Prime Lens 101

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The major benefit of upgrading to a DSLR or mirrorless camera system is the ability to swap out different lenses to fit your specific needs. Prime lenses are available in all lengths and varieties and offer numerous advantages in performance when compared to their zoom-lens brethren. Also, the particular choices associated with sticking to a specific focal length can help improve your photographic technique, as well as help you learn. And, a new prime lens can expand your capabilities with new features like a larger aperture for more effective low-light shooting or a specialized feature that enables you to get the close-ups you’ve always dreamed about.

Prime versus Zoom

Zoom lenses are incredibly convenient. They cover a wide range of focal lengths in a single package, and you don’t have to waste time constantly swapping out lenses to create the composition you desire. However, this huge strength also becomes their weakness. Designing a lens for optimal performance at multiple focal lengths is difficult, meaning that there will be some trade-offs in performance and size. Not to say there aren’t good zooms—there are—but they usually come with a premium price tag.

On the other hand, prime lenses are optimized to a specific focal length or purpose. This means that optical performance is generally much better and that the lenses can be made with larger apertures while still maintaining a fairly compact size. Another benefit is that a prime lens will have fewer moving parts, so there is less of an opportunity for problems to appear from general use. Generally, primes perform better than their zoom counterparts and are sharper, with fewer visible aberrations. These differences can be very apparent, especially with the high-resolution sensors currently available in modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras.



prime lens
 

zoom lens
 
Prime Lens Zoom Lens

Another major difference is the inability to zoom for changes in composition. This requires a photographer to be more thoughtful in their process and to move around a bit more since they can’t rely on a zoom lens to change perspective. This makes choosing a focal length one of the most important decisions when considering a prime lens.

Choosing a Focal Length

Different focal lengths are better suited to certain subjects or styles; this is why you will constantly see lenses like the 85mm referred to as a “portrait” lens, or the 35mm as a “street” lens. This has a lot to do with field of view and what you need the lens to do. Capturing cramped interiors will be the domain of the wide or extreme wide-angle lens, whereas distant wildlife or sports will obviously require the use of a telephoto lens.

Besides the obvious, different focal lengths have their own attributes and looks. For example, the longer the lens is, the shallower the depth of field will be, when they are compared at the same aperture setting. A 100mm lens at f/2.8 will have much shallower depth of field than a 35mm at f/2.8. Also, telephoto lenses tend to flatten features and compress space, making the background elements appear much closer and larger than a wide-angle lens would. This is why an 85mm is a popular choice for portraiture; it has good background separation due to shallow depth of field, and will flatten a subject’s features slightly for a more flattering image. Wide angles will exaggerate perspective, and will make subjects appear distorted, but they can capture a larger area and are well-suited to architecture, landscapes, and other types of photography where dramatized elements are wanted.

Keep in mind that sensor size will affect the effective angle of view captured and that lenses are commonly given a 35mm equivalent focal length for use with different formats, such as a DSLR with an APS-C sensor. A 50mm lens mounted on such a camera, with a 1.5x crop factor, for example, will have an equivalent focal length of 75mm. This doesn’t mean that the specific qualities of the lens have changed, a 50mm is still a 50mm, just that the area captured is similar to that of a 75mm lens on a full-frame camera, as if you had cropped the image in post to capture the same angle of view.

Choosing a Focal Length

A benefit of this is that users can enjoy more reach from their longer lenses. This can convert already far-reaching options to have longer equivalent focal lengths that may not be available otherwise. For example, Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4 ED VR AF lens or Canon’s EF 600mm f/4 IS II USM become equivalent 900mm and 960mm lenses respectively, which is longer than either company’s current longest lens at 800mm.

Some manufacturers take the popularity of crop-sensor cameras into account when making lenses. This means that some prime lenses work properly only on APS-C or smaller sensors and will not provide full coverage when using a full-frame camera. This does allow lenses to be much smaller than they would need to be or to achieve equivalent focal lengths that are desired. Fujifilm does this with their APS-C mirrorless camera series by releasing 23mm, 35mm, and 56mm lenses, which are equivalent to the popular, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm lenses on full-frame cameras.

If you do own a crop-sensor camera and your brand offers full-frame options, you should consider whether you would like to eventually upgrade to the larger sensor later on. If you do, crop-sensor lenses will not work on your later camera, though full-frame lenses will work properly on crop-sensor cameras. Purchasing full-frame-compatible glass now can save you time and money later.

There are other features, such as maximum aperture, minimum focus distance, and autofocus motors, which will play a huge role in any final lens choice, but focal length will remain the most important. 

Standard Lenses

One of the most common options is the standard or normal lens. These lenses have an angle of view close to 45°, which replicates the perspective seen by our eyes. This makes it a good first lens for beginners because it is easy to imagine what images will look like before you even put the viewfinder up to your eye. In 35mm terms, these lenses fall between 40mm and 65mm, though the 50mm is the most popular and well-known option.



Standard prime Lenses
 

Many prominent photographers have claimed this as their favorite lens, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most important photojournalists of the Twentieth Century, and an icon for amateur and professional street photographers. He famously used a 50mm lens almost exclusively as it acts as “an extension of (the) eye,” permitting photographers to trap life in a frame that resembles the way we experience the world.

Normal primes are also well liked because they are easy to manufacture, inexpensive, and usually quite good due to their simple design. Also, manufacturers tend to make multiple varieties of this lens for all levels of photographers, be it beginner, amateur, or professional. Lenses like Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8G and Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.8 II are great budget options with wide maximum apertures that can dramatically expand a beginner’s capabilities compared to a kit zoom lens. Or, if you are a professional, there are higher quality optics like Zeiss’s Otus Distagon T* 55mm f/1.4 Lens that are designed to provide near-perfect imagery, at a cost. 

Telephoto Lenses

Beyond a normal lens, photographers can find themselves wanting or needing a little more reach, this is where telephoto lenses come in handy. Telephotos typically have focal lengths greater than 80mm and can extend to upwards of 400mm, though at that point they are usually referred to as super telephotos.


prime Telephoto Lenses
 

Short to medium telephotos are the first branches of this category and include the popular 85mm, 100mm, and 135mm options. Each of these lenses has a slightly different perspective, but the further you go, there will be more compression, shallower depth of field and, obviously, the distance you can be from your subject. Portraiture generally sees the use of these shorter lengths because photographers like to maintain a good working distance from their subjects since yelling across a field on a windy day isn’t ideal. Also, the shorter lengths are easier to shoot handheld and can be less intimidating, without losing the benefits of shallow depth of field and flatter features.

Standard telephotos and super telephotos are the next level of lens and offer the huge advantage of distance. If you need to capture a faraway subject, like a rare bird or a football player downfield, there is really no other choice. The drawback to these larger lenses is the size and aperture. The longer the focal length, the larger aperture required, which makes options like an 800mm f/2 lens practically impossible. But, aperture is an important consideration when purchasing a telephoto lens, especially if you are considering the use of teleconverters.

Additional size and weight, coupled with the narrow field of view, make image stabilization an essential feature of telephotos, especially once you exceed a focal length of 200mm. This technology will correct for camera shake, especially since the longer lengths amplify its appearance. Image stabilization is incredibly useful for shooting at slower shutter speeds and low ISOs, allows users to capture photographs that would’ve otherwise been impossible. Additionally, video shooters will greatly benefit from this tech as it will dramatically smooth out handheld footage. 

Wide-Angle Lenses

Sometimes you just can’t fit everything into the frame, whether it is a group picture or your favorite piece of architecture. Wide-angle lenses, usually found at focal lengths of less than 40mm, fill in this gap with their large angles of view. They work well for landscape and architectural photography, as well as street photography, with the 35mm lens commonly found attached to a photojournalist’s camera.


prime Wide-Angle Lenses
 

Options like the 28mm and 35mm will slightly expand your field of view, which makes them critical to some users. Beyond just getting a tad more captured in the frame, wide angles offer a couple of notable benefits, due to their design. One of these is deep depth of field, caused by the shorter focal length. While not ideal for portraits, the ability to capture entire scenes in focus is ideal for landscapes and architectural photography. Also, photojournalists are afforded more room for error in focus on split-second shots.

The decision regarding focal length will be determined entirely by your needs, and just understand that the wider you get, the deeper the depth of field, the more distortion/perspective exaggeration, and usually the slower the aperture. There is one other category of wide-angle lens that is popular, and that is the fisheye lens. These lenses are found at the widest area of lenses with focal lengths around 8mm, like Rokinon’s 8mm f/3.5 HD Fisheye Lens. It offers a unique perspective by capturing a surreal 180-degree angle of view, which is great for conveying the overall feeling of a location as opposed to the limited field of view of most lenses.

Specialty Lenses

The specificity of prime lenses allows them to be used to make high-performing lenses with a dedicated purpose. Macro lenses are such a type of specialty glass by enabling extremely close minimum focus distances, usually enabling a 1:1 magnification ratio for true-to-life sizes. They are also available in a variety of sizes, from wide to telephoto, though more commonly you will see telephoto options like the Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 Lens from Zeiss. These telephotos offer users a good working distance so that you won’t accidentally block light from hitting your subject or scaring away a tiny insect. If still life and product photography, or extreme close-ups of blooming flowers and other natural beauties are subjects of your photographic interest, then a macro prime lens is uniquely suited to help achieve the best image quality possible.


Prime Specialty Lenses
 

Another type of specialty optic is tilt-shift and perspective-correction. These options allow users to alter the tilt and shift of the lens axis compared to the sensor in order to correct converging lines or to adjust focus to a different axis. The advantages of these lenses are dramatic, and they are the only way to get movements similar to a large-format camera on a DSLR or mirrorless camera body. Image effects like keystoning, when shooting upwards at a building, can now be corrected in-camera to avoid the headache sometimes associated with dramatic edits made in Photoshop.

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Great summary of camera lenses!

I was hoping to read a comment on 70mm lenses, for portrait applications.
As I am considering this $750.00 lens for my Pentax Kx

"Compared to a prime lens, a zoom lens is a general purpose multi-tool that won’t cut it when it comes to tasks requiring surgical precision".
Totally disagree. I own the Nikkor 14>24mm f2.8; 24>70mm f 2.8 and the 70 > 200mm f2.8.
I would put the results of these three zooms against any prime lens.
And that's working with the D-800 body.

This is an extremely helpful bit of information, given in the B&H fashion, thank you.

great and very helpful article...thanks

I saw no mention of Sigma's 50mm 1.4 despite my memory of it testing out better than both the Nikon and the Canon 50mm lenses at that aperture by the independent testing service?

SIGMA LENSES ARE GREAT for sony's......They are much better then Sony lenses.....However, nikon lenses and canon lenses work best for Nikon and Canon products.....Forget 3rd party lenses for these two.......

Good and concise. I feel that many just getting into photography tend to be fixated on the longer focal lengths provided by the zoom lenses that come with most camera kits. They will eventually realize the importance of the prime lens and the limitations of the zoom...this article will speed up the process. Nice job.

Good article. Nicely done. I guess, from reading some of the comments, it will come down to what you feel comfortable with from your history of usage of these types of lenses. But that does not mean you should not learn from this. Products and quality levels change almost monthly.

I have been using exclusively prime lenses for 4 years now. They really help to build your creative muscle by forcing you to think. The results you get compared to a zoom at the same focal length also make the extra physical effort to frame your shots worth while. In this age of canned photography with its 18-300mm "all purpose" zooms and the all too common "I'll fix it in post" mindset, starting and staying with prime lenses is an essential part of staying above the fray.

I know that it is the common wisdom that a 50mm lens with a 35mm standard frame approximates human vision, but please provide a reference the explains that an "angle of view close to 45°, replicating the perspective seen by our eyes." The vertical field of view is approximately 90 vertical and 140 horizontal in each eye [Furness, Thomas A. III., et. al., A Virtual Retinal Display (for Virtual World Generation), a proposal submitted to National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Technology Program, Sept. 1990.] The overlapping binocular vision is even wider. Thanks.

I've been shooting with the Canon 50mm f/1.4 for years on a Canon Digital Rebel (first an XSi, then a t1i) and I love the low light capability and the super shallow depth of field it can achieve, but the narrow angle drives me crazy sometimes. I often can't get far enough away from my subject to get it in the frame, so I think what I need is something wider, right? I mostly shoot portraits, and the 50 is great for that in a very spacious and controlled environment, but I would like to be able to get better candids (it's hard when you have to be like 20 feet away from your subject), single out individuals in group gatherings, etc. Someone recommended to me an 85mm, which I see here seems to be recommended for what I want. What do you think?

I'm a big fan of fast prime lenses. With one or two exceptions zooms won't open wider than F2.8 whereas there are many primes in the F1.4/1.7/1.8 range. Two stops may not seem like much, but that's 4 times as much light ! Quite a difference really.
I only wish there were more primes with VR/IS.

The two main Zuiko super high grade zooms are f2.0.  Unfortunately they are 4/3 format, very heavy, and very expensive (around 2.5k new).  But they are terrific zooms that probably match or beat most prime lenses.

Interesting article. Isn't there a difference in the way a subject in a portrait would look if the photo is taken with 2 different focal length lenses? Ithougt I remember that the reason for using a 100mm length lens was because I would render a more pleasant interpetation of the portrait subject than a 50mm lens would, for example.

Good article, thank you! I wonder which Prime Lense you would recommend for indoor video? (I am a Realtor, just getting into video of my listings.)
Thanks in advance!

There are basic lense (FX) that all photographer should have in their kit.They are fisheye, wideangle, 50 mm 1.4g, 85mm 1.4g, 24-70 mm, 70 -200mm. Once you practice them with different options in them like depth of fields.....you will realize that you don't need anything more. UNLESS you have extra bucks to spend for more expensive zoom and telephoto lense.

The article is obviously geared to part aspiring amateurs with their spare cash. Back when I shot film (and I mean hiking, biking, camping etc. where low weight was important) I usually carried at least 2 prime lenses, 28 on the camera and 135 in the bag, often more. I was younger then... Now all my ***** in the field are served by one digital superzoom/bridge camera (plus, of course, spare batteries and flash cards). Although I do mostly landscapes, the extra reach and macro mode allow to shoot the occasional critter easily; try that with interchangeable lenses! And what about dust setting on the sensor while you're changing them? (The sensor stays in place, and dust accumulates. Remember how easy it was to blow dust out of a film camera?)
IMHO, DSLRs are on their way out. Unlike film, the sensor does not need to be kept in the dark; and the image for viewing is transferred to LCD screen straight from it. Hence, no need for shutter or elaborate reflex finder. (Here's how the market reacts to it: "Mirrorless" cameras! But of course with a full line of lenses each, to make the extra buck.)
What I see coming for small (viewfinder) LCD screens is catching up in image quality with ground glass, and bingo! overwhelming majority of photographers will abandon their DSLRs, just like they abandoned film. (By photographers, of course, I mean people who shoot images, not those who collect equipment.)
Oh well, this is about prime vs. zoom lenses, isn't it? I believe I've already listed at least 2 points in favor of non-interchangeable zooms. Now comes the image quality, the greatest selling point. I maintain that for vast majority of images you can't tell the difference anyway because they don't get blown up to poster size. Zooms made today beat yesterday's prime lenses in image quality as well, don't they? F-stop of 1.4 to shoot at night? What about ISO 12,800 with today's digital? Blurred background for portraits? Just use a longer focal length...
That said, I agree on one point: Having to use a prime lens makes a better photographer out of you because it forces you to use your legs to compose a picture, instead of zooming. By the same token, 2D photography is harder than 3D, and B/W harder than color: The photographer has to substitute for the missing depth and/or color with his/her skill.

Ah, but there is a simple solution to this, use a full frame 35mm FILM camera. While digital photography provides the instant gratification that is the thing these days, it also takes away from your photography skills(if you are new to photography) There is the mind set, I'll just shoot until I get it right, or I'll fix it in post(which I hate doing)
With film, you have to be aware of your medium, you need to focus on composition and your environment. Retakes cost money(film) and time(processing) and having to do the extra "work" with film will force you to become better. Also, consider this article, how much will it cost for a full frame DSLR with high quality wide, prime and telephoto lenses, $2000, $3000, $4000 or more? You could get an equivalent used quality SLR with a set of high quality lenses, filters and flash for $500 or less! Just food for thought, and BTW, that 28mm f2.8 Zuiko for my OM-2 I got on E-bay for $40.00 is REALLY nice.

Photography is and should be practiced as an art form. Therefore, the photographer (meaning the artist) ***** the right material to create an impressive piece of art. The brush becomes more important than the colours. So does the lens. The all important tool in the photographer's hands is The Lens! Just like a diamond, the photographic lens too has its critical parameters - Coating, Contrast, Clarity and Crispness, besides the cost! And, the only lens that wins is the Prime or normal (50mm)focal length. Outstanding image creation with the right perspective, sharpness and contrast are all possible with the 50mm lens. A word about the f/number. My personal preference is f/1.4 for its low light ability. Having said this, I wish to add that my most treasured tool in my camera bag is the Minolta AF 50mm f/1.4 lens. Believe me.Some of the best images I have made in all these 30 years have been made with this great lens!!!

True.....but that lens can only be used on the Sony's...............

I share the nostalgia of many towards the minolta equipment. I was inspired and captivated by the Minolta maxxum 7000, thus my foray into photography.Digital does not inspire me; too many gadgets, too many shots, too much post-processing.
Can any one suggest where to find a power pack for a maxxum 7000? Mine has rusted away and can't turn on the camera anymore. Hoping, just hoping to find one!!

Good and concise. If im not sure about prime lenses all me have to do is try one time .But can i get at Rant?

Unfortunately we do not have a rental department at B&H.

"If you do, crop-sensor lenses will not work on your later camera, though full-frame lenses will work properly on crop-sensor cameras."

I don't think this is entirely true, at least for Nikon cameras.  You are able to use a crop-sensor lens on a FF nikon camera, albeit, in crop mode.  However, from what I understand, Canon EF-S lenses (APS-C) will not mount on a FF Canon camera due to the different mounting system.  EF (FF) lenses will however mount on a Canon APS-C camera body.

I respectfully enjoy using both Nikon Prime and  Nikon Zoom lenses. Primes are expensive, heavy but precise. Zooms are cheaper in cost, lighter in weight plus have an expandable range to shoot wide to telephoto but with a very slight image quality loss. An even mix of lenses will cover all types of jobs. I own several lenses, and have found I like Nikon's lens construction and weight of their lenses to be the best. I have owned Canon cameras and lens in the past. The article is interesting and informative. Remember to add a converter 1.4x to increase your range. I found adding a 2x is too many f- stops lost and some Nikon lenses recommend not to use the 2x converter. One other bit of information most large telephoto lenses should be mounted on a strudy tripod but zooms can be hand-held, very helpful when one is on a tree limb shooting...

GREAT ARTICLE AS A PRIMER ON LENS NOMENCLATURE.HOWEVER A MORE DETAILED DISCLOSURE ON SOME TYPE OF LENSES ARE NEEDE.

Ej>ACHROMATIC,ED,PLANNAR,DISTAGON, ETC.

Good information on lenses

The lens I use most is my 100mm/ macro, followed by my 50mm. It's usually pretty easy to back up or move forward a couple steps as needed.:) I carry a few zooms but they haven't seen the light of day for a while.