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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.