What Is a Prime Lens and Which Should You Buy?

28/08/2019 8:02 AM

There's no denying the versatility that a zoom lens provides - but today, more and more beginner and advanced photographers - from landscape to portrait -  are rediscovering the charms of the fixed lens, also known as a prime lens.

 

Sure, you've got to do a little bit more work moving your feet to compose your pictures, but the hard work and exercise is often worthwhile when you consider the range of advantages.

 

So what is a prime lens? And what are the benefits of a prime lens versus a zoom lens? Read our guide to figure out which prime or fixed lens is the best choice for your style of photography.


What is a prime or fixed lens?

The term “fixed lens” is short for fixed focal length lens. It is, as the name suggests, a lens which provides users with just one focal length - meaning it doesn’t zoom at all.

 

This might sound strange, but once upon a time this type of lens was the standard on all modern cameras. So why are more and more modern photographers returning to the fixed lens to master the art form?

What is a Prime Lens and Which Should You Buy?

Fixed versus zoom lenses

What is a Prime Lens and Which Should You Buy?

In contrast to a prime or fixed lens, a zoom lens can be adjusted to use a multitude of lengths between two points. A zoom lens typically wins out for its versatility - but fixed lenses have their own range of benefits.

 

What fixed or prime lenses offer to make up for their fixed focal length is a generally superior edge-to-edge sharpness for their budget, as well as faster maximum apertures. This equates to better low light performance and depth of field control.

 

These features can still be found on zoom lenses, but that usually means sacrificing the cash that you had aside for your soon to be of driving age child's first car.

History of fixed lenses

Fixed or prime lenses were at one time the standard. They often came paired with cameras when purchased, and were available in different formats depending on a photographer’s subject matter.

 

Where now you are generally provided with a standard zoom lens that’s been carefully designed to match a number of common uses, back in the old days it was fixed lenses (usually of the 35mm or 50mm variety), were the kit options.

 

The zoom lens came along and soon became the go-to option for day-to-day photography, with fixed lenses becoming a more niche category - often for enthusiasts and professionals seeking the best optical quality possible.

What is a Prime Lens and Which Should You Buy?

Strengths of the fixed lens

So what benefits do fixed or prime lenses offer?

What is a Prime Lens and Which Should You Buy?

Superior optical quality

 

Fixed lenses often provide vastly superior optical quality, a result of thea less complicated lens design. Fixed lenses are constructed to excel at just one focal length, with a brighter maximum aperture rating. 

 

Better, brighter aperture

 

Typically the maximum aperture of a fixed lens sits somewhere in the f2.8 to f1.2 range. Brighter or faster maximum apertures are a desired quality of photographic lenses for a few reasons - namely for letting in more light and allowing photographers to shoot in low-light conditions. They also provide greater flexibility in terms of depth of field control. This can be found to some degree in a zoom lens, but not without you having to first part with large sums of money. 

 

Sharper image, lighter lens

 

There are generally fewer parts used in the optical design of fixed lenses, which means an increase in overall sharpness, and a notable absence of common aberration issues. This also allows fixed lenses to be physically lighter and more compact than their zooming counterparts.


Different types of fixed lenses

The same as zoom lenses, fixed lenses are available in different lengths and qualities to suit different photography needs and styles.

 

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing the best fixed or prime lens for you - but here’s a general guide to help you narrow it down:

For landscape and travel photography:

 

Wide angle lenses are most popular for landscape photography, with lenses around the classic 28mm being deemed wide. This type of focal length is also a common find mounted on the front of travel and street photographer’s cameras.

 

For everyday photography:

 

A 50mm lens, often referred to as a “nifty fifty”, is considered the most suitable for general purpose photography, with many fixed lens lovers relying on this lens as their go-to.

 

What is a Prime Lens and Which Should You Buy?

For portrait photography:

 

Telephoto lenses, usually around the 85mm range or longer are the lifeblood of portrait photographers. They are useful in this field due to their lack of distortion providing flattering results as well as the fact that they allow a greater level of working distance between the photographer and the model.


Fixating on the modern fixed lens

What is a Prime Lens and Which Should You Buy?

Despite the standard zoom lens being the mainstay of entry-level DSLR kits, in the modern age, more and more photographers - beginners and enthusiasts alike - are returning to the fixed lens for a wide range of uses.

 

The word is out about high-quality, low-budget options from several big brands, including the Canon 50mm f1.8 STM or the Nikon AF-S 50mm f1.8 G. These lenses don’t cost that much more than a high-capacity memory card, and their bright f1.8 maximum aperture delivers incredible bokeh which far supersedes that of the common zoom lens.

 

Smaller format mirrorless cameras can be commonly found with travel-friendly pancake lenses mounted. “Pancakes?”, you say! That’s right - pancake lenses are not just notable for their delicious name, but are also highly regarded for their impressive optics, wide-angle focal lengths, and incredibly compact build. This allows interchangeable lens cameras to remain as portable as possible.


As another example of the fixed focal lengths resurgence in the photographic world, certain manufacturers now include them in their higher-end Advanced Compact Cameras. The Fujifilm X100F and the Fujifilm XF10 are the most notable of these models currently on the market, with both cameras being popular - largely due to their high-end optics that have been optimised to perfectly match the camera’s image sensor.


Limitless options, limitless possibilities

There’s so much to love about a fixed lens, and as these models come back onto the market sharper and brighter than ever before, there’s never been a better time to explore your options. Fixed lenses come in many shapes and sizes, so you are sure to find the right one for your individual photography style and needs.

 

To decide which fixed, prime or zoom camera lens is best for you, head to your local Ted’s Cameras store, where our expert team will be happy to guide you in choosing the best lens for your needs, interests and price range.


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