Prime Lenses to Replace your Zooms

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Since we have already addressed the idea of replacing your primes with a nice zoom lens, let’s talk about going the other way for a moment. If you love your zoom lenses, here are some primes that might lure you to the other side, or just make a nice addition to your kit.

Simply the Best: Zeiss Otus

Primes are loved over zooms primarily for their optical superiority, and the Zeiss Otus line proves that nothing can possibly beat a prime. Boasting outstanding optical quality in every way imaginable, Zeiss has designed lenses as close to perfect as you can get, even when shooting wide open at f/1.4. Now the manufacturer is offering a versatile lineup, with a standard 55mm, wide-angle 28mm, and portrait-length 85mm. With an uncompromising design, the Otus series should eclipse the performance of any zoom lens.

Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4 ZF.2 Lens for Nikon F

Bokeh you Won’t Believe: Leica Noctilux

Another benefit of primes is their ability to reach much faster apertures without becoming absurdly large, and one of the fastest and most well-known primes is, of course, the Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH. This lens was designed for Leica’s famous M rangefinders, and is quite compact, given its aperture. It can achieve a very distinct, almost dreamy look wide open that cannot be replicated by slower lenses. Also, if you are working in low light, the f/0.95 aperture will let in more light than almost any other lens on the market. Leica is expanding this series with the release of the even bigger Noctilux-M 75mm f/1.25 ASPH. This more portrait-oriented prime has the same design ethos, though with the longer focal length, so you can expect dreamy bokeh. If the prices are a little out of reach, don’t worry—many other manufacturers are getting into the super-fast lens game.

Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH. Lens

Get in Close with a Macro

Zooms are great for doing many different tasks, but they are poor performers when it comes to specialized applications, such as macro. Not only is optical performance optimized for close-range focusing, they also have added features to make focusing a great deal easier. The Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED is a wonderful option in this category, with 1:1 magnification, internal focus, image stabilization, and crystal-clear imaging capabilities. While 1:1 may be plenty, some shooters will want to get even closer, such as the 5:1 magnification ratio possible with the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 Macro. This lets you get super close, and since these optics are designed for close focusing, they are almost always razor sharp. Other benefits include easy ways to mount lights for macro lighting. And, new offerings from Canon include the RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro STM and EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM and EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM, which feature built-in Macro Lite LEDs for illuminating those tiny subjects.

Canon EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM Lens

Perfect Portraits Every Time

Designing for a single focal length not only permits faster apertures, but also improved optical quality with less distortion and other aberrations. And one area where primes excel is in the portrait-length arena. The mainstay of this category is the workhorse 85mm, which sits in the Goldilocks zone of not too short and not too long, making it perfect for a variety of portrait types. If I had to choose a single lens of this focal length, I’d have to go with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, since it manages to squeak out a slightly larger aperture than all of its competitors. This lens is well known to Canon shooters, being the de facto portrait option for them; with its beautifully warm colors and dramatically shallow depth of field, it smooths out features perfectly and accentuates the eyes. Or, if you want a more modern look and image stabilization, Canon has that, as well, with the just-released EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM. Nikon shooters shouldn’t feel left out though, because they received a soon-to-be-legendary portrait option of their own with the release of the AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED lens. This lens takes things a step further than the 85s, with a slightly more compressed look and even shallower depth of field. There is no way you can achieve this look and quality with a zoom lens. For a different take, Sigma has developed its own 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Nikon, Canon, Sigma, and Sony cameras, which is definitely worth a look.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED Lens

Perspective Correction, Tilt, and Shift

If there is one thing we have never seen in a zoom lens, it is full tilt-shift functionality. These lenses can be absolute lifesavers, correcting for distortion and convergence with ease. Adding tilt and shift options to your photo kit can introduce numerous creative options, and is like what you could achieve with a large format camera with bellows and adjustable standards. Some applications include a true miniature effect, narrowing focus onto a specific part of the scene, and more. Architectural photographers love them for their ability to correct perspective so they can get straight lines that would have been impossible at the angles from which photographers are compelled to photograph buildings.

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Tilt-Shift Lens

If you have been using a zoom forever, hopefully, some of these primes can get you thinking. If you are looking for a place to start, you could always go with the tried-and-true nifty fifty.

What primes have replaced the zooms in your kit? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

19 Comments

The article title is bad English and makes the author look rather uneducated. There is no such thing as "Primes Lenses". There are either 'primes' or 'prime lenses' but not "primes lenses".

Hi Perry,

Good catch, not sure where or when in the publishing process that "s" was introduced but it is gone now.

For group portraits and landscape it would be very difficult to surpass the incredible sharpness of the Canon 24mm/2.8 II Tilt/Shift.  It also makes a great panorama lens since you just shift it to the max each way and shoot so everything lines up with no lost pixels.  It is manual focus only but we older shooters with former MF or LF cameras don't mind that.

Correction:  f/3.5, not 2.8.

Great article. I still have and use my Canon AF 50mm f1.8 that I purchased back in 1987 for my Eos 650. The 50mm has been a work horse and one that I refuse go with out. It just works.

"nift fifty" links to the plastic fantastic 1.8 ($125).

The picture is captioned, and links to, the 1.2 ($1,349).

50L is nifty fifty.  really?

Thanky Panky.

Ok lens heads,

You guys seem to know your stuff. What would be the best "generic" or "below market lens' to compete with the Canon CN-E15.5-47mm T2.8 L SP Wide-Angle Cinema Zoom Lens ( estimated at 23k!) for 4k video/filming?

Hi Rome,

While not primes to go along with the article, I would have to recommend a few based on the assumption you are looking for Canon EF mount lenses for Super35. If you can sacrifice zoom range the Sigma 18-35mm T2 looks to be great (you can also pair it with the 50-100mm T2 later). If you can sacrifice aperture I would say the Canon CN-E 18-80mm T4.4 is a solid pick. And finally, a middle of the road but a little pricier is the Zeiss 21-100mm T2.9-3.9.

Two vintage, Nikon prime lenses continue to have "magic" for me. -- The 28mm F2 and the 135mm F2. In the 1970s, when I was the first USAF "Command Photojournalist," I nicknamed these "the odd couple" because, if you could carry only one camera plus one lens, these two will give you "solutions" for the most situations. Still using the odd couple on my Nikon Df, still enjoying the "magic."

More Sigma prime lens for Sony A-Mount... 

This article assumes that no one shootts mirrorless.  Shame on you.

Hi Jim,

It's not that the article assumes that people don't shoot mirrorless (I actually use an a7R II), it just focuses on unique or highly regarded lenses and ending up being mostly DSLRs. Mirrorless systems are fairly new and lack the lens libraries that DSLRs have built over the years, such as Tilt Shift lenses for example. You can always adapt any of these lenses to a mirrorless system if you wanted. You can also just apply the same train of thought to picking lenses for your system. For portraits for example instead of the Canon 85mm f/1.2 or the Nikon 105mm f/1.4, you could get the Sony 85mm f/1.4 or the Fuji 56mm f/1.2. Sorry you felt left out, hope this explanation helps and if you want some more exact recommendations I'd be glad to help.

Shame??!! How about simply 'I wish he had included a mirrorless lens or two'? I though this was a great article. I'm happy to read about anything photographic.

whatever will be it all depends on the user how your artistic capability works...

Very surprised Sigma Art are not included in this article.  High end primes at reasonable pricing.

I couldn't agree more, Sir! They're remarkable for the price! I'm also looking forward to the 85mm Art that is coming out soon! =]

Hi Jay,

They are very nice lenses, and just barely didn't make the cut for this article. There are a lot of great primes that are also available, this was just meant to be a sampling of some of the choices one has available, especially for individuals who stick to zooms. If we included everything this article would be extremely long. Thanks for your comment!

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