Prime Lenses: Pros and Cons

First, let’s discuss different types of lenses and how they’re used.

Standard Zoom: These are the most common type of lenses and practically all the kit lenses bundled with cameras fall into this category. The most popular is the 18mm-55mm lens, which is good for general purpose photography and is commonly used by amateurs and first time photographers. A few years ago, the quality of these lenses was not good enough and earned a bad name for their manufacturers. Realizing this, the camera makers started bundling much better versions that give very decent results.

prime lenses

“Evening in the Field” captured by Ævar Guðmundsson with a Nikon 14mm lens (Click Image to See More From Ævar Guðmundsson)

Zoom: These are long-range lenses, which have longer focal lengths as compared with the standard zoom lenses. The popular lenses are 55mm-250mm, 70mm-300mm, and 75mm-300mm. These lens are used by semi professionals and serious photography enthusiasts to shoot animals and birds.

Wide Angle: These lenses are most popular with landscape and nature photographers. The common wide-angle lenses are 10mm-20mm, 12-24mm, and 11mm-16mm. Another variant of wide-angle lenses are called fish-eye lenses. They give maximum angle of view and in that process distort the view in a circular fashion.

All the above lens types are used by amateurs, serious hobbyists, and semi-professionals. Then what is the choice of many professionals? The answer: prime lenses.

Prime lenses are often the most coveted and preferred lenses, and not without reason. With fixed local lengths, these lenses provide the best possible results and truly complement a camera’s raw power combined with the photographer’s honed skills.

The following Canon prime lenses are most popular: Canon EF 14mm, Canon EF 50mm, Canon EF 85mm, Canon EF 100mm, and Canon EF 200mm. Similar range of lenses are available from other popular camera and lens manufacturers like Nikon, Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina, etc.

camera prime lens

“Ben Romans of the Click Five” captured by Todd Beltz with an 85mm lens (Click Image to See More From Todd Beltz)

Prime Lens Advantages

The most obvious advantage is image quality. Prime lenses are bought by professionals to obtain the best quality photographs from their camera gear. The general parameters on which the image quality is tested are: sharpness, distortion, vignetting, and chromatic aberration. In all prime lenses, the test results show the highest ranking for the sharpness and lowest values for the other three parameters: distortion, vignetting, and chromatic aberration.

As professional requirements demand the best images that can be used by clients, it is prudent to invest in a prime lens as per the photographic assignments and budget.

Prime Lens Disadvantages

The biggest disadvantage of using a prime lens is the fixed focal length. You will experience the limitations when you start shooting with a prime lens. There is no zoom, which implies that you have to compose the frame by moving further away or by going nearer to the subject. With practice and patience, you will soon overcome this handicap and fall in love with your prime lens and discover the joy of photography all over again.

Another drawback of the prime lens is the price factor. Prime lenses, barring the very basic models, are much more expensive than their zoom counterparts.

prime lenses photography

“Fly” captured by Mahesh with a Canon 100mm lens (Click Image to See More From Mahesh)

In conclusion, it is always wise to invest in and explore the possibilities of shooting with a prime lens. The resulting images are nothing short of awesome with razor sharpness that is the hallmark of a professional photographer.

About the Author:
Pashminu Mansukhani is part of an Industrial Photography service company.

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10 responses to “Prime Lenses: Pros and Cons”

  1. Michal says:

    “The resulting images are nothing short of awesome with razor sharpness that is the hallmark of a professional photographer” – absolute poppycock. Image sharpness has nothing to do with a “professional photographer”. A pro, or a real artist, will take a good picture with a crappy camera and lens. There thousands absolutely stunning and classic shots that are not “razor sharp” but are taken just at the right moment in just the right way.

  2. I feel I need to weigh in here because I don’t think the discussion is nearly as black and white as one might think it is. I know amateurs that love their prime lenses and I know pros that use Zoom lenses. Fantastic zoom lenses exist and to throw a broad-brush blanket statement along the lines of Prime lenses being the choice of professionals is – to be blunt – irresponsible.

    Now I will give you that a wide range zoom lens is not ideal. I have an 18-135mm zoom that is a hefty range to expect any sort of quality out of it. It is the lens i might carry about on family outings (so that I don’t have to change lenses or the like), but it’s not what I use for my professional work. As would be expected for such a range, the sharpness falls off a bit round the edges, and it’s aperture leaves something to be desired.

    However, a good tight range – a 24-70mm fixed aperture – is a good lens, and there are three fantastic and popular lenses on the market that are used frequently by professionals: Sigma, Nikon and Canon. They’re not cheap – oh they are not cheap – but they’re all good lenses with a fixed max aperture at f/2.8 (not perfect, but certainly good). They’re sharp all around, and are great zoom lenses.

    Now I’m not saying that Zooms are better than Primes, but I don’t want anyone to think that the primes are the only solution. That type of thinking is really pretty dated at this point. Had you made such a comment 5 years ago, i would possibly agree with you. But these days…it’s just not true. You just can’t expect a wide range zoom to be the end-all-be-all.

    To that end, any good photographer has in his kit a few important prime lenses. A 35mm, 50mm and the 85mm primes are work horses. But there’s nothing wrong with supplementing with a GOOD zoom lens.

  3. Side note: Even when using a zoom, one should compose a shot by moving around anyhow. A zoom changes the angle of view – there’s no way around it – and that will change the perception of the objects around the subject. The result could be pretty distorted and ugly. So even with a zoom lens, one should pick the focal length for the purpose of angle of view, and then move closer to or farther from the subject (or mvoe around in general) to compose the shot. There is no excuse for laziness in this case, even if you have a good zoom.

  4. Malcolm says:

    I agree with Michael.

    In the first place, the difference in quality is REALLY only noticeable on the test bench. I have three zoom lenses which take spectacular images if I shoot properly and judiciously.

    In the second place, wide angle lenses which incorporate several focal lengths are known as “wide angle zooms.”

    Third, it is NOT

  5. Malcolm says:

    Sorry… My computer sent the last comment before I was finished.

    Third, it is NOT always best to invest in a prime lens. Go for a zoom that fits your needs and employ correct technique (use a tripod, proper aperture, shutter speed etc.)

    Now ask me how I know… I was the New England representative for Canon USA for twelve years and have been shooting for the last fifty-two years. I have been using the same three zoom lenses for the past eighteen years… NOT prime lenses, not even “L” series lenses. They are a Canon EF 20-35, Canon EF 28-105 and Canon EF 75-300 IS.

    You might want to buy a prime lens for subject matter that you photograph on a constant basis… for example, a high-quality macro lens for shooting bugs.

    I defy anyone to look at my images and tell me whether they were shot with a prime lens or a zoom.

  6. Sarah says:

    The following statement is so very wrong…

    “Another drawback of the prime lens is the price factor. All prime lenses, barring the very basic models, are much more expensive than their zoom counterparts.”

    Yes, you can get a cheap zoom which doesn’t let much light in (it’s ‘slow’) and therefore isn’t the actual counterpart to the fast prime.

    For example, the Canon 50mm f/1.4 costs $400 whereas the 17-55mm f/2.8 costs $1,180. Yeah, maybe if you were going to buy every lens inside that one zoom then, yeah, it would cost more. But, I don’t see many people doing that… instead having two primes to fill the one zoom. So, if you add the Canon 28mm f/1.8 for $510 you’re up to a total of $910 for two *faster* primes (better bokah, better in low light) compared to the slower, yet still fast, zoom for $270 more!

    Someone will still mention that you can buy a zoom for 500 bucks… And, yes, a very slow zoom that doesn’t even come close to comparing to a fast prime (lenses that are in the f/3.5-5.6 range).

  7. Julio says:

    “Another drawback of the prime lens is the price factor. All prime lenses, barring the very basic models, are much more expensive than their zoom counterparts” – This is not always true. Wide angle and normal lenses with fixed focal lengths (14mm – 50mm range) are considerably more affordable than their zoom counterparts with the same f ratio (at least in the case of Nikon).

    In the telephoto range it’s much more comfortable and convenient to work with a zoom lens, especially for nature and sports photography, since it’s not always possible to move closer to or farther away from the object, or because the object might move closer to or farther away from the photographer.

  8. Clare says:

    I dont’ like fixed lens. I use a 28-85 lens for most of my shots. It is a easy lens to use, and it provides me a lot of opitions. I have fixed lens but I only use when I am shoting at something that is staying in one place. Lens have come a long way since the early 1990’s. Now with SLR Dgital cameras, the need for a fixed lens is no so improtant. Buy a lens that you will comfortable with and take some great shots…

  9. kat partridge says:

    Personally I feel the type of lens someone uses is very different depending on what type of photos they like to shoot. I have seldom used my telephoto lens my 100mm macro is on my camera 95% of the time… because I enjoy snapping pictures of spiders and being able to capture the pollen on a flower… the magic of photographing things yours eyes might not see :) but….soon… my new love might be my new fisheye Santa is bringing….anything but the normal for me

  10. kaptnk says:

    We do have a few prime lenses, but our work horses are the zoom lenses. There is a huge difference in IQ IMHO after processing in DXO. That is what DXO is famous for. Correcting the flaws in all of the lenses. Sharpness is noticeably improved with out the extreme high cost of some of these lenses.

    Try getting a 12-24 mm Canon made or even a 12 mm from Canon. It doesn’t exist. A lot of the complaints can and are corrected in DXO.

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