Are prime lenses over hyped?


In case you are not aware, a prime lens is a fixed focus lens i.e. not a zoom lens.
Your phone camera is a prime lens. If your phone has 2 lenses then each of those are prime lenses.
Many older film cameras and some modern digital cameras come with a fixed prime lens.
Photographic world is mad about prime lens and often you will be crucified if you speak against prime lens and in favour of zoom lens :o)
But in this post, I shall explain why prime lens is not for everyone.
The prime lens is adored by photographers because of its simplified optical construction (compared to a zoom lens) resuting in better image quality i.e. more sharpness etc.
That claim is true – prime lens does produce better image over most zoom lenses. They also have larger aperture like F/2.8 or even F/1.4 (but not always). Larger aperture allows you to take better shots in low light.
Purists also claim that a prime lens will make you a better photographer as you have to move around for best composition/framing.
Then everyone should only shoot using prime lenses – right?
Well, not always – especially if you are an amateur photographer and use your camera for shooting travel photography with family.
  • Loss of flexibility – A zoom lens provides flexibility. Most of the time zoom lens come with your camera (kit lens) and is good enough for general/travel photography. It allows you to successfully frame a wide architectureal shots and also a portrait when needed – without changing lense. Most kit zoom lenses are 18-55 (in APS-C cameras) or 27-70 (in full frame) which offers both wide and medium telephoto ends. A zoom lens is way more versatile.
  • Price – While some prime lenses are cheaper they often cost more than kit lenses. So buying a prime lens (unless you have specific use in mind) purely based on internet forum advice, is an unnecessary expense.
  • Image Quality – Yes, prime lenses take better shots than kit lenses. But not to that extent as purists in internet forums make you believe. If you view photos side by side (prime vs zoom) with 100% blown up in large computer/TV screen, you would most likely see some difference. But for most folks who views photo no larger than iPad or 50-60 inch TV screens or prints at most A4 sizes, such image quality improvement would be visible. Purists often compare by shooting charts and brick walls where defficiency of zoom lens is more visible. But in real life, such quality difference is hardly noticable – especially where what you shoot is more important than little bit of extra sharpness.
  • Confusion – With a zoom lens, on an instant you can choose your focal lenth by rotating lens dial. But with prime lens you will have following confusion:
    • Which focal length (of prime lens) to buy? Should it be 16 mm, 23 mm, 35 mm or 85 mm?
    • Purists will advise you to buy all of those for different situations.
    • You will end of spending a lot of money to buy all those.
    • You will carry lot of weight by lugging all those lenses on your shoulder bag during holidays.
    • You will end up missing scenes and getting dust in sensors while changing lenses in outdoors.
    • You will end up wasting time on internet forums to analzye whether sharpness is as it should be in your photos.
    • By doing all the above, you will shoot fewer photos and enjoy less during holidays (OK – not for everyone but for most).
  • Variation – If you shoot all your holiday photos with same focal length (assuming you carry only one lens) then your shots could become boring to look at. Now this is somewhat contentious. Many people do shoot amazing photos with their fixed lens smartphones. A good photographer can produce masterpieces with any camera. But an average photographer will do better with zoom lens. Also, often you can’t physically zoom with your feet (as purists often advice) due to structural constraints. Again, purists will argue to that this should force you to shoot creatively. But for most people, bringing back memories of family standing in front of whole Taj Mahal is propbably more important than shooting only one minerate (depending on your fixed focal length) with one kid outside the frame! You can simulate same creativity by locking your zoom lens into specific focal length and by behaving as if you are shooting with prime. If you get frustrated and feel the urge to rotate the zoom lens for desire focal length, then prime lens is not for your. Purists will mock you by saying lazy if you don’t move around for getting best angle, but I think there is nothing wrong in being lazy.
  • Fast lens can be counter productive – You can get some amazing background blur (bokeh) using large aperture like F/1.8 but it will also turn your depth of field very narrow! You can shoot candle light portrait using that aperture but to keep your kids as well as Eiffel Tower on background in focus, you need to shoot using smaller aperture (e.g. F/8 etc.) where prime lens has not much advantage over a zoom lens on same aperture.
I understand I shall be frowned upon by purists but this is my opinion based on experience.
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