If you're a photographer and you’d like to know more about lenses, then you’ll love our free course, What Every Photographer Should Know About Lenses. In this lesson, you’ll learn all about prime lenses and when to choose them over zooms.
Prime Lenses for Photography: Why You Might Prefer to Zoom With Your Feet
Prime lenses are another useful asset to have in your kit, but not always the right tool for every situation. In this lesson, you'll learn why primes are great and also why you might want to leave them at home.
Why Choose a Prime Lens?
First, let's look at why primes are a good option. One of the best features of a prime lens is the larger maximum aperture. In general, prime lenses are faster than zoom lenses. This is slowly changing as manufacturers continue to improve zoom lenses, but in general, the faster, wider aperture offered by prime lenses will allow you to shoot in lower light without needing a flash.
Are Prime Lenses Better Quality?
Next on the list is quality. While zoom lenses have been getting much better, prime lenses are known for being high quality and having the ability to produce great images with less distortion.
It makes sense that a tool designed to do just one job is going to be better than a multi-tool. This isn’t a blanket statement; all primes are not superior to all zooms. Just like everything else, there are some primes that are extraordinary, and some that aren’t so great.
Another factor is price. Prime lenses are generally simpler in terms of construction because they have fewer moving parts. As a result, they're often less expensive. Not all primes are cheap—some of the pro lenses cost a small fortune—but there are some great bargains if you look for them. One great example of that is the ‘nifty 50’ lens—50mm prime lenses—particularly from Nikon or Canon.
Price is something that can sometimes work against primes as well. A zoom lens may be more expensive than a prime lens, but the cost of multiple lenses to cover the same focal lengths can often be the same or more.
Weight, Portability, and Flexibility
Weight is another factor to help the case for primes. Because of their simple construction, prime lenses are generally smaller and lighter than zoom lenses in similar focal lengths.
Working against them is portability. A single high-quality zoom will cover several prime lens focal lengths. This means that you only have to carry one lens instead of several lenses to have the same focal length range. You also never have to change your lens and risk getting dust on your image sensor.
One of the biggest arguments for zooms is flexibility. They allow the shooter an array of focal lengths, the ability to quickly change perspective, and the chance to add variety to their shots within moments.
For many types of photography, including weddings and sports, this is the way to go. In these situations, you may not have time or the physical ability to move closer or further away from your subject.
Primes for Video
If you use your camera for video, you may appreciate prime lenses with a manual focus only. Manual-focus-only lenses are much nicer to use for video. Manual focus rings on photo lenses only travel about 45 to 60 degrees, which makes them very fast for auto-focusing but awful for focusing for video.
Manual-focus-only lenses have a dampened focus ring, so it has some resistance, which makes it really nice for following action, and the throw is a lot longer than you'll find on photo lenses, which makes following your subjects and tracking focus much easier without missing your mark.
If you're not into video, manual-focus-only lenses will probably be more annoying than anything else—unless you're in a studio situation and you're doing a lot of critical focusing. In that case, you might want to use the manual focus anyway, even on a photo camera, to make sure you're getting exactly what you need in focus.
If you're just getting into photography or you're looking to build out your kit, spend money on high-quality zooms. This is especially true if you have a newer, higher-end camera body with exceptional noise performance.
Many fast zooms are around f/2.8. If you get a prime lens that's f/1.4, that's two full stops faster, but you might just be able to push up the ISO to the same level without any trouble. On the other hand, if you’re shooting with an older camera body, a prime can be a great way to get some really fast, clean images.
There are also some very good value lenses out there in the 28mm, 30mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 100mm ranges, so it might be worth grabbing one if you see a bargain.
Learn More About How to Use Lenses
Keep learning about how to use photographic lenses with these free tutorials.
How to Use Medium Telephoto Lenses for Photography
Decoding Lens Jargon: Image Stabilization, Coatings, and Advanced Focusing Motors
How to Use Wide-Aperture Lenses for Photography: Primes vs. Zooms in Low Light
When and How to Use Wide Angle Zoom Lenses
About the Video Author
David Bode created the video course that includes this lesson. Dave is an expert on video and audio production, and he lives in the upstate NY area. He works as a camera operator, editor, inventor, motion graphics designer, recording engineer, and studio musician.
Marie Gardiner wrote the text version of this lesson, and it was edited and published by Jackson Couse. Jackson is a photographer and the editor of the Photo & Video section of Envato Tuts+. He lives in Canada.