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 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 The normal 50mm prime used to be industry standard in a new camera kit, but it’s been replaced by the mid-range zoom in recent years.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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