What is a prime lens and 8 ways it can help you take better photos

What’s your favorite focal length? Are you a wide angle fan or do you find yourself toting a big telephoto lens most of the time?  Have you ever considered traveling light and using a prime lens instead?  If you’ve never tried this you’ve been missing out on some great benefits!

What is a prime lens?

Put simply, a prime is a lens that shoots at just one focal length.  Historically, SLR cameras were sold with prime lenses.  Initially, this was because zoom lenses simply didn’t exist.  When zooms were developed their quality was vastly inferior so a prime still gave the sharpest results.  Today zoom lenses have improved enormously and almost all cameras now come with one of these as the kit lens.

So why should I try shooting with a prime lens?

I shoot almost exclusively with prime lenses these days, a decision I made when I bought my micro four-thirds camera a couple of years ago.  I find I’m more creative when I have to work with a single focal length and, as a result, I take better photos.

Let’s see if I can persuade you to go prime too…

1. Prime lenses weigh a lot less

One of the advantages you will notice immediately when using a prime lens is how small and light they are.  Zooms have to include huge amounts of glass in order to cover the entire focal range, and glass is heavy.  The Canon 15-85mm f3.5-5.6, a fairly standard kit lens, contains no less than seventeen pieces of glass and weights 575g. If you were to upgrade to the professional’s favorite workhorse, the 24-70mm f2.8, you’re then looking at 18 pieces of glass and a whopping 800g.  Now compare this to the latest version of Canon’s 50mm f1.8 lens.  This contains just six (small) pieces of glass and tips the scales at a measly 159g – positively feather-light!

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have had days when you’ve been unsure which lens to take on a photographic outing. So you’ve played it safe and taken everything If you’ve done this, ask yourself if the added weight and bulk of your camera bag influenced how long you spent shooting that day. Do you remember how much your back ached when you got home!  Now think how liberating it could be to spend a whole day shooting with your camera and a single lens that weighs almost nothing….

Weight comparison of a prime lens vs. zoom
Canon 50mm f1.8 prime lens is featherlight at 159g compared to the 15-85mm kit lens (575g)

Currently, my favorite lens is the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4. I use it on my micro four-thirds camera – that’s the mirrorless equivalent to a 50mm lens on a full frame DSLR. So far this year almost half of the photos I’ve posted here on Photoblog have been taken with this lens. As you can see, I’m a huge fan of primes!

 

2. Prime lenses allow you to be discrete

If, like me, you enjoy street photography, a prime lens can be a huge asset.  Its small size makes your camera less bulky and intrusive, so you’re less likely to be noticed if you’re taking pictures of candid moments.  It also removes the need to make decisions about how far to zoom – this can be incredibly useful in the fast moving world of street photography.

Photo of a street  musician captured discretely with a prime lens
A prime lens is great for candid street photography. Your camera seems much smaller and you’re less likely to be noticed! Photo by Helen Hooker

 

3. Creative photography on a budget

The simplicity of prime lenses can also be great for your bank balance.  Many of them – the 50mm lens is a good example – were engineered years ago so their development costs have long since been recouped by the manufacturer.  Admittedly, some models will have been updated in recent years but they are still mostly much cheaper than a zoom lens of similar quality.

Almost all camera manufacturers make a 50mm f1.8 lens (often known as the ‘nifty fifty’) and these can frequently be bought for around £100.  Don’t be afraid to look out for used bargains too.  I bought my first Canon 50mm lens second hand for the princely sum of £59 in a local camera store.  It was getting on for 25 years old at that stage, but was still tack sharp and weighed almost nothing.   It was an impulse buy I never regretted and I would still be shooting with it today if I hadn’t fallen over with my camera and broken it!

Yes, you can spend a lot more on prime lenses if you wish to.  The Canon 50mm f1.2, for instance, is a beast of a lens – some 600g in weight and costing around £1400 – but surely that defeats the object of traveling light.  You can achieve superb results with the budget f1.8 lens and have loads of money left over to spend on a photographic adventure!

Spectacular sunset captured with a 23 year old prime lens that was less than $100
You needn’t spend a fortune on your first prime lens. This was taken on my twenty-five-year-old Canon 50mm, bought second hand and the quality is great! Photo by Helen Hooker

 

4. Sharpness comes in small packages

If you’ve never used a prime you’re probably thinking a cheap lens can’t possibly be as good as your expensive zoom, but you’d be wrong.  The simplicity of a prime lens’s engineering means it will often be sharper than a zoom.  Over the decades, zoom lens quality has improved enormously, but if you’re using a basic kit lens a prime will still be sharper.

Tact sharp photo of a windmill against a sunset. Taken with a sharp prime lens
You can shoot any genre of photography with a prime lens. Photo by Richard Walker

 

5. Better light gathering

Take a look at your camera’s kit lens – what’s its maximum aperture?  Unless you’re using a professional lens it’s likely to be in the f3.5-5.6 range.   This means if you’re shooting at the long end of an 18-55mm zoom the biggest aperture you’ll be able to utilize is f5.6.  Now compare the nifty fifty with its f1.8 aperture.  That’s a full three stops brighter!

To give you a practical example, imagine taking a photo in a dark church with your kit lens.  An aperture of f5.6 might mean the camera needs a shutter speed of a 1/8 of a second to gather enough light.  That’s going to be all but impossible to handhold without camera shake, so you’ll need to bring a tripod along too.  Now try the same shot on your nifty fifty at f1.8 and you’ll get a much more manageable 1/60 second.  All of a sudden you’ll find you can take photos in places that were previously off-limits unless you carried a tripod!

A photo of interior of a church. Large aperture on prime lenses allow you to capture low light conditions well.
The interior of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow is quite dark but my 12mm prime makes it possible to capture some eye-catching pictures with its f2 maximum aperture. Photo by Helen Hooker

 

6. Effortless bokeh effect

When you first take up photography you quickly learn that pictures need to be sharp rather than blurry.  However, there are times when blur can be a good thing!

If you’ve been shooting with a slow kit lens so far, one of the things you’ll notice first when you try a fast prime is its ability to create those lovely blurred backgrounds you see in photos taken by pros.  This softness is called bokeh – the Japanese word for blur or haze.  Using a small aperture (large f-number) creates a big depth of field so a lot of your picture will be in sharp focus.  This can be a good quality in a landscape image but isn’t necessarily so desirable for a portrait.

Now imagine shooting portrait, say in a shop.  The background is likely to be busy, with lots of details to distract the viewer’s eye.  With a prime lens, you have the option to shoot at a much larger aperture (small f number) and make the background blurred.  This removes the distractions and focuses your viewer’s eye on the subject of the portrait.

Beautiful flower with background blur to create a bokeh effect. Taken with a prime lens at f/2.5 aperature
Shooting these cosmos flowers at f2.5 enabled me to blur the background and focus the viewer’s eye on one bloom. Photo by Helen Hooker

A word of caution about using large apertures.

When you first have access to a lens with a large maximum aperture it’s very tempting to use a small f-number all the time.  Don’t be afraid to experiment, but do remember there are occasions when it’s more appropriate to have a greater level of sharpness across the image!

If you use your prime lens to take photos of people, do take care to focus on their eyes.  If you were to shoot a portrait at f1.8, with your subject close to you, the area in sharp focus will be just a few centimeters deep.  It would only take for you or your subject to move slightly and their eyes will then move out of the zone of focus.  The best way to ensure your focus remains accurate is to move your camera’s focus point in the viewfinder so it is placed directly over your subject’s eye.

A sharp photo of a musician taken with a prime lens.
Take care to focus on your subject’s eye if you’re shooting with a shallow depth of field. Photo by Helen Hooker

 

7. It demands your creativity

Shooting with a zoom lens can make us lazy.  The ability to change the framing of your picture just by twisting the zoom ring can be convenient but it can also deter you from trying different viewpoints and compositions.

With a prime lens, you will need to use your feet to get closer to your subject.  During the process of moving, you may find a totally different viewpoint that works even better – something you might have missed if you just twisted your zoom ring.  I find the act of having to move to find the perfect composition demands more of my creativity.

prime lenses demand creativity. A photo where I had to zoom in with feet
Two different views of the same railway station platform, both taken with the same lens by zooming with my feet! Photos by Helen Hooker

 

8. It demands your creative composition

Yes, there will be occasions when you might miss a shot because the focal length of your prime lens stops you getting close enough to your subject.  Alternatively, you may find there’s a great building you just can’t squeeze into the frame because your lens is too long.  Does this matter?  If you’re on a professional shoot it might, but if you’re just shooting for fun it’s not the end of the world.

Look upon these moments as creative challenges instead.  If you’re too far away, why not still take your picture, but frame the photo in such a way as to place your subject in its environmental context.   Alternatively, if you’re too close to capture the whole subject, try focusing in on a smaller detail or abstract.  Both of these are valid techniques and you may come away with photos you would never have spotted if you had more choice of focal length.

Creatively composed photo of the painted hall at Greenwich.
The painted hall at Greenwich. My 50mm focal length meant I couldn’t capture the whole ceiling in one picture so instead, I used my feet to zoom and focused in on one section of it. Photo by Helen Hooker

 

I am convinced! Which lens should I buy?

I would strongly recommend starting with a 50mm lens, regardless of whether you are shooting with a full frame or crop sensor DSLR.  All the DSLR manufacturers sell an f1.8 nifty fifty around the £100 mark and you can often get one cheaper if you buy second hand.  For those using mirrorless cameras, there are many lenses out there with an equivalent focal length.  50mm gives you a similar field of view to the human vision so it’ll feel very comfortable to use.

If you find yourself getting hooked on primes there are lots of options at other focal lengths.  24 or 28mm is great for architecture or landscape photography and many manufacturers make reasonably priced 85mm lenses which are perfect for portraits.  The two lenses I use most, aside from my 25mm lens, are the Olympus 12mm f2 and 45mm f1.8 lenses (24 and 90mm in full frame terms).  My camera and these three lenses together weigh less than a kilo and fit into a tiny bag – a huge asset when I’m traveling.

 

A photo of my favorite prime lens Panasonic/Leica 25mm f1.4
My favorite prime lens – the Panasonic/Leica 25mm f1.4. It’s tiny, light and incredibly sharp. Photo by Helen Hooker

Over to you….

Here are two projects for you to try…

 

Go prime for a whole day

If you’re new to prime lens photography try shooting for a whole day with just one lens.  Pick a location and spend a day there taking pictures at just one focal length.  It’ll make you look harder for interesting compositions and angles.  You’ll quickly get a feel for how close you need to be to subjects to get the image you’re after.  Don’t forget, even if you don’t own a prime lens you can try this exercise – simply choose a single focal length on your zoom and use that one setting alone.  You can even fix your lens at that focal length with a piece of gaffer tape if you think you might be tempted to zoom!

If you’re feeling really hardcore, you could even go prime for a week or a month – why not share some of your pictures in the comments section of this post – we’d love to see them!

Experiment with depth of field

Pick a subject and photograph it at different aperture settings.  For instance, take a photo at f11 and notice how almost all of the scene is sharply in focus.  Now try the same picture at f1.8 and see the difference.  Suddenly, your subject will pop out of the frame at you and the background will become much softer and more blurry.  This can be a hugely useful tool if you want to make something in the background of your shot less distracting.

 

If I’ve convinced you to give prime lenses a try do share some of your pictures, either here in the comments, or over on Photoblog.  It may well make you think more creatively and it’ll certainly lighten your camera bag!