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.
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.
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.
If money is no object, the best option is to look into the ultrafast ƒ/1.4 primes. Most ultrafast prime lenses are built by the camera manufacturers, although Sigma has made an impressive foray into this field with some lenses that are bringing professional quality at affordable prices. These ƒ/1.4 lenses all come in at over $1,000 (except for the Sigma options), so this is probably something you would want to build toward.
Ultrafast primes are designed to be used wide open and are sharper at their maximum aperture than a typical ƒ/2.8 lens—and when stopped down a couple of stops, they’re extremely sharp. They also typically have a much more robust build quality than their slower counterparts. One drawback is that these fast ƒ/1.4 lenses can be more difficult to focus accurately due to the extremely shallow depth of field when shooting at the maximum aperture.
|Sharpness. Prime lenses have simpler designs, requiring fewer glass elements and moving parts, therefore, the optical performance is typically higher. I say typically because there are some zooms just as sharp as a prime (the Nikon 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G being one example).
Speed. Again, due to simpler designs and smaller size, a prime lens can be made with a wider aperture. This gives photographers a few different advantages. It allows the use of lower ISO sensitivity settings, a shallower depth of field and faster shutter speeds in low light.
Size. Prime lens simplicity allows them to be much more compact than just about any fast zoom. While the current trend of ultrafast ƒ/1.4 wide-angle lenses are getting to be almost as big as a pro zoom, most primes in the ƒ/1.8 to ƒ/2.8 range are tiny in comparison to a fast zoom.
For those on a tighter budget, there are a lot of great options for building a prime lens collection that won’t break the bank. The best way to go is for the newer ƒ/1.8 lenses. These lenses are only about two-thirds of a stop slower than the high-end ƒ/1.4 lenses, but they’re more compact and lighter than their faster counterparts—and much less expensive. For about $1,400, you can outfit yourself with a 28mm ƒ/1.8, a 35mm or 50mm ƒ/1.8 and a 85mm ƒ/1.8. This may look pricey, but when you consider that a 24mm ƒ/1.4 is about $2,000 alone, you can see what kind of savings can be had.
Another option to consider is older prime lenses. These lenses aren’t designed with digital sensors in mind, but you can get fast lenses for a fraction of the price of the newer lenses. I do, however, recommend trying to stick with the newest lenses that are designed for digital when building a prime kit, especially if you’re using a very high-resolution camera body.
If you’re not sure you want to invest a lot of money in primes and you want to build a kit just to try out, there are plenty of options, especially in the used market. You can put together a nice kit of older ƒ/2.8 autofocus primes for well under the price of a new ƒ/2.8 zoom. You can also opt to go with manual-focus lenses, which are sometimes less expensive than autofocus lenses, but can be optically better.
Building a great set of prime lenses isn’t necessarily accomplished overnight. It’s important to assess your needs and spend your money where it will best be used. For example, I found that 35mm and 85mm are my most used focal lengths, therefore, I spent more money on those two lenses than I did on my 50mm, which is one of my least used focal lengths. And although I really wanted to buy the 24mm ƒ/1.4, I found that 24mm isn’t a focal length I use often, so instead I kept my old 24mm ƒ/2.8. The point is that you don’t have to have the abso
lute best lenses across the board. Pick and choose your primes wisely.
J. Dennis Thomas is a freelance photographer and author based in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of Wiley Publishing’s Nikon Digital Field Guide series, as well as Concert and Live Music and Urban and Rural Decay Photography published by Focal Press. Find him at www.NikonDFG.com and @JDennisThomas on Twitter