Sunday, September 12, 2010

Primes vs. Zooms

I've often liked using prime lenses. In fact, all things being equal, I tend to prefer them to zooms. I've always felt like working within the box of a fixed focal length forces you to be a more active seer. I could never quite put my finger on it, but I figured it had something to do with the idea that when working with a zoom lens, if something doesn't fit just right you adjust the focal length and make an easy fix. But with a prime lens, you move in and out, side to side, up and down... you're engaged with your subject, working to see, conscious of making the perfect composition.

Then I read an offhand comment by Michael Johnston of The Online Photographer blog. In a post about what makes Leica rangefinders so great (which you can read at http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2010/09/the-secrets-of-the-leica.html) he listed the cameras’ prime lenses as a major benefit. He wrote, "You learn how to see like the lens sees." Aha! That's it! The difference between prime lenses and zoom lenses is that simple, and that profound. A prime lens forces you to see as the lens sees, while a zoom lens can be forced to see the way you see. It may be simple, but it means a lot. At least, it does to us prime lens shooters. 

If you don't shoot with primes, I recommend trying one out. They're often really sharp, and really fast, and they can be pretty affordable too. The normal 50mm prime used to be industry standard in a new camera kit, but it's been replaced by the mid-range zoom in recent years. If you've got an old dis-used prime of any size, strap it on and go for a walk. Or consider purchasing a new prime; the lenses are popular enough that Nikon has just introduced another great professional prime—the 85mm f/1.4. Whatever prime you choose, enjoy giving up a bit of control to the camera, and see how the lens sees. You might like it. You may even find it freeing. 
DPMag Published in Blog
Primes vs. Zooms


I've often liked using prime lenses. In fact, all things being equal, I tend to prefer them to zooms. I've always felt like working within the box of a fixed focal length forces you to be a more active seer. I could never quite put my finger on it, but I figured it had something to do with the idea that when working with a zoom lens, if something doesn't fit just right you adjust the focal length and make an easy fix. But with a prime lens, you move in and out, side to side, up and down... you're engaged with your subject, working to see, conscious of making the perfect composition.

Then I read an offhand comment by Michael Johnston of The Online Photographer blog. In a post about what makes Leica rangefinders so great (which you can read at http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2010/09/the-secrets-of-the-leica.html) he listed the cameras’ prime lenses as a major benefit. He wrote, "You learn how to see like the lens sees." Aha! That's it! The difference between prime lenses and zoom lenses is that simple, and that profound. A prime lens forces you to see as the lens sees, while a zoom lens can be forced to see the way you see. It may be simple, but it means a lot. At least, it does to us prime lens shooters. 

If you don't shoot with primes, I recommend trying one out. They're often really sharp, and really fast, and they can be pretty affordable too. The normal 50mm prime used to be industry standard in a new camera kit, but it's been replaced by the mid-range zoom in recent years. If you've got an old dis-used prime of any size, strap it on and go for a walk. Or consider purchasing a new prime; the lenses are popular enough that Nikon has just introduced another great professional prime—the 85mm f/1.4. Whatever prime you choose, enjoy giving up a bit of control to the camera, and see how the lens sees. You might like it. You may even find it freeing. 
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