Often times when someone first gets into photography they have the urge to buy a big telephoto (zoom) lens. It looks pretty professional right off the bat and it gives more flexibility in composing your image. Why would someone purposefully choose to use a smaller, less “professional looking” lens? Some photographers even choose to only use prime lenses when working professionally. This is something I wondered myself when I first started picking up a camera.
First, let’s start off by defining what a prime lens actually means. The most simple definition is a lens with a fixed focal lens. If you have a 50mm lens all your photos will have to be composed accordingly.
What are the pros of these types of lenses and how can you use them to improve your photography?
As a general rule of thumb, prime lenses are always going to give you sharper, cleaner looking image. Why is this? When we look into the construction of the how the lenses are made, the optics of the glass are more precise. Think about it, if all the optics in a lens are specifically crafted to focus on one set focal distance, the engineers can make sure that it is near perfect optically.
On the other hand, when we look at bigger, telephoto lenses that cover a wider range of focal lens such as a 70-200mm lens, the optics have to be set in a way to almost average out the clarity between the set distances. Over the years, the optics have significantly improved with these telephoto lenses, to make it acceptably sharp throughout most focal lengths, but when compared to prime lenses they will fall short.
Prime lenses are almost always going to be smaller, lighter and for the most part cheaper. This can prove extremely beneficial depending on what type of event you are going to be covering. For example, if you are a journalist in a foreign land that requires you to be constantly travelling and avoiding attention, prime lenses will suit your needs. Even though you have fewer options in camera to frame your photos, the benefits will almost always outweigh the inconvenience. Nowadays, most cameras can now produce such high-quality files that cropping in post is not an issue.
If you can train your eye to see potential in an image even if your shot in camera conveys an entirely different scene, you can get around not having the flexibility that a telephoto lens will give you.
To give you a real-life example, I was recently shooting in Burma. Due to my circumstances, I was using a very discreet lens shooting at 50mm. I was standing on a bridge and shooting two women crossing the street. I loved the leading lines of the street and the two main subjects. Even though there were many distractions in the scene, I was able to see the final image in my head. I was able to see past the in-camera image and shoot accordingly. With some cropping and editing, I was able to produce the image I saw in my head. Shooting with prime lenses can teach you to see in this way; teach you to have foresight.
When I first started shooting professionally I was constantly seeking to learn from those with more experience. I remember early on I was given some good advice by a street photographer. He encouraged me to try only shooting with prime lenses for a period of time. The reason being that I would be forced to interact with my subjects in a greater way and be more involved in consciously composing my images in camera. This cuts out the need to crop your image later on, which means a higher quality image, and makes you more actively involved in the shooting process.
The key is understanding your assignment and using the right tools the get the job done. It’s like this with all other areas of photography such as lighting, software etc. Hopefully, this information can help you make smarter decisions when it comes to your shooting and with your future lens purchases.
Keep learning and have fun!