A while ago when I wrote about switching to Micro Four Thirds, I posted about my lens selection. I got lots of email and social media contacts asking me why I wasn’t using this zoom or that zoom. I do use some zooms, mostly because the micro four-thirds lenses don’t cover some of the focal lengths I need without zooms, but I primarily use and prefer primes. Here’s why.
1. Habit. I am older than most of you and back when I started in photography, zoom lenses were just horrible. They didn’t perform as well as modern zooms and most of us avoided them like the plague. They were slow, not very sharp at either extreme, bulky and expensive. I just got used to shooting with primes.
2. Focus. Whether you are using auto-focus, or manual focus, primes almost always focus faster/better than zooms. At my advanced age, I rely 100% on autofocus. I can’t see as well as I used to (it will happen to you too so get ready) and AF on nearly every zoom I’ve ever used is slower and less accurate than AF on primes.
3. Size & Weight. Prime lenses are more compact. They are smaller, easier to pack, easier to carry and lighter so they aren’t as physically taxing as zooms. They also tend to be more stealthy and less threatening to subjects.
4. Close Focusing Distance. Primes generally have a shorter close focusing distance than zooms. This is important to me and my style of photography. I like to get as close to my subject as I can most of the time. With zooms, I have to stay further back. This also impacts hyperfocal distance and perspective, which are both also important to me.
5. Sharpness. This is less a problem today than it was 30 years ago, but in my tests, primes are almost always still sharper than zooms. I admit that depending on the zoom, it may not be by much. But every little bit helps, and the extra contrast and sharpness in a prime lens are noticeably better, at least to me.
6. Less Distortion. Prime lenses tend to have less distortion. Things like chromatic aberration are better controlled in primes.
7. Composition. While we live in a drive-through world, I prefer my photography to be thoughtful and contemplative. The masters didn’t make their photos by accident. They planned them. Sometimes going to great lengths to get one shot. I’ve tried to do that my entire career. Primes slow you down and force you to make conscious lens choices – which force you to make conscious composition choices. You have to think before you shoot when using primes.
8. Cost. The prime lenses I own typically cost less than the high-end zooms. And yes there are cheap zooms but I wouldn’t even consider most of them. So my point of comparison is the higher-end zooms. Primes almost always come cheaper. And you can generally find a super fast, sharp, light, contrasty 50mm lens for around a $100 that makes stellar images with the right photographer at the helm.
9. Video. Most zoom lenses don’t work as well when I am shooting video as do primes. They tend not to let as much light in as a prime and the zooming action on all but specialty lenses makes noise that the camera picks up in video mode. Conversely, there are many primes designed specifically for video with quiet AF and big wide apertures that produce amazing images.
10. Better Resolving Power. Some people confuse lens sharpness and resolving power. They are technically different. In fact, if you want to just make your brain bleed, ask any engineer about LP/mm and MTF curves on a lens. There is more misinformation on this subject thanks to Internet forums than you can imagine. But the basic thing to know is that resolving power translates to the ability to distinguish small details. Zooms tend to have less resolving power than primes.
A few notes to try to help make this post useful to all. There are some disadvantages to primes. You have to own more lenses, if you want to cover all focal lengths. They are less convenient. etc. But to me the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Also note that I did not title this post “10 reasons why YOU should use prime lenses.” I am telling you MY preferences. Your mileage may vary. Also note that if you try hard enough, you can always find an exception to every rule – and that includes all ten of the reasons why I selected primes over zooms. But the point is that IN GENERAL these bits of information will be more true than not. Happy shooting.