When choosing a lens for your camera, you have two general options: primes or zooms.
A prime lens covers only one focal length (e.g. 50mm), while a zoom lens covers a range of them (e.g. 24-70mm).
And while that might seem to make a zoom sound like a better choice (more focal lengths for the money = better value??) there are actually a bunch of reasons to choose a prime!
35mm @ f/1.8, 1/200s
1. More Light
A big benefit to using prime lenses is that they give you the option of letting more light into your camera because they have wider maximum apertures. Simply put, the hole in the lens can open up wider, and more light can get into the camera while the shutter is open. So if you’re shooting in a low light situation, a prime lens is going to help you get the exposure you need without needing to resort to increasing your ISO or lowering your shutter speed.
35mm @ f/2.0, 1/320s
2. Shallow Depth of Field
So we just talked about how prime lenses have wider maximum apertures than zoom lenses. The other benefit of the wider aperture is that it allows you to get shallower depth of field in your images (narrower range of the image in focus). If you’re looking to get those shots where the background is super blurred out, and your subject is nice and sharp, a prime lens will help you achieve that effect!
3. Sharper Images
Generally speaking, prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses. From a lens design perspective, when there are fewer focal lengths to have to accommodate for, it’s easier to create a lens that produces sharp images. TIP: You’ll generally want to stop down the lens a bit (i.e. increase the aperture value) since most lenses are soft when wide open. But with a prime lens, even stopping down a bit is going to still be a wide aperture, letting in lots of light, achieving a shallow depth of field, and giving you nice sharp results.
35mm @ f.2.5, 1/1000s
4. Better Image Quality
Further to that last point, you’ll also find other image quality benefits with prime lenses. There’s generally less distortion and less chromatic aberration because, again, lens manufacturers only need to control for the one focal length. So you are getting some really nice quality from these handy little primes!
35mm @ f/6.3, 1/160s
5. Good Value
Prime lenses can vary a LOT in price.
So there’s an enormous jump up in price when you really get into the high quality lenses.
But generally speaking, dollar for dollar, we find prime lenses to be better value than zooms when it comes to price for image quality.
The monkey is impressed with the quality. You will be too!
6. Smaller & Lighter
And when I say “little”, I really mean it! Prime lenses in general are smaller and lighter than zooms. So if space and weight are a big concern of yours, a prime lens could really be the right fit! You can even get “pancake” lenses, which are prime lenses that are made to be super duper small. Which isn’t necessarily how I like my pancakes, but I digress…
7. Easier To Get Used To The Focal Length
A prime lens has only one focal length. You can’t change it the way you can with a zoom lens. But I’ve found this to be a really helpful way to understand a focal length. One big part of photography is being able to look at a scene, and “see” the photos that are possible in it. When you can “see” the way the scene would be translated at a certain focal length, you have a much better idea of how your final shot will look.
So if you use a 50mm prime a lot, you’ll start to see the world in 50mm. You’ll know just how things will look when you shoot with that 50mm – what will be in the shot, what won’t be, how it will render the lines. It’s FUN! Basically a prime lens helps you develop a muscle memory for a focal length, which means less fiddling, less thinking, and more “feeling” the shot.
8. Forces You To Move
Another way that a prime can really help you creatively is that it forces you to move your feet. You cannot get closer to your subject by zooming. If you want to get closer, you have to move closer. But moving your feet is one of the best ways to get really interesting compositions. A prime lens is going to prevent you from getting stuck in the bad habit of standing still, and for this reason alone they’re well worth using!
We’ve used both primes and zooms in our careers as photographers, and while they both have their place, we have a real fondness for primes. They’re the lenses we reach for most often – for all the reasons I’ve listed above!
If you want to really dig into primes and zooms, and learn more about the different focal lengths, take a look at our full tutorial, Extremely Essential Camera Skills! It expands on these concepts, teaches you what all those funky numbers mean, and helps you start taking better photos in only a few hours! FUN!
What about you? Do you like shooting with primes? Or do you think zooms have more benefits? Let me know in the comments below!