This is a guide covering everything you need to know about prime lenses.
Maybe you have just bought a prime lens or you are thinking about purchasing one, but you don’t know what a prime lens is used for.
Well, we’ve got you covered!
What is a Prime Lens?
The prime lens is essentially a fixed lens. The focal length is fixed preventing you from zooming in and out. This comes with its own benefits and caveats, especially when compared to zoom lenses.
People choose Prime Lenses over Zoom Lenses because the prime has fast apertures.
Fast apertures enable you to let in the most amount of light, making it easy for you to shoot in low-light conditions.
In addition, you also use the prime lens to take creamy shots taken from an f/2.8 and faster apertures. No zoom lenses (other than the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8) can shoot faster than f/2.8, since they are more geared for an already variable focal length.
What is a Prime Lens Used For?
Based on the information above, it can be assumed that the prime lens is a fast, fixed lens that reduces flexibility, but does its job extremely well.
Well, it does give you a shallow depth of field. The distance between your foreground, subject, and background will be much narrower. But isn’t it a good thing to have?
The isolation of your subject from the noisy surroundings will increase your image’s sharpness and overall quality.
The closer the subject is to your lens, the creamier/softer the surroundings of the subject will become, sometimes producing bokeh.
You will commonly find the 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm prime lenses being used. The array of aperture speeds that each of the lenses has is supported by its build quality. Photographers will also add 105mm and 24mm for the close-up images and wide shots respectively.
What is Considered a Prime Lens?
Well, a lens is considered “prime” if it follows the prime lens definition. With the definition being “a fixed-focal-length or univocal lens.”
There are many types or categories of prime lenses based on the focal length such as:
12mm – 21mm
A lens with these focal lengths is categorized as ultra-wide. They provide a dramatic perspective that can extremely distort nature’s proportions.
24mm – 35mm
Commonly called wide lenses, these lenses can capture a wider field of view (compared to the standard lens). Please note that this lens may display a level of distortion.
Standard prime lenses are very versatile and share the same perspective as we do. They serve as the prime lens jack-of-all-trades.
Labeled as portrait lenses, these short telephoto lenses will help you with valuable image framing and shooting subjects at far distances.
These telephoto lenses are perfect for photographers aiming to shoot a faraway object, especially in the realm of action and sports photography.
200mm – 500mm
The Super Telephoto are highly specialized, they are bulky and heavy. Commonly used for wildlife, sport, and action photography.
Each prime lens is made with a certain thought in mind. They can be used interchangeably only to a certain aspect.
Why is it Called a Prime Lens?
Well, the origin of the Prime lens name dates back to the old ages. Well, not that old, but certainly back to the early days of photography.
The alternative/older meaning of the prime lens is “the main lens in a combination lens system”. Prime is used to refer to itself as the first in order, primary, original, and others.
In the early stages of photography, only primary camera lenses were available. People would call it “lenses/objectives” then emerged lenses that are placed in front of the prime lens, commonly known as the “auxiliary lens”.
What is the Difference Between a Prime Lens and a Zoom Lens?
Well here is the oversimplified explanation of both lenses:
Prime Lens – A simple lens with a fixed focal length with minimum lens elements.
They are often smaller and simple. Because they are specialized, the quality, price, and overall sharpness go through the roof.
Zoom Lens – A complex yet highly convenient lens that covers a wide range of focal lengths.
Parts are moved, stacked, and designed to work in harmony for the various tiers of magnification. They don’t produce the sharpest images, but it’s their trade-off.
Now we factor in the various conditions that are considered by photographers before choosing one of these lenses. We will start from its various creative options, performance in low light, and background blur.
1. Creative Options
Photographers have always said that a prime lens helps you because you can move around (with your feet).
They often use this statement to “harass” zoom users that just freeze in place.
While it’s true that the limitations of the prime lens will force its user to search for better angles and composure. But I have to admit that there is some truth to it, zoom users generally take “mainstream” photos.
On the flip side, the limited prime users must search for interesting angles to create the perfect shot.
2. Low-Light Performance
Primes aren’t guaranteed to have a larger aperture when compared to the zoom lens.
The catch is that zoom lenses that own larger apertures are significantly larger and more expensive.
Primes win this category since it provides a larger maximum aperture, helping their users to absorb as much light as possible.
The thought that you can increase brightness using ISO might cross your mind.
Trust me that shooting on ISO 3200 using a zoom lens and the image will be quite noisy, but the noise difference isn’t that apparent on ISO levels under 400.
You can avoid these noisy shots by effectively setting the correct shutter speed (and by using a prime lens).
3. Background Blur
Everyone talks about bokeh, background blur, creamy nothingness, and everything in between when anyone mentions their beloved prime lens.
The large aperture follows a shallower depth of field (which is good in this context).
The wide aperture that prime lenses have are perfect for providing you with a shallower depth of field.
Blurring the background, putting it out of focus, and the subject forward as the main highlight.
Oh, all of this can be easily done by the prime lens very sharply. The very long zoom can also do this, but at a slightly lower quality.
The last part would be the comparison between the price and quality, read below for more information.
Are Prime Lenses Worth It?
Prime lens photography is a bit restricted due to its fixed lens. It may not be as versatile as its “jack of all trades master of none” brother (Zoom Lens), but it is made with the sole purpose of image capture at a specific focal length.
This result is an optically superior, tack-sharp image, with even fewer aberrations located in between.
In addition to all of its superiority, a prime lens is way faster than zoom lenses. They produce creamy backgrounds that can never be rivaled by the likes of zoom.
Obviously, with great powers comes great responsibility, a trade-off. Prime users often boast their ability to zoom with their feet as a good thing.
This can be true to some extent, but zooming in with your foot to take an image of a wild bear in its own habitat doesn’t sound like an advantage to me.
It can be argued that moving also allows you to search for the best angle and composition possible, and staying still while zooming will make your shots feel half-done.
This becomes the main reason why 98% of professional work is done using prime lens photography.
The last factor would be affordability and weight.
There are zoom photographers that only bring one lens since their zoom is practically a 4-in-1 type of lens.
On the other hand, exists your experienced prime lens user. They bring their heavy camera on the left and hang the other three prime lenses on the right.
Keep in mind that a zoom lens is basically like a 3-in-1 shampoo that has the properties of pretty much everything.
It comes at a cheaper price, it is more compact and simple to use. The downside lies in its quality since it isn’t specialized equipment.
No prime lens user will only have one of them. A prime lens is, in a nutshell like shoes. Everybody has one pair for each occasion, some can be used interchangeably but only to a limit.
But it can be guaranteed that each pair/lens will do the absolute best optical job you’ve witnessed.
What are Some of the Most Popular Prime Lenses?
If you are interested in adding a new prime lens to your arsenal, here are a couple of must-buys. Of course, you should still choose these lenses based on your needs. The most popular prime lens is the 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.
1. 24mm Lens
Ah yes, the almost perfect option for landscape enthusiasts.
These lenses provide a wide-angle view, giving you a wider frame to stuff more landscape into. Your images will become sharp and gorgeous when shot in either optimal or low light conditions.
Wide-angles like these are also helpful to be used in architecture, weddings, events, groups, streets, and even astrophotography. Their versatility is one of the main reasons why you’d want to use these 24 mm lenses.
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2. 35mm Lens
These small, simple, easy-to-use lenses help you in many ways.
The limitations are there, which will either slow you down or force you to go crazy (in a good way). Professional photographers will often take advantage of the limitations and shoot something in an unorthodox manner.
These lenses are close to your eyes, the focal length is similar to how you would regularly see the world.
Images taken by this type of lens will look familiar and close to immersive. Buildings, food, animals, and pretty much everything else will appear as if you saw it with your own eyes.
Its large aperture will help you capture smooth videos day and night. Those images and videos will also have the background blurred, making the subjects pop out even more.
You can use this lens for portrait photography, but I don’t really recommend it after taking face distortion into account.
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3. 50mm Lens
Ask every photographer a recommended prime lens for starters, they’ll most likely tell you that the 50mm is just what you’re looking for.
A 50mm lens provides you with tip-top sharpness and low-light capabilities.
Small and compact, these lenses are also easy to carry around for photojournalism. Don’t forget that they are also very versatile compared to the other prime lens.
Equip it with a full-frame camera, and you have an ideal candidate for architecture, landscape, and also portrait photography.
Slap it on a crop sensor camera, and the lens will become this sort of short telephoto lens, giving you tight framed portraits, wildlife, detailed landscape shots, and many more.
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4. 85mm Lens
The 85mm prime lens is a perfect fit for your portrait photography needs.
It may not be as versatile as the 35mm or 50mm lens, but it does portrait photography exceptionally well. The two reasons responsible for the 85mm lens’s greatness is its focal length and the glorious bokeh.
The focal length that this lens has will help you fill in the frame without getting too close to your subject. People who are not used to getting photographed tend to get more uncomfortable and tense by intimidating cameras that are a bit too close.
The second factor is just the marvelous bokeh, background blur, a separator of the subject from the background. The quality of the bokeh will easily speak for itself.
There will also be tiny distortions on the face of your subject, most evident on their forehead, chin, and nose. Shorter focal lengths tend to blow these facial features out of shape, making them look unnatural and unflattering.
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In conclusion, the prime lens is a more specialized type of lens compared to zoom lenses. Carrying a univocal length, they allow photographers to shoot in low-light conditions at ease. They also boast the sharpness that the zoom can only dream to reach (for now).
Besides recognizing the lens you should purchase and use in certain situations, you should also learn the technical skills to achieve the best results in your images.
Diligence in your practice and studying is guaranteed to bear fruit when using a prime lens.
Jon has been a passionate photographer for 10+ years. Fun fact is that he has a collection of around 300-400 cameras that his family has collected over the years. Outside of photography, he has a Masters Degree in Engineering and has 13 years experience working in the industry across the globe.