Why do we use prime lenses?

September 20, 2016

4 Reasons Why We Use Prime Lenses

There are two types of lenses that most photographers use: zoom lenses and prime lenses. Zoom lenses like the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/2.8 are some of the sharpest, most reliable, and most popular zoom lenses on the market due to their practicality, versatility, and overall sharpness. For sports and wedding photographers, the ability to zoom is a necessity. For many event, portrait, journalist, and street photographers, though, prime lenses (or lenses with a fixed focal length) never leave their cameras and produce more vivid, sharper images. Like all photography, there is no “right” or “wrong”; it all comes down to preference. Since working at Creve Coeur Camera, I’ve found a majority of budding photographers tend to lean towards prime lenses in order to improve their photography. But how does using a prime lens benefit your photography, and more importantly, why do we use these fixed focal length lenses? Here are four reasons why:

  1. Optical Quality

I once heard a customer tell me, “It’s not just the camera, it’s the glass.” The same goes with the difference between zooms and primes: it’s the glass. Zoom lenses are built with more glass elements, which means the light has further to travel before hitting the camera’s sensor. Whereas with a prime lens, the light only has one element to travel through, allowing for less light degradation and sharper images. Prime lenses also typically allow for a wider maximum aperture, usually f/1.4, f/1.8, or wider. While shooting at f/1.8 or wider will not give you the sharpest focus, stepping the camera down to f/2.8 or f/4 will provide you with a much sharper image.

  1. Depth of Field—Beautiful Bokeh!

Having a lens that can open up to an f-stop of 1.4, 1.8, or even 1.2 can give you much more control over your depth of field. From a shallow sliver of focus to edge-to-edge sharpness, prime lenses allow for more creative control over your image. For most beginning portrait and event photographers, a 50mm f/1.8 lens is their first purchase, as they are often inexpensive (often referred to as a “nifty” or “thrifty” fifty) and are a great entry to “manual” settings. After all, we all bought our first prime in order to achieve that beautiful “bokeh” (a Japanese term for “blur”), which is so popular in contemporary portrait photography.

  1. Low Light

The ability to use an aperture of 1.8 or wider allows us to shoot in lower light situations, while still maintaining a shutter speed that doesn’t produce handshake or image blur, is extremely useful. While most cameras are becoming increasingly better in low light, primes are a necessity when a flash is not practical or permitted.

  1. To Prevent “Lazy Photographer Syndrome”

When I show prime lenses to customers for the first time, I remind them that they are not zooming with their lens, they are zooming with their feet. Often, we become accustomed to our gear doing the work for us. I call this “lazy photographer syndrome.” I can stand in one place, capture all of the action, and get a wider view or a tighter framing of the action. With primes, though, we are not gifted with the versatility of a zoom lens. Instead, we must use our eye to recompose, reframe, and re-envision our shot. This is why many people prefer to use focal lengths such as a 35mm or 50mm lens. Personally, I shoot primarily with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lenses, not only because of their optical quality but because shooting with a prime gives me greater artistic control and creativity when shooting.

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