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.
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.
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.
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.