Learning Photography — Prime Lenses

Whether you’re new to photography or you’ve been shooting for a while, if you’re still using your kit zoom lens — you should consider getting a prime lens as your next lens.

July 16 - The Spiffy New Lens
An EF 85mm f/1.2L II mounted on my 40D

What is a “prime” lens? A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length meaning that it can not zoom. So you may wonder why in the world would you want to get a lens that doesn’t allow you to zoom? Well there are at least a dozen reasons I could give you — among them: primes are cheaper (generally for the quality you get), sharper, and faster.

Zoom optical systems are generally fairly complex because they have to correct for more factors; thus, with a simpler design, primes often require less glass (lower price) and/or produce a higher quality image (higher image quality). Furthermore, prime lenses often have larger apertures (especially for the price). You’ll find primes with apertures around f/1.4 for under $500, whereas most zoom lenses with an aperture of f/2.8 are going to very likely cost over $1k! Faster apertures also make these lenses great for taking photos at night or in a dim room without a flash. The shallow depth of field makes these lenses great for taking portraits with a beautiful background blur as well.

In addition to the tangible benefits, prime lenses also help reinforce important concepts in photography. Many photographers become lazy and use zooming to compose their images. Zooming rather than physically moving yourself to recompose your shot makes a big difference! Using a prime lens forces you to move around to recompose and makes you a better photographer. Using a prime also encourages the photographer to focus on other thing such as focusing and exposure.

Shows the same subject shot at 24mm vs. 200mm.

Shows the same subject shot at 24mm vs. 200mm.

You can see in this example that the same subject shot at two different focal lengths produce two extremely different images. Notice how the wide shot at 24mm emphasizes the shape of the glass and there is quite a bit of the background in view. In contrast, the 200mm shot compresses the detail and the glass looks pretty flat. Not as much of the background is also in the shot because the field of view is narrower. Because of this, telephoto lenses are generally preferable for shooting portraits because it does not emphasize facial features such as the nose or chin.

So which lenses should I get? Here’s a list of some prime lenses…


Back in the world of 35mm film, a 50mm lens was considered the “normal lens” because it provides a perspective that is very similar to human vision. Now with cropped sensors, these lenses may be more telephoto (zoomed in) than we’d like. Nonetheless, they’re great for portraits.

Canon Lenses

Nikon Lenses


Since many digital cameras have smaller image sensors than 35mm film. This means that your camera crops the image, this is known as field of view cropping (FOVC). Canon’s APS-C sensors (found in the rebel series, the 20D,30D…50D series and the 7D) have a 1.6x crop factor and Nikon’s DX format sensor (see list here) have a crop factor of approximately 1.5x. Thus, 30mm x 1.6 (crop factor) = 48mm or 35mm x 1.5 (crop factor) = 52mm (which gives you a similar field of view as a normal lens).

These are great walk-around lenses to take in low-light situations.

Canon Lenses

Nikon Lenses


If you’re a portrait photographer, you’ll probably want something longer than 50mm. Telephoto lenses (longer focal lengths) are preferable for portraits because they compress detail and give a more flattering result. Distortion in wider lenses may emphasize facial details which is often unwanted in portrait photography.

Canon Lenses

Nikon Lenses

My Thoughts

I’ve used a handful of these lenes (mostly Canon lenses). If you’re just starting out and you’re on a budget, I’d definitely recommend the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. Nikon also has an equivalent (a little better construction): Nikon 50mm f/1.8D. If you’re willing to spend a little more, the 1.4 is definitely a huge upgrade, not only giving you almost a whole stop more light but in terms of build quality and better glass. Also, as I mentioned before, because most digital SLRs have crop sensors, the lenses around 30mm give you a closer to “normal” view. If you can afford it, I’d check out those lenses as well. I personally bought the Canon EF 35mm f/2for its small size and relatively fast aperture. Its an amazing lens and I love it.

New Lens!
EF 35mm f/2 mounted on my Rebel XT

Why Zoom?

Prime lenses are AWESOME. But there no perfect lens for every situation. In some cases, zoom lenses may actually be preferable. For example, in sports photography when you don’t have the luxury to move closer or further from your subject to recompose. I shoot with both primes and zooms. I just recommend you have at least one prime in your kit.


Leave a comment!

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  1. #1 by Nat on May 31, 2010 - 11:18 am

    I have the 50mm 1.8 for Nikon, and I must say I love it.

    The formatting on this article is weird though, three headers for one block of text?

  2. #2 by Robbie on May 31, 2010 - 9:21 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation! I just bought the $99 Canon 50mm lens through your link and plan to use it on my Rebel XS. I’m just getting onto this D-SLR bandwagon and hope this prime lens will teach me some mad-photography skills.

    I don’t know what this “Nat” joker is talking about, headers are the new caption. 😉

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