Prime Lens 101

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Whether shooting a DSLR or mirrorless camera, interchangeable-lens cameras significantly broaden the photographer’s range of creative possibilities. There’s a good chance that the kit lens included with your camera was a zoom lens that offers a zoom range suitable for most of your initial photographic pursuits. A fixed focal length camera lens, or "prime" lens, offers a great way to improve the quality of your images while helping to develop your eye as a photographer. Now that you’re looking to take your imaging capability to the next level, here’s a brief guide to finding a prime lens that’s right for you.

Prime versus Zoom

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. Think of a zoom lens as a Swiss Army knife and a prime lens as a scalpel. Prime lenses are capable of image quality and durability well beyond variable focal length lenses. Element for element, a prime lens will outclass a comparable zoom lens every time. Fewer moving parts and a defined field of view allow manufacturers to craft an optical path that is optimized for a specific purpose. A prime lens is generally capable of wider maximum aperture and is less susceptible to optical aberrations like color fringing and soft focus at the edge of the image.

The high-resolution sensors in today’s DSLRs and mirrorless cameras enable photographers to pack an impressive amount of detail into each frame—even an entry-level camera can capture HD video. A quality prime lens can provide tack-sharp detail and lifelike tonal range in recorded images.

Choosing a Focal Length

Obviously, choosing a suitable prime lens is largely based on its intended use. Since fixed focal length lenses lack the versatility of their zoom-lens counterparts. A prime lens will serve you well for specific applications and focal length is critical. The maximum aperture, minimum focus distance, quality of glass and optical coatings are important to consider regardless of focal length.

Keep in mind that the angle of view captured by any lens will change when it's mounted on a non-full-frame camera, like a DSLR with an APS-C sensor. A 35mm lens mounted on such a camera, with a 1.5x crop factor, for example, will have an equivalent focal length of 52.5mm. A longer focal length lens captures a smaller field of view. So a super-telephoto lens mounted on a non-full frame DSLR can yield a prohibitively narrow perspective. However, cropped-sensor shooters can benefit from a faster, wide-aperture lens, that will image super-telephoto distance usually thought to only be available to full-frame shooters—Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4 ED VR AF lens or Canon’s EF 600mm f/4 IS II USM become 900mm mega-photo lenses ready to get up close and personal with sports and wildlife action.

Standard Lenses

Standard lenses have an angle of view close to 45°, replicating the perspective seen by our eyes. Although the quality and design of the optics determine its angle of view, the standard primes usually have a focal length between 40mm and 65mm. A favorite among photojournalists is the 50mm lens. Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most prominent photojournalists of the Twentieth Century and an icon for amateur and professional street photographers, famously used a 50mm lens almost exclusively. A standard focal length lens acts as “an extension of (the) eye” according to Bresson, permitting photographers to trap life in a frame that resembles the way we experience the world.

Like all lenses discussed in these sections, standard length lenses are available for DSLR and mirrorless camera formats. Canon’s EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens is a budget-friendly standard focal length DSLR option for your first prime; its wide maximum aperture can capture photos or video in low-light situations.

Telephoto Lenses

Telephoto lenses are essential for portraiture as well as event photography like weddings, concerts, and sporting events. Telephotos have a lens group within their optical path to create an extended focus point that is longer than the overall lens design. In effect, telephoto optics allow photographers to image a subject at great distances using a relatively compact lens. These lenses generally have focal lengths greater than 80mm, but can also include shorter focal length pancake lenses featuring a telephoto lens design. Technically, not all lenses with a focal length more than 80mm qualify as a telephoto lens, but these lenses can have unwieldy lengths and tend to use outdated optical designs.

Two important factors to keep in mind with telephoto lenses is their maximum aperture and image stabilization technology. As the focal length of the lens increases, the challenge of transmitting light through the lens system also increases. Since the lens system has a narrower field of view from which to gather light, the diameter of each lens element must be increased to maintain an acceptable level of image brightness, which is why telephoto primes with a maximum aperture of f/4 or greater have large front lens elements and a corresponding increase in overall lens weight.

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. Lens manufacturers are aware of this limitation, which is why they equip their telephoto lenses with technology that provides several f-stops of image stabilization, allowing photographers to use their telephotos with slower shutter speeds and lower ISO camera settings.

Wide-Angle Lenses

At the opposite end of the focal-length spectrum are wide-angle lenses. The focal length of this type of lens is generally less than 40mm, which works well for landscape and architectural photography. When attached to APS-C or other non-full frame cameras, a wide-angle lens can have the equivalent focal length of a standard lens—something to keep in mind before purchasing a 35mm lens, which becomes 52.5mm when attached to a non-full frame camera with a 1.5x crop factor. For the most part, wide-angle lenses are a sensible general-purpose option for family vacations, backyard gatherings, and photojournalism.

Specialty Lenses

Included in the wide-angle category are fisheye lenses, usually a focal length less than 20mm. This type of specialty lens, Rokinon’s 8mm f/3.5 HD Fisheye Lens, for example, offers a unique perspective by capturing a surreal 180-degree angle of view—great for conveying the overall feeling of a location as opposed to the limited field of view of most lenses.

Macro lenses are another type of specialty lens that can give a larger-than-life quality to your photos and an especially unique perspective to videos. Macro lenses are available in various focal lengths, from wide angle to telephoto. A macro lens is uniquely equipped for close-ups, thanks to its short minimum focus distance and specially designed focus mechanisms optimized for fine focus adjustments. The Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 Lens from Zeiss is a standout example of everything a telephoto macro lens should be; it features the premium optics Zeiss is known for, and it delivers precise focus control required for exacting focus placement.

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.

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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?

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.

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 needs 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) needs 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!!!

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.