Why Go Prime? The Benefits of a Fixed Focal Length

While there are several technical differences between a prime lens and a zoom, there’s one that stands out among the rest – a prime lens has a fixed (stationary) focal length, and a zoom lens can be adjusted. You would think that having a zoom would always prove to be a benefit over a prime  - having that flexibility in focal length all in one lens is fantastic. However, there are several important benefits to having a prime – enough that where some photographers (like me) only have primes in their camera bag.

 

Sharper Images

If you’re on the hunt for tack-sharp images, then a prime lens is for you. When compared to zoom lenses, primes are marginally sharper due to a less complicated build.

 

Prime Lens

Photo by Christopher O’Donnell

 

Lighter

Since the innards are less complicated, that means you’ll have a lighter lens to work with. Whether this is a concern for you or not depends on your style of photography – do you carry you camera around for hours at a time by hand for street photography? Or are you a studio portrait photographer who usually mounts the camera onto a tripod? A lighter lens could make a huge difference in the comfort and flexability of your photography.

Less Expensive

Another benefit of primes is that they’re less expensive when compared to zooms – again due to a simpler construction. For example, the 50mm f1.8 prime lens still retails under $100, which is almost unheard of for an SLR lens. While there are definitely higher quality lenses, this 50mm prime (also nicknamed the Nifty Fifty) is capable of producing high-quality, beautiful images with a fantastic depth of field.

Wider F/stops

If you’re a fan of bokeh or shallow depths of field, then you know you need wide apertures to work with. Prime lenses are more capable of producing wider f/stops than their zoom counterparts – at least for a lot less money. This is why portrait and street photographers will often use prime lenses in their work as it gives them an outstanding ability to isolate their subject from the background.

 

Prime Lens

Photo by Logan Campbell

 

Skill Development

Working with a fixed focal length is a huge benefit to developing your composition skills. Instead of recomposing with your zoom, you physically move your camera to get everything into the frame that you want. This also lets you see how differently your focal length makes subjects appear – whether far away or up close – as compared to what they normally appears to be. Eventually, you’ll learn how to use these different perspectives to your advantage.

 
Of course, prime lenses aren’t perfect – there are some drawbacks that may make zooms a better option for you. The limitation of just one focal length can be overwhelming – which means you’ll have to buy multiple lenses to cover your bases. Whether or not this is a deal-breaker is up to you. As a photographer, you need to weigh your needs and see if the benefits listed above are enough to buy a prime lens, or if you want to go the zoom route.

For example, highly successful street photographers either use a zoom lens for versatility and compactness, or limit themselves to one or two primes for that sharper focus and wider aperture. Their level success is not limited to the lenses they use, but how they use them and what they enjoy shooting.

So sit down and decide what kind of images you want to produce, and what kind of lenses will help you achieve that. Even if you prefer zooms, I would recommend buying at least one prime lens just to have for sharpness and a more shallow depth of field. The 50mm prime is a fun lens, light, and very reasonably priced.

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  1. Ignat

    Prime lenses are cheaper?! That canon 50mm f/1.8 is made of plastic, it was designed decades ago for film cameras, that’s the only reason why it it so cheap – it’s crap. The proper fix is 50mm f/1.2 or 85mm f/1.2. Check the prices on them. But try don’t fall into a swoon :-))

    • Chaz Curry

      You can to admit, Ignat, that even for the ‘crappy’ build quality that lens suffers from, it yields some pretty impressive photos at a really great price.

      Sure, the 50mm 1.2 or the 85mm 1.2 are great lenses, but not everyone is Ansel Adams.

  2. Christopher O'Donnell

    The 50mm f/1.8 is capable of producing incredible images – and quite sharp too, and shows that powerful photography is not dependent on the type of gear you have. I did a post not too long ago on some outstanding nifty fifty images, which you can find here :

    http://www.photographyblogger.net/15-beautiful-photos-taken-with-the-nifty-fifty/

    As I said in the article, there are definitely higher quality prime lenses than the 50mm f/1.8 which you mentioned….but they are incredibly expensive. The 50mm f/1.8 is still available for under $100 and you can create stunning photos from it – it just depends on how you use that lens as a photographer.

    I wasn’t saying the prime lenses in general are cheaper than a zoom – for example, you definitely can’t compare the Sigma 18-50mm zoom to the 24mm f/ 1.4 prime. What I was saying is that you’ll typically find that the zoom lens of a certain focal length and aperture is much more expensive than the prime equivalent. Take the 200mm f/2.8 prime for example – it’s about $1600 less expensive than it’s 70-200 zoom counterpart.

  3. Supername

    The 50mm 1.8 isn’t crap at all. Yeah, it’s plastic – so what? It doesn’t need to be any fancier to be a great lens. I think the $1300 in savings between the 1.8 and the 1.2 is worth it (because I don’t typically need that much extra light).

    Good article though – I think it’s best to learn on a 50mm too.

  4. Jonas

    While the 50mm/1.8 is indeed using plastic, it’s also said to be sharper at 1.8 than a 50mm/1.4. So it’s by no means a low quality lens, besides for the mediocre construction. For normal use, that’s often good enough.

  5. Dan Ferrall

    The prime advantage myth continues to be perpetuated by many, but there are several zooms a able today the are the equal and in a few cases such as Zuiko SHG lenses actually set optical standards for excellence even though several of them are zooms. The 14-35 f2 and 35-100 f2 Zuiko zooms can stand toe to toe with the very best primes offered.

    The myth has carried over from the days when zooms simply didn’t compare optically with primes. Those days are long gone and the only real advantage of high end primes against high end zooms is size and weight.

  6. Kevin Wise

    Thanks for the article. I have the 50mm f1.8 for Nikon and love it. This post was a great reminder to get out and experiment with it!

  7. thomas armstrong

    I shoot with an Olympus
    ep-3, and though I have both a zoom and a prime, I almost always use the prime. It’s a Lumix 20mm f 1.7 pancake and useful for almost all my work. Love it.

  8. John A Robertson

    While some people think that the differences between Prime and Zoom lenses is a myth. I would beg to differ. When using a Prime or Fixed focal length lens, you get lens where the glass doesn’t move around. When going for crispness and sharpness, this is very important as it will increase the resolution of the image. With Zoom Lens, you loose some of the resolution. Resolution is very important whether you are using film or digital (and yes folks there are some of us out there still using film). I use both Digital and Film. I also use both Fixed Focal Length and Zoom lens. It all gives me the versatility to produce great shots.

  9. Rick Rogers

    I carry a camera body with a professional 24-80mm f/2.8, 24mm f/2, 35mm f/1.8 and a 90mm f/1.8 without pain anywhere. My name is not Hercules, I use micro four thirds gear. I can choose what I want to use at anytime, a prime or a high quality zoom. How cool is that?

    The difference between the professional zoom and the primes is not that big and I doubt anyone but a die hard pixel peeper can spot it. A good (expensive) zoom often isn’t optically inferior to a prime. Besides, it’s a myth that you need the highest resolution/sharpness to get good photographs (except if you absolutely need huge high quality prints). Just shoot with what you have and concentrate on the content of your pictures.

    Do yourself a favor and don’t start the chase for the sharpest and the best. It never ends, trust me, I know…

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