Prime Time [Encore Publication]: Why a prime lens is often better than a zoom

Most photographers make most of their images using a zoom lens.  Aside from smartphone cameras, which typically feature a fixed focal-length lens, nearly every camera today comes with a zoom lens attached.  Most point-and-shoot and compact cameras do not have interchangeable lenses, so the zoom lens that comes with the camera is the only choice, while most mirrorless and DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses.  That means these more advanced cameras offer the choice of using a broad range of different lenses, including both zoom and prime (fixed focal-length) lenses.  While many photographers own one or several prime lenses, from my observation the vast majority shoot nearly all of their images using one of their zoom lenses instead.  In today’s post, I make the case for using prime lenses in many, or even most, shooting situations.

This portrait of a Delhi girl outside India’s largest mosque is lovely and effective, but because I didn’t have time to change lenses and was forced to use my slower walkaround zoom lens, the depth-of-field is quite deep, making for a somewhat distracting background.  Buy this photo

Zoom lenses have one clear advantage over prime lenses: they offer a range of focal lengths, which helps the photographer compose the image without having to walk closer to or farther away from the subject.  But even here I would argue that in most cases it aids creativity to “zoom with the feet,” or walk around to compose the best shot.  Even when this isn’t possible, a high-resolution digital image can easily be cropped in post-processing to achieve the composition the photographer had in mind.

But prime lenses have many advantages over zoom lenses.  First, they are nearly always sharper and generally higher quality than zooms, because they don’t require extra internal glass elements to enable the zooming.  While zoom lenses have improved in optical quality over recent years, it remains the case that prime lenses offer a quality advantage.  Second, prime lenses are typically smaller and lighter than zooms.  This is a blessing especially to travel photographers.  Third, primes are less expensive than zooms of similar optical and build quality.  That means you can buy two or three different prime lenses for the price of one zoom lens covering a similar range of focal lengths.  And fourth, primes are usually faster (i.e., offer a wider maximum aperture size) than zooms.  This last point is a big advantage for many types of shooting, because a wide aperture (small F-number) lets in more light, allowing use of faster shutter speeds and lower ISO settings in low-light conditions.  This is a real boon for nighttime and astro-photography.  A wide aperture also results in shallow depth-of-field, which emphasizes the main subject by softening the focus of the background.  The best lenses offer a pleasing “bokeh”, or pleasant blurring of the out-of-focus elements of the image.  This effect makes for extremely effective portraits as well as wildlife images, but is also useful for other types of photography.


This portrait, made with my current favorite lens, an 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens, offers very sharp focus on the subject’s face and pleasing bokeh, or soft blurring of the out-of-focus background.  It would not have been possible to make this portrait using a zoom lens because the maximum aperture would be too small to achieve the soft background effect.  Buy this photo

I shoot a lot of performing arts events (dance, music, theater), which typically take place indoors where the light is very dim and frequently feature fast-moving action requiring a fast shutter speed.  Using a prime lens allows me to shoot at an action-freezing shutter speed without having to use extremely high ISO settings that introduce noise into the images.  And again, the pleasantly blurred backgrounds help set off the very sharp main subject for a striking overall effect.

I captured this image of a samba dancer at a dress rehearsal under very low-light conditions.  Using my 85mm f/1.8 prime portrait lens, I was able to freeze the motion using a fast shutter speed, keep the ISO at a reasonable level to avoid noise, and render a nice soft background.  Buy this photo

I would estimate that most enthusiast and professional photographers shoot about 80% of their images using zoom lenses.  My own usage pattern is the opposite, that is, I shoot about 80% of my images using prime lenses.  For some purposes, a zoom lens is still required, but it’s surprising how often we can achieve better results using a prime.  Prime lenses are smaller, lighter, less expensive, higher quality, and faster than zoom lenses.  I encourage you to dig out your prime lenses if you have a few, or borrow, rent, or buy one or two (remember, they are much less expensive than comparable zoom lenses) and try shooting with them exclusively, or at least much of the time, for a week or two.  Compare your images made with the primes vs. the ones made with zooms and come to your own conclusions.  If you’re like me, you’ll find that a prime lens is the right tool for most photographic jobs.

Here are my three favorite prime lenses, a “normal” lens, a medium telephoto or “portrait” lens, and a wide-angle lens:

If you pack only one prime lens, it most likely will be a “normal” lens, that is one with a focal length of about 50mm for a full-frame camera or about 35mm for a crop-sensor camera.  I carry the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens.  This is the one I use in very low-light situations or to get a really shallow depth-of-field.

I think my current favorite lens of all (including primes and zooms) is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh”, or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

A wide-angle prime lens can be useful for landscapes, architecture and interiors, and astro-photography, among other purposes.  I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.

What are your preferences regarding use of prime vs. zoom lenses, and why?  Please share your experiences in the comments box.

Want to read other posts about gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

 

Prime Time: Why a prime lens is often better than a zoom

Most photographers make most of their images using a zoom lens.  Aside from smartphone cameras, which typically feature a fixed focal-length lens, nearly every camera today comes with a zoom lens attached.  Most point-and-shoot and compact cameras do not have interchangeable lenses, so the zoom lens that comes with the camera is the only choice, while most mirrorless and DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses.  That means these more advanced cameras offer the choice of using a broad range of different lenses, including both zoom and prime (fixed focal-length) lenses.  While many photographers own one or several prime lenses, from my observation the vast majority shoot nearly all of their images using one of their zoom lenses instead.  In today’s post, I make the case for using prime lenses in many, or even most, shooting situations.

This portrait of a Delhi girl outside India’s largest mosque is lovely and effective, but because I didn’t have time to change lenses and was forced to use my slower walkaround zoom lens, the depth-of-field is quite deep, making for a somewhat distracting background.  Buy this photo

Zoom lenses have one clear advantage over prime lenses: they offer a range of focal lengths, which helps the photographer compose the image without having to walk closer to or farther away from the subject.  But even here I would argue that in most cases it aids creativity to “zoom with the feet,” or walk around to compose the best shot.  Even when this isn’t possible, a high-resolution digital image can easily be cropped in post-processing to achieve the composition the photographer had in mind.

But prime lenses have many advantages over zoom lenses.  First, they are nearly always sharper and generally higher quality than zooms, because they don’t require extra internal glass elements to enable the zooming.  While zoom lenses have improved in optical quality over recent years, it remains the case that prime lenses offer a quality advantage.  Second, prime lenses are typically smaller and lighter than zooms.  This is a blessing especially to travel photographers.  Third, primes are less expensive than zooms of similar optical and build quality.  That means you can buy two or three different prime lenses for the price of one zoom lens covering a similar range of focal lengths.  And fourth, primes are usually faster (i.e., offer a wider maximum aperture size) than zooms.  This last point is a big advantage for many types of shooting, because a wide aperture (small F-number) lets in more light, allowing use of faster shutter speeds and lower ISO settings in low-light conditions.  This is a real boon for nighttime and astro-photography.  A wide aperture also results in shallow depth-of-field, which emphasizes the main subject by softening the focus of the background.  The best lenses offer a pleasing “bokeh”, or pleasant blurring of the out-of-focus elements of the image.  This effect makes for extremely effective portraits as well as wildlife images, but is also useful for other types of photography.


This portrait, made with my current favorite lens, an 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens, offers very sharp focus on the subject’s face and pleasing bokeh, or soft blurring of the out-of-focus background.  It would not have been possible to make this portrait using a zoom lens because the maximum aperture would be too small to achieve the soft background effect.  Buy this photo

I shoot a lot of performing arts events (dance, music, theater), which typically take place indoors where the light is very dim and frequently feature fast-moving action requiring a fast shutter speed.  Using a prime lens allows me to shoot at an action-freezing shutter speed without having to use extremely high ISO settings that introduce noise into the images.  And again, the pleasantly blurred backgrounds help set off the very sharp main subject for a striking overall effect.

I captured this image of a samba dancer at a dress rehearsal under very low-light conditions.  Using my 85mm f/1.8 prime portrait lens, I was able to freeze the motion using a fast shutter speed, keep the ISO at a reasonable level to avoid noise, and render a nice soft background.  Buy this photo

I would estimate that most enthusiast and professional photographers shoot about 80% of their images using zoom lenses.  My own usage pattern is the opposite, that is, I shoot about 80% of my images using prime lenses.  For some purposes, a zoom lens is still required, but it’s surprising how often we can achieve better results using a prime.  Prime lenses are smaller, lighter, less expensive, higher quality, and faster than zoom lenses.  I encourage you to dig out your prime lenses if you have a few, or borrow, rent, or buy one or two (remember, they are much less expensive than comparable zoom lenses) and try shooting with them exclusively, or at least much of the time, for a week or two.  Compare your images made with the primes vs. the ones made with zooms and come to your own conclusions.  If you’re like me, you’ll find that a prime lens is the right tool for most photographic jobs.

Here are my three favorite prime lenses, a “normal” lens, a medium telephoto or “portrait” lens, and a wide-angle lens:

If you pack only one prime lens, it most likely will be a “normal” lens, that is one with a focal length of about 50mm for a full-frame camera or about 35mm for a crop-sensor camera.  I carry the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens.  This is the one I use in very low-light situations or to get a really shallow depth-of-field.

I think my current favorite lens of all (including primes and zooms) is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh”, or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

A wide-angle prime lens can be useful for landscapes, architecture and interiors, and astro-photography, among other purposes.  I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.

What are your preferences regarding use of prime vs. zoom lenses, and why?  Please share your experiences in the comments box.

Want to read other posts about gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

 

Photographic Blasphemy [Encore Publication]: Why you don’t need a tripod for most travel photography

Warning: The following assertion will sound heretical to many photography enthusiasts.  Stop reading now if you can’t handle the truth :-).

I’m going to say it.  You don’t need to carry a tripod for most travel photography situations.  There, I’ve said it.

This is blasphemy to many photographers.  After all, for the past 15 years or so, the badge of a “serious” photographer has been this three-legged object we stick between our camera and the ground.  Most scenic overlooks and other landscape photography-friendly locations have been positively flooded by a veritable sea of tripods in recent years.  I’ve seen viewpoints so clogged by tripods that photographers and even (heaven forbid) non-photographers are forced to elbow their way through just to get a place to stand to watch the sunrise, sunset, or other pretty happening.  For years, I have carried at least a lightweight tripod, and occasionally a heavy-duty professional tripod, with me to nearly every shoot, which for me is usually about two per day.  It’s become an ingrained behavior, a knee-jerk reaction, for most photographers.  But why, exactly?

During my recent travels in India, I made many wonderful images in all genres of photography.  I used a lot of gear to do so.  One item I didn’t use: a tripod.  Buy this photo

There are times when a tripod is necessary.  In very low-light situations, such as true nighttime scenes, most astrophotography, and some indoor shoots, it is essential to mount the camera on a sturdy tripod.  When a very long shutter speed is required for a specific effect, such as blurring water in a waterfall or shooting a dancer using rear-curtain sync flash, then you really do need a tripod.  We can even include shoots where several images will be combined using software to make a high dynamic range (HDR) or panoramic image in the category where a tripod is helpful (though, I would argue, not really essential anymore, given how good software has become at stitching overlapping images together).

But so many other times, a tripod is not only not an asset but actually becomes a liability.  Travel photographers must be very mindful of the size and weight of the gear we carry on our adventures.  Every item we bring has to be considered in terms of its value: will the space it takes up in our limited carry-on baggage allotment and its weight on our back every step of our trip be worthwhile in terms of its usefulness in making the best possible images?  A tripod, even a lightweight travel tripod, is a relatively large and heavy piece of gear.  There are other items we need to leave at home in order to make room for a tripod.

I recently returned from a 2.5-week journey through the north of India.  I brought as much gear as I could reasonably fit in carry-on for the international and internal Indian flights.  It weighed a lot, and I had to lug much of the gear I brought on the trip each day on my back through 115-degree heat, sometimes up steep hills to the top of ancient forts.  At the end of the trip, I contemplated my usage of each item I carried.  Both DSLR camera bodies, every lens (even the massive 500mm super-telephoto which I required to make great images of far-off tigers), the speedlights, both battery chargers, and all remote releases, cables, filters, cleaning supplies, etc. were used at some point during the trip.  The one item I never once needed: you guessed it, the tripod!

True, India is a very densely populated country where most sites do not allow tripods or, if they are allowed, the crowds are too thick to deploy them.  And there was ample bright sunlight at most of our locations to handhold the camera.

But I would argue that a tripod is simply not needed for many travel photography situations in general.  These days, a camera’s sensor is so fast and noise-free, and the camera’s resolution so high, that camera shake for most landscape photography settings is a much smaller risk than motion of the subject itself.  My Nikon D810 has a resolution of nearly 37 MB, so if a single tree branch or sometimes even a single leaf moves, I can see it in the image.  A tripod is no more going to stop a leaf from moving than could the ancient viking king Canute stop the tide from coming in (a story frequently misused in modern times, by the way).

From now on, when I pack for a day’s shoot or a month-long journey, I’m going to seriously consider whether I’ll need a tripod and will pack one (or two) only when I can reasonably expect to need it.

What about you?  Do you always carry a tripod, or do you consider its appropriateness before you travel?  If you always carry it, do you always need it?  Would you bring some other piece of gear along if you didn’t have to make space for the tripod?  Please share your thoughts on this controversial topic here!

Want to read more posts about photographic gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

Photographic Blasphemy: Why you don’t need a tripod for most travel photography

Warning: The following assertion will sound heretical to many photography enthusiasts.  Stop reading now if you can’t handle the truth :-).

I’m going to say it.  You don’t need to carry a tripod for most travel photography situations.  There, I’ve said it.

This is blasphemy to many photographers.  After all, for the past 15 years or so, the badge of a “serious” photographer has been this three-legged object we stick between our camera and the ground.  Most scenic overlooks and other landscape photography-friendly locations have been positively flooded by a veritable sea of tripods in recent years.  I’ve seen viewpoints so clogged by tripods that photographers and even (heaven forbid) non-photographers are forced to elbow their way through just to get a place to stand to watch the sunrise, sunset, or other pretty happening.  For years, I have carried at least a lightweight tripod, and occasionally a heavy-duty professional tripod, with me to nearly every shoot, which for me is usually about two per day.  It’s become an ingrained behavior, a knee-jerk reaction, for most photographers.  But why, exactly?

During my recent travels in India, I made many wonderful images in all genres of photography.  I used a lot of gear to do so.  One item I didn’t use: a tripod.  Buy this photo

There are times when a tripod is necessary.  In very low-light situations, such as true nighttime scenes, most astrophotography, and some indoor shoots, it is essential to mount the camera on a sturdy tripod.  When a very long shutter speed is required for a specific effect, such as blurring water in a waterfall or shooting a dancer using rear-curtain sync flash, then you really do need a tripod.  We can even include shoots where several images will be combined using software to make a high dynamic range (HDR) or panoramic image in the category where a tripod is helpful (though, I would argue, not really essential anymore, given how good software has become at stitching overlapping images together).

But so many other times, a tripod is not only not an asset but actually becomes a liability.  Travel photographers must be very mindful of the size and weight of the gear we carry on our adventures.  Every item we bring has to be considered in terms of its value: will the space it takes up in our limited carry-on baggage allotment and its weight on our back every step of our trip be worthwhile in terms of its usefulness in making the best possible images?  A tripod, even a lightweight travel tripod, is a relatively large and heavy piece of gear.  There are other items we need to leave at home in order to make room for a tripod.

I recently returned from a 2.5-week journey through the north of India.  I brought as much gear as I could reasonably fit in carry-on for the international and internal Indian flights.  It weighed a lot, and I had to lug much of the gear I brought on the trip each day on my back through 115-degree heat, sometimes up steep hills to the top of ancient forts.  At the end of the trip, I contemplated my usage of each item I carried.  Both DSLR camera bodies, every lens (even the massive 500mm super-telephoto which I required to make great images of far-off tigers), the speedlights, both battery chargers, and all remote releases, cables, filters, cleaning supplies, etc. were used at some point during the trip.  The one item I never once needed: you guessed it, the tripod!

True, India is a very densely populated country where most sites do not allow tripods or, if they are allowed, the crowds are too thick to deploy them.  And there was ample bright sunlight at most of our locations to handhold the camera.

But I would argue that a tripod is simply not needed for many travel photography situations in general.  These days, a camera’s sensor is so fast and noise-free, and the camera’s resolution so high, that camera shake for most landscape photography settings is a much smaller risk than motion of the subject itself.  My Nikon D810 has a resolution of nearly 37 MB, so if a single tree branch or sometimes even a single leaf moves, I can see it in the image.  A tripod is no more going to stop a leaf from moving than could the ancient viking king Canute stop the tide from coming in (a story frequently misused in modern times, by the way).

From now on, when I pack for a day’s shoot or a month-long journey, I’m going to seriously consider whether I’ll need a tripod and will pack one (or two) only when I can reasonably expect to need it.

What about you?  Do you always carry a tripod, or do you consider its appropriateness before you travel?  If you always carry it, do you always need it?  Would you bring some other piece of gear along if you didn’t have to make space for the tripod?  Please share your thoughts on this controversial topic here!

Want to read more posts about photographic gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.