Thursday, July 11, 2013

Build A Prime Lens Kit

How (and why) to select key prime lenses for your camera system
Text & Photography By J. Dennis Thomas Published in Shooting
Shooting wide open with a short telephoto lens like the Sigma 85mm ƒ/1.4 DG HSM used for this image really separates the subject from the background and makes it appear almost three dimensional.
Shooting wide open with a short telephoto lens like the Sigma 85mm ƒ/1.4 DG HSM used for this image really separates the subject from the background and makes it appear almost three dimensional.

In the almost distant past, the prime lens was de rigueur. Just about every SLR from the late 1930s up until the mid-1970s was equipped with a 50mm prime lens. Then manufacturers started to include zoom lenses as part of the kit because it afforded entry-level photographers more bang for the buck.

These early zoom lenses were slow and of relatively poor quality (this created a stigma for zoom lenses that still lingers to this day, even though some of today's zoom lenses are the sharpest ever manufactured). As time went on, zoom lenses got better in quality and speed, and many pros shifted to high-end zooms for most work, keeping around a few primes mostly for dedicated applications such as macro, portraits, architecture or other specialized areas of photography.

Older lenses such as the Nikon 24mm ƒ/2.8D are a great inexpensive way to get into shooting with prime lenses. They're small, light and relatively inexpensive on the used market.

Today, there's a resurgence in the popularity of prime lenses. The ultra-high resolution of the current generation of DSLR cameras demands the highest-quality glass to take full advantage of their potential—and current prime lenses are sharper than ever. They're also useful for video work.

Primes are attractive not just for their sharpness, but also for their wide maximum apertures. A wide aperture allows you to shoot in lower light using faster shutter speeds or lower ISO settings. Plus, wide apertures create a shallow depth of field for subject isolation and for selective focus that draws the eye to the sharpest part of the image.

Just about every prime lens has a fast aperture. Most primes start out with the relatively inexpensive ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/1.8 lenses, and then you step up to the ƒ/1.4 lenses, which are substantially more expensive and marketed mostly as pro lenses. Up from there, we have some specialty lenses with apertures of ƒ/1.2.

Portrait photographers can take advantage of semi-wide-angle lenses like the Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4 DG HSM "A" using a fast ƒ/1.4 aperture to create a shallow depth of field for a non-distracting background.

PUTTING TOGETHER A KIT

If you're serious about shooting primes, put together a good kit. Every photographer has his or her own preferences; the way you compose your images and your typical subject matter are huge factors in the lens selection process. For our purpose here, we'll put together a basic kit that will cover most bases.

Tip: When considering which prime lenses to buy, research your photo metadata and determine which focal lengths you use most on your zoom lenses.

A basic prime lens kit should have at least three lenses: one wide-angle, one standard focal length and one telephoto. For general purpose or portrait photography, I recommend a moderately wide lens, a normal lens and a short telephoto lens, such as a 35mm, 50mm, 85mm combo. A landscape shooter might want to explore more extreme wide-angle options, whereas someone who shoots a lot of wildlife, sports or action will want to look for a longer option in the telephoto area.


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