I did something big.
Something I have thought about doing for awhile, but have not had the guts to do.
I switched over entirely to prime lenses and away from zoom lenses. I know, crazy.
This change may not seem like a seismic shift, but let me tell you, it has been. It has reinvigorated me as I go out and shoot, and it has helped me to get more creative with my images.
Let me give you the reasons why this change has been so good for me.
Before I begin, let me first explain to the person unfamiliar with the term ‘prime lens,’ it merely means a lens with a single focal length. Not a zoom lens, but a fixed focal length lens.
1) Prime Lenses Give you the Ability to Reach Low F-Stops.
Because there is only one focal length, a quality prime lens can be built to achieve very low f-stops. This ability has multiple benefits, as you know from learning about aperture. The first, is, of course, the fact that you achieve a very shallow depth of field in your images. Prime lenses are known for this, and when you’re shooting portraits, this is so important. Zoom lenses, because of the multitude of focal lengths, generally bottom out at f2.8. And that is in only the most expensive of lenses. In an inexpensive zoom lens, f3.5 is the f-stop floor.
Every prime lens I purchased can achieve f1.4, which gives such beautiful depth of field.
The second benefit of having a lens that can achieve a low f-stop is the ability to shoot in darker settings. As a portrait and wedding photographer, I find myself shooting at receptions where brides have specifically selected the lighting for ambiance and feel. The last thing I want to do is blast the room with light for every shot I take, so having a fast lens allows me to capture the reception with the lighting that she had planned.
2) With Prime Lenses, Your Creativity Increases.
When using prime lenses, you get accustomed to each focal length and gain the ability to visualize what each focal length produces before you ever place the lens onto the camera. This intuition allows me to shoot more quickly, and become synchronized with my gear, which leads to less fumbling around and more creativity and focus on the client. With zoom lenses, I never really knew what I would see before I looked through the viewfinder because there were so many zoom options. Sure, I had a sense of it, but I was never 100% sure what the image would look like until I hit the shutter release button.
I have found that with prime lenses, I make decisions on where to stand and what to include in the image before I even put the lens on the camera, which leads to more creativity and more artistic results.
Sure a 24-70mm zoom lens offers a focal length of 48mm as well as 43mm and 45mm, but are all of those choices needed? I don’t think so and I would argue that having a single focal length of 50mm, -that I know intuitively, is far better than all of the options a 24-70mm gives.
This over-abundance of choice is known as the Paradox of Choice and has been proven that when given too many options, people are less happy, more dissatisfied and often become paralyzed with the decision making process.
I would argue that this hinders the creative juices from flowing and causes photographers to question every image they take.
As for me, I only take three lenses with me for any given photo shoot. I own several more than three prime lenses, but only three make it into the camera bag, and those three lenses are thoughtfully selected based on the specific type of session.
For example, I will rarely take a 24mm lens to an engagement session. The lens is too wide for that type of shoot, and would not help me create the kind of images I want. Instead, I take a telephoto lenses, like the 135mm 1.8. A telephoto lens creates the feel and separation that I want when photographing an engaged couple.
3) Prime Lenses Ease My Pain.
As a photographer, lugging gear around is just part of the job. Something that none of us love to do, but something that we must do to create beautiful imagery. The older I get, the more I want to carry less gear, and the gear that I do take needs to be light. Especially after a long days shoot, the heavier the equipment the more I feel it the next day.
Weight is where prime lenses have a massive advantage over zoom lenses. Because prime lenses don’t have comprehensive zoom mechanisms and motors, they can be built smaller and lighter.
For a long wedding, saving ounces matters. Which would you prefer to carry for eight hours, a 24-70mm that weighs 31.7oz (2 pounds) or a 50mm lens weighs 5.4oz (0.3 pounds)? I think we all know the answer. The difference in fatigue at the end of the day between those two is immense.
Even if we add a 24mm or 85mm prime lens to give me the focal length range of the zoom, it only adds 1/2 pound to the kit.
You do run into the issue of where to carry the extra lenses, but I handle that with a small lens pouch that sits on my waist further transferring weight off my back and onto my hips.
If you’re wondering what bag and pouch I use, I detail all of that at the end of the article.
4) Prime Lenses are Easy on the Bank Account.
I read so many posts on Facebook and in forums where photographers are so excited that they finally saved up enough to purchase one of the $2500 zoom lenses, and, good for them, those are expensive lenses! I too used to shoot exclusively with those pricey zoom lenses known as the trinity of lenses (14-24 2.8, 24-70 2.8, and 70-200 2.8). They are excellent lenses, don’t get me wrong but for the price, you could have even better prime lenses and a large bank account as well.
Another benefit of prime lenses is that they are more inexpensive than zoom lenses and deliver a much better f-stop range. Sure, purchasing three or four prime lenses to match the focal range of one zoom lens will end up costing about the same, but when you buy primes, you can purchase them incrementally allowing you to spread the cost over time and enable you to start enjoying new lenses much sooner.
My goodness, you can get into an excellent prime lens, the 50mm 1.8, for about $150-$200. This nifty-fifty is literally the best lens deal out there, and if you don’t already have one of these lenses, this is where I would recommend you start your journey into prime lenses.
Especially if you only have the kit lenses that came with the camera body, purchasing this lens with transform your photography and give you the desire to acquire more.
5) Prime Lenses will Help You to Become a Better Photographer Faster.
As a new photographer, the desire to learn photography quickly is something that everyone feels. When you get rid of the zoom lenses and start to shoot with prime lenses, you will do just that; -accelerate your learning. The reasons are many, but the main is that it makes you think. You have to consider things before attaching a lens to the camera things like distance from the subject, the background to include and depth of field. These considerations made continuously will naturally increase your speed of learning.
The more you think and make decisions, the faster you learn. It’s just that simple.
Another great reason is that you must move your body more often than you do with a zoom lens. With a zoom, if you decide you want to crop in closer on the subject, you simply move the zoom ring to make it happen.
No real thought, no consideration of how that zoom will affect the depth of field or the light entering the camera.
But with a prime lens, the process is entirely different. If you want to zoom in tighter on your subject, you either have to move your body to get closer, or you have to change lenses. Both require decisions and movement. Muscle memory.
If you are starting out in photography and want to learn the skill as fast as you can, I would recommend you shoot with only prime lenses.
6) Prime Lenses Can Reinvigorate the Love of Photography
I have been a professional photographer for almost 20 years now, and I have to be honest… sometimes when shooting photos for a client, it can get a little mundane. Changing up equipment or getting new gear can help, but nothing has invigorated me more than moving from zoom lenses to primes. My focus and attention to detail has increased as well as my shoot planning and execution. It has brought a new love to the business for me, and it can work for you as well.
Think of a zoom lens as the training wheels on your bike. They work, they help you ride, but once you get them off, you wonder why you left them on so long in the first place.
The ability to capture images that couldn’t be caught before is incredible! It brings that excitement of creation back and especially the exhilaration of creating something new. So, if you’re like me and have been in photography for quite some time, then switching to primes could be just what you need to put the excitement back into photography.
Are You Ready for Prime-Time?
I made the jump to all primes, are you ready? Below, you will find a list of the prime lenses that I can’t live without, the lenses that make me a better photographer each day that I shoot with them. Even if you are not ready to make the plunge fully into prime lenses, I would suggest that you purchase a 50mm 1.8 lens. It is inexpensive and will more than likely blow-away the quality of all the other lenses with which you shoot. And, the best part is that it costs under $200. Check them out below:
The 50mm lens will give you a great start at shooting with prime lenses. And, will help you to get into the habit of moving your body instead of adjusting a focus ring. Seriously, if you don’t own this lens, you really should pick it up today.
Let me share with you the prime lenses that I purchased and the bag I used to carry them.
For primes, I own the following:
Sigma Art 24mm
This wide-angle lens doesn’t make it into my bag very often, but it is essential to have when you need a wide-angle shot. I would pick this one up after the others unless you shoot wide-angle all the time.
Sigma Art 35mm 1.4
This lens is a must-have lens for groups of people and for close photography where the background is still apart of the image to tell the story. I love this lens and shot with it a lot. It makes it into my bag on most shoots.
Sigma Art 50mm 1.4 and Nikon 50mm 1.4
Sigma Art 50mm 1.4 for Nikon – Sigma Art 50mm 1.4 for Canon
Nikon 50mm 1.4 – Canon 50mm 1.4
I own both of these lenses and use them both for different reasons. I love the build and quality of the Sigma 50mm, but it is larger and heavier than the Nikon or Canon 50mm. For long receptions, I shoot with the Nikon 50mm. I would recommend to you either lens, but you would only need to purchase one or the other.
Nikon 85mm 1.8
Nikon 85mm 1.8 – Canon 85mm 1.8
This lens is my number one, go-to lens for portraits. This lens is a powerhouse of goodness, all for an incredible price. The f1.4 versions of the lens cost twice as much and will deliver the same quality. Save some money and get the same beautiful bokeh in pictures with the 85mm 1.8. Honestly, I shoot 60% or more of my work with this lens, it never leaves my camera bag and rarely leaves my camera.
Sigma Art 135mm 1.8
This is such a fun and creative lens. This lens is a long portrait lens, best used for a senior session, engagement session or the bride and groom formals. It produces fantastic separation and creates incredible depth of field. I thoroughly love this lens.
Below is a list of the products I use to carry the gear with me, again focused on keeping things light.
This product is the belt I use to carry an extra lens or two with me. It is discreet and brings the weight of my camera equipment off my back and onto my hip. I can load it up if necessary or just have one small lens bag attached for slipping between tables at a wedding discreetly.
The Speed Changer is the two lens bag that attaches to the speed belt and carries two lenses, extra batteries, memory cards, lens cleaner and hairpins for the bride. Total weight of this bag with all the equipment is around four pounds.
I use this bag to carry a strobe or a single lens. I mostly use it to carry a single lens when I am shooting a reception and only need two lenses. At times, when I need to load up with photography gear I will attach it to the belt with a flash or two inside, but not often.
I use this bag when I need to carry two lenses and a flash, or three lenses. It’s bigger than what I usually like to take with me on a shoot, so I don’t use it very often. The bag usually resides in my car holding the other primes that I am not currently using.
There you have it, my story of switching to prime lenses from zoom lenses. I know that the switch may not be for everyone, but for me, it has been a significant change that has helped me become a better photographer. Those of you just getting started in photography, shooting this way has a couple of notable benefits. First, you get better as a photographer faster because you have to think and move rather than merely zoom. And second, it allows you to get quality lenses quicker because prime lenses are more inexpensive than a zoom lens.
I have made the switch, and it’s up to you whether the switch will be a benefit to you or not.
I really enjoyed the article. I own a Nikon 50mm 1.8 and Nikon 105mm 2.8. Took only the 50mm on a trip to Disneyland & beach. I got some great shots, but it did make me think and work harder. Still experimenting with the 105 mm. I purchased it for macro photography, but haven’t been too successful with it yet.
Garth, thanks for your comment! That 50mm is a goto lens for most shots, especially for a fun trip to Disneyland. The 105mm is also a great lens, but a bit limited at f2.8. However, for macro shots, it can’t be beat.
Thank you for sharing this ! This is great information and extremely helpful!
Thanks Jeanine! I’m glad you’re here!
Thanks Kelly! This is a great article and I think I’m sold. I love my 85mm and 50mm but may have to get a few more primes! This site is awesome. Thanks for sharing your amazing knowledge!
Bret, you won’t regret getting more primes, they are wonderful. And thanks for your kind words!
I recently bought the Nikon d3500 with 18-55mm lens and the picked up the 50mm f1.8 a few days later. I’ve now got the 35mm f1.8 as well and have been considering the 85mm f1.8 to round out my lens arsenal.
You’re right on the money when you say that primes can make you a better photographer. Before I would zoom in instead of really composing the shot. I love the speed and low light capabilities of a prime and the bokeh… Love it!
Needless to say the 18-55mm has now been sitting neglected in the camera bag ever since.
Get that 85mm when you can, you won’t regret it!
Great article! I am a newbie at photography and have been reading all I can to learn about it. I have purchased the Nikon 50mm 1.8, and 105 macro, using it on a 7500. I’m thinking I need to get the 35mm or even 20mm, because, I was recently taking photos for a friend in her house and noticed I could quite get far enough away on some shots with the 50. But the ones that worked with it, wow, they were amazing. Which would you recommend, the 35 or the 20, and I was wondering if you could give some details as to why you sometimes chose the Sigma Art lens over Nikon. Do you feel the Sigma are better quality?
Trina, I would recommend the 35mm 1.4 or 1.8. It is absolutely beautiful lens. I especially love the Sigma Art version. The reason I like the Sigma art lenses is because of the quality for the price. A great lens at a great price. I have actually now switched completely to the Nikon Z series, the mirrorless camera and lenses. I still shoot the Sigma 135 1.8, as that is probably my favorite lens. But the others are all now Nikon Z lenses. I plan to write an article detailing this but have been too busy shooting!
Hi, thanks for this article!
In my journey, I switched from a 5DII + 24-105 to a D800E + primes for MUCH better photos, then Fujifilm + primes for lighter travels. I took a hiatus after my son was born (I know, most people BUY camera gear, but it’s too much baby gear to also lug camera gear). Switched to Sony a7R IV, new primes.
Also, thanks for refreshingly using the correct spelling of “discreet”! Almost everyone spells it “discrete,” but no one actually means “discrete”!
Great article! Sounds inspiring and scary at the same time. Mostly because I don’t know if I’ll be able to go far enough to take a group picture in closed rooms. Here I have to mention that my camera is Apsc and not full frame. But I love it and not ready to change it yet. On the other hand I have few primes and one of them 77 mm 1.8 is deffinitely my favorite. I don’t use it very often but when I do it is always Wow. But it is sill scary to leave my allaround 17-50/2.8 Tamron.