A prime lens is one that has a single focal length. A zoom lens is one that has a range of focal lengths. The each have their proper place in the camera bag and on the camera. But the prime has always been, and will continue to be, a favorite among seasoned photographers using interchangeable-lens cameras.

I picked up my first prime lens nearly a year ago (105mm f/2.8 macro), and over the course of the year I’ve grown to consider that lens as my favorite. In the last few months, I’ve hardly taken the lens off my camera body. But then I picked up another prime lens (50mm f/1.4) and I’m absolutely in love with these things. Here’s why:

2. LOWER COST

For the same quality, prime lenses cost less than zoom lenses. They contain fewer elements, less moving parts, and their design is simpler. For the same cost, you can pick up a half-decent zoom lens or you can pick up an outstanding prime lens.

3. FEWER LENS DISTORTIONS

Zooms are designed to work well at most focal lengths in their range, but the all display some type of lens distortion at some point — usually at the extremes. Primes, on the other hand, are designed to work great at a single focal length. The distortions have been minimized by design.

5. SHARPER IMAGES

Similar to the argument for lens distortions, primes have been optimized for sharpness and clarity while zooms must sacrifice these things in order to offer up the convenience of multiple focal lengths.

7. BETTER DOF CONTROL

Again, for the same price point, prime lenses are capable of a wider array of f-numbers. They’re faster, and they offer more options at the low end of the f-number scale.

11. NICER LOOKING BOKEH

Generally, as you lower your f-number your bokeh becomes more apparent. Primes are notorious for producing crazy bokeh on specular highlights when shot wide open. Primes will also generally have better and/or more aperture blades, thus giving you a better bokeh.

13. LOW LIGHT CAPABILITIES

If you’ve never shot with a f/1.4 (or faster) lens, you have no idea what you’re missing. Indoor shots — no flash, no problem. Concerts — fast lenses are a must.

17. THEY MAKE YOU THINK

I suppose my favorite thing about prime lenses is the fact that you have to use your head. Composition becomes a thinking game. You have to move your feet to get that shot you had in mind, so you really start to evaluate what’s important in the scene. Fast primes also make you think a little harder about your f-number. The DOF can be extremely shallow; sometimes too shallow to produce an effective shot. Not only that, but on bright sunny days, you actually can’t use the lens wide open without an ND filter because you’ll let in too much light and max out your shutter speed.

So if you don’t have a good prime lens, you’re really missing out. Zooms are fine, and they have their place, but a prime will open your eyes to a whole new level of photography.

37 responses


Do you want to comment?

Comments RSS and TrackBack Identifier URI ?

Prime numbering of your list made me chuckle. :)

February 13, 2008 6:41 am

You’ve lost me with the numbering system you’ve used… :D

February 13, 2008 6:49 am

I have been keeping 60 mm macro attached to my camera for the last few months. My first prime lens ever …

February 13, 2008 8:17 am

back to school days for me too :) I thought we started with 1 2 3

February 13, 2008 8:36 am

Brian:
Your article provides very sound reason that any photographers should also have a prime or a kit of primes depending on there shooting styles:

Some further suggestions for those considering purchasing there first primes are:

Examine the images you have taken (metatdata) for the most popular image focal length that you are using. This will help find a better fit for the mm range you should get unless you have a special need, like portrait or nature shots.

Try setting your zoom at a fixed focal length that you are considering for a prime to determine if meets your needs before you buy. (will mostly not meet max aperture need)

Primes are also lighter and since they do not have a motor for zooming they will consume less power and your batteries will last longer on a charge.

For the same max aperture setting primes will have smaller dia for filters and therefore these will also cost less.

Lens likelihood of barrel distortion or vignetting unless this is the sweet mm range for zoom.

Quicker shooting time to capture fleeting shot as you do not need to move your zoom if at other end of range fist to capture shot.

Primes also tend to have closer focal distances than zooms.

Niels Henriksen

February 13, 2008 9:03 am

Great add-on commentary Niels — as usual! Good point about checking the EXIF for focal lengths. Nothing worse than getting the wrong lens and wishing you had a different one.

February 13, 2008 9:05 am

I love the old Minolta 50mm F1.7 on my A100. The portraits are really.

BTW, He is using prime numbers for the list. DO I get a prize?

February 13, 2008 9:07 am

I almost went with that 50mm f/1.7, but I bit the bullet and paid a little extra for the 1.4. It’s totally slick, and the autofocus is super-fast and quiet.

… no prizes this time. ;)

February 13, 2008 9:16 am

Wow… my husband has been trying to get me to get a prime lens for a while… he had me convinced… and then the other night I was like.. no I want a zoom. After reading your post… I think I will go for the prime again.

Thanks (and if my husband knew what my thoughts were… he would say thanks too)

February 13, 2008 9:21 am

Your husband sounds like a smart man! You won’t have any regrets with a nice prime lens.

February 13, 2008 10:32 am

I use nothing but prime lenses 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm, prime lenses rock!!!

February 13, 2008 11:00 am

I’ve got my eye on the 35 f/1.4, 85 f/1.4, and the 135 f/1.8. Probably won’t get another till next year again, so I’ve got all year to decide which one is next.

February 13, 2008 11:35 am

Very clever use of numbering. I fully agree with your reasoning of prime lenses.

I had written an article title primes vs. zooms. In the further reading section I’ve linked to here.

Thanks for a great resource!

February 13, 2008 12:33 pm

NIce article, thanks for sharing it with us!

February 13, 2008 12:36 pm

Brian,

Great to see you finally caught the prime lens bug and you are definitely enjoying your new lens! :)

A 50mm f/1.4 got me loving primes as well. From my first shot, located here, I was completely amazed by the sharpness, and overall image quality of primes.

Though I could never see myself switching fully to primes (too much lens switching when on the go), I do find myself using primes whenever feasible because of the amazing image quality.

Keep enjoying your 50mm, I can; wait to see more shots.

February 13, 2008 1:11 pm

I agree, I couldn’t do primes 100% of the time either. Certain situations call for a zoom, and if you can afford it (or borrow it) a high quality zoom isn’t half bad as long as you know the limitations of the glass.

February 13, 2008 1:14 pm

The 50mm 1.4 is what I got with my new(er) Rebel instead of the stock lens, and although it’s been a tough teacher it’s been totally worth it. You could see the difference right away! I got it after it was personally recommended to me by several trusted sources, and because of the fact that I work a “normal” office job, so especially in the winter months a lot of my shooting is done inside at night, and the 1.4 has helped me capture what I wouldn’t have been able to before! I love my zoom lens for things like vacations and photo walks, but for playing around with portraits and such I wouldn’t trade my 50 for anything! :)

February 13, 2008 1:19 pm

Good choice on opting for the 50mm prime over the kit zoom. I’ve been craving one for months now, so I’m glad I finally got it.

February 13, 2008 7:45 pm

I can’t even remember what a prime number is!

February 13, 2008 8:04 pm

February 13, 2008 8:47 pm

I just got an 85mm f/1.8 recently and it’s been stuck on my camera. I love shooting with it.

February 14, 2008 7:38 am


You forgot one important thing, if you drop a zoom, you drop half the glass in your bag. If you drop your 50mm, you just drop one lens.

February 15, 2008 7:16 pm

Ah yes, good point. Especially if you have a big monster f/2.8 telephoto.

February 15, 2008 7:37 pm

I love my Sigma 30mm f/1.4! I keep it on my camera at all times. It’s my standard lens and I haven’t used the kit lens since I got it.

February 16, 2008 12:16 pm

You’ve certainly got me thinking about getting one of these I have to say. I’m going to the Alps (Austria) this Summer and I really want to make sure I’ve got the right kit.

For shooting the kind of epic scenery that you find there, and given a budget of about $300 max, I’m torn between the 50mm f1.8 or the 28mm f2.8 Canon lenses – which would you choose?

Back at home I’m often shooting Stone Circles and other landscapes so I’d make use of it but this year at least I have to choose one or the other….

Too much kit, not enough money :-(

February 17, 2008 3:51 pm



I am pretty sure that in the near future we will see updated 35mm and 50mm lenses. The fact that Carl Zeiss and Voigtlander are releasing bright lenses in this range is proof that there is a market for them. The one reason why I am not so interested in those is that they are manual focus and I usually use autofocus, something the D300 excels in.

March 25, 2009 4:27 am

Are prime lenses really that much cheaper than zoom lenses? when I looked at canon 50mm f/1.8, which was probably the cheapest lens ever, it cost about $99. And the next one 50mm f/1.4 would cost as much as my Rebel XSi body. And neither one is the L series.

December 16, 2009 3:50 pm

For the same quality, they are far cheaper. But they can be expensive too, especially when you want larger maximum apertures. With 50mm lenses, once you go larger than f/1.8, the price goes up exponentially. While the f/1.8 costs $99, the f/1.4 costs $400, and the f/1.2L costs $1600.

But now look at zooms in the 50mm range and you’ll see that you can’t get anything below f/2.8 or f/3.5. That’s a full 2 stops slower than what you can get with a prime, and the price is way higher than $99.

December 16, 2009 4:30 pm

Nice article, but what is the focal lenght we usually need?
And what do you suggest for canon when price is not a problem ?
Is 50mm f/1.8 sharp enough? Or we need 1.2?

December 26, 2009 1:18 am

i love my 50mm 1.8…i also love the “smart”remarks regarding the choice numbering

January 7, 2010 12:48 am



Kevin,
The focal length depends on what you’re doing. For general portraiture, you’ll want a focal length of AT LEAST 50mm, but you won’t want to go longer than 130mm. Which lense you get in that range depends on your shooting style – ie whether you like to be closer or further away from your subject. I use a 50mm 1.4 for candids at weddings and I absolutely love it.

February 1, 2010 7:12 am

Frankly, I wish there with more camera kits that included a prime lens instead of a zoom. I know the zoom that came with my D90 is a few measures short of decent quality, but it works for what I need it for. Now the prime lenses, I’ve bought various ones and get more use from them, as well as have way more fun.

June 2, 2010 9:15 pm

Comment now!