Zoom lenses are convenient, as everyone knows. I’d imagine that the vast majority of us started our photography with a simple 18-55 kit lens – I know I did, and I used it to take some of my favorite photos. However, it never seemed like a good fit for my style of photography. My first prime lens was the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR macro, a truly fantastic lens. At the time, I had never attempted macro photography. It is no exaggeration to say that the 105mm macro opened new worlds for me, and its sharpness was unbelievable. I had discovered the magical world of prime lenses.
Fast forward to today, where I’m shooting with just three lenses, all primes: the Nikon 24mm f/1.4G, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art, and the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR. For the most part, I photograph landscapes, cities, and macro scenes, and I have found this trio to be amazing for my needs. People say all the time that zooms are more versatile and convenient than prime lenses, which, in some ways, is true. However, a prime lens can be more flexible than it may seem at first.
With few exceptions, a prime lens will either be better optically, have a wider maximum aperture, or weigh less than a zoom of the same price and manufacturer. The prime lenses which are similar to zooms in these three categories (for example, the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR macro or the 24mm f/3.5 PC-E lens) tend to have some special feature which makes them worthwhile anyway (macro or tilt-shift capabilities, in this case).
The point is, prime lenses will almost always have some advantage over zoom lenses. Unfortunately, you pay for this advantage by losing versatility. Or do you?
Since I have adopted a style of prime-only photography, I have noticed quite a few scenarios which may have seemed unsuitable for a prime lens, but were actually not problems at all.
As I said above, I mostly focus on landscapes, cityscapes, and macro photography. Macro photography isn’t as important to this discussion, since there aren’t many good macro lenses that also zoom. Plus, at macro distances, it is extremely easy to “zoom” by moving forwards and backwards; just a few inches can completely change the size of an object in the frame.
Landscapes and cityscapes are completely different, though, and many people would consider zoom lenses for these tasks. Some lenses, such as the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G, seem built for these purposes. Still, I think that prime lenses can have an optical and weight advantage here, which could be important to your style of photography.
The biggest myth about prime lenses is that it is impossible to use them for capturing wider or narrower field of view. This isn’t fully true – you can crop to zoom in (as long as cropping is not too extreme), or you can take a panorama to go wider. And both of these may be more practical than you’d think.
I personally feel comfortable cropping an image about 1.5x, using the Nikon D800. This effectively turns the 36 megapixels into 16, exactly like my D7000. This isn’t preferable, but it doesn’t hurt the image too much, if I used good shot discipline to begin with. A 16×24 inch print is still easily within my comfort zone from the D7000, and up to a 24×36 inch print is possible for many photos. Cropping this much on a D800 essentially turns my 24mm lens into a 24-35mm zoom. This isn’t even accounting for moving the camera closer to your subject, which is possible to some degree in most scenes.
What I lose in image quality by “zooming in” with a prime lens, I make up for when I “zoom out”. For most of my images (on a tripod, shooting a barely-moving scene), I find it easy to take a three-photo panorama of vertical images, with about a 35% overlap. Combined in Photoshop, this gets me an 81-megapixel photo in the standard 2×3 aspect ratio. Equivalent field of view: 16mm.
Basically, through cropping and creating a panorama, I can turn a 24mm f/1.4G prime lens into a 16-35mm f/1.4 zoom lens. Sure, the quality past about 28mm isn’t as good as you’d get from a great zoom, but the quality from 16mm to 24mm is definitely better. Plus, the Nikon 24mm f/1.4G is very flare-resistant and it easily takes filters, two more advantages over a zoom like the 14-24mm f/2.8G.
Using this method, my 50mm lens turns into an easy 35-75mm zoom. My 105mm macro becomes a 70-150mm zoom. So, I can cover essentially the whole range from 16-150mm without really having a bare spot.
This method isn’t without its flaws. Obviously, it doesn’t work for fast-moving scenes, such as weddings or sports games. And if you have an aversion to cropping, you won’t like it either. Panorama stitching can be an issue with close subjects and use of panoramic heads might be required.
Still, even if I don’t want to crop my photos much and I can’t take a panorama, prime lenses can be very useful. In fact, the vast majority of my photos aren’t heavily cropped, and only a few are panoramas. I find that it tends to be easy to compose with whatever focal length I have, and I don’t worry about what I could be missing. The important thing is that I know there isn’t a focal length that I am completely “missing” throughout that 16-150mm range.
For landscape photographers and cityscape photographers, those who mostly focus on scenes without much movement and mostly shoot at infinity, this method is nearly flawless. Does it take more time? Perhaps, since panorama photos are always more involved than normal photos. Still, if I had a zoom lens, I would probably spend more time trying to get the perfect focal length, and it would probably take me more time overall to compose my images.
Of course, if you don’t like editing photos for too long, then you may not like using this method. Personally, I find it extremely fun to edit my images in Lightroom, and I have no issue spending some extra time post-processing my shots with this method. This method caters to perfectionists, which I certainly am; I once spent fifteen minutes deciding whether to rotate one of my images 0.1 degrees!
All of this is on top of the usual reasons that people like prime lenses – arguably, they force you to think about composition more, and they make it easier to pre-visualize your results. This is a controversial topic, and there are great arguments on both sides. Personally, I find that it is easier to compose images when the variable of focal length has been removed; I know that many people will disagree, which is completely understandable.
As I said above, this all depends on your personal style. If you are a sports photographer, unable to move from your position but still required to get quick shots from different perspectives, a zoom would clearly be useful for your photography. If you shoot handheld scenics and you don’t want to worry about making every frame perfect, a zoom lens is a quicker and more convenient choice than a prime.
But if you primarily shoot from a tripod, either as a landscape photographer or a cityscape photographer, you should take a long look at primes. Zoom lenses could still be fitting for your photography, but it’s important to remember that prime lenses can have a wider range of focal lengths than you may initially think. Plus, they come with all the other optical and weight-related benefits inherent in a lens that doesn’t zoom. For me, these advantages add up quickly. Perhaps you are the same way.
Very interesting read. My camera club set up a test where we all had to go out taking pictures using a Prime Lens. Prime Len’s are a great way of teaching yourself the rules of composition.
You make some good points here. I believe the biggest advantages of primes are corner sharpness and shallow depth of field. As a landscape shooter who prints large, I can’t buy into the notion of cropping to achieve a longer focal length. It defeats the purpose of having a high resolution sensor in the first place (Nikon Z7). Stitching images together to achieve a wider effective view is very useful though. And it avoids some of the distortion inherent in super-wide lenses.
Maybe you still follow the comments to this very nice article. In fact this is the reason of my question, reading the article after a “while”: do you still work with prime lenses?
Hi Stefano, I do still follow comments to this article, even if I am sometimes a bit slow to respond to them :)
At the moment, I use five lenses: the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, 20mm f/1.8, 35mm f/1.8, 105mm f/2.8, and 70-200mm f/4 (and I only use the 105mm for macro work).
So, I’ve definitely started experimenting with zooms as well. I like them — but I still feel the same as I did when I wrote this article. Prime lenses can be just as versatile as zooms, and they’re almost always much lighter/smaller. For long landscape photography hikes, I typically bring my 20mm and 70-200mm, or my 35mm and 70-200mm. It’s a fairly streamlined kit.
Thank you for confirming, with excellent pictures, what I thought I could do with just three prime lenses. I recently upgraded to Sony A7Rii from A7 in order to benefit, apart from IBIS 5-axe stabilization and better build, from the new sensor that offers 42 Mp, and from new Zeiss Batis prime lenses, namely the 25 mm F2 and the 85 mm F1.8, and the Sony-Zeiss 55 mm F1.8. For cropping I use the camera optical zoom and for picture stitching I use its panorama function, avoiding post processing if if I want. I’ve just sold my Sony 16-35 mm F4 lens, which is a bit big and heavy for the Sony A7RII, to finance a Zeiss Batis 25 mm F2. Still better. I can video-photograph while zooming with prime lenses in Sony A7 series. Your excellent article give me confidence in using prime lenses instead of zooms. Getting nice shots like yours is a different matter though.
Spencer, this article is superb, best one, love it :)
Hi Spencer! I liked your comment that many of us (photographers) started out with the kit lens, something like an 18-55… Well, many of us older folks never had a “kit lens”! I started out in high school shooting a Pentax K2 with a 50mm 1.4. I don’t think I had a zoom lens until I bought a telephoto that was something like a 70-200mm. I remember carrying the 50 and a 35mm wide angle to shoot the Band halftime show up in the press box. I really liked that 50, and zooming by feet was always an option. I think in many cases the prime solution is better that zooming. Thanks for a great article and some really nice shots. Looking forward to reading more!
One thing puzzles me..if I shoot with a prime using say 1.8 from say 50 feet and then crop.,.will I get the same depth of field if I shot closer with a wide aperture? My problem is that I sometimes find myself in low light situations where I cannot use flash…i bought a 1.8 prime as a suplemement to my F4 zoom but now I am concerned about depth of field… I wonder if I could move back further and get the same depth of field using 1.8 from further away as I could with F4 closer in …or would I lose so much in quality from cropping that this would not make sense?
Why all this noise about lenses. Prime or no prime all the same. There is no single thing you cant do with zoom that you can do with a prime. (Sometimes depth of field is different or bokeh but that are minor differences). If you have something decent to show and know how to do this photos will be great no matter the gear. Also gear now is so sophisticated, almost nobody will see any difference. Some people are like Im so SWAG I use only primes so I have to be a pro. And I say whatever float your boat. If you like it just use it and its ok, But I dont agree that primes are better. There are thousands of different uses for photography, and ways of shoothing. Primes often have better qualities of the picture but there are situations in which you will be seriouslly limited having 1 prime on your body and no time to change it. So its really hard choice. Also I own 24 1.4 and I wouldnt use it with an aps-c body (d7000) for obvious reasons, but its only me (its decent lens but waste of money for DX body, but again if you like this particular lens its cool).
I think that an advantage of prime a prime lens is that it’s lighter and faster, which allow you to get shallow DOF when you need it. Weight and size count a lot for me, for example.
Impressive images and writing for someone of any age, let alone 17! I’m already looking forward to Spencer’s continuing contributions.
Maybe I like to do things the hard way, but I’ve been shooting weddings with two bodies and mostly prime lenses for the past three years, usually a 35/1.4 and 85/1.4 and sometimes a 50/1.8 depending on the venue. If I need to go wider I go to my 16-35, but don’t like to use it for people as it can distort pretty badly.
It’s a bit more work than using the typical 24-70 f/2.8 mid-range zooms that are so common among wedding photographers, but those lenses just have no character to my taste, and I just love the rendering of my primes. Also get in a good workout with each wedding…
Great article with awesome shots! It was a very enjoyable read and love the fact you provide your thoughts on this subject. Continue to be bold and create those awesome shots…. at the end of the day, the end results are what really matter in most cases! Look forward to reading potentially your other posts.