There’s no denying the appeal of fast lenses and super versatile zooms, but sometimes a small and compact prime lens is all you really need—especially if you’re a landscape photographer. Whether it’s for the smaller footprint, lighter weight, or just because you like the look of a certain lens, there are many cases for trading in the huge, heavy, and complex lenses for the humble, compact, and slower prime.
Smaller and Lighter
The most obvious reason to go the way of the slow prime is because of the noticeable savings in weight and size. If you’re a photographer who will be hiking, or even just strolling, you’ll appreciate the reduced weight after a full day of carrying your camera. On the other hand, rather than reducing overall weight, you might be able to carry two or three smaller, lighter lenses in the place of one faster zoom while retaining the same total packed weight.
Do You Really Need the Speed?
In the context of landscape photography, you’ll be hard-pressed to justify the need for having a f/1.4 lens over something a bit more like an f/2, f/2.8, or even slower. There are certainly some circumstances where a fast lens comes in handy, such as astrophotography, maybe environmental portraiture, and if you are specifically focusing on isolating details in a landscape, but for ~90% of situations you’d likely be stopping your lens down, anyway, to prioritize sharpness and depth of field.
There’s no denying that faster lenses with more advanced optical designs command a premium price compared to the humble slow prime. Like the former two reasons, unless your process requires the specialized traits of a bright design, then save yourself some money by checking out the slower option.
No, not “speed” as in maximum aperture, but speed as in focusing and handling performance. Especially regarding current autofocus lenses, smaller lenses can focus more quickly because the AF motor is moving smaller and lighter elements. Compared to a large f/1.2 or f/1.4 lens, with heavy large-diameter elements, focusing a smaller lens is a speedier affair that is less taxing on focusing motors. While this isn’t necessarily a feature key to landscape shooting, it’s still a nice sensation having snappy and responsive focusing performance when shifting focus from close-up to distant subjects.
I’m all for the latest optical designs, high sharpness, perfectly punchy colors, and no visible aberrations, but I’m also very much enamored with older and quirkier lenses that can be used to impart a distinguishing mark on an image. When a contemporary lens provides crystal clear and vibrant colors during the golden hour, an older 28mm f/2.8 from the film era might produce a nice warm glow with muted colors, due to the older coating, that might suit a particular aesthetic you’re going for. This one is very subjective, and not exclusive to slow primes, but it’s a justification for looking for some of the slower, older lenses from the past versus always going with the latest and greatest.
Fans of prime lenses often advocate for their use over zoom lenses due to simplicity, and the same idea can be applied to slower lenses, too. A prime lens helps to tame an overactive zoomer by forcing one to work within the confines of a fixed field of view. Having this constant focal length forces someone to be creative in other ways, usually by staggering the distance and angle to the subject. Similarly, having a slow aperture takes away an often-overused crutch of simply using shallow depth of field to add interest to a scene or subject. Without this, photographers must rely on working with composition, subject distance, and different angles to photograph a subject—the results will often be more dynamic and original.
Don’t Let Your Ego Get in the Way
A common misconception among photographers is that faster lenses must be better because they’re more expensive, the pros use them, and their results are better on paper. This is all true, sure, but it’s a lot like thinking that the exotic super car is the better automobile for you, versus the compact hybrid, when all you’re doing with your car is commuting to work and driving around town. Do you really want the luxury car? Sure, who doesn’t. Do you need it? Probably not. A slow prime lens is a lot like the compact hybrid automobile: kind of boring but very practical, reliable, and useful.
They’re Coming Back into Style
Fast lenses will always be popular, but lately slow primes are having a bit of a renaissance due to the improvements in sensor designs and the desire to have more portable lenses. Mirrorless cameras are surely contributing to the desire to have smaller lenses, with smaller bodies naturally feeling better to use with smaller lenses. There’s also the refinement and availability of in-body image stabilization in many recent mirrorless bodies; now that the cameras themselves can compensate for 5, 6, or even 7 stops of camera shake, you no longer need supremely fast lenses for working handheld in low-light conditions.
There’s no arguing that fast lenses have their time and place in photography and tend to be the objective winners in terms of sharpness, clarity, and color, but there’s also a time and place for slower, less refined prime lenses in photography. Landscape photography is a perfect example of a genre that benefits more from the smaller form factor and lighter weight of a slower prime.
What are your thoughts on working with more modest and slower lenses for landscape shooting? Do you have any additional arguments for or against slow or fast lenses? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section, below.