Shooting with a Prime Lens
Photography is about creating an image that you visualize when you approach a scene. What you include within your frame and exclude determines how you compose your image and therefore, the story you are creating.
This comes before you have a lens and a camera. Your eye, your personality, your style is the most influential aspect to how you will then capture your image through your tools. Knowing your camera and lens’ capabilities and restrictions then enables you to capture what you envision.
Seeing something worth capturing, thinking about the image you want to create and why prior to capturing it, and then refining it with a strong and effective composition is what will make your image take on the quality of being great. When we just raise our camera and start shooting without a thought, this will most likely result in you looking back at it at a later stage and wonder ‘why on Earth did I take this? What was I thinking?’
Shooting with a prime lens, also known as a fixed lens, is a completely different experience to shooting with a zoom lens. First off, a prime lens is a lens that has a one fixed focal length. What you see is what you are going to get.
The beauty of a prime lens is that you already know your set field of vision. You know you cannot zoom in further or pull back because you are either too close to your subject, or you wish to get in closer than what your lens allows. You know what field of vision you are working with from the beginning and with practice, you will start ‘seeing’ compositions relating to this fixed perspective when you approach sighting after sighting.
I shoot with a Canon 300mm f/2.8 for my wildlife photography. This lens forces me to pay attention to composition and how I am going to effectively tell my story through my image. I may be limited with what is within my frame, but I am not limited to what I can create. I am forced to be more creative due to this ‘limitation’ as I cannot play around with different focal lengths and then later scroll through images that I took and choose which one I prefer. That in itself already defeats the point of visualising what you want to capture, and then defining it through composition.
This isn’t to say that I feel that prime lenses far out-weigh zoom lenses. Not at all. This is not a prime versus zoom post. I do find the set field of vision of a prime can inhibit me from capturing certain images from specific scenes that I would have loved to have captured. Zoom lenses enables you to look at a variety of interpretations of a single scene. Just remember – powerful images are created because you have found something worth shooting, not from the feeling that there are pictures to be taken.
But before you ditch your zoom lens and get ready to welcome a new member into your lens family, below is a list of pros and cons that will help you understand prime lenses more:
- The obvious would be quality. Prime lenses produce exception image quality as they have lens amount of glass inside in order to get a variety of focal lengths.
What does this mean?
Basically, in order to zoom in at different focal lengths, your lens with have a certain amount of glass elements within it in order to achieve the variety your zoom lens allows. A higher number of lens elements inside will increase light diffraction and record a softer image due to the waves of light entering the lens being spread out as it passes from one element to the next.
- Bokeh. Depending on the magnification of your lens, prime lenses generally have wider apertures ranging from f/2.8 to a whopping f/0.95. Not only is this pure beauty regarding blurring back with your shallow depth of field, but it also renders well-defined specular highlights wonderfully diffused and soft without having a ‘smudged’ appearance.
- Fast Autofocus. As mentioned before, having less amount of lens elements means that autofocus is wonderfully fast. Need I explain more why this is so important in wildlife photography where subjects can move at speed within moments?
- Wide aperture. With the wider aperture letting in more light, this will enable faster shutter speeds to freeze motion, which is a true dream when shooting in low-light situations. By using a higher ISO and your wide aperture, you will be able to achieve sharp images without camera shake entering into the equation.
As we know, a wide aperture allows more light to enter the lens. A by-product of this is that more light is seen through the viewfinder, allowing focusing to become a much easier task as it is easier to confirm focus.
- Creativity. In a world where we are inundated with images at every given second, it was be very straining in creating images that stand out. As I have also experienced, sometimes we just hit a creativity slump, and a prime lens is wonderful in getting over it. The fixed focal length will really make you pay attention to what you want to capture and how, as well as encourage you to look at everything from a different perspective. No longer can you zoom in and out until you settle on a frame that you like. You have to create with what you have.
- Fixed focal length. Many battle with this as it does limit the variety of images you can capture at a specific scene. In wildlife photography, we aren’t always able to move closer or further away from our subjects, so we are very limited to a certain perspective. To this I say, let creativity flourish! Or put your camera down and enjoy the fact that you are out in the bush, and enjoy the moment that is happening before you.
- Price. You are paying a price for the wide, fixed aperture, and quality of elements within the lens. In order to achieve the tack sharp image quality, professional prime lenses have complex optical designs. These lenses are also made with special lens coating and lens elements than that of consumer lenses. This adds dramatically to the price of these lenses.
I personally prefer using a prime lens when I am out photographing wildlife, but I will always ensure that I have a trusty zoom lens, generally a 70-200mm or wider, so that I can capture the bigger picture should I envision the shot I want.