Move. Go Prime. A Single Lens Guy Is a Happier, Healthier Shooter.

Granted, I’m in love with cheap point-and-shoot cameras — confessions right here. They’ve become so powerful, for desktop and Web publishing their output is good enough. On a recent U.S. trip we resisted the temptation of dragging along the big gear and were shooting exclusively with another Fujifilm FinePix F — love those cams. They’re cheap, they’re handy, they’re just alright. My wife is still shooting with the trusty F30! But where’s the challenge. That’s where the “prime” question comes in.

A question old as modern photography -- prime or zoom? | nature-images.eu
Shooting with serious gear I gave up on zooms. They make life so easy. The comfort zone of zooms is too alluring. Even though in many cases you’re lost without a zoom. The limitation of just one focal length can be painful. You may have to carry around multiple primes to cover your bases. So here’s the question as old as photography revisited: primes vs. zooms.

Each have their place. And why deny the achievements of modern zoom lens design and technology? Aren’t you handicapped without zoom?

Sharpness

If you’re a pixel peeper and corner-to-corner sharpness is of utmost importance to you, what are you waiting for. Even today’s best zooms have to be stopped down for tack-sharp images. A prime’s more simple construction achieves better sharpness. Full stop.

Bokeh

An essential part of photography is deciding what will be in focus and what won’t. Real quality prime glass offer smoother bokeh. Different lenses render bokeh differently due to unique optical designs. Generally, portrait and telephoto lenses with large maximum apertures yield more pleasant-looking bokeh than cheaper consumer zoom lenses.

Most fast prime lenses with round-blade apertures such as the “cream machines” Nikon 85/F1.4D (or the newer G Nikkor) and Canon 85/F1.2II USM create exceptionally good-looking, smooth bokeh.

Be careful about different versions of each lens. Do some research on different lenses, based on your photography needs. If you have a good lens, the bokeh should be creamy, smooth and soft, looking pleasing to the eye, with no hard edges.

Taken with a zoom that can look like a prime but...

Speed

In the end the f-stop rules. A prime lens will always be able to have a larger aperture opening — in relative terms that is. It has to do with a relationship between the focal length and size of the opening, allowing a $100 prime lens shooting in conditions a $1,000 zoom can’t. That just one of a few reasons why portrait and street photographers prefer prime lenses, allowing them to shoot in more difficult light and enjoying the ability to isolate their subject/object from the background.

BTW, I’m using both the terms subject and object because… does photography turn subjects into objects? Or objects into subjects? No one seems to really know. Are there only subjects or is it all objects? And the camera lens is called “objective”? Both terms are highly subjective, if not objective in the world of photography…

Still, speed alone isn’t everything. Take the super fast Canon 50/1.2, its bokeh is only mediocre with nervous blur circles.

Do your research before you buy a prime lens. They’re generally lens flat than zooms. Each lens and especially each prime has its unique character. And oh boy can they look more three dimensional than zooms. A friend recently proudly showed off images from his new D800. With a pitiful zoom on it. Great camera, poor glass. Shots looked bland, flat, empty. Spoil your camera with nice glass.

Perspective

Think of the focal length as a tool, a means to bend reality to your needs — to compress or stretch space at will.

What’s more real? The perspective your eyes see, that’s about the 35mm angle of view in full-frame terms, or the attractive effects of a zoom “compressing” vision.

Each to his own. The most striking photography is not the image on Photoshop steroids, but the simple reflection of reality. That’s where the perspective of the normal lens comes in, also called a standard lens; a lens that reproduces a field of view that generally looks “natural” to a human observer under normal viewing conditions, as compared with lenses with longer or shorter focal lengths which produce an expanded or contracted field of view that distorts the perspective when viewed from a “normal” viewing distance.

Question is, what’s a “normal” perspective. What’s the perspective with the least distortion. In other words, the perspective closest to seeing with your own eyes. That’s my base prime.

I opt for the less distortion and less exclusion of the environment. For the occasional portrait a short telephoto will do. Then again, it isn’t the lens alone that creates the perspective but rather your shooting position. To change perspective, you have to change the distance between the subject and the camera.

Cost

Good glass costs. Good fast zooms cost even more. Good zooms are big, they’re heavy, they’re expensive. And still not as fast as a prime. Or seen any F1.4 zoom? You couldn’t carry that monster.

Again, due to more compact construction — and that doesn’t mean lesser quality — primes are less expensive than zooms. The faster the prime the pricier. As a rule: go for the faster version. Get the quality you deserve right from the start. Good glass will outlast any camera body. No need to upgrade the lens anymore. So in the end you save money by spending more in the beginning.

Still, if you don’t care too much about isolating your subject/object then you’re fine with a cheaper F1.8 instead of an F1.4. If separating the subject/object from the environment is essential for your particular style of photography, then don’t even think twice about which one to go for.

... nothing beats a prime.

Build Quality

Prime lenses are generally better built. You won’t find a zoom with metal casing. With the event of high quality plastics you have no reason to worry about a plastic housing. Also, temperatures, humidity and mold may affect a plastic lens less. But there’s nothing like a beautifully dense, heavy prime lens in your hand. You get what you pay for.

Also Olympus’ latest prime offerings for Micro Four Thirds emphasize build quality, namely the 12mm F2 and 45mm F1.8.

Build quality is also what Fujifilm’s X lineup is all about. Well built and retro-styled, qualities long ignored by camera makers.

Lighter and Smaller

Despite better, more solid overall build quality a prime lens is a lighter lens to work with. If you’re a studio photographer with the camera mounted on a tripod for hours this is of no concern for you. If you move you better think about weight and compactness. A prime lens can make a huge difference that may affect your photography as a whole.

Or is your big gear collecting dust at home because you’re tired of hauling it around? Go light, go compact, go flexible. And your gear is always with you when you need it. A prime makes even a full-framer more compact.

Skills and Composition

A zoom makes life easier, doesn’t it. It’s harder working with a fixed focal length forcing you to physically move to get everything into the frame you want.

Composing and recomposing with a zoom can be done while sitting. A prime coerces you into rethinking. Experiment with different perspectives. See the whole composition and environment, don’t just focus on your subject/object alone.

Move.

Your feet cannot be replaced by a zoom.

Your feet are your wide angle and zoom.

Your zoom even comes with a caveat: you still need to use your feet.

Health

Seriously. There’s the health factor. The effort of carrying around heavy gear doesn’t make up for the weight you gain by holding out in your comfort zone, waiting to fire that zoom.

A prime is good for you. Move. Walk. Get close to your subject/object. Interact and engage. Try different angles. And again. A prime shooter is a happier, healthier shooter.

If you’re reluctant to give up the comfort of zooms, then give at least one prime lens a try.

Standard focal length is 50mm, that’s some 35mm on a cropped sensor. 50mm in full-frame terms is still relatively wide and gives you enough leverage to achieve shallow depth of field.

Put simply, a set of prime lenses will give you image quality that the best, most expensive zoom lens won’t. But it comes at the sacrifice of convenience.

Yes, I’m one of those prime lens snobs.




  • I shoot exclusively primes and I get much better shots because of it. As Jay Maisel says, “The less gear you carry the more photographs you take”…

  • dierk

    “Your feet are your wide angle and zoom.”
    I would like to ad:
    if it is not wide enough, just shoot more frames around and stitch them together to get any wide angle you want! (only static objects of course)
    I use the 75mm om my M9 very often and stitch my wide angles (and get super pixel count and resolution :)

    • Would you mind linking to a sample?

  • PWL

    I’ll disagree with you a bit here.

    I do shoot primes. BUT, I have found zooms to be very useful in what I do a lot of–live concert work. I use a 14-35mm F2 zoom (28-70mm, 35mmfilm equivalent) , which I sometimes combine with a 1.4 teleconverter, mounted on an Olympus E-3. Using this lens, I am able to go from wide to tele as the situation demands, using only one lens, which never has to come off the camera. Much better than the challenges I’ve faced with primes of having to change out one lens for another, in fast changing situations, in the dark, in the middle of a crowd–any one of whom could accidentally smack into you or spill a beer on you at the worst possible moment.

    Not to mention carrying one do-all lens beats a bulky, heavy bag of four or five lenses and two camera bodies…..

    • Didn’t attempt to polarize PWL, that’s certainly a nice combo you got there, the 14-35mm F2 is a great performer, a classic — but of substantial size as well!

      Nothing beats a nice zoom in terms of agility and flexibility. Still, be it distortion, bokeh and IQ rendering, I’d love to love zooms, but hooked to good primes there’s no way back.

      Three lenses can cover the whole range a zoom does. With today’s megapixels even some cropping is no longer taboo.

      But for situations such as you describe it certainly makes sense to have an all-rounder walkabout lens.

      I’d also never buy a point-and-shoot without zoom, but prefer the challenge of prime glass mounted on a capable sensor.