Back in the day when I used film exclusively, I always shot with prime lenses. But my first digital camera came with a zoom lens which opened up a whole new world of shooting possibilities. It made life so easy! I only needed to bring one lens on trips, and I could get shots – without climbing up in trees and on fences – that would have been out of reach with a prime lens. For several years after that, I only used zoom lenses.
But unless you can afford the very high end zooms (and even then), they do have limitations. They are not as sharp as prime lenses; they are bigger and heavier; and the largest aperture is usually above that of a prime lens. The larger apertures allow for shooting in lower light and create a more shallow depth of field, so it’s a very desirable quality in a lens.
Getting Back Into Shooting With A Prime Lens
A couple of years ago, I thought it was time for a prime lens again. I treated myself to an early Christmas present and ordered a Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM. As soon as I received it, I put it on my camera and took a bunch of pictures around and outside the house and immediately fell in love with it. Shots that would have been ok with one of my zoom lenses looked way better and definitely had more of a wow factor with this lens. Below is a collage of images from one of my first test shoots (which I later made into a holiday card):
It was funny, it actually took me a few sessions to get used to shooting with a prime lens again; I had to move to get closer to the subject! And your whole style of shooting is different; to me, shooting with a prime lens is a more slow and deliberate process, whereas shooting with a zoom feels more spontaneous.
When to Use a Zoom vs. a Prime Lens
And I like both approaches: I still use my zoom lenses all the time, but not for everything. They are perfect for certain situations, like when traveling and you only want to carry one lens, when photographing wildlife or in a zoo, or when doing candid shots of people or pets.
But for still lives, studio portraits, food and product photography – any type of situation where you can control the environment – nothing beats a prime lens. The crispness of the images, the ability to focus on one single coffee bean in a pile (or a teddy bear nose), and the softness that shallow depth of field creates are all unbeatable qualities to me.
I did some comparison pictures using a few different apertures; you can clearly see how the f/1.4 provides a much shallower depth of field and different look to the picture than even the f2.8 (to take a closer look, click on the image to open in a new tab and zoom in):
Another plus is that these lenses are surprisingly affordable: at the time of writing, the f/1.4 retails for around $399. There is an even more affordable version, the f/1.8 (around $125) and also a more expensive one, the Canon 50mm f/1.2 (around $1,500). They are all great lenses, and I highly recommend them. Regardless of which one you get, I think you are going to love it.