Lenses are lenses. Or are they?
Sort of. You sure as anything need one for your photography, else you’ll just have a nice digital pinhole camera. The lenses are split in two two camps, one that can zoom, and ones that can’t, we call these non-zooms prime lenses. That’s it – there’s no other distinction between the two apart from one zooms and the other doesn’t. There are huge advantages to using each, lets walk through which ones I use and for what, and let you choose which is better. In the post I’ll break down the advantages of each into cost, usage, quality, size and availability.
They say that the best camera is the one you have with you, and the same goes for the lens. So many photographers choose to stick to a focal length all day, and use their feet to move around and get he best distance from the subject and angle. Lenses like 35mm and 50mm are closest to the human eye (if you like me, can only see out of one eye, 50mm is probably best) and are the staple for all street photographers. As prime lenses don’t have a moving optical element inside, they can be built with much larger chunks of glass and to a simpler optical arrangement. This lets the lens designers use huge wide pieces of glass in the optics, which suck in light and let you shoot in dull to non-existant lighting. This ability to shoot in low light levels without a flash is the main reason why you’d choose a prime lens over a zoom. Due to a nice bit of optical trickery, shooting at these low aperture settings throws your background into blur, separating your subject from their surroundings. Combine all these factors together and you can see why primes are so loveable. There’s nothing complex about them, yet they do their best to give you image-popping subject separation whilst also letting you shoot in dim light.
As mentioned before, prime lenses have a simpler optical structure inside the lens. Without moving focus rings and floating elements, designers can use the traditional “gauss” optical formulae, and concentrating on making the pieces of glass the best they can be. Newer lenses like the Sigma Art series have swept the floor with their quality, as I use the Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art lens for 95% of my work, be it weddings, food or fashion. Super sharp when focusing even at f1.4 (the shallowest depth of field the camera can get), most zoom lenses would have to stop down to f4 or f5.6 to achieve the same sharpness. This stopping down of the lens lets less light in, which can be a pain if you don’t have the ability to change the lighting source power. There’s also less things to go wrong with primes, very few of them have image stabilisers or motor drives unlike zooms. If you’re into cinema and video work, prime lenses will give you that cinematic feel, with the subjects becoming almost 3D and popping off the background. The picture above is of my good friend Ryan, who swears by his new Tamron 45mm lens for video work, when on set of a 4am fashion photoshoot.
Two out of three of my cameras feature exclusively prime lenses – the Canon EOS 5 has a Helios 44-2, and the Fujifilm x100s has a fixed 35mm, but I use the 50mm adapter to give me a standard focal length.
I need to say right off the bat that this is a massive generalisation – as lenses get better technically and companies start to bring out insane zooms, prices will diminish in line with production costs. As of mid 2017 however, 95% of prime lenses are cheaper to buy than the zoom counterparts of equal sharpness. The golden standard of camera lenses is the 70-200mm f2.8 lens, mine setting me back a neat £1600 two years ago. For this I could have bought a 105mm, 85mm and 200mm prime lens kit, with money to spare. The majority of second hand camera lenses are also primes – zoom lenses were not made until recent memory, and the ones that were contained high apertures and bad optics. It is only in the recent years that zoom lenses have started to compare to primes on quality, but more of that later. A decent quality 50mm 1.8 lens will set you back under £100 new, and can do the vast majority of the jobs you need a camera to do, with the sharpness and optical qualities to match. Compare that to the basic kit zooms, and you’ll have terrible colour fringing, abberations and softness.
As you can see from the picture, the big zooms are really big. They’re heavy, bulky and will start to hurt your arm after a day of full on shooting. Of course you could put it on a tripod, but that would just mean more stuff to take to a shoot. Primes are in tiny comparison and half the weight (or more). You can stuff twice the amount of primes in your bag than zooms, but I do hope that you would have settled on your favourite lens length far before you buy 10 different primes. I find having either a 50mm or 35mm should be the starting point for photographers, if unhappy borrow a cheap wide or tele prime, and if you like it, then you can upgrade the lens to a higher end prime of the lens length you like. My journey started with a 50mm 1.8, then 24mm 2.8 and 135mm 2.0 before I decided to upgrade to a 50mm 1.4 and sell the others. After the Sigma Art series came out, it was a straight swap with a friend for his 35mm 1.4 for my 50mm 1.4, and I never looked back.
You can really get some crazy lenses mounted on to your cameras nowadays. Prime lenses from older generations of cameras are still mountable on modern day digital cameras – you can pick up a great vintage prime lens (like the Canon 50mm 1.2 FD mount) for £200. I love using a Russian Helios 44-2 lens for both photography and video, as it has a decoupled aperture ring, making it great for smooth changes of the apertures during a video shoot. All the old lenses have quirks and fun intricacies which can give your images a creative edge. The Helios has crazy flaring and ghosting when shooting into direct light, dropping contrast and giving a light and airy glow to the subject. Modern day lenses won’t do this so much, they spent too long researching anti-glare coatings into their lenses. With the right adapters, you could theoretically mount 1900 era medium format lens boards to your cameras. Cheaper, easier to find and higher quality optically, primes give your photography the edge that zooms can’t. Use primes for quality, zooms for convenience.
Post your lens preferences & comments below.
See more of Jon’s posts on Breed here. Jon Sparkman is a fine art photographer from the UK using film cameras, interesting lighting and bright colours in his images. Follow him on Instagram @sparkman_uk and see more work at www.sparkman.co.uk.