The term prime lens is very common, and you must have heard about it from someone you know or an article you may have read about photography.
As a matter of fact, the term is as basic as exposure or aperture, or shutter speed.
Prime lenses define a particular lens designed not to zoom but to have a fixed focal length.
This discussion will discuss prime lenses, determine why they’re so good optically, and determine their uses and limitations. We’ll also examine a few prime lenses and discuss their strengths and weaknesses.
What is a prime lens?
As I mentioned above, prime lenses have a fixed focal length. Fixed focal length means the lens cannot optically zoom in and out.
We have defined focal length elsewhere on this website and discussed how that affects your photography. But to explain what prime lenses are, I will briefly explain focal length here.
Focal length is the distance between the optical center of a lens and the imaging sensor at the back of the camera when the lens is focused at infinity.
The optical center of the lens is the point where light rays converge to form a sharp image. This distance is always measured in millimeters and has nothing to do with the actual length of the lens.
Prime lenses tend to have a wider aperture compared to zoom lenses. This wide aperture helps them pick up a lot of light, which in turn helps to produce a well-exposed photograph in almost any lighting situation.
The most significant benefit of a wide aperture is probably when you’re shooting in dark conditions. This is when there needs to be more light; therefore, kit lenses or lenses with a small maximum aperture struggle to capture a perfectly exposed photograph. However, prime lenses with their large apertures sail through.
There are prime lenses that have an aperture of f/1.8 or faster. These lenses are a joy to shoot with in any lighting conditions.
Large apertures are also beneficial for creating or capturing a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field denotes a composition where only a tiny part of the frame is focused while the rest is out of focus. This helps create an exciting composition where the subject stands out from the rest of the background.
This is also useful when you have a very busy background. You don’t want to incorporate that background in your composition. In photography, when the elements in a composition do not add to it, it is best to leave them out, or as in this case, blur them so that they do not matter in the final scheme of things.
Prime lenses versus zoom lenses
We must draw a clear line of demarcation between prime lenses and zoom lenses. Because at this stage, you have a pretty good idea of what prime lenses are. Plus, you would want to know how prime lenses differ from zoom lenses. So here we go.
Ability to Zoom
The first and most obvious point of difference is that prime lenses cannot zoom, whereas zoom lenses can. This is a real advantage in certain kinds of photography.
The second most important point of reference is that prime lenses tend to be optically superior to zoom lenses. Yes, there are zoom lenses that are optically also very high quality, but as a general trend, it has been seen that prime lenses are optically superior.
This has to do with the fact that prime lenses don’t have too many moving parts inside them, which allows engineers to focus only on the visual aspect of the lens. And thus, they can create a lens that is sharper and superior to a zoom lens.
As explained above, prime lenses tend to have a wider aperture than zoom lenses. This allows them to collect a lot of light and produce well-exposed photographs even in darker conditions. A classic example is a 50mm prime lens, also known as a nifty 50. This lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.8, way faster than a comparable kit lens, which opens up to f/5.6 when zoomed to 55mm. That is more than three stops faster.
One of the fringe benefits of a faster aperture lens is that you can capture nice bokeh. Bokeh is the quality of the out-of-focus effect. Prime lenses tend to produce bokeh that is far superior to zoom lenses.
Prime lenses are also less heavy compared to their zoom rivals. We can associate this fact with the number of elements inside a zoom lens compared to inside a prime lens.
Prime lenses are more compact for the focal length that they offer. If you plan a vacation or a photography trip, prime lenses will give you much more room to spare in your kit bag.
This is where prime lenses lose out to zoom lenses. Prime lenses can be versatile, but zoom lenses are more helpful across many genres.
You can use a zoom lens such as 18-200mm and capture a wide range of photography genres. This is one lens that you can always leave on your camera and never have a reason to take off. If you were to shoot with prime lenses, you would have to take a 35mm, a 50mm, an 85mm, and several other prime focal lengths to cover all the focal lengths that are covered by the 18-200mm lens. Sure, you won’t get wide apertures, but at least you will get the focal length coverage with the zoom lens.
Types of prime lenses
We can segregate prime lenses according to the focal length that they offer. There are three main categories: wide-angle primes, standard primes, and telephoto primes. Let’s discuss each of them in detail.
Wide angle prime
Wide-angle primes are any lenses with a focal length of less than 35mm. Lenses fitting this category include the 20mm prime, the 24mm prime, and the 15mm prime.
Wide-angle primes are ideally suitable for shooting landscape photography. These lenses are also exceptionally suitable for capturing cityscapes, interiors, architecture, weddings, group shots, and everything in between.
Standard primes usually refer to lenses with a focal length of more than 35mm but less than 60mm.
Lenses that fit this category include the 50mm, the 35mm, and the 40mm. These lenses are routinely used for capturing images where the perspective sought after is that of the human eye. The 50mm is the closest focal length to the human eye and is widely considered the standard for shooting images.
Telephoto primes are lenses with a focal length of more than 60mm. These lenses include 85mm, 105mm, 135mm, and 200mm primes.
Lenses of more than 300mm are referred to as super telephoto lenses. These lenses usually shoot birds, wildlife, and sports photography. These are also used for capturing fast action as well as landscape photography.
When should you use prime lenses?
When you want more details
The first and foremost reason is that prime lenses are optically very sharp.
If you’re shooting landscapes or fashion and anything else, you could capture much more detail with your prime lens than with a zoom lens.
They’re also suitable for any other genre of photography where a higher amount of detail is necessary.
When you want to travel light
One critical benefit of using prime lenses is that they’re lighter and more compact. This isn’t always the truth, but often it’s.
This ensures that the lens can be used and lugged about for a longer duration without feeling fatigued.
Let’s say that you’re hiking and can’t carry a heavy load on your back; a prime lens is a better option than a zoom lens, especially if the lens has a longer focal length.
When you need a lot of light
Prime lenses usually have a fast wide aperture, which means they can capture a lot of light. Zoom lenses struggle with their maximum aperture, so prime lenses are ideal for capturing images in low-light situations.
When you need a shallow depth of field
Another significant benefit of using a prime lens and the associated fast aperture is that you can capture a shallow depth of field. As explained above, fast aperture lenses have a small part of the frame in sharp focus and the rest out of focus.
A shallow depth of field helps in isolating a subject from the background. This is ideal for shooting portraits, product photos, flower photos, and other genres. It’s not advisable to use a fast aperture when shooting environmental portraits.
When you want a specific perspective
Prime lenses are designed to offer a specific perspective. The specific perspective suggests a particular angle of view, such as that offered by a 50mm or a 35mm.
Some street photographers shoot with nothing else than a 50mm prime.
The legendary street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson shot with a Leica SLR and a 50mm prime lens for most of his lifetime. He made a case for the popularity of that combination.
When you shoot with a single focal length lens, you start to pre-visualize your frames the way they will appear when you press the shutter release. It becomes muscle memory for you, and you usually don’t have to overthink when you’re shooting.
When shooting videos
One of the reasons to use a prime lens is to shoot videos. Video shooters often pick the sharpest and the widest aperture prime lenses because they’re optically sharp.
Not that zooms are not as sharp, but primes are generally, on average sharper than your average zoom lenses. Also, primes are least likely to suffer from the effects of focus breathing which is a significant advantage for shooting with them.
Disadvantages of the prime lens (when you should not use)
Among the many advantages of using prime lenses, there are also some apparent disadvantages. Let’s look at these now.
When you need to zoom
The most obvious disadvantage of using prime lenses is that you cannot zoom in with them. That means every time you change the focal length, there is no dedicated zoom ring to get you close to the action or away from it on demand.
Zoom lenses are considered to be versatile for this very reason. With zoom lenses, you can change the focal length on demand, getting close to the action when required to zoom away from the center to get a broader perspective of the scene.
It’s not that you cannot zoom in or out with a prime lens. With prime lenses, you have to use your feet to zoom; a reason why prime lenses are considered a hard-working photographers tool.
One of the obvious reasons why you need to zoom is when you’re shooting wildlife photography. This is one of the most important genres where you must keep sufficient distance between yourself and the subject.
Zoom lenses allow you to do that. It’s not that prime lenses do not offer long focal lengths, which in turn will enable you to shoot from a distance. They do, but zoom lenses are less versatile than primes.
When you need to shoot with multiple focal lengths
Why do you carry a zoom lens and not a prime lens? This is because you need to shoot with various focal lengths.
Let’s say you are shooting landscapes, but you must also shoot portraits in between. You can carry a 24mm lens, which is perfect for landscape photography. At the same time, you can also carry an 85mm lens which is ideally suitable for portrait photography. That means you must have two lenses just in case you need to shoot portraits and landscape photography.
With a zoom lens, on the other hand, such as the 24-70mm or the 24-120mm, you can use a single lens to shoot both. That will save you from having to change the lens in the middle of the shoot, carry two lenses, and the associated inconveniences that come with it.
When someone is just starting in photography
Prime lenses take a while to get used to. The photographer has to spend a considerable amount of time getting used to the limitations of a prime lens and, at the same time, getting accustomed to the angular view provided by the lens.
Prime lenses have their advantages and disadvantages, as we have just seen. But when in the right hands, they can produce beautiful images. If you’re starting as a photographer, maybe a prime lens would be too much for you to handle immediately.
6 Amazing fixed focal lengths you should try
Not exactly an ultrawide lens but still offering a splendid field of view of 108 degrees, the 16mm is a stunning lens in every right. You can capture vast landscape photos, sweeping vistas of unending space that’s difficult to shoot using any other lens. The 16mm is also very close to being an ultra-wide angle lens, yet it has less distortion.
The 24mm is a fantastic lens for shooting landscapes. It has minimal distortion when compared to the 16mm.
The 24mm offers a slightly smaller field of view. But for all practical purposes, the 24mm is a better focal length than the more exaggerated field of view of the 16mm.
The 35mm is a great focal length for everyday photography. Between the 50mm and the 35mm is more versatile in the sense that the lens offers a bit more space around the subject.
You can utilize this for capturing negative space in your compositions. But that’s just one way to use the 35mm.
The 35mm is technically neither a wide-angle lens nor a standard lens. It falls right in the middle. You can mount this lens onto your camera without having a reason to take it off.
By far the most popular and the most used focal length, the 50mm prime is a great focal length for shooting a wide number of genres of photography.
With a 50mm prime, you can do a lot, and your photography options are limited only by your limitations.
A 50mm prime is a standard length and is often called the nifty-fifty. The 50mm offers an angle of view close to the human eye. Therefore, you can shoot a perspective that’s the same as we look at things.
The 85mm is a focal length popular among photographers because it’s widely considered the best focal length for shooting portraits. Apart from portrait, this lens does not have much of a wide range of uses, but it is still helpful for other subjects such as headshots, still lifes, and even landscapes when used in the right conditions.
The 135mm is a telephoto focal length ideal for shooting portraits. However, the focal length needs to be longer for anything else, such as wildlife and birding. The focal length isn’t suitable for landscape and anything else where a wide-angle lens is required.
FAQs about prime lenses
Is a prime lens better than a zoom?
It is challenging to say if prime lenses are better than zooms or the other way around. This is because we have just seen prime and zoom lenses have advantages and disadvantages. It is the situation that demands the kind of lens that you ought to be using. As a photographer, you can use either, but the ultimate decision rests upon you.
Do professionals use prime lenses?
Professionals do have a particular fascination for prime lenses. But this is not always true. Wedding photographers, for example, prefer to use a 24-70mm lens that gives them the advantage of a wide focal length range to play with.
On the other hand, street photographers swear by the 50mm focal length. I have known bird photographers using the 400mm prime, whereas others have used the 200-500mm zoom lens to their advantage. Whether or not a professional would use a prime lens depends on the photography situation and personal preferences.
What is a fast prime lens?
A fast prime lens refers to a lens with a wide-open aperture. Usually, a prime lens with a minimum aperture of f/2.8 is considered a fast prime lens.
Such lenses capture a lot of light and are a joy to shoot with, especially when there is not enough light to work with. They are also capable of freezing action. This is because you can use a fast shutter speed with a fast aperture lens.
Is prime lens good for landscape?
Of course, they’re. There are a bunch of prime focal lengths, such as the 20mm, the 24mm, and the 28mm, which are great lenses for shooting landscape photography. These lenses are capable of capturing a broader slice of the scene in front of the camera and, at the same time, offer a fast wide aperture to work with. Short focal length lenses also offer a considerable depth of field that is very useful for landscape photography.
What is the difference between a kit lens and a prime lens?
Kit lenses are almost always zoomed lenses. These lenses are designed to offer a reasonable focal length range for everyday photography.
Kit lenses hardly ever have a vast aperture. They often struggle in low light conditions, and their sharpness and optical quality are not always the best in the business.
Prime lenses, on the other hand, as we know already, offer a wide-open aperture. These lenses are very sharp, offer excellent image quality, and are usually very well made. Most importantly, these lenses have a fixed focal length.
Can you change the aperture on a prime lens?
You can always change the aperture on a prime lens. Prime lenses come with a wide-open aperture. This is ideal for capturing much light, especially when shooting in less-than-optimum lighting conditions. They’re also suitable for capturing that shallow depth of field effect.
Can you zoom with a prime lens?
The optical design of a prime lens does not allow you to zoom, at least not with a built-in zoom ring. The reason is there is no built-in zoom ring on prime lenses.
That said, if you have to zoom with a prime lens, you can do so if you move your feet. Suppose you need an optically tighter composition to move closer to your subject. On the other hand, if you need to keep space around your subject, move away from the scene.
Both prime and zoom lenses have their advantages and disadvantages. Prime lenses stand out in several aspects. They’re optically very sharp and capture a lot of detail.
Also, as they have a larger aperture, it’s possible to capture a lot of light and a shallow depth of field, which is difficult (but not impossible) with zoom lenses.
That said, prime lenses take some time to get used to. Beginner photographers will often find prime lenses challenging because they find zoom lenses more convenient than primes.
I would say it’s all about getting used to a particular focal length. And when you do that, your brain is wired to see everything from the perspective of the angle of view possible with that lens.