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.