I remember when I first started out in photography, standing there with my 18-55mm kit lens and wondering why on earth anybody would choose to buy a lens with no zoom.
There were photographers all over praising the benefits of their 50mm prime lenses and their fantastic 80mm portrait lens, but I just didn't get it. Being able to zoom was just such a convenience, so why would you ever give that up?
As it turns out, there are plenty of reasons to opt for prime lenses. Some of them improve your overall photography experience, others help your creativity, and some relate specifically to image quality.
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What is a Prime Lens?
Camera lenses are separated into two distinct categories: Prime lenses and zoom lenses.
The zoom lens is the one most of you will be familiar with, and as the name suggests it lets you zoom in optically (often done by rotating a ring on the lens barrel.) The level of zoom can vary massively, but the one key thing to remember is that zoom lenses allow you to change your focal length.
Prime lenses are the opposite. They have a fixed focal length and the only ways you can zoom are by either moving closer to the subject or by cropping the photo in post processing.
Obviously for many beginner photographers this can seem like a rather obvious choice, but prime lenses offer their own specific advantages over their zooming equivalents.
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Reasons to Choose a Prime Lens
1. Excellent Value for Money
There are some prime lenses that come in at staggering, astronomical prices, but these are generally specialist lenses aimed squarely at the professional photographer.
But, for the most part, prime lenses offer excellent value for money when compared to zoom lenses. This is due to a number of things, such as fewer moving components and the ease of which certain focal lengths are manufactured.
An excellent example is the so called nifty-fifty lens (such as the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G). The 50mm focal length came as standard on most of the old SLR cameras, and as such the camera manufacturers have all but perfected it. What this results in is a ridiculously good quality lens for a pretty modest sum of money.
Going back to the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G example - It has a DxoMark rating of 33 mounted in a Nikon D810 (the highest is a 50.) Only two lenses above it in the rankings are under twice the price of this lens, and to further illustrate the point every single lens above it is a prime.
Simply put - You cannot get better value in image quality to cost than a 50mm f/1.8 prime.
2. Better Image Quality
We've already touched upon the difference in image quality, but to drill that point into your mind I have a quite alarming figure to share with you.
DxoMark are the benchmark for camera and lens tests. Their quality tests are as thorough as they come, and the overall score for a lens takes into account sharpness, chromatic aberration, distortion, and vignetting.
The top 32 lenses that mount onto a Nikon full frame camera are all prime lenses. The first zoom is the Sigma 24-35 f/2 DG HSM. There are a further 15 prime lenses between that and the next zoom on the list.
That's a total of two zoom lenses in the overall top 50 lenses for Nikon cameras.
If you're looking for the ultimate in image quality, prime is the way to go.
3. Wider Aperture
Up until recently zoom lenses have been limited to a maximum aperture of f/2.8. That has changed in the past year or two, but if you want a wider aperture on your zoom lens it's going to come with a hefty premium, not to mention the fact they're still not at the same level as primes in this regard.
Meanwhile, in prime world, you can get a 50mm f/1.8 lens for under $200. Some prime lenses push it even further with f/1.4 and f/1.2 maximum apertures, which is something currently out of reach with zoom lenses.
This is the reason most portrait photographers prefer a prime lens over a zoom. Not only does it offer that extra stop of light when handholding the camera, but it provides the creamy background and beautiful bokeh that portrait photographers crave.
4. Smaller, Lighter, and Easier to Use
Anyone who has spent the entire day lugging around their entire collection of photographic gear knows how taxing it can be on your body, but prime lenses can ease that pain.
Zoom lenses require a selection of moving parts inside them. Multiple layers of glass shift their positions in order to allow you to zoom, but prime lenses have none of these.
This makes them much, much smaller and lighter in general. The more standard primes (excluding the ridiculously big, heavy, and expensive telephoto lenses) are a fraction of the size and weight of their zoom counterparts.
As a result, the entire photographic process is just easier. Your setup is easier to handle, more discreet, and much more adept at making it through narrow gaps!
5. Improve Your Creativity and Make You Work Harder
This is perhaps the most important reason you should try shooting with a prime lens.
Obviously having zoom on tap is convenient, but have you ever thought about the possibility that it's stagnating your photography?
I've seen countless photographers standing in the same place with a 18-200mm lens strapped to their camera. They zoom in and they zoom out, trying to find new compositions without ever moving their feet.
In doing so these photographers miss out on all the different perspectives and angles they could work with in their compositions, and they progress into simply being lazy in their photography.
Meanwhile, the savvy photographer with a prime lens mounted on his camera body is exploring the area. The lack of zoom forces you to move your feet, to scout out new compositions and to find a fresh perspective. This keeps you constantly thinking about your composition and how to improve it.
Using a prime lens keeps your creative juices flowing and, simply put, it improves your photography.
Does that sound a bit far-fetched? Well here's a challenge: Set your lens to 50mm and spend the entire day shooting with it without adjusting the zoom. It'll be tough at first, but by the end of the day you'll have a much better understanding of composition and perspective.
6. You'll Fall in Love with Them
There's just something a bit magical about using prime lenses, especially the older lenses that feel like they have a bit of character about them.
I have a host of professional level zoom lenses for various types of photography, but none of them capture my heart the same way a prime lens does.
I have a professional 70-200mm f/2.8 lens for my equine photography, but despite the convenience of it I find myself reaching for my old Tamron 90mm Macro more often than not. And do you know what my favourite lens of all time is?
The Nikon 35mm f/1.8G that I had when I was back on crop sensor cameras. Nothing has ever lived up to that.
I urge you to give them a go - You won't regret it.