What is it about prime lenses? – David Ceruti
I have recently had experiences with two very different lenses, a 600mm mirror lens and a Canon EF 85mm f1.8, with only one thing in common – that they only have one focal length. So, if you want your subject to get bigger or smaller – use bipedal zoom. If you want to change the angle of view – change the lens.
We are awash with zoom lenses. And why not? They are convenient, minimise lens changes, are relatively cheap and have acceptable to great image quality.
So, why even think about using a prime lens (lens with one focal length)? Lots of reasons:
- Better pictures – prime lenses are easier to manufacture so it easier (and cheaper) to make a lens that is sharp with good colour saturation at most apertures. Most people think that the way to good pics is a better and newer camera body when the secret is good lenses. Borrow a really sharp lens from a friend, put it on your camera and compare the pics you take to some taken with a kit lens. Just be careful to check that you credit card is in good shape because you will be hooked. Zoom lenses are getting VERY good but they still are not quite there. To give you an idea, the EF 50mm f1.8 is the cheapest lens in Canon’s line up but it is equal or better than L series zoom lenses at the 50mm focal length. The L series prime lenses are in a class or their own
- A lot of bang for the buck – for equal quality, primes are can be MUCH cheaper than a zoom. Professional quality primes are expensive but entry level primes are pretty cheap and are often better than zooms. To give you an idea a 50 f1.8 costs about R1 200 and the f1.4 is around R3 800. The 28-85 F2.8L zoom has similar quality at 50mm but costs R14 000.
- Lighter – simpler means fewer parts means less weight. Now I know that there are really tough people out there but try lugging a camera around for a few hours with a big zoom attached. I guarantee you will long for a massage – another reason for needing an assistant
- You may not need a zoom – there is a reason that most portrait lenses are primes. When you are working with a model in a studio or in front of the window, you have a pretty good idea of the shot you want and it is easy to move around a little to get the best shot. It is also safer because you won’t zoom out to a wide angle in the heat of the moment and give your model a huge nose.
- A different take on photography – the fixed focal length gives you less control of the scene. At first, I was very nervous of taking action photos of the band until I found that it made me see the scene with the camera, rather than with my head. Using a prime I tend to be more open to taking a picture rather than “making” the picture and less likely to manipulate the scene. You need to be really aware and receptive to what is going on around you. This is a different discipline that can add another dimension to your photography.
- Shallow depth of field – primes have big maximum apertures and big apertures mean you can really blur out the background. This is very useful in portrait photography or when shooting anywhere where you don’t have control over the backgrounds. Also, the out of focus areas are usually smoother and better looking.
- They are FASTER – I left the best for last. The biggest aperture you can find on a zoom is f 2.8 while prime lenses can go down to f 1.0. Even entry level primes will have maximum apertures of f 1.4 to f 1.8. Practically this will let you use a shutter speed four times faster than with a f 2.8 lens. If you like photographing in anything moving in low light then a fast prime is a must. Stage and band photography, indoor sport and functions are very different with a fast lens.
If you would like to learn more about lenses and digital photography in general, then please join us on our next Fundamentals of Digital Photography course.