In Defense of Slow Prime Lenses for Landscapes


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.

Taken with a 50mm f/2.8 lens—no need for a fast lens since a long depth of field and sharpness are what’s important here.

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.

Taken with a 150mm f/4.5 lens—very happy to have had a slow and lightweight lens during this hike, which ended at the top of the mountain just in time for sunset.


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.

All shot with a 45mm f/2.8 lens—Showing the versatility of a single focal length and slow aperture

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.


Since when is f2.8 a slow lens? Most f2.8 lens are big and bulky.

Depends on focal lenght, isn't it?. 20 to 60mm lenses are compact or very compact. Not frequently you will use a 400mm in landscape photography, and even in that case, you wouldn't need a f2.8. A f5.6 lens is cheaper and lighter and in both cases you should use a good tripod for "lansdcaping" with 400mm.

Good point, especially that with longer focal lengths you'll likely be needing to use a tripod regardless of the maximum aperture.

Like Roberto has said, it really depends on the focal length. If you're looking at a 300mm or 400mm lens, then yeah, an f/2.8 lens is bulky (honestly any lens of that focal length is bulky compared to wide and normal-length lenses). This article is more looking at the everyday primes, in the vein of a 28mm f/2.8 vs a 28mm f/1.4...the lenses where there are multiple options of maximum apertures. At these shorter focal lengths, f/2.8 is decidedly slow seeing as how f/1.8 or f/2 is pretty normal nowadays, f/1.4 is fast, and it's not unheard of to see f/1.2 and f/0.95 options.

Bjorn, not only are the photos as delightful as always, but also the article. I agree with everything about it, and this sage-like quote sums it all up perfectly:

"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." That's so *chef's kiss*!

BTW, I just realized you have...with all due respect...a very Japanese style of photography. Even if the scene is very simple, you find a way to make it speak, like there's a silent narrator. I've noticed that with Japanese photographers. They innately capture photographic poetry, and you seem to do so, too.

It doesn't matter the camera and lens you use, the pictures you post on these articles always have that quality to them. Hopefully I'm not crazy and you have noticed yourself, ha-ha! Also, hopefully you don't reply something in the lines of, "Really? I just see something I like and I shoot. I don't even try." That would crush my heart! xD

God bless you!

Interesting article. The most interesting aspect you touch on, is the aesthetic of the shots you can get with more 'niche' primes. I don't know enough about those older lenses with more 'personality', but it sounds like an interesting direction to investigate.

Also, the newer mounts (Z, R, etc.) can adapt a lot (if not all) older lens mounts, because of the bigger mount and shorter flange distance, so if you have a new Mirrorless camera, playing with these older lenses becomes much simpler.

Finally, these older, quirkier lenses are likely to be pretty economical, so there is less risk to trying a new lens out, than having to spend thousands on a new, fast alternative.

All good points, Per. You're definitely right about the benefit of being able to use older lenses on mirrorless cameras via lens adapters- it's a great way to discover some hidden gem lenses from the past. Without worrying too much about the speed of the lens, you can really focus on the characteristics of different lenses, like these older lenses you're referring to, which tended to be slower than the big, fast primes of today. Assuming you're not looking for the ultimate in sharpness or AF performance, there are a ton of great options out there to add some unique looks to your shots. Thanks for the comment.

Became aware of photography by way of an uncle in the 1950's. My 1st camera was a Kodak "Brownie"  followed by an early ugly version of their '126' format. That became my 'go to' until enlisting into the Navy, where I was introduced to large format designs, and dark-rooms/developers et al. My interests expanded to the use of 35 mm units and lens adaptations, but they became heavy pieces of junk to carry, especially when on backpacking trips. So relatively recently along comes micro 4/3 cameras and lens designs, and there seems to be a live-able compromise as to size/weight/availabilty of lenses to meet my demands of "taking pictures" of what I see and want to store/keep for rememberances of my adventures. I am not saddened or envious of those who think that a 100-1000 mm zooms made by any company w/a certain name give them some kind of edge, and then complain about how much all such crap weighs (but they're pros right cuz), they spent all that money to earn the right to say "I'm a pro, look at my unit", and their dollars weigh heavy too. As to the "fast" argument w/lenses it's time to lay that discussion to the grave. Fast is to be discussed in the terms of "film speed" now known as ISO and shutter opening/closing, not lens stuff. Lens apertures open to and are adjusted to meet the eyes of the photographer's ideas of depth of field, not to speed of anything. If a photog is interested in capturing anything in the field of view regarding movement and depth of field, those do require an interrelationship of SS and Lens FF. And when does the discussion of "low light", as well as ISO become of interest? Today's cameras can leave much of that discussion at rest with the menu on your screen.