Back in the old days all lenses were primes; zooms weren’t introduced to 35mm photography until Kilfitt released the 36-82mm f/2.8 Zoomar in 1959, although zoom lenses had been used in movie cameras since the 1930s.
Just about every point-and-shoot camera on the market today uses a zoom lens, and every brand of DSLRs boasts a wide selection of them. Prime lenses seem to have gone the way of the tie-dye T-shirt, and many amateur photographers still wonder what they’re for.
Low-light candid portraits.
Despite the clear advantages of a lens offering multiple focal lengths, it can also create a clear disadvantage in the long run, and it’s that it makes us lazy and comfortable. When you can just plonk yourself in one spot and zoom in or out to compose a shot, your creativity suffers (a special case is wildlife photography, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). Creativity comes from challenge, instability, ignorance, dissatisfaction…not from remaining immovable in one spot with one eye closed watching Life pass you by.
Live music concerts with bad light.
I’ve had photographers give me puzzled looks when I show them one of my prime lenses; they’ll often ask what it does, as if taking photos might not be its purpose. After I’ve explained the advantages of the prime in question they’ll usually want to confirm what I said with “so it really doesn’t zoom?” It’s a shame the concept of a fixed focal length has become so alien to photography newcomers.
Night photography without a tripod.
For those that just joined us, a prime lens is one that has single focal length. Instead of the lens going from 18 to 55mm, it will be only 50mm, or 35mm, or 24mm. So, you might ask, if you want to replace your 18-55mm zoom with primes, you have to use 4 lenses? (18mm, 24mm, 35mm and 55mm.) “I’d rather just carry one lens, thank-you-very-much. And it will be cheaper, too.” And this is the strong point of zooms, their selling point: They are convenient on many levels. Just to show some practical examples I've peppered the article with photos taken using primes, so you can see the range of subjects they're useful for.
I am not against zooms; my most used lens is a 28-75mm f/2.8. It’s versatile, relatively fast and with good IQ. It does a lot of what I need. But when it can’t, I know a prime will. I like taking candid portraits, and my opportunities for doing so are when I’m out with friends and family. Funnily enough, they don’t walk around with bright lights to one side and gold reflectors to the other. In fact, they tend to stay in dark pubs or indoors, away from windows. I also like shooting live music, which again, usually takes place in pubs under bad lighting. An f/2.8 lens just won’t cut it, and I’d rather not use ISO102400.
Primes are easier to design and build than zooms are, so it’s easier to make them fast. For a zoom, f/2.8 is fast, but that’s just normal for a prime. There are primes going all the way down to f/0.7, like the Zeiss which Stanley Kubrick famously used to film candle-lit scenes in Barry Lyndon, but most are somewhere between f/1.4 and f/2. Best of all, they don’t need to be large; the Pentax FA 50mm f/1.4 fits easily in a coat pocket, and at $200 will not break the bank. This is the first fast prime recommend to beginners because, despite its low price, it is a stunning performer. On a digital APS-C camera it is not as versatile as on full-frame, but I use it often at family gatherings as a short tele.
Not only are primes are fast and compact, but because they are simpler to build and incorporate less lens elements, they also offer better image quality. Many photographers who are obsessed with obtaining the sharpest, cleanest, most contrasty pictures will shoot only primes. I can’t blame them! Faster apertures also mean shallower depth of field, which is an effect you might want to exploit when isolating a subject from their surroundings.
OK, so apart from making coffee, primes have many advantages that are tangible and measurable, but let me go back to the beginning of this article and address the creativity issue. I talked about it in my article last week, where I exhorted you to take a prime and go walk around looking for opportunities. When you think you might be lost, off balance and slightly uncomfortable with your camera, when you’re not quite sure what you’re doing…chances are you are going to be more creative. That’s how a prime makes me feel. I know what it looks like through the viewfinder, but it doesn’t always reflect what I want, so I’ll move forward, or backward, or sideways, and often I end up in a completely different place to where I had imagined I’d bee. My photography benefits from this, because although I take many photos that exist in my head, often it is the unplanned shots that are the best, and you have to be slightly unstable and moving to find the magic angles.
But if you’re standing in one spot with one eye closed watching Life pass you by…
Thank you for reading.
PS: If you're wondering what different primes I used for all these photos, I'll tell you: They were all taken with the Pentax FA 50mm f/1.4 mounted on a K10D. :-)