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All Hail the Prime! Celebrate Simplicity

by David Tong

An 85mm f/1.2 Prime Lens

If you came from old-school film cameras, you’ll notice that the most common “standard” lens that came with the camera is a prime lens. There are good reasons for manufacturers to do that, mostly because of budgetary reasons, but also the benefit of having a standard piece of equipment that different users can utilize to their distinct output.

For example, a 50mm prime lens is considered a “standard” lens for a 35mm camera. 50mm approximates the field-of-view of the human eye, so when you look into the viewfinder, the image is roughly similar to what the scene would’ve looked like with your naked eye – no distortion, no compression, so to speak. This makes photography quite “documentary” for casual users, the 50mm makes users feel confident that what they shot is what they saw in real life.

But there are more technical benefits of a 50mm prime that many users don’t realize, more hidden reasons that many didn’t appreciate until lesser quality lenses came around, especially zoom lenses. I’m here to discuss the merits of prime lenses and why any photographer should at least have one (or more) prime lens in their arsenal.

This article is not a knock against zoom lenses, I’m merely citing the benefits of a prime that many fail to appreciate mainly because of lack of patience to utilize the strengths of prime lenses.

Today’s digital SLR packages usually come with a zoom lens that covers wide angle to normal tele range (28-80mm equivalent in 35mm format). While that is a very versatile focal range for most people, kit lenses lack the light-gathering capability of more expensive, constant aperture zoom lenses and kit lenses often suffer from selective focus control due to their small aperture openings as well.

As always, if budget is not a concern, then there are multitudes of high-end zoom lenses that can address your need for speed, but for new photographers who are budget conscious, most manufacturers have 50mm prime lenses that provide great optics, speed, portability, and most of all, price.

A 50mm lens on most modern day crop-sensor DSLRs will equate to roughly 80-85mm in focal length, while it seems narrow for many users who grew up with zooms, it does offer quite a lot of versatility and creative opportunities to those who wish to challenge themselves. If you’re using a full-frame film or digital SLR, then you’ll probably have more opportunities to challenge yourself due to a larger sensor/film surface to work with.

Here are some reasons why I love the 50mm prime (or primes, in general).

Portability

Image Courtesy of Amazon.com

Image Courtesy of Amazon.com

Even a 200mm prime is lighter and shorter than equivalent zoom lens unless you’re talking about expensive, wide aperture primes like the Canon EF 200mm f/2.0L IS USM. For most of us who will carry wide to short tele focal prime lenses like 30mm to 100mm, the size and weight of these primes are a lot easier to carry than their equivalent fast zooms.

Naturally, you’ll need to carry more lenses if you’re to carry more than one lens, which is a prime advantage for zoom lenses, but if you’re like me who prefers to bring no more than two primes at a time, the weight of the smaller 30mm or 50mm prime lens can almost be negligible.

Speed

For photographers, the speed of a lens describes how much light intensity the lens can allow onto the sensor or film surface at a given time, this is controlled by the lens’ aperture opening. The larger the aperture (indicated by a low f/stop number), the more light it can let through. In practice, if you see a lens with a f/2.8 imprinted, the lens can let in twice the amount of light as a f/4 lens can. So if you need 1/100sec @ f/4 to capture a scene with an f/4 lens, you can get the same exposure with the f/2.8 lens at 1/200 @ f/2.8 The advantage would be the ability to use a much faster shutter speed and the ability to freeze motion more effectively.

This aspect of speed is more pronounced in low-light conditions where you’ll be forced to use a slower shutter speed to allow more light onto your sensor or film. Slower shutter speed can increase camera shake and reduce ability to freeze subjects in motion. A high-speed lens is beneficial to stop motion and a prime, in general, can offer much larger aperture openings than a zoom lens can. At this point, most zoom lenses can only open up to f/2.6-2.8 as its widest aperture opening, while most primes can offer f/1.8 down to f/1.2 in modern lenses, that’s over two-stops advantage for an f/1.2 lens such as the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM that I reviewed recently.

Price

Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax all have their own budget 50mm prime to offer with their DSLRs, while the Canon 50mm f/1.8 Mark II (review coming soon) is by far the cheapest, the Nikon, Sony, Pentax variants are very affordable in relation to their other lenses outside the standard kit lens. All offers wonderful optics and performance in their own right and as long as you know how to utilize them effectively, the quality of images are far superior to consumer zoom lenses that are pre-packaged with the cameras.

The Canon 50mm costs roughly US$80, which is ridiculously cheap, there’s really no reason for Canon users not to have one. You can easily slip it into your pocket and have a really light, low-light lens you can use at anytime.

If you choose to venture into manual focusing, literally hundreds of high quality prime lenses from yester years can be had for the price of a camera strap. I have some M42 mount lenses from the 70s that cost me as low as US$1 and still give me astounding results when used with diligence.

While not all prime lens are cheap, rest assured that if a zoom lens can open up to the same aperture, it’ll cost even more.

Quality

While today’s zoom lenses are designed really well compared to the 80s, with new coatings and aspherical elements to minimize its natural design compromises, the fact remains that prime lenses uses less complex designs and therefore, have less compromises in image quality, in general.

Prime lenses are generally sharper, less susceptible to ghosting and flares, and are usually lighter due to less glass is used inside the lens barrel.

Compare the cheap 50mm primes I’ve mentioned above with some of the best zooms available and you’ll see that the price-to-performance factor of primes are superior.

Here are some sample photos to show why I love my primes.

Manual Focus 200mm M42 prime lens

Manual Focus 200mm M42 prime lens

Manual Focus 200mm Prime

Manual Focus 200mm Prime

85mm f/1.2 prime.

85mm f/1.2 prime.

85mm f/1.2 Prime

85mm f/1.2 Prime

Manual Focus Fujica 55mm Prime

Manual Focus Fujinon 55mm Prime

Manual Focus Suntar 135mm Prime

Manual Focus Suntar 135mm Prime

Manual Focus Makinon 135mm

Manual Focus Makinon 135mm

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8

Canon 50mm f/1.8

Canon 50mm f/1.8

Canon 50mm f/1.8

Canon 50mm f/1.8

Canon 50mm f/1.8

Canon 50mm f/1.8

Manual Focus Fujinon 55mm Prime

Manual Focus Fujinon 55mm Prime

Creativity

I waited until the end of the article to discuss about how a prime lens opens up your creative eye and your ability to analyze a scene before you press the shutter button. The lack of convenience that a prime lens provides is a blessing in disguise for many amateur and hobbyists where bad habits such as laziness in finding angles, not walking up to subjects, not taking several steps back to fit a frame, etc. are unconsciously cured.

A prime lens offers you no variable point of views from where you’re standing. You cannot change the perspective or compression of a scene without physically moving or changing the lens itself. You cannot be stagnant and shoot from a distance if you want to get up close to your subject.

In addition to that, the wide aperture that prime lenses offer allow you to play with selective focusing a lot more than a smaller aperture zoom lens. To have the liberty of to shoot a flower and have the ability to choose which petal you want to keep in focus and which should be blurred to oblivion is something only a wide aperture prime can offer with ease.

Bottom-line is, YOU have to do the work, not the lens. YOU have to find the angles, YOU have to get close. Everything is up to you to take advantage of the scene available. Isn’t that what photography is about, the photographer’s interpretation?

If you think it’s not flexible enough, then maybe you’re not trying hard enough?

I love my prime lenses, they force you to think, they force you to appreciate what you’re shooting, they force you to become a photographer. I use my primes to shoot everything from street scenes, portraits, day-to-day snapshots, to landscape, and macros. The possibilities are endless.

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