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.
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.
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.
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.
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.