Photography

Shooting style – Why I use prime lenses

Some of you will already be confused with the title of this blog post. Don’t worry, this is just some of the geeky musings of a photographer!

In the world of photography there are two types of lenses, prime and zoom lenses. I expect someone who is even more technically brilliant will pipe up and say, excuse me Victoria but you will find there are actually three. If there are, then it’s news to me but I am happy to learn! So what’s the difference?

Well, a zoom lens does what is says, within its specified range you can either get a wider view or zoom right in on something without having to move yourself if we put it in simple terms. The opposite of this is a prime lens, this is a lens that you can’t get a wider or closer view of something unless you actually move yourself with your feet. As such a zoom lens is seen as much more versatile, you can do a lot more with the lens without having to move about. But therein lies the reason I prefer prime lenses.

I should note that everything I write here is my opinion and about the way I work. It is not a statement of fact and anybody who works differently to me, then they are also ‘right’, but I just wanted to talk about the way that I personally work.

It used to be that one of the reasons zoom lenses could be pretty much discounted for serious work was poor optical quality, meaning that photos would be less sharp than an equivalent photo taken with a prime lens. These days we can more or less rule that out as a reason to not use zoom lenses as many are good enough, and some professional grade zoom lenses are exceptional. Examples of this are the Nikon 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200 lenses, and the Canon equivalents are equally well thought after and many wedding photographers will only use a 24-70 and a 70-200 and that is it. That is pretty much all the coverage you need for 95% of situations (or certainly those I have encountered!)

Size and weight

The first reason that I prefer prime lenses comes down to size and weight. I’m not a body builder, nor am I tiny enough to be whisked away in the wind, but zoom lenses of quality weigh a lot. A lot more than a prime lens. For example my 85mm prime, and my 70-200mm zoom. The 85mm lens weighs around 350 grams (a small box of corn flakes) whereas the 70-200mm weighs around 1.5 kilos, that’s pretty much 4 times the weight. It’s a lot of lens and my wrists cannot handle it all day long. So I prefer to work nimbly and lightly and the 70-200mm is a special utility lens for example where I cannot get closer, or I really want to create the depth of field compression that you can only get once you go beyond 85mm.

prime-lenses-nikon-135mm-f2-dc

But the important thing is that with my feet, I can easily create the 70mm aspect, as well as a 105mm or 135mm aspect just by either taking a few steps back, or a few steps forward. Clearly there are times where this won’t be possible (e.g. a stream or river is in the way) or the aesthetic result won’t be the same, but largely I can create 90% of the photos I would with a 70-200mm with just an 85mm.

When you are on your feet all day at a wedding, and that can be sometimes as long as 14 hours, then ensuring you are fresh and ready to rock and roll at 9pm just as you were at 9am is incredibly important to me. You’re not going to get energetic and fun evening reception photos if your arms and wrists are aching! Of course you might be a lot stronger than me and able to withstand the size and weight but that’s one reason for my prime lens usage.

It’s just different to ‘zooming’

I have used zooms a lot, I still do, after all I have wide zoom and a telephoto zoom and sometimes they are incredibly helpful a cropping out in camera what you don’t want, but there can sometimes be a tendency to not ‘work the picture’ with a zoom, so instead of enhancing the perspective by moving around, a zoom lens is used to crop in or fit the photo in. A lot of the time it is actually better in my opinion to move yourself, why is this? Well at the wider end of a ‘standard’ zoom such as 24-70mm, you will get distortion and the wider you go, the more depth of field you have at the same aperture. Sometimes these are desirable side effects to create drama or to make up for lower light or a large group. There is nothing inherently wrong with this after all every photographer has a unique style. But for me a prime lens makes me think, actually this would be better to take a few steps back and then take the photos, because then I won’t have distortion (e.g. making someone’s arms unflattering) and pound for pound with a 50mm f/2.8 I’m going to have a shallower depth of field (and therefore a more flattering ‘compression’) than if I reach for my wide zoom and take the group shot at 24mm f/2.8.

So I like the fact that a prime lens makes me work, makes me consider the perspective, how can I move to heighten this picture to its absolute best.

prime-lenses-2

Intimacy

Now of all the subjective things I have talked about, this is probably the most tenuous and subjective of them all! I like prime lenses because when I first meet a couple for their engagement shoot, I start with a 50mm lens most of the time. It’s close enough for me to be able to talk to them without confusing them from a distance, but also not too close to be intimidating to start with.

Of course you can do the self same thing with a zoom set to this kind of range. But for some reason I feel that starting with a prime lens is less ‘threatening’ than rolling out the big guns by introducing a couple to their engagement session by having them look down the barrel of a 70-200mm zoom lens. The size of the lens is in no way indicative of its quality and as photographers we should be confident in our equipment and abilities, not worrying that we need to impress with the size of the camera gear. I still use a 35mm f/2 lens. I could get a 35mm f/1.4 prime, but I actually prefer the smaller and lighter weight of the older smaller lens; and its very unintimidating for a shy or nervous couple.

Final thoughts

As with any opinion, yours will vary, of course it will. But this is a little insight into the way that I work. There are of course some other benefits to prime lenses such as a wider aperture generally but these aren’t the main considerations for me. The most important thing in photography is to use equipment that you know inside out and then back again and be able to trust it. It is no good continuously trading-up gear and so forth, it is important to have dependable equipment and dependable tried and tested techniques. If you keep switching lenses and camera bodies for the latest and greatest, it makes consistency a difficult thing. Of course, consistency shouldn’t be taken for boring, there is always room to be adventurous, but it’s best to find out your working pattern and develop it into maturity; and that is why I have grown into being a prime lens shooter, primarily! In fact some weddings I have almost entirely shot on a 35mm and 85mm lens.

Of course it is worth mentioning, that when shooting a wedding I am a two body shooter. Mostly for backup purposes but it saves having to swap lenses too often; and this is where zoom lenses do have an obvious advantage especially during the ceremony.

Lena

July 1, 2014
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Interesting to see this, and I agree, a zoom lens no matter how good is alway a compromise and it will usually turn out to have "sweet" focal that you will almost always come to use, so you might just as well have prime lens with the joy of lighter weight and usually wider apatures available. A problem that I find though is that a lot of people expect you to turn up with a big camera and a big lens and think that if you turn up with a couple of small looking primes instead that your results are going to be inferior. Something that does surprise me with a number of people I know who are trying to go pro is that they do not have a single prime lens in their armoury and do not seem to understand the how useful prime lenses can be.

peter murrell

June 17, 2016
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Great article. I find I am drifting toward weddings (quite a few people have asked me) but I will not venture down that route until I sit under someone who's experienced/play back up photographer. I currently use D700, 35mm F2D, 85mm 1.8G but soon to get a 2nd D700 and 35mm 1.4G (I just love this focal length).

Keep it up!

Alex Dim

December 18, 2016
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Thank for your article ! I think you're right. Prime lenses are the best. I hade the 70-200 2.8 top big and heavy. Now I only carry my 35 1.4 and 85 1.2 and it's a very nice combo. Fast and light :)

Peter

January 12, 2017
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Heh, exactly like me. While the zoom could be easily a workhorse for whole wedding, it lacks the wow factor of the primes :)

robert

July 3, 2017
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Great piece, I'm shooting my first ever wedding this Saturday and I've opted for the tamron 70-200 g2 and sigma 35 f1.4 but I'm not blown away by the zoom. I may have to get an 85mm

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