Prime Lens Basics and Why You Should Ditch Zoom Lens Photography
Prime lenses are a not-so-secret weapon favored for their fast apertures, crisp detail, and creamy bokeh. They differ from the more commercially popular zoom lenses. This is due to their ability to better maximize available light and separate foreground from background with aesthetically-pleasing crispness. They also possess the power to be a catalyst for creativity since they force the shooter to be more physically involved in their compositions.
What Are Prime Lenses?
A prime lens is a fixed focal length lens that does not allow you to zoom in or out. In short, the determined focal length of the lens is the distance between the point of convergence in your lens to the sensor or film in your camera.
Prime lenses allow a handful of benefits compared to their zoom counterparts. The first, and most desirable, is the availability of fast apertures. With a fast aperture, a lens is able to maximize the amount of available light by opening its aperture to an f/2 – f/1.2 or even f/.95 range! Most zoom lenses do not shoot any faster than a f/2.8 (a notable exception is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 – at the time of this writing).
Why Fast Prime Lenses Matter
Being able to shoot at a fast/wide-open aperture also allows the shooter a more shallow depth of field. Depth of field (DOF) is the distance between the foreground, subject, and background. Shooting wide-open gives a narrow DOF, isolating the subject from its surroundings in terms of sharpness and clarity. The closer the lens is to the subject, the softer the foreground/background will become.
The three most popular and widely used standard primes lenses are the 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses. They are available in an array of aperture speeds and their value is dependent on their maximum aperture and overall build quality. Rounding out the category is the 24mm for wide angle lenses and the 105mm micro/macro for close-up work.
How to Choose Your Prime Lens
When choosing a prime lens, the style of camera body it is paired with will have a great effect on the final image. If you are shooting with a crop sensor body and a lens that is not built specifically for crop sensors, like EF-S lenses for Canon or DX lenses for Nikon, then there will be a visual multiplying effect on your focal length.
This essentially means that any full frame lenses (EF, FX, etc.) that you put onto a crop sensor body will have a cropping effect of approximately 1.6 (or 1.5). In real terms, this means that if you shoot at 24mm, the actual result will be closer to a 35mm image, a 35mm will be the equivalent of a 50mm, and so on. If you are shooting with a crop sensor body, do not be deterred by this! You will still be able to get tremendous imagery. Like anything else, crop sensors are a tool and, to some, even a desired feature.
You can always compensate for cropped sensors by using a shorter focal length lens than you would on a normal 35mm-sized sensor. To learn more about the differences between crop sensor and full frame sensor-designed lenses, see our article on full frame vs crop frame sensors.
Prime Lenses and Subject Matter
Another consideration will be subject matter. Portrait and food photographers tend to crop in closer to their subjects in-camera. The 85mm and 100mm lenses are great for this purpose. There is no distortion of the subject and the bokeh is soft and flattering. This affect brings even more emphasis to whatever is in focus.
For environmental and editorial work, the 35mm and 50mm seem to be the focal lengths of choice. They are versatile and interpret the scene in a way similar to how your eye perceives it. They are ideal for shooting both street photography and interiors since there is minimal distortion towards the edges of the frame and are generally wide enough to take in the context of a scene.
Wider-angle lenses are ideal for larger crowds of people or tight indoor spaces. There is more lens distortion towards the outer corners of these kinds of lenses. If it is important for something to maintain its shape, make sure to keep it in the center “sweet spot” of the lens where distortion is less noticeable.
Using Filters on Your Prime Lenses
Now that you know the basics of primes, it’s time to sprinkle a little photo magic to top it all off. A great complement to primes lenses are ND and polarizing filters. A filter paired with a prime lens will cut down the amount of light that reaches the sensor, allowing you to use slow shutter speeds even in daylight. This is great for recording movement in subjects such as water. It will also decrease DOF by allowing wider apertures to be used in bright light situations.
There are many options out there in terms of lenses and, as in any craft, multiple ways to achieve the same thing. What’s important to remember is that prime lenses are your friend and not to be shied away from for lack of focal length convenience. They can help if you you’re in need of photography inspiration or if you want to go for a particular look. Primes take patience when learning. Catching focus consistently can be tough as there is a much narrower DOF to nail while shooting wide open.
What Primes Can Do For You
- Choosing the right focal length for your subject strongly emphasizes your point-of-view. Being aware of what body type you are pairing a prime lens with is crucial for compensating for a potential crop factor.
- When shooting with only primes, you are forced to be more physically involved. You are essentially using your body as the zoom, which has the power to encourage more creativity and see different angles.
- Being aware of available accessories, such as filters, will allow you to use primes in difficult lighting situations or enhance the environment around you without sacrificing DOF.
Want to give primes a try? Here are some of the fastest in the field and personal favorites among BL staff and customers alike:
- 50mm f/1.2 available in Canon and at f/1.4 in Pentax, Nikon and Sony A mount.
- 85mm f/1.2 available in Canon and at f/1.4 in Nikon and Sony A mount.
- 56mm f/1.2 available in Fuji.
UPDATE: More recently-released portrait primes.
- Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM Lens
- Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Sony E Mount, Nikon, and Canon
- Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Sony E Mount, Nikon, and Canon
- Fuji XF 50mm f/2 R WR Lens
Street Photography & Landscape
- 24mm f/1.4 available in Canon and Nikon.
- 35mm f/1.4 available in Canon, Nikon, and Sony A mount.
- 25mm f/1.4 available for Micro Four Thirds.
UPDATE: More recently-released street photography and landscape primes.
- Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Sony E Mount, Nikon, and Canon
- Fuji XF 23mm f/2 R WR Lens
Wildlife & Sports
UPDATE: More recently-released wildlife and sports primes.
- Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens
- Panasonic Leica DG Elmarit 200mm f/2.8 Power O.I.S. Lens
Shoot at f/.95 in 17.5mm, 25mm, and 42.5mm for Micro Four Thirds.
Get the prime experience even on point-and-shoot style bodies:
UPDATE: More recently-released point-and-shoots with primes attached.
- Fuji X100F with fixed 23mm f/2 lens
- Leica Q (Typ 116) with fixed 28mm f/1.7 lens
- RX1R II with fixed 35mm f/2 lens
I wonder the difference between shooting at 85mm from my 70-200mm lens and using 85mm prime lens.
I bought a Nikon D3300 in 2014 with a Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S with a super loud, whirring motor on it. The lens takes such ridiculously sharp and beautiful photos. I have been doing photo editing my entire life, studying old photos, and using Adobe, and I know that there is no way to get the image any sharper than what I can do with this lens. I have a photo of a bee on a flower, and it is so clear and so detailed. I printed the photo and it’s the sharpest photo I’ve ever seen. I’ve found that the dept of field is very good, even with this lens. I have come to understand that Nikon cameras and their kit lenses, out of the box, take incredibly beautiful, richly colorful, tack sharp photos. It seems that you can do everything with the 18-55mm AF-S, but you can’t get the super heavy blurred background on certain photos. Personally, I see no need for a prime lens. But this article was exceptional, and I will plan on buying a prime, to try the faster aperture setting, to see if I can find improvement in my photos. Thank you!
I would not call clear image zoom optical zoom. I use Sony cameras and I have compared clear image zoom with optical zoom and there is a noticeable difference. In fact, I find that cropping an image is better than using clear image zoom. I am convinced that the reason for this is that once you engage clear image zoom, you can no longer choose a focus point/area and your focus is often not accurate.
What prime did you choose, or like best if still considering. I’m where you were 3 years ago.
It is interesting to note that Sony a6000 line let you zoom with prime lenses.With jpeg fine, 2x which is fantastic. So a 50mm lens with the crop factor can become an angle of view of 150mm without loss of quality. with jpeg medium or small, it goes to 3x or view of 225mm. We are not talking about digital zoom, but optical zoom. This fact is rarely mentioned, even Sony owners sometimes, are not aware of this.
So why invest in zooms when you can zoom primes.
Fixed! Good eye – thank you so much!
Wonderful article, much good information. In my photography I am 99% a prime user. My only zooms are a few 80-200 that were given to me. Thank you for writing this wonderful article.
One small correction, “…A great compliment to primes lenses are ND and polarizing filters….”. That should read “…complement…”.
Keep up the good work.
I think this article is more of an emphatic encouragement, rather than a directive, for people to try primes since many people will rely on zooms so often (for their obvious versatility – but sometimes at the detriment of branching out). I love my 24-70 too – wouldn’t discard it for the world! But posts like this remind me it’s ok to sometimes leave it behind. I can zoom with my feet and enjoy the extra stop primes often provide. 🙂
I would agree, when I first read the headline it made me think my zooms weren’t any good and I should convert entirely to primes. First, I love my 55mm 1.8 zeiss (sony) and my 85mm 1.4 g master (arguably best in its class) That being said, I wouldn’t ditch my 70-200mm 2.8 G Master or my 24-70mm 2.8 G master. I would argue these two lenses are “prime-like” sharp and allow me to capture some amazing sports images.
User of both primes and zooms. Your title is more of a preference and is misleading.
That f/1.2 must be a typo, will fix. Yes, indeed, even EF-S or DX-specific lenses still need to have their crop factors calculated. It is a common misconception that crop-designed lenses do the “math” for you, so to speak, and put it on the barrel. They do not. You might like this article, which goes into more detail (but still designed for beginners): https://blog.borrowlenses.com/new-dslr-owners-what-you-must-know-about-full-frame-vs-crop-frame-sensors-before-choosing-a-lens/
Good article, but I would just like to point out a technical error. An ef-S or dx lens will still have a crop factor. 1.6 for canon and 1.5 for Nikon. No lens will be its real focal length when paired with a crop sensored camera. Look it up. I had to double check I was correct before posting because I started to doubt myself. Also canon doesn’t make a 24mm 1.2. Maybe this was a typo since the link takes you to a 1.4.
my 50 is easily my favorite lens of the bunch. It takes the best shots, it’s small and unobtrusive, it’s FUN, and it was cheap!
Like Pierre, I come from the days before zooms. I own some really great zooms, but still find that shooting primes adds discipline and thoughtfullness that improves my photography. Thanks for the article. Let me offer this correction: Nikon DX lenses are listed with the focal lengths they would have on a full-frame camera, so my DX 35mm is roughly 53mm on a D7000 (crop sensor) and 35mm on a D750 (full-frame). The DX 18-55mm kit lenses are 36-84mm on the crop sensor cameras they ship with.
Ch Chand Tanha
which prime lens is best for portrait photography?.I have Nikon D5300.I want to capture heart touching portraits.
Hi I’m new but trying hard to work with my 60d, it comes with the kit which is a little heavy for me 18-135 IS., which prime would you recommend for 60d? I need like for everything Like portrait landscape etc thank you
Thank you for your advice Kymberly. I have gone back to my photos to check what settings I instinctively uses, and it seems that most of the shots I like were taken with the kit lens set between 18 and 24mm. So I guess I like that end of the range! I’ll look out for the lens you suggested and in the meantime I have a friend who has said she will lend me her 35mm prime to try out. It seems that Nikon’s own 35mm lens for their basic DSLRs are quite well received too. And it turns out I have a D40, not a D60, so even more entry level than I thought! I’ll let you know how I get on…
I have struggled with my photography since switching from film to digital. I have a Nikon D60 with the 18-55mm lens supplied with the camera. I was advised by a friend to try a 35mm prime, but I am wondering if the 24mm would be better. I would like the experience of using my DSLR to be as close as possible to using the old 35mm film camera. I realise the cropped sensor of the D60 is the problem, but what would you recommend as the best way around it?
Right on, jdkennedy2
CIAO from Montreal, Canada
I basically have the same setup. D600, 24mm f 2.8, 35mm f/2, 50mm 1.8g 85mm 1.8g, 70-300mm, sb-700, lightroom/photoshop CC subscription. I picked this setup after tons of research into best lenses for the value. All except the 85mm can be had for about +/i 200 bucks. I can’t really see a reason to upgrade from this. A d800 would be nice, but can show more flaws in my lens set.
I love my primes, when I started photography, there was no zooms. I love my primes : fast, sharp, fast focussing, light, ,,, just perfect
Nikkor 24mm. AF-D f/2.8
Nikkor 35mm. AF-D f/2
Nikkor 50mm. AF-D f/1.8
Nikkor 85mm. AF-D f/1.8
Photoshop Elements 12
Thanks for the article
No one ever mentions the 20mm lens. When I shot with my Nikon FM I hade one and loved it. Now I own Canon and have the EF 20mm 2.8 that I use with my 7D and MK3. I personally love the distortion of wide for certain situations.
Neal F Rattican
Like anything else, zoom lenses are tools and, to some, even desired – definitely NOT to be ditched. Obviously, primes have their decided place. One uses the tools that best help accomplish the project at hand.
Good article, but I’ll correct one thing: the focal length of the lens is the distance from the iris to the sensor, not iris to subject.
Great article…All I own are Prime Lenses…for all the reasons listed. LOVE my PRIMES!
“They [primes] also possess the power to be a catalyst for creativity since they force the shooter to be more physically involved in their compositions.”
So a zoom lens somehow stifles creativity? C’mon. Admit it – this has always been a real limitation of primes that eventually led to the creation zoom lens as one way to offer more creativity. Plus, forcing the shooter to zoom with their feet can often ruin a shooting opportunity, resulting in the photographer wishing they had a different lens mounted.