The two main categories of camera lenses are prime lenses and zoom lenses. Although it may appear that prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length and can’t zoom in or out, are inherently less useful than zoom lenses, this isn’t always the case. In this article, we’ll explain what prime lenses are and why you should think about including them in your kit. Prime lenses can provide a wide range of advantages.
How Do Prime Lenses Work?
The best way to understand prime lenses is to compare them to zoom lenses and see how they differ (explained in detail here: prime vs zoom lenses).
The primary distinction is that a prime lens only has one available focal length. The term “focal length,” which is usually expressed in millimeters or “mm,” describes how much of the scene, from wide to telephoto, you will be able to capture with that lens. A wider angle has a smaller number. For instance, a 20mm lens will have a wide angle, a 50mm lens will have a “normal” or moderate field of view, and a 105mm lens will have a narrow or telephoto field of view on a full-frame camera.
A zoom lens, like the 24-70mm lens, offers a continuous range of focal lengths in contrast to a prime lens. Accordingly, the lens will be usable for 24mm, 25mm, 26mm, and so on, up to 70mm (and all the spaces in between).
While it may appear that a zoom can replace a wide variety of prime lenses, you don’t necessarily need to carry a prime lens for every focal length. Even at every focal length, lens manufacturers don’t sell prime lenses. Primes, on the other hand, are readily available at standard reference focal lengths like 20mm, 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm. A “complete” kit for a photoshoot might only require a 24mm and 50mm lens for a well-equipped photographer.
There are numerous features, advantages, and disadvantages between prime and zoom lenses. The main distinction between prime and zoom lenses is that prime lenses have a single focal length while zoom lenses have a variety. Let’s examine some of the advantages that prime lenses provide since this article is devoted to them.
Advantages of Prime Lenses
1. More straightforward and compact design
Understanding the advantages that prime lenses can provide you as a photographer can have a significant impact on the photos you produce. The size and weight of a prime lens are the two most obvious benefits. While this isn’t always the case, many prime lenses are compact, light, and portable, making them a good option when you need to be on the move.
To that end, it’s crucial to understand the “class” of the lens you’re looking at when analyzing the size and weight advantage of primes. An expensive prime lens with a large aperture may be larger than many zoom lenses. However, prime lenses almost always have a size and weight advantage when all other factors are equal and features are comparable.
Why, though, is that the case? The optical formula (all the variously shaped pieces of glass that make up the insides of a lens) can be much simpler for a prime lens because it only needs to cover one field of view. The internal components are all also simpler. To change the focal length, a zoom lens must reposition various elements, and many zooms must extend the lens barrel to accomplish this. All of this results in more material, glass, and design complexity. The optical diagrams of a standard 50mm prime lens on the left and a 24-85mm zoom lens on the right are shown below. As you can see, choosing the prime allows you to significantly reduce size and weight if all you want to do is shoot at 50mm.
2. Quicker Openings
A prime lens has benefits other than just being small and lightweight. They can frequently shoot with much wider aperture settings as well.
For instance, many zoom lenses have f-stop issues. A typical zoom will reach its maximum aperture at f/4 or f/5.6. Only quick, high-quality zooms can frequently achieve apertures as wide as f/2.8. In contrast, the majority of prime lenses have a maximum aperture of at least f/1.8, and premium primes can open up to f/0.95 on some specialized lenses, which is an absurd value.
As a photographer, this means that you can use prime lenses to achieve a shallower depth of field to better isolate your subject from a blurry background. Additionally, it makes shooting in low light easier by enabling a lower ISO or a faster shutter speed in dimly lit areas.
3. Clearer Pictures
Prime lenses frequently have faster apertures along with being extremely sharp. Prime lenses are often sharper and have fewer optical flaws, such as chromatic aberrations, than zoom lenses of comparable price because the optical formula only needs to be optimized for a single focal length.
4. Reduced Costs
Prime lenses can be excellent values and provide beginner photographers with capabilities that would be prohibitively expensive on a zoom, especially when considering the three points mentioned above. The so-called “nifty fifty” is one of the most suggested beginner lenses. It’s a catchy name for a 50mm f/1.8 lens, which is frequently available for under $200 when bought used. Offering superior image quality, a larger maximum aperture, and a smaller size than almost any zoom while doing all of this
However, the advantage of a lower cost is not limited to basic or used primes. Prime lenses are less expensive than zooms in the same performance range for all focal lengths and capabilities. In general, photographers can assemble a high-quality set of prime lenses cheaper than a high-quality set of zooms, even though this lower cost might be offset if you need to buy more lenses overall (a point we’ll look at further in the Drawbacks section below).
5. Unique Features
As we’ve already seen, prime lenses can provide aperture capabilities that zoom lenses simply cannot match. With prime lenses of specific designations, primes can accomplish even more. For instance, almost all prime lenses are used for macro photography, so if you require close-focus capabilities, primes are the way to go. The majority of manufacturers produce macro lenses that can focus at 1:1 magnification, but some manufacturers also produce macro lenses that can focus up to 5:1, like the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 Ultra Macro, which is getting close to the range of inexpensive microscopes.
Tilt-shift and defocus control are two additional unique prime features. These two more sophisticated technical tools are employed in the architectural and portrait photography subgenres, respectively.
Third-party manufacturers can create distinctive designs and features on their prime lenses because prime lenses are also less expensive to design and build. These include unusual-looking lenses like the Laowa probe macro lens, extremely wide or extremely fast lenses like a 9mm or f/0.95 aperture lens, and more.
One more advantage of prime lenses is more artistic and therefore more difficult to quantify. Once you have some experience using a prime lens, you can begin to visualize the focal length, which will make it simpler for you to recognize potential compositions and comprehend framing before you even lift your camera. For precisely this reason, some photographers never use anything other than a single prime lens, such as a 35mm or 50mm.
In comparison to the most recent zooms, prime lenses may appear to be a basic or even obsolete category of lenses. They can, however, outperform zooms in terms of speed, size, and sharpness, opening up new possibilities for you as a photographer. I’d suggest giving primes some thought if you want to expand your toolkit in a particular area or just need some compositional ideas. They literally can give you a completely new perspective on your subject.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this primer on prime lens information. Please leave your questions in the comments section below.