Five Reasons Why I Prefer Prime Lenses for My Photography

Five Reasons Why I Prefer Prime Lenses for My Photography

The eternal debate: to prime or not to prime. Here are a few thoughts on why less can often be more.

I understand the question. Why on Earth would a photographer ever limit themselves to one focal length when you can have an entire range? Why would you restrict yourself to the rather arduous task of taking off and putting on a series of different lenses when you can accomplish the same focal length changes just by turning a comfortably rubberized ring? Why carry multiple individual pieces of glass when one could just as easily do?

You do have a point? I suppose from a purely practical point of view, the ideal lens would be one that zooms from fisheye to 500 millimeters, weighs only a pound, and opens up to f/1.4. This lens doesn’t exist (at least, I don’t think it does). But, I suppose, if it did, the idea of having one lens to rule them all would be undeniably appealing.

And it’s not that I don’t love a zoom. If you’ve read any of my previous articles, it’s likely you will have heard me groaning on about the weight of my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, but the reason I even have it in the first place is because it is one heck of a versatile lens. It’s one of my first choices when working with a model in the studio and being tasked with getting a lot of shots in a short period of time. Full, medium, closeup, boom. All without ever having to change my position.

Truth be told, I would much rather zoom with my feet, but the old knees aren’t what they used to be. So, often times, working with a zoom is less a matter of creative choice and more a matter of avoiding the 14-hour parade of air squats necessary to complete my shooting day.

Some would argue that prime lenses deliver a sharper image than zoom lenses. This may or may not be true. As a lover of primes, I’d like this to be true. Although, I think it would probably depend on which zoom and which prime you were comparing. Also, in actual practice, I can’t say that I’ve ever perceived a noticeable difference in sharpness between images I’ve taken with a zoom and ones I’ve taken with a prime. Maybe if I went image-by-image to pixel-peep. But who has time for all that?

So, given everything I’ve just said, why do I continue to find myself leaving the house with just a prime lens for so many shoots? Well, here are five quick reasons why I often leave my zoom at home.

Shallower Depth of Field for Less Money

Two simple truths in life. Photographers all love bokeh. And every human being on the planet would rather spend less money than more money.  Unless you’re trapped in some kind of weird Brewster’s Millions situation.

I’ve owned all sorts of cameras over the years and all sorts of lens mounts. And the very first lens I’ve bought for every system is a 50mm prime (or the equivalent depending on sensor size). Why? Well, these lenses are almost always the least expensive. Some of them are so cheap that it’s almost criminal not to buy one. They also generally come with very low apertures. So, you can easily get into a 50mm f/1.4 for far less than you can get into a zoom lens with a comparable aperture (if a zoom like that even exists for your system).

This faster aperture is great if you need to shoot in dark clubs or in the dark of the night. Or, if you’re like me and are sound asleep by the time the sun goes down, f/1.4 can be used in broad daylight as well to deliver smooth bokeh for your portrait sessions and really point the viewer's attention where you want it.

You can get zoom lenses that also deliver beautiful bokeh, but they generally are going to come at a much higher expense.

Weight

Those zoom lenses will also arrive at a much higher weight. It’s not that my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 is heavy, relatively speaking. It’s a fast, constant aperture over a very desirable focal range. To deliver that in full frame requires quite a bit of glass. But while it may save my knees in the studio, it also begins to wear on my neck and wrist after a while from carrying the system around my neck and having to keep tilting up the somewhat front-heavy camera and lens combination to take each shot.

Toss on a light prime (35mm, 50mm, and 85mm are my standards), and you are suddenly holding a much more manageable system. If you’re shooting all day either in the studio or out in the streets, you will feel a lot more nimble on your feet. Yes, you may need to zoom with your feet, but that is a far less demanding task when you’ve cut the weight of your lens in half or more.

Keep a Consistent Point of View 

While the first two points are pure practicality, the final three points are the real reasons I like to use primes whenever I have the chance.

Another reason I love the 50mm focal length is that, for me, it feels closest to the natural field of view of my eyes. In other words, when I look through the camera with a 50mm attached, it is very similar to how I see the world with no camera at all. Some feel that the 35mm is closer to the field of human sight. I wouldn’t necessarily argue. But for me, the 50mm feels right. (Actually, the 40mm feels perfect, but those aren't always available from all manufacturers).

So, mounting a fast 50mm to my camera allows me to simply concentrate on seeing. I don’t have to worry about focal lengths. All I have to do is keep my eyes open and see possibilities. When my eyes grab onto a beautiful frame, all I have to do is raise the camera to my eye, and my shot is already composed.  

If you maintain this focal length for long enough, this consistency will eventually form the backbone of your style and your aesthetic. Clients looking to hire you may not be able to identify that all the shots in your portfolio were shot with the same lens, but they will start to feel a level of consistency. Suddenly, that focal length will start to feel like you. The more the viewer feels you in your photograph, they more they will connect with it.  

Sticking to a prime allows me to show my point of view and to shoot at the speed of thought.

Slow You Down and Force You to Focus on Composition

Using only a prime lens can also slow you down. The benefit of shooting with a zoom is that I can quickly change my frame with the flick of a wrist.  I can shoot, shoot, shoot, without much thought to how different lenses convey different emotions in the final image. If there’s something undesirable in the frame, I can simply push in and crop it out without regard to the rest of the scene. In that way, it's far closer to taking a snapshot. 

This can be really good as it can help you move faster. It can also be bad because, if you’re not careful, you can get lazy. Sure, you can push in past that awkward pole in the frame and get a cleaner shot of the subject, but how does the model now being framed with a 70mm lens alter the feel of the final image versus at 35mm? Yes, you’ve gotten rid of the pole, but what about that tree that was providing a subtle frame within a frame in the background, which also got cut out with the zoom?

Having a fixed focal length and being forced to move with your feet can slow you down and invite you to consider the total composition before taking the shot, which can pay major dividends in the long run.

Limiting Yourself Can Actually Free You to Be More Creative

This is the most important reason why I use primes and the most difficult to explain.

Seemingly every week, camera companies put more and more technology into our hands with the aim of making it easier for us to capture beautiful images. These advancements, from faster zooms, to better autofocus, to in-body image stabilization are all net positives. It’s always nice to have more options rather than less.

But sometimes, less is more. We often try to solve our creative droughts by simply throwing more technology at the problem. If I only had this lens, I would be able to do so much more. But, more often than not, the best course of action is to actually strip away options and simplify.  

Think for a moment about a basic analogy. We want to end world hunger. Well, how do you do that? When you start to devise a plan and start trying to calculate the entire population of the Earth and all of the various situations people find themselves in, the whole thing seems incredibly daunting. The sheer scope of the global problem can be so overwhelming that it causes paralysis. No one can fix all that, so why do anything?

Instead, if you decide to take one neighborhood at a time and say "how do I fix the food shortage in my community," or my city, or my state, or country, suddenly, the problem seems more reasonable. You have a clearer view of the facts. You can really dig into the problem a bit more and be more creative based on the task at hand. Limiting your scope has actually broadened your vision. You can now address the problem.

If you repeat that process multiple times, you can eventually expand your reach by applying the same focused approach situation by situation. Then, eventually, you’ve cured world hunger.

This is obviously a very broad metaphor, but you get the point. If you’re trying to photograph the true essence of a subject and you have every tool under the sun with which to do so, you can find yourself creatively overwhelmed with the possibilities. Do you zoom in tight on the eyes just because your new fancy zoom has a macro mode? Or do you pull back to the widest end of the barrel to take in the bustling streets behind the model? Or do you do something in between? So many choices. So many options.

Try taking away some of those options, and it can refocus you on the objective and take you out of worrying about the technology. Forget for a moment what your gear can or cannot do. Think about the subject. What is the story you are trying to tell? What is it about this person specifically that deserves to be immortalized on film? Regardless of how close I “can” zoom, how far “should” I zoom with my feet to tell the most compelling narrative?

You still have an infinite number of choices to make. Shooting with primes just helps to remove some of the variables and help you mentally zoom in on what’s important. 

Log in or register to post comments

51 Comments

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

The eternal debate: to prime or not to prime. Here is my thought on why less talking about it, again, can often be more.
No need to spend 5 more minutes reading what we already read 5-10 times...

Yavor Kapitanov's picture

Live and let live man, who are you to tell people what to read. Just because you read something 5 times doesn't mean other people have... duhh

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

This article just doesn't tells anything we wouldn't know after one minute thinking.
Depth of field and weight, no comment.
Field of view, yes, it's constant, who didn't know ?
Contraints to improve composition : getting out of one's comfort zone, old stuff.
This is not worth so much time.

‘Tis but a small man who declares that which they have learned as the standard for another man’s knowledge.

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

The simple fact of there being zooms and primes should give you the questioning of why are there both, to what you get the answers above quite easily.
Or maybe my curiosity and intellect are really above average.
Sorry to be condescendant, but this article gives as good clues as "should I get a motorbike or a car ?".

Your condescending remark was exactly what I was referring to, not the specifics

Pierre Dasnoy's picture

I should stop waiting for too much from people...

Agreed that a change in attitude may be your best option, but not away from humility.

Stuart Carver's picture

I think its too late for that... he is already wayyy down the road of trying to be arrogant to strangers on the internet.

And revealing his own insecurities in the process. I’ve never understood people who try to impress by knocking down others and proclaiming a subject as simplistic. Oh you already knew something? Good for you, friend.

Bullies. And fools.

Narcissists cant help it. They have to state their superiority...then insult. ( and who else does that constantly?)

Timothy Turner's picture

I agree, there was a time when we avoided zoom lenses as though they were the plague, they would drift out of focus if they focused at all, today it's hard to tell the difference between a zoom and a prime just by looking at a photo. I have used my "kit" 18-55 and my 50mm prime on the same day, and sometimes I can't tell the difference. So it's a matter of personal preference and budget, a good zoom will cost less than a few primes.

Probably the best case I've read for both sides in a long time.

Truly it depends on which primes. I have the Sigma Art 50mm 1.4 and 135mm f1.8. None of the Sigma art lenses were designed for lower weight. Their priority was (still is) pure optical quality. Theres no weight savings when it comes to that.

At least you have a version of the "Holy Trinity" which means you're off to an excellent start and have it all covered.

There are plenty of reasons to choose a prime, my favorite is that there is one less decision for me. For now, I will be using a specific lens. It may be a 24 t/s, a vintage MF Contax 28,35,50, a Canon 85, or a vintage MF Nikkor 55 1.2, 55 micro or 105 1.8. Or a modern Sony Zeiss 35mm af 1.4
Weight does not play any part of my prime or zoom decision. I have a lot of camera stuff with me already so the total weight is not a big deal...hand holding a 35mm 1.4 (I assume you use a 1.4) it is lighter than a 24-70 2.8 by about 12 ounces, not a lot IMO. But to be fair a lot of my work starts on a tripod.
Zooming with my feet is different than zooming with a lens. Using a 28 close up is still a 28, is it better? Maybe but if I shot 5 shots at 28 and then 5 shots at 70 they are two very different looks. Sometimes I need an over all and then details on an product.

I have a shoot coming up and as a test will just use primes. But since I have too many It's almost like having a zoom :)

I used to shoot with film on a RZ67, all primes, and it worked.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I've been used to shooting with primes, that when I do shoot with a zoom (28-75), I would set the focal length I want for the shot, and still zoom with my feet.

Stuart Carver's picture

My hand was kind of forced when it came to using primes, I needed a cheap lens to attach to my camera when the GF nicked my zoom.. turns out it was a blessing in disguise, I love using a prime, now I’m used to it I can just point it at a scene and shoot.

Eric Robinson's picture

I pretty much agree with all you said even down to the creaky knees, so I feel you pain on that one. The other point I would add is using a prime allows you to think more about the subject and when paired with a tripod allows a shot to be really explored. Watch photographers using a short zoom, they will be twisting it this way and that zooming in..then out...concentrating more on the framing rather than looking and working with the subject. I’m not sure if primes are sharper but they certainly, when it comes to portraiture, allow for a more effective way of working.

Ryan Ringstad's picture

Who are these photographers that ONLY own primes or zooms? Seems to me most people have some combination of both and will pick & choose based on their needs for that day/shoot/activity.

With the exception of the 70-200, which I rarely use, I only own primes.

I use primes for a very simple reason . Less glass in construction . Less aborations better accuance, better light transmitance.
. Less optics to distort image . Even with the advent of aspherical and exotic coatings, no getting around the laws of physics . In the end less glass in construction leads to sharper images , and to answer a previous post. Me. I use primes have been for 40 years .

Dominik Vanyi's picture

Limiting myself in terms of gear was probably the best thing I ever did to improve my photography. And I went a step further by using not only primes, but vintage, manual-focus lenses. You can explore more about why Vintage manual-focus lenses made me a better photographer at:
https://blog.usejournal.com/how-manual-focus-vintage-lenses-made-me-a-be...

Depends on the situation, but I will point out that when I only have a zoom I wish I had a prime and when I only have primes with me I wish I had the zoom...

Love the one you're with...

#1. Smaller
#2. Lighter
#3. May be faster, larger aperture
#4. May be sharper.
#5. Often costs more
#6. I lack self discipline

In the end, what is the best tool for the job? Some zooms are truly "excellent". Some primes are "pathetic."

Joseph Balson's picture

That "fisheye to 500 millimeters, weighs only a pound, and opens up to f/1.4." is not good enough.
What I need is a fisheye to 800mm f0.95 zoom with a switch for rectilinear wide angle, weighing less than 2lbs, with 5 stops of stabilization, in lens ND filters up to ND1000 and a price under 1 grand.

LOL. While you're at it, you should have included 150 megapixels an a featherweight lithium-magnesium body, 5,000 shot battery durability and limitless 8 K video. Again for under a thou.

Joseph Balson's picture

oh that would be a great combo actually!!!
with mind controlled AF points!!!!

Yavor Kapitanov's picture

To be honest I've never felt the need to uses zoom lenses, unless for bird-photography or something like that.

Timothy Turner's picture

For someone new to photography there so many choices it can be confusing trying to figure it all out, I have found myself trying to decide which lens to take out for a day, some times a prime lens will simplify the process, I remember reading about a photographer named john Sexton, he used large format, and he built a career on one lens.

More comments