So, you’ve got a SLR, do you? Smashing. You might have a kit lens, a tele-zoom, and a couple of flashes by now, and you’re feeling pretty hot about yourself and your camera gear, are you?
Well, good on you. But until you’ve got a decent prime lens, you haven’t really lived. And I’m here to tell you why.
Back in the infancy of photography, we never had anything but prime lenses. When you bought a camera body, you first of all buy a camera lens to go with it. A 50mm f/1.8 was pretty much the slowest lens you could buy as a starter kit.
To this day, a 50mm f/1.8 is the cheapest lens you can buy in the entire Canon AF lens arsenal. And if you don’t have one, you’re missing out.
From your first prime, you move on. You might get a faster ‘normal’ prime, like a 50mm f/1.4 or a f/1.2 (or, if you’re intro your retro gear, the incredibly bright Canon 50mm f/0.95. This lens is 4 times faster than the human eye, and holds a joint 1st place for fastest lens in the world with the lenses available for the Nikon 7 range finders in the early 1950s.)
If you’re into landscapes, a 28mm would be the natural choice. 100mm and 135mm prime lenses became the de facto standard for portrait photography all ’round the world.
The first zoom lenses were patented in the early 1900s, and the first commercial production of zoom lenses for stills photography started in the early 1960s. All of a sudden, zoom lenses were all the rage.
Why would you limit yourself to a single focal length, when you can cover a whole range? So, manufacturers shrugged, and started creating zoom lenses.
What’s going on now?
Nowadays, all ‘kit lenses’ (lenses you get bundled with camera bundles) are consumer-grade zoom lenses. My dad recently got suckered into buying a 18-55mm and a 55-200mm lens (after I explicitly told him to buy a Canon 28-135 f/3.5 Image Stabilised lens… Tssk, doesn’t the lad know I run a photography blog, or something?), for example, and he isn’t stupid. The thing is: It’s just too tempting to get a wider zoom range, in the hope that the increased flexibility will get you the photos you need.
The thing is, a zoom range is all good and well, but ultimately, it’s all about sharpness. Are your photos so crisp they jump out of the screen at you? If not, you’re probably doing something wrong. So what happens if I tell you that the sharpest lens a consumer can buy is also the cheapest lens Canon makes? You’d be surprised, right? But it’s the truth. Time and time again, people are amazed when they review consumer-grade zooms against far cheaper prime lenses. But — as Tabaware explores — they aren’t even in the same league.
So why is this? Well, it’s damn simple, really… it’s far easier to mass produce a prime lens: Because it only has to be sharp at one focal length, the optics are a hell of a lot simpler. So they can concentrate on getting it to be really good, rather than just being good enough.
Why should I care?
It really depends, to be honest: What do you want out of your photography? If you are looking for convenience and holiday snaps, by all means, go for the first and best zoom lens. Hell, I’ll admit it freely: Most of my photos are taken with zoom lenses (I’ve got a Canon 28-135mm f/3.5 IS, a Sigma 17-35 f/2.8-4.0 and a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 that I use extensively), but still, there’s a certain feeling of zen about using prime lenses. They can be slightly limited, sure, but they’re also sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel, cheap as a bag of crisps, and they are just a better idea overall, especially as you are just learning about photography.
So, if you’re in the market for a new camera, and the kit comes with some two-bit zoom lens, see if you can’t convince the salesperson to do you a deal. “So, you want to sell me this lens? How much does it normally cost? Interesting. I can see that you sell a 50mm f/1.8 for less than that. Can you give me one of those instead?” Sure, money-wise, you’ll lose out. But your portfolio will thank you for it for years to come.
Are prime lenses really such a good idea?
Well, yes, I would argue so. The past few trips I’ve done, I’ve been travelling exclusively with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. I’m currently travelling around the world, and the only tools I have available to me are a Canon PowerShot S95, and a Canon EOS 550D with a 50mm f/1.4.