Are You Ready for Prime Time?

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If you are like me, when you started out in photography chances are you bought a compact camera with a zoom lens or an entry level DSLR with a zoom kit lens. When I became serious about photography my first digital camera was a Canon G9 with 35-210mm lens equivalent and soon after I moved up to the Nikon D80 with a wide angle zoom 18-55mm lens. It wasn’t long before I picked up my next lens, a telephoto zoom that took me from 55-200mm. For about fifteen months, I made photographs with only these two lenses until a friend loaned me his 50mm f1.8 prime lens to take on a photographic safari to Kenya. As soon as I returned home, I bought that lens for myself. It was light and fast and there was no excuse not to take my camera with me because I could just throw it in my bag and take it everywhere.

Today my carry around camera is the Olympus OM-D EM-5 and recently I decided to add two new prime lenses, the 35mm equivalent and the 50mm equivalent (I already have a 28mm equivalent). These lenses weren’t cheap but they have not left my camera body since I purchased them and they have been money well spent. During a recent trip to New Orleans these lenses performed beyond my expectation and I came home with plenty of good photographs.

The Spotted Cat New Orleans
The Spotted Cat, New Orleans 50mm 1/60 sec f1.8 ISO 2500

So how do you know when it is time to add prime lens to your camera bag? Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help decide if you are ready to make the investment.

Do you need a fast lens?
I love to photograph at night and in low light environments. Prime lenses have large maximum apertures, some open to f/1.2, compared to even the fastest zoom lenses, which typically go down to f2.8. In low light conditions, you can adjust your shutter speed and ISO in addition to your aperture but at some point you will see noise at the higher ISO settings and camera shake will be a problem at slower shutter speeds. This is when a fast prime lens will outshine your best zoom lens. I used both my lenses to photograph New Orleans at night including in jazz and music bars and I was able to get sharp images at the maximum apertures of f/1.2 and f/1.8. By contrast I tried my fastest zoom lens and most, if not all of those images, were unusable.

Is Weight An Issue?
One of the biggest distinctions between primes and zooms is in the weight of these two types of lenses. Prime lenses generally weigh less because they have fewer moving parts and optical elements. If you have back, shoulder or neck issues that are preventing you from going out to make photographs, these lighter prime lenses will make a difference. You will be able to pack two or three prime lenses and a camera body in a bag that normally takes one body and a standard telephoto zoom.

What kind of photography do you do?
Depending on what you want to photograph prime lenses could be a big help. Because they are smaller, they are less intrusive and more discreet. While some street photographers like to use zooms because they can reach without being “in your face”, others prefer a wide angle prime lens such as the 24mm or the 28mm because you can be close to your subject matter and they remain unaware you are taking a picture. If you are interested in macro photography, a prime lens is a must (it is sometimes called a fixed focal length macro). There are very few true macro zoom lenses (the Nikon ED 70-180mm is one) and if you want 1:1 magnification, a prime macro lens is what you need. Sure you can buy a close-up filter but the quality of your images won’t match those taken with a macro lens. Popular macro focal lengths are 55mm, 85mm and 105mm depending on the availability in each camera brand.

Is cost a concern?
Prime lenses are sometimes seen as more expensive than zoom lenses because you have one fixed focal length per lens. In order to cover the focal range of a traditional 24-70mm street zoom lens, you would need to buy a 24mm or a 28mm, a 35mm, a 50mm and possibly a 85mm. That adds up so if cost is a concern, you might want to stick with your zoom lens and slowly upgrade as your budget allows. In the meantime there are relatively inexpensive prime lenses you can buy that are probably faster than your zoom—the 50mm f1.8, for example. Sure you can buy the f1.4 or even the f1.2 but for many, the f1.8 is the perfect lens to transition to working with primes. It was for me!

How lazy curious are you?
One of the most common complaints about working with primes is the need to switch lenses to get the focal length you think you need. This is a hassle if you only have one camera body and you need to remove one prime lens to replace it with another. Zoom lenses allow you to stay in one place and make your photograph at different focal lengths. While that is easier than switching out lenses, if you are curious about how your camera sees at various focal lengths, spending time with one prime lens is a great way to improve your understanding of how your camera works. (Jack Kurtz wrote a great post on one camera, one lens that you should check out.) The fact is your prime lens can be a zoom lens of sorts using a term called “foot zoom”. Yes you can treat your 50mm prime like a 35mm prime if you just move closer to the subject matter and compose your photograph. These approaches come down to how curious you are about finding out what something looks like photographed from various distances using different lenses. Doing this will help you become a better photographer.

At the Bangkok Photo School, we are often asked what camera or lens to buy and students think they need to buy new equipment before signing up for our Beginners Class. We actually advise students to wait until they’ve attended the class so we can have a discussion about the most suitable camera and lenses to purchase. Our next class starts May 28 and we have some spots available. Click here for more information or email us with your enquiries.

If you aren’t ready for prime time yet, take heart. One of the best photographers around today, Jay Maisel photographs using the Nikon 28-300mm telephoto zoom lens. Here is a blogpost about his favourite lens and here is a link to his wonderful work.

2 thoughts on “Are You Ready for Prime Time?

    Nick said:
    May 1, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Thank you for a great post, Sabrina. I was interested to learn of your progression with gear. I guess it is a never ending process that even very experienced photographers must deal with throughout their interest.

    I have been using a Nokia Lumia 920 for the past year and now “really” want to upgrade. Research over the past few months has taken me from considering an advanced point-and-shoot with the capability to go totally manual (such as the Canon EOS M, Sony RX100 MkII, or Fuji X20) to looking at full systems in Fuji, Olympus, Nikon and Canon.

    So, I’m now looking at cameras that will give me the scope to explore more fully and allow me to capture as I see and want. This means as good IQ as I can get in a small package and a lens system that I can stay with as my requirements change. I’ve just spent six months in India and will be in Thailand for maybe another six months, then back to India for six months, so light easy handling is key and limiting factor. This is not an easy decision, as there are great systems out there but each with attributes I like or want but nothing in one complete package. It has been somewhat frustrating.

    Long term travel puts a constraint on my choice that makes it even harder because I cannot in all practicality entertain using something like the Nikon D610 with a lens like the 24-70 f2.8 (as much as I would like to). This camera needs to be on me every time I go out – in the same way my Nokia is on me. Seriously.

    So, it’s come down to a choice between two cameras: the Olympus E-M1 (with 12-40 f2.8 PRO), and the Fuji X-T1 (with 18-55 f2.8-4). Both are fantastic cameras but have very different styles in use – the Fuji has a rangefinder style of holding that leans towards a more casual shooting and interaction with subjects (to my mind much like the way Gary Winnogrand shot the with his cameras). The Oly is a DSLR style and seems to promote a more deliberate grip and shooting technique. I like the X-T1 handling but feel that the E-M1 has the much better build and control system. Ming Thein likens the E-M1’s build and weather-sealing to that of the D4.

    Then there is the sensor size and image quality difference. I’ll get to that.

    Another requirement to complicate choice is that I want a decent minimum video quality, which the E-M1 delivers on but the Fuji does not. I’ve been hanging out in India prior to and after the release of the X-T1 and was expecting to buy it when I got to Thailand. Since arriving two weeks ago I’ve spent almost ten hours in stores playing with the two cameras (as well as the D7100, D610, and Sony A7 and a bunch of lenses). The process has forced me to consider a whole lot more, including system and shooting style,, controls and IQ – which I didn’t know as I went into this whole project of buying a camera.

    So, yesterday I went into Big Camera, AGAIN, and shot Large Fine JPEGs on both Fuji and Oly cameras. I captured on an SD card and opened on my laptop to compare. On both cameras I turned off NR and Sharpening, etc. I was expecting similar output, but the difference has been quite noticeable. This led me to wonder what has led some people to comment online about how close these two cameras are. This is definitely not what I have seen in this simple test. But, I only tested JPEG and it is possible that the E-M1 RAW output is much better. However, I want to keep post processing to an absolute minimum so it looks like Fuji is the way to go, which is a bit of a bummer because I really wanted to be able to choose the E-M1.

    I wanted to get the E-M1 because it really is the better all-round system for a one-camera solution, but IQ has constantly worked against it, particularly when considering it for low-light, which I want to be able to shoot in fairly regularly. Hmm, I just recalled that the E-M1 I was using in the comparison still only had version 1.0 of the firmware and this might make all the difference.

    I think that if I already had a Nikon D610 or Canon 6D, and only needed a small and light mirrorless for travel, the E-M1 would be an easy choice (or the X-T1). But, purchasing a one-camera solution that needs to last me for the next few years, and which starts as an entry into a lens system, is giving me decision fatigue. Lens choice isn’t so much of the problem as I’ll use the 18-55 to get experience with the various perspectives.

    I just want to begin capturing what I see in the world around me wherever I happen to be, whether on the beach, ocean, near or inside buildings, or on the street with people, or with friends and family. My Nokia’s OIS and relatively good IQ and colours has been great but it’s time I got shooting with something far more capable.


      sabrina responded:
      May 2, 2014 at 8:56 am

      Thanks for sharing your experience Nick. I know people who have the XT-1 and the EM-1 and both are very happy with their choice. There isn’t anyone I know who is 100% happy with their system as there are always small things that annoy a camera owner. One piece of good advice I was given when I was deciding between Canon and Nikon was to see what my friends used as that would enable me to borrow lenses, if not to use at least to try out.

      Lens choice might not be an issue for now however the Fuji lenses are more expensive than the Olympus lenses. In either case, the lenses rather the body are the long term investment you make as you will likely change out your body before your prime lenses.

      Good luck!


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