How to Choose Your First Prime Lens for Photography

How to Choose Your First Prime Lens for Photography

If you’re ready to upgrade from your kit lens and you’re wondering what to choose, consider getting yourself a fast — yet affordable — prime lens. Here’s an overview of the most popular options which should give you an idea of what will best suit your photography.

Prime lenses are lenses that don’t zoom. They have one, fixed focal length which makes them far less versatile than zoom lenses, but there are advantages: they have much larger apertures while still being relatively affordable.

Why Photographers Prefer Bigger Apertures

The lower the f-number, the bigger the maximum available aperture on a lens, and the more light that the lens will be capable of directing onto your camera’s sensor.

Sony’s FE 28-70mm kit lens has an aperture of f/3.5 to f/5.6. The more you zoom in, the smaller the widest aperture becomes. This design is great for manufacturers who want to keep down size and cost (this is a $400 lens), but not so good for photographers who want to shoot portraits at 70mm with a shallow depth of field. Fully zoomed in at 70mm, the widest aperture available to you will be f/5.6 — don’t expect your images to have a cinematic feel with your subject pleasantly separated from a blurry background.

A larger aperture also means that when shooting in low light, you don’t have to boost your ISO (introducing noise) or drop your shutter speed (making handheld shots impossible due to motion blur).

Because these wider apertures allow in so much more light, such lenses are described as “fast.”

The Options

There’s a wide range of prime lenses available, from fisheye and ultra-wide angle lenses through to telephoto primes. However, as your first prime, unless you have a niche that you know you want to explore, it’s best to go for something that falls in the middle.

This article makes a number of generalizations about what different lenses are for and they should be considered just that — generalizations. For example, there’s no reason not to use what’s considered a portrait lens for street photography and vice versa. 

Full Frame or Crop Sensor (APS-C)?

If you shoot on a camera with a crop (APS-C) sensor, you will have to do a little bit of maths. There’s an excellent overview to be found on the B&H Photo website.

Fast Enough Without Breaking the Bank

Some generalizations to get us started: the most expensive prime lenses have the biggest apertures, with photographers craving the bokeh (i.e., out of focus areas) offered by lenses that are f/1.4 and f/1.2.

Most manufacturers have a choice of options at the more popular focal lengths, with f/1.8 (or f/2) primes being much more affordable than their f/1.4 and f/1.2 counterparts. For example, Sony makes two 85mm lenses for its full-frame mirrorless cameras: the 85mm f/1.4 GM and the 85mm f/1.8. The f/1.8 version is one third of the price ($598) of the f/1.4 version ($1,798). The cheaper lens is also more than half the weight.

Sony 85mm lenses

Sony 85mm lenses. Left: f/1.4, $1798, 28.8 oz / 820 g. Right: f/1.8, $548, 13.09 oz / 371 g.

Unless you’re intent on making incredibly blurry backgrounds a distinctive feature of your work (perhaps like Irene Rudnyk), f/1.8 will probably be more than enough. Over time, your photography is likely to benefit from having a number of different, more affordable lenses rather than sinking all of your cash into one, single beast of a lens (and this article is written with affordable glass in mind).

That said, there are successful photographers who chose to save up and buy the most expensive prime as their first fast lens because they simply wanted the best glass that was available, along with the ultra-shallow depth of field.

The Recommendations

This article assumes that you don’t want to mortgage a nephew in order to buy this first lens, and it also assumes that you’d like autofocus.

50mm, a.k.a. the Nifty Fifty (APS-C 30-35mm)

Thanks to physics, the 50mm focal length allows manufacturers to produce lightweight, compact, sharp prime lenses with fast apertures at low cost. The result is the nifty fifty: typically a cheap, small f/1.8 lens that’s a popular choice, both for beginners who want something affordable and for seasoned professionals who enjoy having something small without compromising heavily on sharpness or speed.

The 50mm focal length is thought to be similar to what we see naturally so images tend to correspond closely with how we understand the world. For this reason, 50mm is often called a standard prime.

50mm is regarded as a fantastic lens for general use. For some photographers, it’s a versatile, do-anything tool that’s just as good for landscapes and street photography as it is for portraits. Henri Cartier Bresson described it as being an extension of his eye.

For others, it’s an unremarkable and perhaps frustrating choice of lens as it’s not really suited to anything specific. Some find that once they add a 35mm and an 85mm to their collection, they never use their 50mm again. 

You have a narrower field of view compared to that of a 35mm lens, with the 50mm prime bringing your subjects much closer. You will be more selective over what is in your frame, perhaps prompting you to be more creative and thoughtful in your compositions. While a 35mm focal length is great for responding to what’s in front of you, with 50mm you typically have to be more involved and make more choices about framing and focusing.

As lenses get wider, they start to introduce distortion. Photographing a person close-up with a wide-angle lens will stretch out the nose and narrow the face. Anything approaching the edge of the frame can get become elongated, sometimes making people’s limbs look alien. By contrast, 50mm allows you to position your subject a little further away from the lens and avoid creating this distortion.

50mm can sometimes feel a little claustrophobic when shooting landscapes. However, keep in mind that stitching together a panorama has never been easier: just shoot a series of images and merge them together when you get home.

Longer lenses naturally create a shallower depth of field compared to wider lenses and 50mm is where you start to get a level of subject separation that can make a difference to your images. It’s possible to give your portraits a slightly cinematic look and shooting wide open, you will be making more deliberate decisions over what you’d like to be in focus, leading the viewer’s eye to the most important part of the frame. 

35mm (APS-C 22-24mm) and Wider

35mm is regarded as a classic length for documentary photography. It gives you a wider field of view than the 50mm, allowing you to capture a more of a scene and give context. Some argue that 35mm is closer than 50mm to what the eye sees naturally and it’s a popular choice for street photographers and photojournalists.

Because of its wider angle, it gives a much deeper depth of field compared to a 50mm. This can mean that it’s easier to nail focus, especially when shooting at wider apertures.

Street photographers often take advantage of this difference by using a smaller aperture to ensure that as much of the frame is in focus as possible. This can help to ensure that your images are sharp when responding to fast-moving situations or shooting from the hip.

Another reason for its popularity with street photographers is that the wider angle also makes it easier to keep unpredictable movement within your frame, particularly when it’s happening close to you. If you have small children whose lives you want to document, a 35mm lens will probably be a better option than a 50mm.

That wider field of view will make life easier in tight spaces. You might always not be able to take a step back, especially if you’re shooting indoors. 35mm lends itself well to group shots and environmental portraits — situations where you want to capture a person but also give a strong sense of their location or context.

A wider angle lends itself well to capturing big landscapes. And keep in mind that if your subject feels frustratingly far away, you can always crop in post — a tactic that can also work for removing distracting elements. This means a loss of image quality but for posting online, it’s unlikely to make a noticeable difference.

You can go even wider — 28mm (17-18mm APS-C) is a popular choice for street and documentary photography, and is similar to the main camera on the majority of mobile phones. For this reason, you might want to avoid 28mm simply to have a camera that offers you something different. Wider still, 24mm (APS-C 16mm) starts lending itself well to architecture and landscapes, but keep in mind that bokeh becomes difficult to achieve unless your subject is very close to the lens.

Less experienced photographers sometimes find that wide-angle lenses are challenging because there's so much going on in the frame, but learning how to compose simply comes with practice.

A 35mm prime makes a great walk-around lens, being small, compact, and ideal for responding quickly to what’s in front of you without feeling squeezed by a narrow field of view or worrying too much about being super precise with your focusing. This makes it an ideal option for travel where you often want to give more of a sense of context rather than picking out specific details.

85mm (APS-C 50mm)

Being a longer lens, 85mm is where depth of field can start become incredibly shallow. If you’d like to give a cinematic feel to your images, an 85mm f/1.8 lens is probably the most bokeh you can get for the least amount of money.

If you plan to shoot wide open, your focussing will need to be on point. When it comes to shooting people, this is something that’s been made a lot easier in recent years by the arrival of eye autofocus.

Because of this, 85mm is regarded as a portrait lens, creating much more separation than 50mm, and creating less distortion, too. Faces and features will be closer to what your eye sees naturally. You will need to be further from your subject, giving your model more space and potentially making them feel more relaxed in front of the camera.

The narrower field of view created by this short telephoto lens will require you to be more involved in choosing your framing, deciding what’s in and what’s not, and taking far greater control over what is in focus.

For some, the telephoto lens can feel claustrophobic, while for others it’s liberating. The compression created by the longer focal length combined with a large aperture can create background elements completely out of focus, allowing you to remove messy or distracting parts of the image as they are reduced to a soft, buttery blur. 

As a result, an 85mm can feel like cheating.

Conclusion

There is a ton of other prime lenses available — you can certainly go much wider or shorter — but as an upgrade from your kit lens, I would argue that choosing from one of these three is your best option.

35mm is great for documenting everyday life and subjects that move unpredictably. 50mm starts to introduce a bit of bokeh and gets you more involved in framing your shots. 85mm starts to give your images a truly cinematic feel and is ideal for shooting portraits.

If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below.

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4 Comments

Francis Drake's picture

Years ago I chose the path of the 100mm f2.8 macro.
Works well for long range portraits and... Macro. That dual purpose + affordability makes it an option to consider.

Then when kids came I had a different approach: I will have one lens with me and it will be a prime and my subjects will be close to me, moving, indoor and I want to capture the action, not just faces... 35mm FTW!

Zobeid Zuma's picture

50mm is the classic choice, but it’s also a bit of an anomaly. Conventional wisdom says a perfect normal lens would be the same focal length as the diagonal measure of your film frame, or sensor. Thus, a 43mm lens! A surprising number of fixed-lens film cameras used to come with 40mm (or the equivalent, depending on format) lenses. It’s a historical quirk that 135 format film cameras with interchangeable lenses got locked into 50mm as their industry standard.

Samyang have a very nifty, lightweight and affordable, 45mm F1.8 for E-mount. Also, compact Konica Hexanon AR 40mm F1.8 lenses are good and cheap and plentiful on eBay, and they can be adapted very easily to mirrorless cameras, as long as you don't mind going manual aperture, manual focus. (And for a beginner, that can be a good learning exercise!)

28mm used to be a very popular wide angle, perhaps the closest thing to a standard wide lens. I think it’s fallen out of favor largely because of phones. Most of them provide this field of view, and familiarity breeds contempt. If you are shooting a “real camera” then you may feel compelled to distinguish your “real photos” from phone snapshots.

I think the obsession with blurred backgrounds has a similar basis. This has always been a technique known and used by photographers occasionally, especially for portraits, but it was not the big deal that everyone makes of it today. Now a blurred background is a way to show your photo wasn’t taken with a phone.

Jan Holler's picture

"50mm starts to introduce a bit of bokeh" Ouch! Even a 35mm f/2 has plenty of bokeh (I very much like the Nikon AI-S 35mm f/2).

Get yourself a 50mm f/1.4 and you'll get plenty of bokeh. It all depends on how close your subject is and how far away the background. See the photo below, 50mm f/1.4 1/60 ISO 400

Michelle Maani's picture

I just got rid of all my Canon stuff and am going to a Sony mirrorless environment (yes, I do know what I was doing, and please don't argue all the merits of XYZ over ZXY. I have my reasons.) So my first prime lens for Sony, that I just ordered, is a 100mm f2.8 macro. The next one is going to be a wide angle. And I'll have my kit lens and the 100-400 Sigma, and that will pretty much cover all the lenses I used when I was in the Canon world.