10 Benefits of Prime Lenses

By June 20, 2019 September 17th, 2019 Photography

Hand holding manual prime lens 50 mm on dark background

Using a fixed focal length may seem inhibiting, but prime lenses offer many benefits that zoom lenses just can’t. Here are ten ways prime lenses can help improve your photography.

1. It’s Smaller and Lighter

Prime lenses are usually much smaller and lighter than zoom lenses.

They’re a perfect solution if you’re concerned about space or having to carry heavy equipment. There is also the option for a “pancake lens,” which are made to be very thin and lightweight.

Compared to prime lenses, zoom lenses are often larger and heavier. This is because zoom lenses require more parts and movement within their internal components to zoom in and out.

In particular, to change focal lengths, the layers of glass that are inside zoom lenses have to move back and forth.  The complex internal construction and movement required of a zoom cause them to be large and heavy.

Since Prime lens does not require as many interior components and they don’t have moving layers, they are smaller and lighter than zoom lenses. The benefits of using the smaller and lighter prime lenses include:

The benefits are particularly useful for landscape and travel photographers. Prime lenses make travel more comfortable by freeing up room in your camera bag. They are also more convenient to travel with since they are lighter.

Landscape and travel photographers alike often find themselves walking long distances. A heavy camera bag can make this task much harder. As such, you are reducing the weight of your bag by using a prime lens can be advantageous.

For example, the 14mm fixed wide-angle weighs only 2/3 the weight of the 14-24mm f/2.8 zoom. This takes 12 oz off the weight of your equipment.

As photographers, we often don’t just spend several minutes holding our camera. We can end up holding them for hours trying to get the perfect shot.

Using a prime lens can save much stress on your neck and shoulders from holding our camera for hours. This is especially so if you shoot street or travel photography as you’re likely to your camera for hours.

2. It Lets in More Light

Prime lenses have wider maximum apertures, which makes them better at taking photos in low light conditions.

What this means is that if you need more light, prime lenses will enable you to stop down further than zoom lenses.  When you stop down, your aperture opens up wider letting more light into your lens.

This makes shooting in low light conditions possible without having to increase your ISO or decrease your shutter speed.

Though you can find zoom lenses with a relatively wide maximum aperture, they are typically more expensive.

For example, a Nikon or Canon fixed 50mm f/2.8 lens will typically cost around $125, whereas a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens can cost between $1200 and $2300.

Resource: How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Exposure

3. Shallow Depth of Field

While the wider apertures on prime lenses offer better exposure during low light, they also have another benefit. The wider aperture can give you a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field is what allows you to place your subject in focus while your background is out of focus.

This is something that, though possible with some zoom lenses, they can be very expensive.

For instance, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 is under $200 while the Sigma 50-100mm f/1.8 zoom lens cost $1000. This means that zoom lens of comparable focal length to a prime lens is five times more expensive.

If you’ve ever seen a photo with smooth blurred background, chances are they are shot with a shallow depth of field. This type of effect is often desired in portrait, street, and wildlife images. Prime lenses are great for this because they have the wider apertures required to achieve this effect.

4. It’s Faster

Prime lenses are also much faster than zoom lenses. That is, a prime lens allows you to shoot in low light conditions using a lower ISO and the same shutter speed.

Zoom lenses have come a long way since they first came out. Today, high-end zoom lenses can be just as fast as prime lenses. The only issue is that a zoom lens with the same speed of a prime lens is much more expensive.

Some of the slowest prime lenses such as f/2, let in double the amount of light than the fastest f/2.8   zoom lenses do.

Zoom lenses are typically several stops less sensitive than prime lenses. For example, the Nikon 30-70mm f/2.8 is two stops less sensitive than the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens. This means that you will have to use eight times the ISO or shutter speed in low light.

Also, prime lenses generally produce sharper images at all aperture settings compared to zoom lenses.

For instance, prime lenses are capable of capturing sharp images at higher apertures such as f/8 as well as much smaller apertures such as f/1.2. Since there are no moving parts in a prime lens, the optics have been perfected at each aperture value. Zoom lenses, on the other hand, typically produce less sharp images because there are multiple focal ranges to account for.

Even inexpensive prime lenses can produce quality images. Most photographers on a budget can find a 28mm f/1.8 for under $200. On the other hand, a Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 cost over $600.

If you’re able to spend a little more money, you can buy some of the more expensive prime lenses. The 35mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.2 are great options if you are looking for high-quality images that can’t be matched by other lenses.

5. Sharper Images

Prime lenses generally produce sharper images than zoom lenses. This is because it is easier for manufacturers to produce a lens that is sharp at a single focal length rather than many.

For instance, wide-angle lenses don’t focus sharply at wide apertures, and a common way photographers compensate for this is to use narrow apertures. However, the images produced with prime lenses are often sharp even at their widest apertures.

Although it’s true that not all prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses, to achieve a similar level of sharpness, you will need to purchase a high-end zoom lens. These lenses will typically cost upwards of $1,000.

But, you can easily find inexpensive prime lenses that can capture tack sharp images. For example, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 is $130, yet it still produces very sharp images.

Despite their price difference, the prime lens will give you sharper images and faster speeds.

So, unless you are using a high-end zoom lens, you will find that prime lenses will outperform most zoom lenses of a similar price range in terms of sharpness.

6. Less Distortion and Chromatic Aberration

Again, because manufacturers only need to perfect one focal length, prime lenses typically have less distortion and chromatic aberration.

Distortion changes with focal length, so zoom lenses will always have some form of distortion. It is important to note that prime lenses are not distortion-free; they have less distortion than the zoom lenses.

Prime lenses are unique because they offer high image quality regardless of how cheap they are. The 50mm f/1.8, one of the most affordable versions of the prime lens, are well-known for their high quality on a low budget.

One of my favorite sources for lens image quality, DxMark, conducts tests to determine the image quality of various camera lenses. To do this, different variables that affect quality, such as sharpness, chromatic aberration, distortion, and vignetting are given a score.

DxoMark rates image quality for all lenses, but for my purposes, I focused on Nikon lenses. When examining the list of the top Nikon lenses based on image quality, the first 22 lenses are prime lenses while the last 3 are zoom lenses. That is approximately 88% of the top lenses based on image quality are prime lenses.

To verify that prime lenses indeed do provide better image quality, I conducted my own research.  In my research, I looked at other articles that are recommended and reviewed lenses based on image quality.

I found that 61% of the lenses regarded as producing the highest quality images were prime lenses. This means that only 39% were zoom lenses. My findings support the claim that prime lenses have higher image quality than zoom lenses.

According to these tests, prime lenses are the best option for image quality, since prime lenses don’t have as many components as zoom lenses. Also, manufacturers make sure that their lens produces high-quality images at a given focal length.

Certain zoom lenses can indeed produce similar quality images as prime lenses. However, as mentioned, these lenses will typically be much more expensive than your average zoom lens. For example, a 24-70mm f/2.8 can cost between $1,000 and $1,600 while a 35mm f/1.4 can cost between $500-$800.

Over time, zoom technology may become comparable to prime lenses, but it most likely has a long way to go.

7. It’s Cheaper Than Zoom Lenses

As mentioned, prime lenses are typically cheaper than zoom lenses. This is due to the limited number of parts required and a simpler manufacturing process.

Take the “nifty-fifty” 50mm lens,  as an example. The nifty fifty has been popular since the early days of the SLR. From that time, manufacturers have been able to perfect the production process and create high-quality lenses at a very low price.

The lower price and efficiency of production of prime lenses have made them a much better value than zoom lenses.

When comparing prime lenses and zoom lenses price for price, prime lenses are a better value when it comes to image quality. Only high end, expensive zoom lenses can produce similar image quality to even average prime lenses.

For instance, 4 of the top 25 lenses are nifty fifties, and they rank at 8, 12, 18, and 20. The nifty fifties are also the only lenses on the list that come in under $450. The average price of the other cameras on the list is over $2400.

That said the price of a prime lens does vary. This is especially true for lenses with high maximum apertures.

For example, the Canon 50mm f/1.2 ($1300) is about ten times more expensive than the 50mm f/1.8 Canon prime lens ($125).

Typically, prime lenses that are very high in price are usually meant for specialty professional photographers.

Everything considered a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens is one of the best ways to balance photo quality with price. A typical 50mm f/1.8 prime can range from $110 to $220.

8. It’s Easier to Master

Though the fixed focal length of prime lenses can be seen as a disadvantage by some photographers, it can also serve as an asset to your photography.  

One reason is that mastering only a single focal length is much easier than multiple focal lengths.

Being an expert on how to use a particular focal length comes with many benefits. One of which is that it enables you to visualize how your image will appear using that focal length, even without looking through a viewfinder.

Once you become familiar with a focal length, you will know what to look for to result in the best use of that focal length. This will allow you to look at a scene and see all the potential opportunities for an image.

Prime lenses also help you develop a “muscle memory” for the specific focal length that you’re using. As a result of your understanding with a particular focal length, shooting with it will become second nature.

Your instincts when using your prime lens will grow,  making you more efficient at what you do. This, in turn, will enable you to spend less time adjusting your composition and thinking about how to get the shot you want.

Finally, being limited to a single focal length frees you from the distractions that come with choices. This enables you to focus on your subjects and maximizes your opportunities to capture unique moments.

9. It Forces You to Move

Zoom lenses can get you into the bad habit of standing still to compose your shot, while prime lenses encourage you to move.

It’s not uncommon for photographers who use a zoom lens to stand still when shooting. They stand in one spot and rely heavily on their zoom to get the images they desire. This can cause photographers to get lazy with their photography.

Using a prime lens, on the other hand, causes you to move around constantly. Since you can’t zoom with prime lenses, you’ll have to move closer to your subject.

By having to vary your position continually, you’ll begin to come up with more creative solutions to get your desired compositions. As a result, you’ll learn to practice and approach photography in more innovative ways.

10. Primes Push Your Creativity

Building on the previous section, using prime lenses is a great way to expand and nourish your creativity.

Though zoom lenses can be very convenient, using a prime lens provides you the opportunity to sharpen your understanding of composition and perspective.

If it sounds a little hard to believe, try setting your lens to 50mm for a day. Go the entire day without adjusting your focal length.

By the end of the day, you’ll see how using a fixed focal length pushes you to think outside the box.

Having to move around and adjust how close you are to your subject will help you be more aware of camera placement and how you’re composing your images.

Using a fixed focal length may be inhibiting, but the challenges it presents can be an excellent opportunity to learn. By spending some time practicing with a prime lens, you’ll be sure to nourish your photographic and creative skills.

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