What’s a Prime Lens and Why You Need One

What’s a Prime Lens and Why You Need One

1806 1016 James Tocchio

Prime lenses are lenses that use a single fixed focal length, as opposed to zoom lenses which offer a range of variable focal lengths. It’s simple, really; zooms can zoom in or out, primes cannot. While this would seemingly limit the effectiveness of primes compared to zooms, there’s more to the story.

Due to the nature of optics, prime lenses are intrinsically less complicated than zooms. While a zoom lens might need a myriad of elements, groups, and moving parts, prime lenses are uniquely optimized for maximum performance at a single focal length. When compared to zoom lenses, prime lenses nearly always offer superior image quality, lighter weight, smaller size, lower cost, and vastly better low-light performance.

Now that you’re up to speed, let’s dig into all the ways prime lenses are best.

Prime lenses are constructed for performance

I’ve briefly covered the most prominent reason to buy a prime, better image quality, but let’s get into it a bit deeper.

Distortion, chromatic aberration, diffraction; these are all optical aberrations that photographers really hate. They cloud the image, distract from the end product, and make otherwise good photos ugly. They’re also, coincidentally, exacerbated by an increase in the number of lens elements through which light must pass.

Zoom lenses are packed with many more elements than your typical prime, including moving elements that further complicate things. As light passes through these elements it becomes degraded and distorted, introducing the previously mentioned and unwanted optical aberrations. To correct for this, optical engineers introduce even more glass in the form of corrective elements. The end result is a massively complicated assemblage of glass that produces nothing more than a decent image.

Prime lenses, on the other hand, are extremely precise. Designing for a single focal length allows the designers to create a lens that’s completely tuned to produce optimum sharpness, contrast, and performance with no compromise to image quality.

Another area in which primes trump their zooming counterparts is in the production of acceptable bokeh. With zoom lenses, unless you have an unlimited budget, it’s pretty difficult to generate that luscious blur we all covet. By contrast, even the least expensive prime lenses can produce gorgeous blur and amazing subject isolation.

The bottom line? For shooters obsessed with bokeh, sharpness, and superb optical fidelity, there’s nothing better than a prime lens.

Primes can improve your photography

Shooting primes will make you a better photographer. And while this is the least quantifiable reason to shoot primes, it’s the reason that will have the most lingering impact on the photographer.

From learning how to zone focus and manual focus, to better understanding aperture, primes are stimulating in a way that zooms never seem to be. You’ll hunt for the perfect shot, the perfect angle, and the perfect composition. You’ll zoom in and out with your feet, and experience not only the camera and lens, but also the environment in which the photos are taken.

With zoom lenses, there’s a potential to become lazy. Take this hypothetical situation; you’re using a massive zoom lens while out in the city for some architectural and street shooting. You spy a bridge some hundreds of yards in the distance. Deciding it would make a great picture, you zoom in and snap! Job done, photo taken. Time to get a coffee and go home.

But let’s imagine you were to catch a glimpse of the same bridge while using a 35mm prime lens. If you want the shot, you’ll have to take a walk. On the way, you might see a man with a toothless smile fishing in the river. You might see a beautiful couple strolling through fallen leaves. You might see a particularly photogenic cat, strolling in a particularly photogenic way, with a particularly photogenic snack hanging from his lips.

When you get to the bridge, you might stumble upon a more interesting perspective, a shot you never saw from the former great distance, or an architectural detail you’d like to highlight. You may find a perspective from underneath the bridge that creates an image that you’ve never seen before. You may even find a crumpled up twenty-dollar bill.

The point is, when you’ve got to move your feet to get your shot, you never know what you might find.

It should also be said that you might find nothing at all. But at least you’ve burned a few calories.

This shot was made with an Olympus 28mm Zuiko prime.

Specific primes are built to make a specific shot

Swiss Army knives are pretty analogous to zoom lenses. They’re decent at lots of tasks, but exceptional at none. And in the same way that a Swiss Army knife isn’t the best screwdriver, corkscrew, or nail file, a zoom lens is never going to be the best landscape, portrait, or street photography lens.

Prime lenses, on the other hand, are purpose-built for a specific task. They give the shooter the focal length that perfectly complements their type of shooting. So whether you’re shooting street shots and need big, fast apertures; headshots and need superb subject isolation; or macro shots and need impeccable clarity, there’s a prime that’s purpose-built for you.

The bokeh in shot could only be achieved with a prime lens.

This is exemplified in no more obvious scenario than in street photography, where shooters often rely on available light and demand a specific perspective to create their vision. Finding a lens that offers the perfect pairing of focal length to suit your style with a maximum aperture that’s fast enough to capture images by the light of the streetlamps is a lot easier and affordable with primes. With zoom lenses, often the apertures just aren’t fast enough. The result is a reliance on high ISO (noisy, ugly shots), or introduction of rampant camera shake. Yuck.

Furthermore, many street shooters want to be right up in the action. This closeness imbues in their images a sense of place and purpose. The viewer feels more in touch with the scene, more involved with the image. It’s difficult to do this with a big, honkin’ zoom.

Primes are small and light

Due to their concise design and construction, primes are much lighter than their zooming pals. In shooting environments where carrying a lot of gear just isn’t practical, it’s best to carry one or two prime lenses. Due to the tiny footprint of most primes, it’s actually possible to fit these things in your pant or jacket pocket. Try doing that with a zoom lens and you’re likely to incur suspicious stares from strangers.

There’s nothing like the simplicity of using just a single, tiny lens to make amazing images. And the fixed focal length often spurs surprising bursts of creativity. For adventurers, street shooters, travelers, or anyone who values compactness, primes are the perfect fit.

Primes are cheap (sometimes)

For the most part, prime lenses of serious quality are much less costly than zoom lenses of comparable quality. Especially when shooting legacy glass, for instance, it’s possible to buy a full suite of specialized, dedicated primes for the cost of a single high-spec zoom lens.

If you want amazing lenses on a budget, primes are really the only way to go. It’s a simple job to get a wide, standard, and tele lens all for under $250. That’s pretty remarkable, especially considering that these were pro-spec lenses in their day, and even today they’ll give you much better images than your modern kit lens. Choose your brand, buy an adapter, and have fun collecting.

Zooms lenses have their place, but for many photographers primes are a better choice.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • I’m not a prime lover but in digital I loved the Fujinon XF 35mm F1.4R, and for my Canon EF film camera a AUTOWEP 135mm F2.8 FD mount, it was quite better than the 50mm F1.8 S.C. Canon. But in the end I learned that to my style of shooting landscapes zooms are better suited, so in digital I rely in the fixed Carl Zeiss that in equivalence covers 24mm to 120mm and in film my Samsung ECX-1 has a 38mm to 140mm, the lens is better in comparison to the Canon primes I have so I’m happy, it’s said to have Schneider-Kreuznach quality.
    If I’d shoot street (and if I had the money, ha!) I’d probably get a Canonet and a Sony RX1, but in landscape when the sun is moving so fast in sunsets and when there are several compositions changing primes takes so much time and exposing sensors or film to light is quite risky.

  • Great with a shoutout to the primes!
    I started out with a 50mm 1.8 Nikon E Series, but quickly went for a 50mm 1.4 pre-ai. From there I got a 28mm f/2.8, a 35mm f/2 another 50mm f/1.4, a 85mm f/2 a 135mm f/2.8 and the Leica T 23mm f/2. The latest additions are the Voigtländer 50mm f/1.1, the Canon 100mm f/2 and the Petzval 85mm f/2.2 🙂

  • Thank you for this great shoutout on prime lenses.
    I don’t have one favorite, but a few I have an use are Nikkor 1:4 19mm, 1:2.8 24mm, 1:2 35mm, 1:1.4 50mm, 1:2 85mm and 1:2.8 180mm – all AI

    Just some days ago I read a discussion on tumblr about the influence of lens quality on photography quality… So this is a great answer to those who think that editing software can solve lens quality lack… 🙂

  • Rob Moses Photography October 5, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    I love primes too! Some really nice ones you got there. I especially like that 50 1.2 and 20mm :D.

  • My faves? XF35 1.4 on a Fuji. Ais 28 2.8 on a Nikon FM.

  • I purchased a Canon 5DS R a couple of months ago. I was set to get a couple of L series zooms. A side project of buying cheap film gear on eBay saw a couple of good primes arrive in the mail, and I shot off a couple of rolls on 35mm. I’ve been shooting since 1975, so I saw these older primes the first time around, and I was very quickly reminded of the quality, and as you say, the extra footwork and thinking that goes into prime shooting. This led me to re-evaluate, and I got a single (for now) 50mm 1.2 L prime (no putting that baby in your pocket). As a result, my shooting has improved, and the amount of work I put into it is paying dividends and I find that the process is really enjoyable.

    An unexpected thing that found it’s way into the process is interesting – I shoot 95% with the finder, but I had no intention of using the 5 R’s crop mode apart from having a quick look at it. But with all those megapixels, there is no real loss of quality in the output using the crop mode (mostly the 1.6 mode): however, the main thing of interest that occurs with crop-mode shooting that you don’t get with standard prime shooting or zoom shooting – is that you can see the full frame in the finder, with the actual shot area of the crop in highlight. I’ve found that this is a great tool for composition, as in addition to seeing what you’re gonna get, you can also see what you’re not gonna get – it is really quite helpful in a new and unexpected way.

    And of course, you suddenly have a kind of zoom available to you with a prime. If anyone reading this is tempted to write this off as “digital zoom” – well maybe it is, but not as we know it. Also, if you shoot in jpeg + raw, only the jpeg is outputted with the crop, and the raw file is the full frame. Several things have happened using this – on a few occasions, I’ve been able to see some evolving action in the area outside the crop just before shooting and then been able to change the theme of the immediate shot to include the new thing (people, birds etc). then return to the originally intended shot after that. I’ve also noticed in post that the cropped area (center frame) is less subject to all the types of aberrations that usually occur around the periphery of a lens.

    I’ll probably buy a 70 – 300 L zoom in a while, but this will be for the type of shooting that benefits from it – wildlife in particular, where you can’t be up close (danger, putting the subject off), and/or the shot will be lost with contemplation. You also really need zoom for framing wildlife when you’re more or less fixed to the spot you’re in (camouflage, timing), and without zoom the subject is too small inside the frame, or over-hogging the frame.

    I have a couple of Hasselblad primes, a 50 and a 150, and I hoped to use these with the 5R – I got a cheap Chinese adapter – but cannot get it to work. If anyone who has bothered to read this far knows of one that does work well, throw me a bone if you could, please.

    • Hi my friend,

      Sorry to hear your adapter didn’t work. That’s a bummer. I’ll take a look and see if anyone has one to recommend. I should also mention that I’m pretty interested in the Hasselblad primes and would like to hear or see more of them!

      What you’re saying about the 5D is pretty interesting. The crop mode (which I initially dismissed as irrelevant when reading about it) being used as a quasi-zoom feature on a prime lens is a really good point. And the functionality you describe of it acting like a sort of rangefinder frame line is interesting too. Good for street shooting, I imagine.

      Also, a bit jealous of the 1.2L. 😉

      Thanks for the serious input, and happy shooting to you!

  • I use a 50mm prime on my film cameras; a Nikon FG-20 and an Olympus OM-2. They force me to frame my shots and I often have to move around on my feet find a better angle to fit the frame.

    However, I have tried using primes on my digital cameras; Nikon D90 and D5100. I found my shooting tempo with the prime too slow. So, I now use a 18 – 200mm zoom.

    • That’s interesting that the lens style you prefer would differ from film to digital. I can see why that would be though. Happy shooting.

  • My preferred is the Industar 22 (50/3,5), a Russian copy of the Elmar. Small, sharp, inexpennsive, great for my Zorki camera and for street photography

  • Randle P. McMurphy March 31, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Why prime lenses improve your photography ?
    Because you have to choose and pick the right one
    for the job – so you are forced to “imagine” waht you
    want before you press the button !
    It has nothing to do that primes may be sharper or “faster”.
    A lot of Zoom Lenses I tested were equal to primes or
    sometimes even better (take a look at the Leica R 4,0/80-200).
    No – it´s the difference that you can “see” and “imagine”
    in the way the focal length does after time of practice.

  • Pound for pound, I couldn’t be happier with Minolta’s prime lenses. I rarely took the 45mm f/2 pancake off my camera during two weeks of shooting in Germany.

  • Bo Belvedere Christensen September 24, 2016 at 6:44 am

    Great article on primes – I totally agree although I also use quite a few different zooms.
    But here’s my favorites:
    Nikon 85mm 1.4D which I use both on my film Nikon F100 and on my D200 + D4 mainly for portraits but also shots of close subjects in nature. Gives gorgeous bokeh 🙂
    Nikon 50mm 1.8D used on the same bodies and also with adapter on Fuji X-T1 for allround shooting.
    Canon FD 135mm 2.5 for portraits and condensed perspective with adapter on Fuji X-T1

    But when shooting wildlife I must admit to one of the previous commenters viewpoint, it is difficult when you don’t want to disturbe the animals. You have to keep still and then a huge telezoom is ideal. I use a Tamron 150-600mm on my previously mentioned Nikons. It’s not perfectly sharp, but it’s a good balance between price and value.

    By the way I’m a mountaineer and when climbing high mountains I take one camera with fixed lens for the summit attempts, a Fuji X100T with its 35mm equivalent f2.0 lens. I find this to be one of the most amazing camera/lens combinations of recent times, and it takes me back to the shooting style of my youth, where I tried different rangefinder cameras, the favorite then being a Canon QL17 GIII.

    I have a picture gallery at http://gallery.k2-adventure.dk

    • James – Founder/Editor September 25, 2016 at 1:59 am

      Thanks for sharing your gallery. Amazing shots in there. And yes, that Fuji is incredible. When I’m shooting just for fun I find it hard to beat Fuji’s X-series, and that X100t is what’s coming with me if I ever get on a plane again.

  • thanks james! i love your site and the history of Minox (which I shoot) and this bit on Prime lenses, because i need to use mine more

  • I’ve been making photographs since 1952, and for years I refused the lure of zoom lenses, but eventually, in the 1990s, to save weight (I shoot at long and hilly racetracks and travel a lot), I bought several Canon L zooms. They were better than expected and in fact did a great job, but it’s great to see someone advocating primes again. I’ll give them another try. You’re right about them making you think!

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio