If you are buying your first camera lens, you know it can be overwhelming to choose from countless products. You have probably encountered prime and zoom lenses and don’t know which to pick. To select between the two, you must understand them in detail.
A prime lens is a popular type of lens with a single and fixed focal length. It is the opposite of a zoom lens, which has variable focal lengths.
Despite its fixed focal point, a prime lens offers several benefits. This article covers these advantages. Below, you will also learn about the different types of prime lenses and how many of them you need.
What Is a Prime Lens?
A prime lens is one of the most common types of lenses for photography and videography. It has a single and fixed focal length, such as 24mm, 50mm, or 85mm.
A prime lens is different from a zoom lens, which offers various focal lengths. Despite its inability to zoom in or out, this type of lens has its advantages (which we will explore later).
Most prime lenses have a wide maximum aperture to let more light inside the sensor. These fast apertures provide better low-light performance and a stunning bokeh effect. Typical maximum apertures in prime lenses are f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8, and f/2.8.
What Are the Different Types of Prime Lenses?
Prime lenses come in different types, as shown below. Each is suited for a specific kind of photography.
Standard Prime Lenses
These types of prime lenses offer a focal length of 35mm to 50mm. They provide a natural field of view close to what our eyes see. These make them suitable for everyday shooting, like portraits, street photography, and landscapes.
Wide-Angle Prime Lenses
They have a shorter focal length of 14mm to 35mm. As their name suggests, they offer a wider perspective than a standard prime lens. They are a popular lens choice for architectural, interior, and landscape photography.
Telephoto Prime Lenses
These prime lenses have an 85mm to 300mm long focal length to offer a narrow field of view. They also allow you to magnify distant subjects. They are ideal for action, astronomy, portraits, wildlife, and sports photographers.
Macro Prime Lenses
Macro prime lenses usually have a 50mm to 200mm focal length.
These lenses also provide a high magnification ratio. This aspect compares the size of a subject on the sensor to its actual size in the real world. It is expressed in a decimal (0.5x) or ratio (1:2). A higher magnification ratio means the lens can better capture the actual size of subjects.
A true macro prime lens has a 1:1 magnification ratio. However, some products offer a 1:2 ratio. They can capture extreme close-up shots of small subjects like insects, flowers, and food.
Fisheye Prime Lenses
These prime lenses have a very short focal length of 14mm and below. They provide an ultra-wide-angle perspective with barrel distortion, resulting in a distinct circular image.
Fisheye prime lenses are suitable for different kinds of creative photography. These include artistic shots, astronomy, architecture, and landscape photography.
What Are the Benefits of a Prime Lens?
Now that you know the types of prime lenses, you may be curious about their benefits. Below, we’ll cover the advantages of prime lenses.
A prime lens enables you to shoot at wide aperture settings. It typically has a maximum aperture of f/1.8 compared to most zoom lenses that max out at f/4 or f/5.6. Other prime lenses can even have faster apertures, such as f/1.2 or f/0.95 on specialty lenses.
A wide aperture lens can allow more light to hit the sensor. At the same time, it creates a shallow depth of field. It is suitable for shooting in low-light situations and portraiture.
Small and Lightweight Construction
Another benefit of prime lenses is their compact and lightweight design. Unlike zoom lenses, primes comprise fewer pieces of glass because they only offer a single focal length. Less glass elements mean a simpler construction.
Note that you will still find some heavy and large prime lenses, mostly telephoto ones. But generally speaking, prime lenses are small and portable.
These make prime lenses popular among street and travel photographers. They are also suitable for many photographers who prefer to keep their camera gear light.
Sharper Image Quality
Besides a fast aperture and compact size, prime lenses also deliver sharper images than typical zoom lenses. They have a few moving parts, which only require optimization for a single focal length. They also offer a simpler optical design to help reduce distortion and chromatic aberration.
In general, a single prime lens is cheaper than its zoom counterparts. It gives you more value for your money, suitable for beginners who want to get better at the craft.
One of the most affordable prime lenses for budding photographers is the nifty fifty. It refers to a 50mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 or lower. It retails for a couple of hundred dollars or even less when sold used. Despite its price, it can offer sharper image quality, better low-light performance, and a more compact size than most zoom lenses.
Prime lenses offer special capabilities that are not achievable with zoom lenses.
For instance, prime lenses allow you to capture a subject at 1:1 magnification. They are suitable for macro photography.
These lenses can also provide tilt-shift and defocus control. These advanced features give you more creative control over your images. These makes prime lenses ideal for architecture and portrait photography.
What Are the Drawbacks of a Prime Lens?
The benefits listed above might entice you to buy a prime lens over a zoom lens. However, it is also essential to know the downsides of primes. It can help you decide if they are the right choice for you.
Fixed Focal Length
The major drawback of a prime lens is its single focal length. It lacks a zoom ring, so it does not allow you to change the field of view if you stay in the same spot.
So if you want to get nearer or further away from the subject, you need to “zoom with your feet.” However, this action leads to missed shots when taking photos of fast-moving subjects. Or it may be impossible if you are shooting in a small area.
Lack of Versatility
While prime lenses are sharper, lighter, and cheaper than zooms, they cannot quickly adapt to most shooting situations. You will likely need multiple prime lenses to capture different photographic opportunities throughout the day. These can easily get expensive and heavy if you decide to carry them all.
It’s best to use a zoom lens if you need versatility in shooting. An 18-200mm or a 24-200mm zoom lens allows you to capture various situations with ease. Mid-range zooms with a range of focal lengths of 24-105mm can also be enough for everyday shooting.
Prime Lens vs. Zoom Lens: Which Type of Lens Is Better For You?
By now, you already know the pros and cons of prime lenses. However, the question remains: should you choose them over zoom lenses? The answer depends on your needs and preferences.
Buy a prime lens if you often shoot in low-light conditions. It has a wide or fast aperture that allows more light inside the sensor.
Another reason to use a prime lens is its sharp image quality, shallow depth of field, and special shooting capabilities. It is ideal for portraiture, macro photography, and architectural photography.
Finally, choose a prime if you often travel and prefer a lightweight and compact photography gear.
On the other hand, invest in a zoom lens if you need more flexibility in shooting. It allows you to adjust the focal length without moving from your spot. It is suitable when taking photos of moving subjects.
How Many Prime Lenses Do You Need?
There is no right or wrong answer. It depends on the type of photography you do, your interests, and your budget.
But for starters, you can invest in at least three types of prime lenses: wide-angle, standard, and telephoto. These enable you to capture landscapes, portraits, and wildlife, respectively.
If you’re planning to buy your first prime lens, you can start with a nifty fifty. This fast 50mm lens is versatile enough for various shooting scenarios. You can slowly build your prime lens collection later as you become better at photography.
A prime lens has only one focal length. It requires you to physically move closer or further away from the subject to change the field of view.
However, this lens type has several benefits. For one, primes have a wider maximum aperture to give you sharper and brighter images. Other advantages of prime lenses are covered above.
Will you buy your first prime lens today or not? Tell us why you made that choice via our contact page!