Photography tips: the benefits of a prime lens

By Bill Hatcher 16 April 2014
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Purists don’t only exists in sports – you can also find them in photography.

ONE A RECENT rockclimbing/photo outing near Sydney I took a Nikon D800 with a fast 24 1.4 prime lens, and left the zoom at home. Why would I give up the versatility of my zoom lenses for a fixed focal length prime? As it turns out, I haven’t given up my zooms, but on this particular day my 24mm prime was the ideal lens to complete a light, compact kit allowing for a great day of climbing and photography.

I find using a prime lens brings me back to one of the things I enjoy most about photography: the adventure of looking for that sweet spot to stand and compose a photo. You might compare it to how some cyclists enjoy riding trails on a single-speed rather than on a geared bike.

Like that single-speed cyclist, when I am out shooting with only a prime lens, I may work a bit harder and need to consider my photography trail ahead of me more carefully, but what a fun ride. Maybe that’s why I find it so satisfying after I am out shooting with a prime.

The benefits of a 50mm prime lens

The first SLR camera I bought came with a 50mm prime lens, but these days SLR camera kits usually come with a zoom and not a prime. Most photographers figure they don’t need primes because a lens like the 28-300 can do the job of a bag full of prime lenses.

Even the drawbacks of zoom lenses, such as variable aperture, slow aperture speeds, lack of sharpness and revolving front lens element are only problems on less expensive zooms and are corrected on pro-level zooms.

But pro zooms are expensive and usually much bigger and heavier than other zooms. Arguments in favour of primes are that they are compact, sharp with fast apertures, and often a less expensive step as you consider upgrading to fast pro zooms. If you own only one zoom lens maybe it’s time to consider including one or two primes in your photo kit.

The 50mm 1.8 prime is an obvious first choice: it’s inexpensive as well as being a sharp and fast ‘wide’ portrait lens (85mm or 105mm being the standard for portrait lenses).

With the latest digital cameras and their very capable high ISO you don’t really need the fast glass, but the 1.8 aperture also produces a shallow depth of field that effectively blurs out backgrounds when focusing on a foreground subject – important if shooting portraits. But the clincher to getting this lens is the cost: less than $200. To me that’s incredible value.

Your second choice for a prime lens depends on what you shoot. Some primes can do what no zoom can; for example, a perspective control prime corrects converging lines, which is great for architecture. The macro lens gives 1:1 focusing for close-ups, and a fisheye lens gives 180° coverage when you want everything in your photo frame.

Among my current collection of primes, my 16mm fisheye and a fast prime like the 50mm or 24mm are almost always in my bag when I leave on shoots. But depending on the shoot I might also bring along a macro to shoot bugs, or my 20mm 2.8 for my underwater housing. And on day outings, such as this recent day at the crags, if my fat pro zooms are weighing down my camera bag, I may substitute a compact prime for a bulky zoom.

Using a prime lens makes you think about composition

My photo here is of climber Ben Smith climbing at Sydney’s Lost and Found Wall. I brought my 24mm because I knew I would be shooting climbing and I wanted to shoot with a wide-angle lens. The angle of view offered by the 24 mm has long been my favourite – not too wide to distort people, which often occurs with wider lenses, but still wide enough to be perfect for shooting a sport like rockclimbing.

To position myself I had to shimmy up into a small cave about 5m off the deck and then wait for Ben to climb into view. Because the background trees were so distracting, I opened up my 24 lens to 1.4 and that did the trick, blurring the trees to buttery softness.

Could I have shot this same picture with a zoom? Maybe I could have, but I bet my afternoon of climbing and running around to explore various photo positions with my zoom lens wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun as it was with the prime.