I’ve talked about prime lenses a lot in this blog, from the idea that people think you miss shots with a prime lens, how to improve your photography with a prime lens and how 35mm is the perfect length prime if it’s the only other lens you own, plus I’ve mentioned them a lot more. In this article we will look at the many advantages, and some disadvantages of using a prime lens.
What is a prime lens?
It may be a strange question, but there are some people who do not know what a prime lens is. Simply put, it’s a lens that is set to one focal length, and you cannot zoom in or out with the lens.
The advantages of a prime lens?
There are many advantages to using prime lenses over a zoom lens, but the only person who can decide if a prime lens is for a certain situation, is the user. Please don’t think a prime lens will be perfect in every situation, as for some people, a prime lens can be a difficult tool to work with.
The best advantage of a prime lens is the usually wider aperture that these lenses bring. Whereas you can by zoom lenses with a fixed F/2.8 aperture, you can easily get prime lenses of F/1.4, F/1.2, F/1.0 and even F/0.95.
These wider apertures of course mean you can let in much more light, which means the lenses are far superior in low light, as they let in more light with that aperture wide open.
A side effect of the wider aperture of course is the better out of focus areas you can get, should you wish to isolate your subject and have creamy bokeh (blur).
Prime lenses are usually quite small compared to fixed wide aperture zoom lenses, and a lot of cameras have a selection of very small and light prime lenses. Smaller and lighter is much more preferable to many people, especially those who have bought mirrorless cameras to have lighter kit.
Having a single focal length to work with genuinely makes you think more about the composition. It means you have to use your brain and work the composition with the constraints of the focal length you’ve chosen, and not let the lens dictate the focal length by giving you the option to just sit there and zoom in and out.
Knowing the focal length of the prime you are using also means that if you’re doing photography that needs quick reaction times, such as street photography, you can instantly pick the camera up and know exactly what your composition is before the viewfinder gets to your eye, or even just shoot from the hip and you’ll know the result.
Image quality is often talked about with zoom versus prime lenses. Generally speaking, you will get better quality images from prime lenses for many obvious factors. The focal length is fixed, so there’s much better tolerance and precision,
Of course, finally, there’s the price factor. You can pick up some really good prime lenses for a fraction of the cost of a similar quality zoom lens!
The disadvantages of a prime lens.
Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind as a disadvantage of a prime lens is the fact that it is, by definition, a fixed lens. That in itself doesn’t suit everyone, as some people enjoy the flexibility of being able to zoom in and out of compositions without having to move from the location they have chosen.
Having numerous prime lenses for various focal lengths also could mean carrying more gear. Where one zoom lens could cover a huge area, having separate lenses with only a fraction of the coverage could take much more room in your bag
Finally, it can be difficult to work with a prime lens if you are not in the mindset of how they are used. For many, they believe a prime lens doesn’t let you get the best from a composition.
Using a prime lens is a choice you have to make yourself, and knowing how to use one properly can be very rewarding. There are many more advantages than disadvantages when using a prime lens, once you have a fundamental understanding of using them properly.
For many they’re a creative choice, putting them in control, knowing that when you get a composition, the lens won’t control you and make you simply zoom in or out. You are in full control, because you have no option to be otherwise. While for others, a prime lens is no more than a tool for a certain job, be it a portrait or for night photography.
Whatever you use, it really doesn’t matter as long as you get the results you want. Knowing your tools, but more importantly, how to use them, whatever they are, is far more important.
I am a semi-professional photographer who runs a weekly meeting photography group as well as numerous Facebook groups (Great Photography Walks South Wales and Fujifilm Lovers Worldwide Group). I also have a brand-new blog website dedicated to various other things which I like to call The Ramblings Of A Welshman. I hope you can join me there; you might find it interesting!
5 thoughts on “The advantages (and disadvantages) of using prime lenses.”
Another disadvantage of a prime lens comes from situations where there is just no room to back away from a scene so as to get everything wanted into the frame. Having no room to move closer is another disadvantage (but not so bad as it used to be, now that a photo editor can crop the image).
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That’s the same problem with having the wrong zoom on, and why I’m careful when using a 50-200mm etc
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I agree with all of your advantages of prime lenses but feel like you may have understated a disadvantage or two. When hiking or walking about, it’s not only the extra weight of multiple primes but also the risk of getting dust in the camera body when changing lenses in the field. Changing lenses takes time and can cause one to miss shots when time matters. I’m thinking wildlife where one needs a long lens and landscape where wider is better. One can encounter both situations on a hike. I also find it harder to capture images of toddlers that never sit still without the flexibility of a zoom.
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I agree, but then, I don’t think I would take prime lenses on a hike. I certainly wouldn’t recommend taking a prime lens or lenses where there might be vastly differing subjects if your intention is to shoot various things.