7 Tips for Shooting with Normal Primes

[tweetmeme]Some time ago, I wrote some tips for shooting with extremely wide angle lenses. Then I did it again just recently. So rather than cover the topic for a third time, we’ll talk about a different set of equipment: the normal primes.

Prime lenses are easy to fall in love with, partly because of their simple nature due to the fixed focal length. There are certainly more reasons to love them, but this article is more about how to use them effectively and efficiently. I’m also focusing on the range of “normal” lenses (something in the range of 35-55mm, give or take a few mm) because they’re most widely used and easily purchased.


March 25th 2008 - Everything about this is square
Creative Commons License photo credit: Stephen Poff

If you shoot long enough with a particular lens or focal length, you’ll “just know” where your framing is without looking through the viewfinder. This is a handy skill to acquire for situations when you can’t be constantly looking through the camera. If you memorize your field of view, you’ll be quicker to take the shot and you can plan things out a little better.


Over the Can
Creative Commons License photo credit: Brian Auer

Building on point 1, primes don’t allow you to compose your framing with the quick turn of a ring. If you want certain subjects in the image, you’ll have to plan out your distance and angle of attack to get what you want. On the other hand, if you want to bring more attention to a subject and exclude surrounding objects, you’ll need to plan on getting close enough.


The barefoot selfportrait
Creative Commons License photo credit: dhammza

Shooting with a prime isn’t completely restrictive, it just means you’ll have to use your feet to zoom. After using primes for a while, you won’t really notice the “foot zoom” factor. Sometimes using your feet will require you to move or through hazardous locations, so don’t walk around with the camera up to your face because you’ll probably trip, fall, or get hit by a car.


I Stand Alone
Creative Commons License photo credit: Brian Auer

Sometimes you just can’t get the shot you want with the lens you have. Maybe you need to be further back than possible, or maybe you just can’t get close enough to frame it right. That’s ok. Worth with what you have and make the best of the situation. Keep your eyes open for other opportunities that surround you.


031/365: 60 second walk
Creative Commons License photo credit: dotbenjamin

Now on to a few technical notes… normal primes typically have a very large maximum aperture (f/1.4 and f/1.8 are quite common and inexpensive). It’s great to have f-numbers in this range, but be careful with how you apply them. A shallow DOF can do great things for a photo, but it can also ruin it. It’s easy to get too shallow and blur out some important part of the image (of course, the focus in the image above is quite intentional, but you get the idea). In addition, the viewfinder and your on-camera LCD screen are too small to effectively judge DOF — things look more in-focus than they really are. So if you’re not certain that you want razor thin DOF, maybe stop it down a few notches… I tend to like the look of f/2 or f/2.8 better than f/1.4 anyway.


Happy flare friday!
Creative Commons License photo credit: zzaj ♫ {Thomas}

Another note on those large maximum apertures, this time having to do with the limitations of your camera. If you like to shoot wide open at f/1.4 or larger, you probably have to throttle back your obsession in broad daylight. With my digital camera, even at ISO 100, I can’t shoot in harsh sunlight at f/1.4 because my shutter speed maxes out at 1/8000s and the meter tells the camera to go higher than that. Of course, I can take the shot, but it will be overexposed because of the physical limitations. Now, if I knock it down to about f/2, I can take a shot within the range of my usable shutter speeds.


Pool Girl
Creative Commons License photo credit: Brian Auer

Normal lenses excel when it comes to people shots. Their field of view and perspective matches the human eye more closely than the extreme focal lengths. This makes subjects in the photos appear more natural and realistic. The wider end of normal lenses (30mm) will give a slightly wide angle look, but it’s useful for capturing people in groups or in their surroundings. Get too close, and a full frame headshot might look a bit funny. On the other end (60mm), you might have a hard time getting groups or full body shots unless you’re back a ways, but the close-up portraits will look more natural.

What other tips to you have for shooting with normal primes? And what is your favorite normal prime lens?

13 thoughts on “7 Tips for Shooting with Normal Primes

  1. Matej

    Great article. I also love my 50mm f1.4 and I use it a lot. I will remember your advices when it will be mounted to my camera for the next time.

  2. Adam

    Thanks for the helpful and easy-to-digest tips. I just bought a 50mm f/1.8 for my first prime lens and love it. I’m still getting used to framing shots with my feet and working on seeing the field of view through my own eyes, but the unique perspective on the shots and the depth of field are fun to play with.

    24mm f/2.8 is on my shopping list too, but gonna wear in the 50mm for a while first.

  3. Joanie

    I love my 50mm f1.8 lens. At $100, it was not only affordable, but it bought me some amazing extra stops for shooting in super dark dives. I get shots no one else is getting and the bar owners, bands, and audience love the fact that I’m not ruining the show by using flash. Two artists in particular have made shooting with the 50 absolute joy and act as my zoom (I can only get so close when they’re on stage, so they simply walk right up to me!).


    Above: Eric Sardinas, who literally walked to the edge of the stage and played to me. He saw what I was doing and went along with it. 50mm at 1.8, ISO 800 at 1/100s


    Above: Stoney Curtis in one of the darkest clubs around. I had my 50 at 1.8, ISO 1600 at 1/50s

  4. Joanie

    P.S. Weren’t you the one who suggested everyone try using a 50mm for a few days? If so, it was a brilliant idea. And I recommend that challenge to everyone I see. It really forces you to take a look at how you shoot, how you interact with your subject, and basically how you see the world.

    P.P.S. I get the best portrait results with the 50!

  5. Jonny

    I wish I would have read #5 a year ago. I love my Sigma 30/1.4, but I ruined countless shots by shooting at F1.4 and having too little depth of field. You have to make trade-offs between getting your subject in focus and your background out of focus.

    Now I use F2-2.8 for closer subjects, and save 1.4 for more distant subjects, where I get more DOF because there is less magnification. The closer you are to your subject (more magnification) the less DOF, right?

    Another thing, some lenses are only sharp in the center when used wide open, so I place the subject in the center, take a few steps back, and then crop to put the subject where I want.

    Lastly, you can not duplicate a wide angle or telephoto with a normal lens, just by using your feet. The normal perspective is good for portraits, but can be challenging for shooting scenes, because you don’t get to “cheat” and make a photo look interesting by compressing a subject and background (telephoto) or stretching the foreground (wide angle). Guy Tal has a good article about that.

  6. Dave Hodgkinson

    @Jonny, unless you’re shooting in really low light, you don’t *have* to shoot wide open! In fact the f/1.4 and f/1.8 are really nice and sharp at f/5.6 or f/8.

    Also, thinking about this again, I think that constraining options can lead to greater creativity. I’ve gone out with the DSLR with the 50mm f/1.8 and set to ISO1600 (and built-in B/W) and had great results. It’s what used to happen with film, right?

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  8. Maria Corafel Thomas

    I have a NIkkor 35mm F1.8 that i love love love so much its the only lense that stays in my camera the longest. I just love the bokeh it creates and how sharp my subject is.

  9. Flo

    I have a Nikkor 50mm 1.4 lens and love it. Sometimes I use it to shoot panoramas, hand held. First I decide what area of the scene I want to shoot and practice panning over the area several times to make sure that I’ve found something in the scene that I can use as the center for each of the 3-7 images I’ll be making. I also decide whether or not I need to lock exposure and focus.

    Then I shoot the left-most image, move camera to the right to the next position, making sure I’ve overlapped the previous image by about 1/3rd, and shoot the 2nd image. And so on, until I have covered the area with the necessary number of shots.

    I use Photoshop CS3 to stitch the images together. Usually, but not always, it is successful in stitching together a nice panorama. (If I have doubts when shooting, then I shoot a 2nd and sometimes 3rd series.)

    Shooting panoramas this way usually eliminates the vertical distortions caused when we use wider-angle lenses.

    One more point: this works vertically as well as horizontally.

  10. Jochen Kubik

    Hi Brian,
    I agree in very point with you. I just bought my 1.4/50 half a year ago and realized that my zoom lenses are not half as sharp as the prime. All your points could also fit to my 2.8/105 marco as well.

    Thanx for your post!

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