all about how you approach the shot. Where you’re going to be stood should be determined by the perspective you want. Then a focal length is chosen based on the field of view you need to capture or cut out elements of the scene in front of you. So, zooms don’t have to make you lazy.

I mentioned price as an advantage of prime lenses above, and if you only need one or two, then two 35mm & 50mm f/1.8 primes certainly come in at much less expense than the 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom. But if you decide to go for several primes (24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 60mm) to cover as much of that zoom’s range as possible, then you’re potentially spending a lot more.

There’s also the inconvenience of having to constantly change lenses if you find yourself regularly needing a different field of view. With a zoom, it’s just the twist of a ring.

Conclusion

The only real conclusion that matters is your own. For some, the advantages of prime lenses will outweigh the downsides. For others, the versatility of a zoom will win out.

As for myself, the only zooms I have that I use regularly are the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR for photography, and an 18-55mm kit lens that’s just for vlogging. For everything else, I use primes. Usually a 50mm, 85mm or 105mm Macro.

Strangely, I feel primes actually offer more versatility for my needs, especially when shooting video or timelapse. It means I can shoot multiple cameras with different focal lengths at the same time. If I just had one zoom lens to cover their range, that wouldn’t be possible.

How about you? Which do you prefer?

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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14 responses to “A guide to prime lenses and why you should use them”

  1. Dunja Đuđić Avatar
    Dunja Đuđić

    I only have one zoom, and it’s a kit lens. So I prefer my primes because they’re much, much sharper.

  2. Вергунов Сергей Avatar
    Вергунов Сергей

    Coz sharper.

  3. Zak Neumann Avatar
    Zak Neumann

    Zoom, mostly because I never know what kind of situation I’m going to be in.

  4. Alan Gamble Avatar
    Alan Gamble

    I think primes are really important to learning photography, because for me they taught me to move rather than relying on zoom.

  5. Tim Brook Avatar
    Tim Brook

    I prefer primes…no, zooms…no, primes…agh, I don’t know. What’s the answer?

  6. Petar Maksimovic Avatar
    Petar Maksimovic

    I prefer them for creamy bokeh and affordable speed, couldn’t care less about sharpness, I rarely ever print and almost everyone looks at photos at 1080p screens, usually less and on 5-inch screens.

  7. Mechel Hancock Waldschmidt Avatar
    Mechel Hancock Waldschmidt

    Prime unless I win the lotto. Cheaper, sharp, fast, pretty bokeh.

  8. Joshua Prieto Avatar
    Joshua Prieto

    I love my wise angle zoom but otherwise I use primes exclusively. Both have their advantages.

  9. Rob Hall Avatar
    Rob Hall

    Both have their uses.

  10. JustChristoph Avatar
    JustChristoph

    Some might take the sentence ‘… as beginner photographers, it will make you think more about your composition’ to infer that primes are for beginners. Primes are for people who have discovered that the incessant refrain that zooms offer versatility is a myth.

    No matter how good your image stabilization, it won’t help you in low light and it won’t help you with moving objects. Zoom lenses have their place, but don’t be taken in by the myth about ‘convenience and versatility’. Stick a little 35 or 50mm on the front of your camera and you’ll have all the convenience and versatility you could hope for. Take the kind of photos you always wanted to take but could never understand why they eluded you with that ridiculous zoom you’ve been touting.

  11. Steve Duffey Avatar
    Steve Duffey

    Love primes too, and don’t mind zooming with my feet but sometimes am unable to physically move closer to the subject. One other disadvantage to the prime is if you are changing focal lengths out much it’s one more opportunity for dust to get on the sensor. Despite all that, I still use primes 90% of the time.

  12. Troy Phillips Avatar
    Troy Phillips

    I love both primes and zooms for each has their place. That being said I feel primes force us to be more creative minded. You will start to see the world in the one particular fov. Then the creativity kicks in. I really like the short zooms Sigma has come out with. I use the 18-35 f/1.8 a lot. I stick it mostly on the wide end and use that for most everything and then as I get the perspective I want I may use the short zoom to crop out what I may not want in the picture. But usually I don’t mess with that. Then other times I do the opposite and put it on the long end for a series of pics and view the world from that focal lenght.
    I’m really wanting the new 28mm f/1.4 from Nikon. I haven’t seen many reviews on it but I’m betting it’s going to be a phenomenal lens. I love seeing the world through a 27-28mm focal lenght. It helps tell a story without being too wide . You can also do nice portrait work with that focal lenght. I guess it could be called Environmental Portraiture. And one of the best features of a good prime is the huge aperture. Being able to smash the background into a creamy blur is https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3106504a5aab0fab8b3435ee3a9ba5c24f705db30ef18138bc1e12cf40b1c98a.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3bf4181585fda919c6d483028b65f888f722b21ecde4b399e5b56d03f9ecd350.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e11dc89f64fbf4298000649c08c0017a7e0ecff8d38c10b7ef1913c75017059c.jpg addictive. Love the isolation.

  13. Lee Sandy Avatar
    Lee Sandy

    All depends on what your using it for. I like My prime lenses for landscapes & portraits etc but when I’m out shooting sports or events I prefer to take the zoom’s with me to enable me to follow the action.

    1. Lee Sandy Avatar
      Lee Sandy

      p.s. I really liked the post