In the 70’s and 80’s if you bought an SLR camera chances are it would come with a 50mm prime lens mounted on it. When you buy a camera these days, chances are it will come with a zoom lens. Zooms offer the convenience of having the equivalent of a bagful of prime lenses in one optic. So why then would anyone shoot with a prime lens? Let me tell you a short tale of an adventure I had in my early days with a camera.
A rather long time ago when I had just left college for the second time, I had the opportunity to spend a month in Cuba with my then girlfriend (now wife) who had been sent to work out there. Being young and easily swayed by the lure of the latest gadget I swapped my trusty Canon T90 for a bright and shiny Canon Eos 5. (The Eos 5 being a film camera not to be confused with the much later 5d). I also got rid of my collection of a about 4 prime lenses and replaced them with a standard zoom, and just a 50mm. Now as all you camera geeks know, nothing beats that first rush of enthusiasm you get when you stroll out into the world with a new camera in your hand. I strode into Havana with my shiny new camera and a plentiful supply of bulk rolled Provia 100 slide film ready to capture the the magic of this famous city.
I shot happily for a few days until the unthinkable happened. My zoom lens broke. Now of all the countries to suffer a lens failure, Cuba is probably up there with the worst because of the American trade embargo. There were no modern cameras in the shops, just the odd Russian Zenit or Fed. So resigning myself to the fact that nothing could be done, I strode, slightly crest fallen, with just my lowly 50mm lens, back out on to the streets. Then a strange thing happened. My pictures got better.
I found that instead of limiting me, having only one prime was a liberating experience. In a few days I had developed a sense of knowing what the camera would frame before I moved it to my eye, I moved around more searching for shots instead of wondering whether I should swap lenses or zoom in or out. Because I had fewer choices I made more deliberate pictures and had a much better idea of what I was looking for. I shot smarter, more deliberate photographs. I would shoot for about 6 hours a day, walking everywhere shooting about a roll of film a day. 36 exposures a day seemed a lot then, but seems an almost laughably small number now when compared to what most people shoot digitally!
The trip was something of an epiphany for me. Instead of always wondering what an image would look like with a different lens on the camera, I was forced to really understand one focal length inside and out. That is the strength of the prime lens.
Selecting a focal length should be an aesthetic choice based on how you want to represent what’s in the frame in terms of spatial relationships and depth of field. In short, pick a focal length, pick an aperture and stand in the right place! Zoom lenses encourage you to be too static, to zoom in and out when you should be walking forwards and backwards. I carry zoom lenses with me on shoots, but usually only use them in situations where I can’t move around as I wish. Church ceremonies where I have to stand at the back of the congregation being an obvious example. I shoot with primes most of the time, picking the focal length that will give me the look I want and shooting at apertures that are beyond even the fastest zoom.
The Main Advantages of Prime Lenses
1. They let in more light.
Zooms might be flexible, but most consumer zooms go no wider f3.5 and are often stop at f5.6 at the long end. Very expensive professional zooms are usually f2.8. There are affordable prime lenses that go to f1.8 or even f1.4. In laymen’s terms that means that a prime lens could let in 16x more light than a consumer zoom at the long end. That’s the difference between shooting at 400 iso and 6400 iso! If you like to shoot in low light, buying at least one prime lens is essential.
2. Better quality.
A subject that many would debate nowadays, but not in terms of cost. A £200-£400 prime lens will certainly equal, if not better a £1500 pro zoom in terms of sharpness. It really is no contest when it comes to distortion, most zooms will have at least some distortion at the far ends of their range, as they have to compromise optical quality to get a few mm extra zoom range. Prime lenses don’t have to make any such compromises. A prime lens is like a shark, it can only do one thing but it can do it very well.
3. More Aesthetic Options.
If you like shallow focus and great bokeh a prime is certainly the way to go. Most zooms stop at f2.8 – things don’t really get interesting until f2! Once you have composed the image, the look of your photos is controlled by 3 main things. Aperture selection, focus point and lens choice. Using primes gives you more apertures to choose from and makes lens choice more deliberate, you don’t zoom between a 24, 35 or a 50, you tend to make a conscious choice and stick to it. You’ll settle more firmly on certain focal lengths and know them inside out. You’ll be able to see a 24mm or 50mm picture before you’ve even put the camera to your eye.
Professional zooms are heavy. Much heavier than two equivalent prime lenses. If you are like me and can spend 8-9 hours shooting a job that weight can add up. Fatigue has an impact on creativity, and if you are doing something like weddings how long you can stay shooting without taking a break, and how tired you get has an impact on how successful your shots will be. Reportage photography is to a certain extent a numbers game. You have to be able to work hard for long periods and be there when something amazing happens. Saving weight helps reduce fatigue and helps you work for longer and with more enthusiasm, it can also spare you from back and shoulder pain or even chronic problems brought on by carrying heavy equipment around the neck or shoulders for extended periods of time.
Photographers who either use primes or cut their teeth on primes tend to move around more. You pick the lens you want to use (effectively deciding the look of a shot) and then move around to compose the image. Even with a zoom the process should be the same, select the focal length on the zoom ring then compose the shot by moving. Except for most photographers it doesn’t happen like that. If I watch inexperienced photographers shoot, more often than not the zoom does the work that the legs should be doing, the classic example at weddings would be shooting a group of friends on the widest setting of a zoom. The people on the edge of the frame won’t thank you when they see their picture! An important part of photography is developing and maintaining habitual skills. Primes help beginners learn the importance of being mobile, of not making the mistake of composing by zooming when you don’t have to, and by repetition ingraining that skill.
Of course there are some people that will say that you can do most of the above with a good zoom.
They will say the problem is personal discipline rather than equipment choice, and to an extent I agree with them. One thing I always try to avoid is solving technique or visualisation problems by spending money on something new. But to the same extent, the equipment we buy and how we use it will lead us down certain paths and ingrains habits that are hard to get rid of later on. Learning to be a photographer out in the field is about making good technique second nature so you do not make mistakes when the photograph of a lifetime presents itself. It’s like learning a musical instrument, the camera must be used almost without thinking and much of what you do must become instinct, a mode of expression rather than a machine to operate. My primary reason for recommending primes is they help beginners develop certain habits that will benefit them later on, so that if they choose to use zooms a the progress they are more likely to use them correctly. I also feel that technology and the focus on it can muddy the waters, people take photos not cameras, and simple no nonsense equipment will help anyone realise that they and not their camera are the prime mover in the creative process.
So grab a prime lens, get out there and make some fantastic work!
I’d love to know what lenses you love to use – so let me know in the comments section below.