Prime Time – Notes On Living With Prime Lenses Only

I had said some time back that I sold my Tamron 17-50mm zoom lens and was going to using prime lenses only.  Well, it’s done.  Actually, it’s been done.  For a while now I have been using a trio of prime lenses only: a Pentax DA 21mm f/3.2 AL, a Pentax DA 35mm f/2.4 and a Pentax DA 50mm f/1.8.

First, for those not hip on photography lingo, some explanation.  What is the difference between a “zoom” lens and a “prime” lens?  Basically, a prime lens is just one “focal length”.  The focal length of a lens is not the physical size of the lens, but rather the distance of optical center of a lens (when focused at infinity) to the digital sensor or film at the focal plane in the camera.  A prime lens has a fixed focal length.  A 50mm prime lens will always be a 50mm focal length.  A zoom lens allows you to change your focal length.  A 24-70mm lens gives you a wide range of choices.

From the Nikon website, here’s a pretty thorough article explaining a lot of the more technical aspects prime and zoom lenses.

Understanding Focal Length

What are the main differences between zoom lenses and prime lenses?  Here’s one more good article that summarizes the main advantages of prime lenses over zoom lenses.

Picture Correct – 5 Reasons Why Prime Lenses Are Better Than Zoom Lenses

If you can’t be bothered, here’s the tl;dr = Prime lenses are sharper, they are smaller & lighter, they can have unique effects that zooms don’t have and because of the larger apertures that primes generally have they work better in low light.  Oh, and the article says primes are better for shooting sports.  I don’t shoot sports so I can’t vouch for that.  But, yeah, the other reasons are pretty spot on.

Now the question becomes, why?  Why do I want to shoot with primes only?

First and most important, it is about learning how to make the right choices.  Different focal lengths result in different effects, different distortions of your subject.  How something looks through a 50mm lens can be vastly different to how the same subject looks through a more wide angle lens.  I need to start really paying attention to those differences.

Look at the difference between these two shots – the first taken with a 50mm lens, and the second taken with a 21mm, or what would be considered a wide angle, lens.

50mm - f2.0 - 1/1000 - ISO 100

50mm – f2.0 – 1/1000 – ISO 100

Early Iron 01

21mm – f4.0 – 1/320 – ISO 200

This set up is sort of an exaggeration, but not by much.

Let’s say I am standing in one place, and I can’t get all of the car into the shot.  If I have a zoom lens, I would just adjust the focal length to the point where I get the framing that I want.  But that simple adjustment changes how the subject is seen in the frame.  Instead, with a prime lens, if I need to get the full car into the shot, I need to zoom with my feet, as they say.  Or, maybe I do need to change lenses. But that can become an awkward process that, depending on the location, can turn into something downright difficult.  And even dangerous to my camera and lenses.  Which means, if I do need to change lenses, I need to be very sure about the choices I’m making.

Again, this is first and foremost about really learning to make the right choices.

So, what’s it like to shoot with prime lenses only?  Sometimes, it’s a huge drag.  There are many times when, yes, I just want to twist the lens and change the focal length.  Sometimes, you just want to get the whole car into the frame.  I’m naturally lazy.

I also have a much greater fear for my equipment.  The time where I have my camera body with no lens is a time I am worrying about dust or particles landing on my sensor and mucking up my pictures.  Or, because in the field often there aren’t nice, level and clean places to place your lenses, I just know that I’m going to drop a lens someday.  Soon.  Or maybe both the body and the lens.  Something horrible is going to happen whenever I’m changing lenses, I can feel it.

But, my pictures are sharper than they have ever been.  Hot damn, I love that 50mm f1.8.  And that’s really just a middle of the road prime.  It hardly ever leaves my camera.  Also, I think that my pictures are more focused now that before.  I don’t mean non-blurry, I mean they are more solid in terms of composition and subject matter.  That one is a little more difficult to explain.

More notes on this to come later, after I have more experience with this set up.  And, I think I’m going to look into getting an 85mm for portraits.  We’ll see.

For now, however, it’s going well.  I know that’s not a bombshell, but a step forward is a step forward, even if they are one step at a time.

Keep shooting, my friends.

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2 thoughts on “Prime Time – Notes On Living With Prime Lenses Only

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts On The Canon 6D | Generator Photography

  2. Pingback: Sharpness – My “How To” Guide | Generator Photography

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