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, and Why You Might Prefer to Zoom With Your Feet
Why Choose a Prime Lens?
First, let's look at why primes are a good option: one of the best features in a prime lens is the larger maximum aperture. In general, prime lenses are "faster" than zoom lenses in that the usually have larger maximum aperatures, so let in more light. This is slowly changing as zoom lens improvements continue to be made by manufacturers, but in general, the faster, wider aperture offered by prime lenses will allow you to shoot in reduced lighting conditions without the need of a flash.
Are Prime Lenses Better Quality?
Next on the list is quality. While zoom lenses have been getting much better in the quality department, 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 though, 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 (35mm on APS-C crop sensors), which are made by just about every manufacturer.
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.
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 add variety into their shots within moments. While a single high-quality zoom will cover several prime lens focal lengths, meaning you'd need to carry several lenses to have the same focal length range. You also never have to change your zoom lens and risk getting dust on your image sensor (though the zooming does suck in dust, too).
For many types of photography this is the way to go, including weddings and sports. In these situations, you may not have time or the physical ability to move closer or further away to your subject. Or you might use two cameras: one with a zoom for coverage, and one with a prime for speed.
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 are 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, an older prime can be a great, affordable way to get some really fast clean images. There are some very good value lenses out there in the 28mm, 30mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 100mm range, 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.