A lot of photographers prefer to use prime lenses… But why use a prime lens when many zooms available have such versatility? There are some very good reasons for choosing a prime lens as part of our photographic gear bag. Many being obvious and some that are quite surprising.
What is a prime lens? A prime lens refers to a lens of a single focal length. Its prime focal length. The first lenses for early cameras were of a single focal length. Let’s look at some reasons to use a prime lens in our own photography.
7 Reasons Why You Should Use A Prime Lens!
1. Image Quality
Lenses of a single focal length benefit from design simplicity. It is easier to design a high quality lens than to try to achieve similar image quality with a zoom lens. Image quality refers to more than sharpness, though sharpness is one of the major factors to look at when discussing image quality.
A prime lens, even a simple and inexpensive one, will often be superior in sharpness over zooms that include the prime’s focal length. Besides sharpness, other aspects of image quality include color rendition, low distortion, and being free from image degrading optical characteristics. Combing this with a tripod is a great way to get pin sharp images!
Some prime lenses are specifically designed to be of the highest image quality possible. Certain lenses from major brands have a well deserved reputation for superior sharpness. In fact, some are so sharp that a photographer may opt to use a softening filter for some types of photography. Or, adjust sharpening and desharpening controls with an image manipulation software program.
2. Low Light Performance
Even a basic prime lens is usually faster than comparable zoom lenses. Being faster, or having a wider maximum aperture, allows more light into he camera, so a photographer can use shorter shutter speeds for the lighting conditions. A prime lens can be designed to be extremely fast.
The faster zoom lenses may be two or more f-stops slower than a specialty prime lens made to be the fastest f-stop possible. While an expensive zoom lens may be f/2.8, a single focal length lens of modest price could be f/2.0 or f/1.8, like many 50mm lenses.
Super fast primes with apertures of f/1.4, f/1.2, and even f/0.95 in various focal lengths are available from the major manufacturers. These can be quite large and very expensive, but for those photographers that need the speed, there is no substitute.
3. Shallow Depth of Field
One of the functions of lens aperture besides being part of the exposure triangle is controlling depth of field. Besides achieving deep depth of focus with a small aperture, we can use a wide open aperture for shallow focus.
A neat ability of a fast lens is using selective focus to isolate a subject from the surroundings. If you want to get those shots where the background is extremely blurred out, and your subject is sharp, a prime lens will help you achieve that effect. Especially so for super fast lenses.
Of course, focal length plays a part in that as well. A super fast short telephoto can really isolate a subject with selective focus.
4. Less Distortion
Distortion is an image degrading effect where straight lines may not be rendered faithfully in the image. No lens is perfect in this regard, but primes lenses are generally better at this than zoom lenses.
Of course, not all distortion is bad for all images. Sometimes a photographer may be looking for a specific effect. But a super wide angle prime lens can be designed to be as low distortion as possible. Again, some lenses have had a stellar reputation for low distortion.
Another optical distortion is what’s called chromatic aberration. This is where different wavelengths of light are focused differently than each other. A prime lens usually has far less of this problem than zoom lenses of comparable focal lengths.
5. Size and Weight
Maybe not so much with the super fast lenses, but many primes are quite a bit smaller and lighter than zoom lenses. The normal lens that was offered with film cameras was usually one of the smallest and lightest lenses in the catalogue of lenses from that brand.
While a kit zoom lens may be pretty small and light, the f-stop of those kit zooms is very slow. A pancake lens can take the size and weight down to the absolute least imaginable for that format of camera.
A super fast prime may not be very small or light, but they are still generally less bulky than the faster premium zooms.
An extreme wide angle, super fast lens, or ultra long telephoto may be piggy bank breakers, but a basic wide angle, normal, or short tele of modest aperture is often even less expensive than the dedicated flash units of that brand.
A 500mm f/2.8 lens or a 24mm f/1.4 is going to cost as much as a quality pre owned car, but a 28mm f/2.8, a 50mm f/1.8, or a 135mm f/2.8 are generally very cost effective. Especially when you consider the image quality and lens speed inherent in these modestly priced lenses.
Those focal lengths were basic purchases for many consumer level 35mm film cameras. Keep the crop factor of your digital camera in mind when comparing lenses.
For the image quality of a good prime, that price is actually kind of amazing when you think about it. To get an aperture close to that in a zoom, and we are in the realm of high priced premium glass.
7. A Prime Can Force Us to Be a Thinking Photographer
I’m not saying that using a zoom lens means we don’t think about the photographic process. A prime lens has only one focal length. You can’t simply change things the way you can with a zoom lens. A large part of becoming a thinking photographer is cultivating the ability to look at a scene, and “see” the photos that are possible in it.
Sounds cliché, but it is real. I’ve seen again and again a photographer opening up their creativity and skills after using primes for a while.
Using a prime also makes a photographer have to move themselves to change angle of view or perspective. Once a photographer starts doing that, they recognize that camera position is very important and their own photography improves.
Ditch My Zooms?
No, a good zoom can be a valuable asset when a photographer uses it correctly. A lens and a camera are merely tools. Just like any other master craftsman or artist, knowing the right tool to use for a situation, and being able to properly control it, is a vital aspect of the photographic process.
There are very good reasons to use prime lenses in our own photography. To learn more, you can check out this helpful guide as well.