Which Prime Lens is Right for You?

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I never get tired of recommending prime lenses.  Why?  Because image quality is so much better with them.  And while some people will label zoom lenses ‘convenient’, you can just as easily move closer or farther back with your feet.

Finding Your Ideal Prime Lens

For every application, there’s a great prime lens waiting to help you get those shots.  But different prime lenses are good for different things – just like different focal lengths on your zoom lens are good for different things.  But how do you know what to choose?  Here are some common lenses and what they are usually used for.

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A pipe shot in the ghost town of Centralia, using a Sigma 20 mm f/1.8 lens and a Nikon D60.

Ultrawide Lenses and Fisheyes

The ultrawide and fisheye primes are good, but relatively niche.  At such an extremely short focal range (e.g. 8 mm) loss in image quality is more visible between different focal lengths in a zoom lens.  However, prime lenses in this category are usually just as expensive as zoom lenses, and if there are any aperture advantages, you usually wind up paying more.  The fisheye is relatively played-out, and few people will ever use it more than a few times.  If you really are considering an ultrawide, don’t go below 20 mm on a cropped sensor.  In my experience, this was the final safe focal length without getting too much distortion.  Use these lenses for extremely closeup perspectives, and some architecture, though beware of “key-stoning” and other undesirable effects.

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Friends photographed in San Diego with a Soligor 24 mm f/2.5 lens on a Pentax ME Super.  

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My buddy Kit building a canoe, taken with a Sigma 30 mm f/1.4 on a Nikon D2Xs.

Wide Angle Lenses

My favorite lenses, these lenses are used predominantly with architecture and landscapes, though street photographers use them a lot too.  I swear by wide angle lenses for environmental portraits.  On old 35 mm cameras and full frame digital bodies, the focal length is 24, 28, or 30 mm essentially.  On a cropped sensor camera, this number is anywhere between 16 and 20 mm.  These lenses almost always offer better image quality than zoom lenses and sometimes you have the added benefit of a larger aperture, though this feature can be costlier in some wide angle lenses.

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Dead plant in winter, from a Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 E Series lens on a Nikon D60.

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A portrait of my friend Alex, taken with the exact same setup described above.

Normal Lenses

Called “normal” lenses because they are considered to accurately represent the normal field of view of a human eye, these lenses are very common as standards among many photographers.  They range from the relatively wide-open 35 and 40 mm lenses to the famous 50 mm and even up to 60 mm lenses on film and full frame.  On cropped sensors, equivalent focal lengths would range between 24 and 40 mm.  These lenses are excellent for many applications; portraits are easily done, especially for those desiring some background in the shot.  Prime lenses in this category are usually very easy for manufacturers to make, and as a result, they usually cost less and offer better maximum apertures (anywhere between f/1.2 to f/2.8 or f/3.5, usually).

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Cafe shot from Philadelphia, taken with a Tamron 90 mm f/2.5 on a Pentax ME Super.  

Short Telephoto

Here you can find lenses with common focal lengths of 80, 90, 105, and maybe 150 mm, or around 50 – 100 mm on a cropped sensor.  These lenses are great for portraits, and lightly-distanced work.  They usually have suitable apertures for the work required, and being prime lenses, this aperture is usually fairly large in comparison to that of a comparable zoom lens.  Being unable to zoom, these lenses are not for everyone, and can even make some kinds of photography more challenging, like sports and wildlife photography.  One area where these lenses really shine, though, is in macro photography.

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Photo of a bee, shot with a Sigma 300 mm f/2.8 on a Nikon D60.  

Long Telephoto

Prime lenses of very long focal length are usually pretty hard to come by.  They are out there, though, and on a 35 mm sensor or negative, these lenses are usually 180, 200, 250, 300, or 400 mm.  Cropped sensor cameras would have the same field of view by mounting a lens somewhere around 120-250 mm.  I have yet to see a prime lens longer than that, though I’m sure they exist.  This lens is good for long distances, and is usually less costly than a zoom with better image quality, but requiring the photographer to close any distance needed.

In conclusion, people, feel free to experiment with those primes you feel are best for you.  I have always stuck by my wide angle lenses for portraits, even though some people tell me it’s wrong.  Remember too, that most primes are harder to break, with less moving instruments inside.  Because of this, they are also cheaper to repair should something happen to them.  With all this in mind, find what’s right for you and keep on shooting!


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