Five Reasons to Shoot With Prime Lenses

Five Reasons to Shoot With Prime Lenses

I always think that knowing a bit about the author is important, especially when reading an article about camera equipment. I work predominantly as a commercial photographer shooting people and food. However, most of my kit was purchased when I was starting out as a wedding photographer. So the reasons I shoot prime lenses apply to both my event work and the more commercial work I shoot now.

That Look

The Canon 50mm f/1.2 is often lustfully talked about by portrait photographers. They get that far away look in their eyes when they discuss “that look”. Having used it on a few jobs I can confirm that this lens has a certain soft dreamy effect that really lends itself to portraiture and food work. However, I have never heard anyone talk about “that look” when discussing the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 Mark II. Prime lenses, in my opinion offer more character than their zoom counterparts. 

You Know What You Are Getting

Back when I was shooting weddings, most photographers rocked a 24-70mm f/2.8 on one shoulder and a 70-200mm on the other. Off I went to the shop and I got my two zooms to cover everything. Very quickly I came across a big issue. Picking up a 70-200mm in a rush means that you are picking up a lens that can be anywhere between 70mm and 200mm. I personally find it hard to imagine what 125mm might look like. Yet when it comes to my two prime lens set up (35mm and 85mm) I have no doubt in my mind as to what I will be seeing through the viewfinder when I raise the camera to my eye. Maybe I’m simple, but learning two focal lengths is a lot more viable that learning every mm from 24-200mm. 

Image Quality 

Primes have better image quality (IQ). A few years back a friend tried to convince me that a canon 24-70mm f/2.8 Mark II has a better IQ than a prime lens. A quick test comparing it to a cheap 85mm f/1.8 lens proved this to be utter tosh. Then when you compare it to a quality lens like an Otus, there’s really no comparison. IQ is about more than just sharpness, but the DX website offers a good starting place to compare lenses.

Weight and Size

The 70-200 f/2.8 lenses are massive, heavy, and if you shoot Canon they are also a tad ugly. Having shot a wedding for twelve hours with two pro bodies, two flash guns, one battery pack on my belt and the 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, I can confirm that it will ruin your back. (NB: Foam roller is essential post shoot recovery kit). When I moved to the faster f/1.2 and f/1.4 lenses, I also lost one flash gun and I removed the body grips as I didn’t need the extra bulk to balance out the mammoth 70-200mm lens. If like me, you end up shooting at least three long days a week, then moving over to primes will seriously improve your back and neck pain. 

Zoom Creep

This one won’t apply to many of you. Nevertheless, if you shoot food or product from above, a lot of zoom lenses just creep through the millimeters. Most have a “lock” latch, but it only locks them out at one focal length. If you know why this feature exists, please pop it in the comments as I am sure it’s there for a reason, I might just be using it wrong.

The shot above would have been impossible with my 24-70mm lens, so I took it with a 35mm prime. 

I still own zoom lenses and I do use them, often for location scouting, during the lighting tests etc, but it is rare that I shoot a final image on one. My most used zoom lens is my Canon 17-40mm f/4L which comes out whenever I shoot events, but I leave it at 17mm for the duration. The 70-200mm also makes an appearance in the studio when I need to photograph larger groups onto a backdrop and really compress the background to get full coverage.

Log in or register to post comments

22 Comments

I always thought that lens latch at the one focal length was to lock the lens from extending while one is walking around. That's what I use mine for, as the lens will creep out to max zoom when the camera is slung by my side, and not latched.

I agree about "the look" but everything else is relative.

5 Reasons to Shoot With Prime Lenses*

I understand the world operates on an extremely short news cycle these days but good grief, even the title of an article isn't safe from semantic harm?!

I kidd.... long time fan of the site - also, is fs in search of new editing staff? If so where do I submit my app?

Cheers

www.dnathanfoto.com

Peter Gargiulo's picture

Can't imagine shooting Prime without a lens. :)

Maybe he had just sent off an Amazon order.

Michael Kormos's picture

6 Tips for Writing Creative Headlines

Reginald Walton's picture

I do like primes myself (especially the Canon 135 f/2.0. I'll take my 70-200 II any day.

Nat Nichols's picture

Great article Scott. With lots of pros and cons [I’m speaking after 4 decades of shooting] we both know once upon a time zooms – like early digital cameras- were trashy vs. primes. Now by and large that has improved dramatically. In defense of zooms the good ones, like the canon 70-200 mk2 and its Nikon counterpart are pretty darn good. Yes they’re heavier. It’s the price paid for 3-4 lenses in one. And you know this - ask the average guy to out on a shoot with 3-4 bodies around you or even with an assistant. It’s cumbersome. And yes you should spend time “mastering “ your focal lengths.
If you’re willing to give up the 1-2+ stops on a zoom [more elements and groups- which can account for the image quality dispute] they can make life easier when you are unable to ‘walk around ‘ your scene. On the other side of the argument. I like you prefer good prime, and even a better prime which is likely to be sharper than many zooms. A good prime makes you use your feet, which may or may not be feasible especially if your shooting a spread on the back of a boat in the water. Fewer groups and moving elements but mainly the good ones are faster than a zoom so they sharpen up quicker when stopped down. And when someone is evaluating a lens they need to account for most of the variables – sharpness: center, edge to edge, coma , CA, distortion beyond what is acceptable for the focal length [barrel /pin] and more. All in all sometimes with the prime zoom debate it’s just a choice, otherwise it’s a necessity.

Felix Wu's picture

I had to read the title 3 times.

Not a great article. I have to say the 70-200 II is an excellent portrait lens and so is the 24-70 II. Both nail focus so are way more productive than a 1.2 prime.
I like the 50 1.2 myself but many Canon users are crying out for a replacement due to focus breathing issues. I love the 85mm 1.2 but it's slooooow focusing and hunts a lot. Both the 50 and 85 1.2 can achieve wonderful results. But you need patience and have a lot of out of focus photos. If you want consistency and accuracy get the 24-70 and 70-200. Both wonderful lenses.

Christian Berens's picture

I wish my Nikkor 200mm ƒ/2 was lighter than my 70-200 LOL

William Howell's picture

That is the sweetest of sweet humblebrags, kudos to you sir, kudos!

Christian Berens's picture

lol
i use my 70-200 at 200 for 90% of my shots it seems, so the right deal came up for my 200/2, so i went for it :D
but damn, it's heavy!!!

William Howell's picture

Is the 200mm f2 as good as everyone says?

Doc M's picture

I use a leica, primes are all we have. But a zoom would be nice every once in a while.

"The Canon 50mm f/1.2 is often lustfully talked about by portrait photographers. They get that far away look in their eyes when they discuss “that look”. ....However, I have never heard anyone talk about “that look” when discussing the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 Mark II. Prime lenses, in my opinion offer more character than their zoom counterparts..

"Primes have better image quality (IQ). ... IQ is about more than just sharpness."

Your example is flawed since that dreamy look is a result of shooting at the larger aperture that the 70-200 is incapable of. Assuming equal apertures, say 2.8, sharpness, lens coatings, etc, there should be no difference between a 70mm prime and a 70mm setting on a 70-200. There is nothing IQ related that is inherent about a prime lens, except for the *likelihood* of better sharpness and less or no vignetting, that offers more than a zoom.

"Maybe I’m simple, but learning two focal lengths is a lot more viable that learning every mm from 24-200mm."

Why do you feel you need to learn focal lengths? A focal length choice merely alters your view of something. It changes your composition. That's what photographers constantly do, besides recording it.

Zoom creep is just poor lens design. I've never experienced it.

John Skinner's picture

Had this been a message back in the 70's, I may have entertained it.

With constant aperture zoom lenses now, the difference is for pixel peeping zealots that always have a better mouse trap (comment) to throw into the mix. This is about flexibility to a working person, and, common sense dollar wise to the weekend shooter.

If I had to be lab ratted into a genre of shooting -- I would impale myself on the first sharp object I could see. People need the flex vs. costs vs. final image. Period.

Carlos Santero's picture

I fully agree to shoot with prime lenses.
For Portraits I use only my Canon 85 / 1,2 II L USM lense.
But I think for web you can use the 70-200 2.8, most people will not see the difference. (in 100% view or print you will see awesome difference)
For wildlife I shoot with my new Canon EF 600mm f4.0 L IS II USM.
I also own the Sigma 120-300 mm F2,8 APO EX DG OS HSM, it´s a very good lense but the quality of the 600mm prime lens is unbeatable.

Prime lenses are much more expensive but in mostly situations they are much better.
I think sometimes, if you are not a professional photographer its not a bad idea to rent a prime lense.

If you are a landscape photographer you can shoot in the most situations with zoom like the Tamron SP 24-70mm F/2.8 Di VC USD (My prefered lense for landscapes mostly).

Emil eriksen's picture

"moving over to primes will seriously improve your back and neck pain" - no thank you! :P

Felix Wu's picture

🙈definitely not the neck pain lol

Cinematographer Gordon Willis shot most of the time with a 40mm prime. When I began shooing 4/3, the best lens was a 20mm (40mm equivalent). It was revelatory for me! I had found the perfect focal length for my documentary-style of shooting. Willis got it right! :-)

I never have the "issues" you mention. I look through the lens and zoom to the focal length that, "fits" the situation. And, almost anything that is made/designed to do only one thing (One mm) is usually much better than something that has to do more than
two or more things. I do have a Zeiss Distagon 21mm and found it to have a much
better IQ than any 21mm from N/C/S.