If you’re new to SLR photography, you may hear a lot of people talk about prime lenses. And like any newbie, you’ll probably wonder what they are. Put simply, they’re a lens of a single focal distance. Like a 50mm or 90mm. However, they are also among the most discussed and problematic areas of photography.
The reasons are simple: Photographers, by their very nature, tend to be obsessed about image quality. And the one thing primes give you is image quality. A look at the diagrams in the links below should be an indicator why.
As you can see, a prime is by its very nature a simpler, more optically ‘pure’ lens. There are fewer elements, which means less light loss (more on that in a minute), and less distortion. That drop in distortion also means less diffraction (light bouncing inside the lens, causing a loss of sharpness) and generally less flare. You can also control contrast to a greater degree, too, thanks to that simplicity.
Now, as we just mentioned, there is less light loss in a prime due to fewer elements. And this is another of the major attractions of these lenses. Less light loss means larger maximum apertures, which in turn means better low light shooting capability and more bokeh. For those new to photography, bokeh is a Japanese word literally meaning blurred or out of focus, and in English, refers to the areas that are out of focus in photos with shallow depth of field.
Now, having shot with lenses that range from f/1.4 to f/6.3 maximum aperture, I can tell you there is a hell of a lot to be said for a larger maximum aperture. Pictures often look more artistic with larger amounts of bokeh, and anyone who shoots street photography or night portraits is instantly grateful of the faster shutter speeds these larger apertures give them.
There are other, minor reasons why people love primes. They can be lighter than many zooms as they are not as complex, and landscape photographers especially love them as they make calculating hyperfocal distance – the point at which the maximum amount of the frame is in focus – easy. It’s almost pointless with a zoom, so time consuming is it.
So primes are the be all and end all of photography, no? Not really. While primes offer the ultimate in image quality, they are also quite pointless at times. The lack of zoom means no leeway to either go wider or zoom in without moving yourself. And sometimes that’s just not possible.
The range covered by many zooms also adds a lot of convenience when travelling. I reckon 90 per cent of all photo situations can be covered with a wide (15mm or so maximum on an APS-C body) zoom, 50 or 100mm macro, and a 70-200 telezoom or so. Try matching that with a set of primes. And getting them all in your camera bag.
The final straw is actually image quality. As I said above, prime image quality is invariably better. But not so much better that it makes it worth many people’s while carrying around all that extra glass. Modern zooms have improved to such a degree now that all bar the most serious enthusiasts or pros can’t tell whether a picture’s been shot with either a prime or a zoom.
Oh, and if you shoot landscapes on a cheaper APS-C body, try getting a wide prime. You can’t.
So, it’s a bit of a conundrum. Get a prime and get ultimate image quality, but with compromises, or get a zoom, and remove the convenience factors but suffer a tiny bit of quality loss.
The great thing is, with lens hire places in all capitals bar Hobart and Canberra (as far as I’m aware – correct me if I’m wrong), you can actually try beforehand and get an idea whether a prime is for you or not. If you don’t live close to a shop, companies like Rentalens can send one to you. I’d say hire them for two days at least, as it can take time to adjust, but either way, it’s a great way of getting a new perspective.
So, do you prefer primes, or do you shoot mainly with zooms? Let us know (and the reasons why) in the comments below.