3 Benefits of a Fixed Focal Length

Inspiration July 10th 2013 12:55 AM 27 Comments

Prime-1

A technique used in art school for skill development is to have students learn to draw with a pen, rather than a pencil. It forces you to be more careful, more accurate, and more disciplined. No erasing, no corrections, and no layout lines. Ultimately helping the artist grow and become a better artist. Using an eraser is more of a crutch than tool for young artists, and learning to draw with a pen was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in art school. Some of my favorite drawings are the ones I drew with only a pen.

As a portrait photographer, your lens choice is extremely important when it comes to your growth. There’s a misconception among new photographers that zoom lenses are the way to go. This is mainly due to the lack of knowledge and full understanding of the difference between a prime lens and a zoom lens. Along with the technical benefits of a prime lens over a zoom, there is a benefit that is often overlooked, and that is it helps make you a better photographer. In the same way that I was taught to use a pen in my college classes, I used a prime lens to force me to work harder for each shot. There are 3 reasons why you should be shooting with a prime lens rather than a zoom, and why a lot of portrait photographers only shoot with prime lenses.

APERTURE

What is the main difference between a 50mm prime lens, and a zoom lens that can go from 18-55mm, both covering the same focal length? Aperture. With a 18-55mm zoom, or any zoom when compared to a prime of the same focal length, the main difference is it’s lowest F-stop or how wide it’s aperture can go at that specific focal length. At the lowest aperture most zoom lenses under $1000 offer is between F/3.5 – F/5. If you’re a fan of bokeh or a nice shallow depth of field, that’s not going to cut it. If you want to be able to really isolate your subject, using a shallow depth of field that a prime lens can give you makes a huge difference. Another advantage of a wider aperture is the additional light. The wider the aperture can go on a lens the more light it will allow in to the sensor, allowing you to shoot without a flash in low light.

Learning to shoot in low light using a lower F Stop can take practice, or even in good light when you want to create a dreamy out of focus background. You have more control over how much you want in focus and how much you don’t with the ability to lower your F Stop to a much lower number. Focusing with a shallow depth of field can be difficult at first, and takes time, but like shooting a gun, being able to shoot a small target makes it easier to hit the big ones.

Prime-3

SHARPER IMAGES

When compared to a zoom lens, a prime lens has a less complicated build with less glass involved, allowing for sharper images. Photographers looking for sharpness will always go for a prime lens.

Prime-5

SKILL DEVELOPMENT

One other reason you may want to consider a prime lens over a zoom: simply put…it can make you a better photographer. Developing your composition skills takes time, and learning to physically move your camera to get the shot you want, compared to moving your zoom is huge. This may seem as a hindrance at first thought, but most creative photographers learn to use it to their advantage. When you have to physically move around, it changes your angles, changes your light, makes you have to adjust other variables to get the composition. It makes you think more. Having the ability to stay in one place and control your composition by zooming in and out may seem like the way to go, but its not.

Prime-4

Conclusion

Simply put, prime lenses force you to think more, move more, and ultimately create better and more interesting photographs. You can get sharper images, isolate your subject better, and get nice and creamy bokeh with a prime lens. Zoom lenses are convenient and definitely have their place, but I don’t recommend them in the beginning. Get up, move around, and be more creative with your DOF and compositions. If a fence is in the way of you moving closer to your subject, shoot through it. You’ll either end up with a much more interesting image, or you’ll find another angle to get the shot. Don’t be afraid to use a lens that has a fixed focal length, save your zoom lens for the bird feeder.

 

Advertisement

About

Jay Cassario is a photographer from South Jersey, and owner of the wedding, engagement, and portrait photography studio Cass Imaging. His true passion is his portrait work, but his love for landscape and star photography has earned him publications by National Geographic.

WEBSITE: Jay Cassario
Personal Facebook: Jay Cassario
Business Facebook: Cass Imaging
Google Plus: Jay’s Google +
Twitter: @JayCassario

27 Comments

  1. Kristen Renee

    Thanks for writing this article. I just started switching over to prime lenses and I instantly fell in love with them. They are teaching me to be more creative and forcing me to move around, like you said.

    Reply 8
  2. Christian Hebell

    Thanks for a great article – and yes, I totally agree. However I some times (well, most times!) use zoom lens. But If I want to do something specific – like a part of a tree or a portrait photo – or record a video, I’ll go with my cheep , but perfect, 50MM fixed lens. So go ahead…buy more fixed, less zoom! :-)

    Reply 3
  3. lunga shezi

    Great stuff. My first prime lens was 50mm and to be honest there’s less fiddling around with settings. It just allows me to work and move around more quicker to get the shot i need.

    Reply 1
  4. Tanjee

    Thank you! I just purchased a 105 prime on Saturday and was wondering if I did the right thing! :-)

    Reply 0
    • Shaniece

      I recently bought a 105mm and I absolutely love it. The DOF creates images that I wouldn’t have thought of with another lens.

      0
  5. Belinda Haselschwerdt

    I am a prime girl all the way! I have a small studio in my finished basement and shoot primarily children and babies. My go to lens is my nifty 50mm! I am all over the place…ask my clients! I even warn the parents to watch out because I have been known to go from standing to flat out on my belly and elbows and don’t want them to get kicked in the process if they don’t know ahead of time! When shooting kids there’s not much time for fiddling with a zoom. I love my primes for their speed & sharpness without all the hassle of trying to focus in…I do that with my feet! I bought the much coveted 70-200mm f/2.8 for doing families and seniors but find that I tend to switch over to my 85mm after a few shots. I am a fanatic for sharp eyes and details and primes are the way to go for that!

    Reply 2
  6. Justine

    Thank you for this article! Your words are encouraging to me being the fixed focal lens owner that I am. I have a Nikon D40 gifted to me by my parents years ago. The lens it came it with is a zoom lens (18-55mm/3.5-5.6G) and I must agree that my 50mm/1.8G wins on all three of the points you spoke about. I made the decision to get my prime lens not because I am a portrait photog rather because I wanted a lens that would give me a “really blurry background”. =) I assure you, my vocabulary and camera knowledge has expanded since that time, but the camera shop man knew just what would give me that. I was happy as could be with the high aperture and low light shooting capabilities until I realized how much more I was moving around to get the shots I wanted. I think you’re spot on when you say it forces you to see your subject through unexpected angles and lighting. Whenever I shoot with my prime lens, everything about my image is better but my needs as a photographer (amateur hobbyist capturing moments with my little family) seem to continually pull me toward a zoom lens. I wanted to jump ship and purchase a better zoom lens than the one that came standard, and although I still foresee the purchase of a new lens in my future, I feel much happier honing my skills with my fixed focal until both my skill set and savings will justify it. Again, thank you for your words they will be on my mind the next time I pick up my camera.

    Reply 1
  7. Insana

    I love the analogy of using the permanent pen in art class. So true!

    Reply 3
  8. Norma Whisnant

    OMG …. Thx so much for the tip. It is so true. I love DOF and I get it best with my 50mm prime lenses. When my camera in the M mode while using the zoom lenses, I have difficulty with the setting. With the prime lenses it is much easier. Thx again for a great tip.

    Reply 0
  9. Bruce Kaplan

    I really need to get more prime lenses; they are fantastic. I started out with a 60mm macro lens & it taught me to move around to get the shot I wanted. I still have it. Later, I added several zoom lenses. My favorite of these is my amazing 70-200 VR II.

    However, keep in mind what you are shooting; remember you have unique reasons picking your lenses depending on what you are shooting. For example, your needs most likely will be different when you are shooting indoor portraits vs. say an outdoor event.

    However, my favorite prime lens in my bag is my beloved 16mm fisheye; it rocks! Next on my list to get: 35mm prime & 105mm prime. Can’t wait!

    Reply 0
  10. Lonnie Utah

    You forgot smaller and lighter than zooms.

    Reply 2
  11. Jeremy

    I totally agree, however something to consider when buying a prime is focal distance. When I stared out everyone told me to get nifty 50 ,and they were right. However on my crop sensor that became very close to an 80mm ,which is great for portraits, but to close for anything else. If you will be walking around and if you are indoors ,I recommend a 30 or 35 mm prime lens. It’s the best way to go on a crop sensor.

    Reply 2
  12. Derek

    Definitely agree – Primes are great… However, there are several instances where they’re just not practical…

    I like to shoot outdoors a lot. Nature, wildlife, landscapes, architecture, etc. A lot of times, a prime just doesn’t work (especially when shooting moving objects). Unless you know your subjects are going to be a fixed distance away from you, a zoom is usually needed. You never know when a bird is going to fly up to the tree above you, or one a hundred yards away. Having to switch prime lenses in this case will more than likely cause you to miss the shot.

    That being said, for still photography and video, my 50mm f/1.8 is still my most used lens. For a measly $100, everyone should own one. FANTASTIC photos, and sharpness so close to the $1500+ L lens equivalents that it really doesn’t even make sense to spend the extra cash on one, unless you absolutely need the lower aperture.

    Reply 0
  13. Kevin Stoohs

    I paired my nifty fifty – Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, with my Nikon D600 and love the results I’m getting…awesome sharpness and bokeh! This is my go to lens for portraits and product shots. I also agree with Jay, that a prime lens is a good way for novice photographers to learn how to compose a shot. You should move yourself around to achieve a nicer composition than relying on a zoom to do the work. A fixed focal length forces you to do just that. Prime lenses are much lighter also, giving you that mobility a zoom can’t. Zooms have their place, how else are you going to get the shot of that Bengal tiger without getting mauled? But I would much rather use my nifty fifty before being forced to use a zoom.

    Reply 0
  14. Catherine Lacey Dodd

    Agreed with the one concession, the 70-200/2.8L.

    Reply 3
  15. Michael

    I have the 18-55mm and 50mm and love using the prime lens, so much so I got the 35mm prime and prefer the two primes.

    Reply 0
  16. Joe S

    It is not a fair comparison to compare an 18-55 kit lens with a f/1.8 prime. A 24-70 or 70-200 f/2.8 is a more fair comparison. Personally, I cannot tell a difference in sharpness between these lenses and my primes, and neither can the people who purchase my images. I definitely agree with the third point, skill development.

    Reply 2
    • Daniel

      It is not a fair comparison to compare a $500 prime lens to a $2500 zoom lens.

      0
  17. farhan

    my first lens was 24-105mm. then i read somewhere (much similar to this article) that primes trains you to be a better photographer. got myself a 135mm and 85mm and truly, my photography has improved. primes are lovely lenses and my zoom lens is permanently residing in the dry box…

    Reply 0
  18. abrianna

    I agree with Joe S that comparing a kit lens to a prime is not a good comparison.

    And it does depend on what you shoot. I have two primes and one zoom. Right now I am shooting a summer swim league. I need the zoom at the meets. If you are shooting gymnastics, same thing- you need the zoom as sometimes the rules do not allow you to get close to the athletes while they are competing.

    Reply 0
  19. Daniel Romero

    Compare aples with aples SR. I do have the Canon 24-70 series 2 L lens , and your afirmation about the sharpness is going to the trash inmediatly.And the other one is 70-200 series 2 also. Even the bokeh is true only if you use 1.4 o wider . I do have and use 1.2 primes for extreme low light situations, each tool is designed for a reason. I can have better out of focus background with my 200 at 2.8 than the 85 at 2.8, same framing, because the compression factor of the longer tele. I know the 85 at 1.2 is another story, but again , aples with aples….

    Reply 3
  20. Graham Lee

    Great article. Thanks for covering the benefits of Prime vs zoom. I’m a big fan of bokeh and love the depth of field my Nikon 85mm offers.

    Reply 1
  21. Matthew

    I just wish I would have picked up the 50mm AF-S lens not the AF lens when I got my first prime. No auto focus on a D5200 body. Skill development yes, but I miss so many good shots messing with my manual focus its not funny.

    Reply 0
  22. Lladnar

    Clicking on this article just moments after reading about the new Sigma 18-35 1.8, it would seem your first two points have been seriously challenged (in the APS-C world, at least). As for your last benefit, I see your point about learning to be creative, but getting the shot often means having to “move” instantly, plus changing your point of reference can lose what your mind has visualized as the perfect photo. I prefer to constrain my creativity to a mental level as much as possible–allowing it into the physical realm hurts my flat feet and increases the potential for equipment damage, lol. This new Sigma is promising to be the best of both worlds, if only for a relatively short range on the wide end of crop sensor backs. Now, where did I put that spare $800???

    Reply 0
  23. SpookY

    I agree with the last reason – the development of skills. Others are not true.
    At this moment, Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 is on the market. This glass has the same aperture and sharpness better than prime lenses. I can use it as a prime or zoom.

    Reply 0

Leave a reply

Advertisement