Stop using zoom lenses!

People often get puzzled when I tell them I don’t like to use zoom lenses with my Canon EOS 5D or Olympus Pen digital cameras.

“So what do you use on your camera?”, they will ask.

“Fixed lenses, otherwise known as prime lenses.”, I say.

“So how do you zoom in and out?”

“With your feet!”

The conversation usually ends there, because people just think that I’m being difficult. Or being a photography snob.

Ok, I’ll admit I’m a bit of both, but my firm belief is that prime lenses help one to achieve better photos easier and faster.

But how can that be, you say? Isn’t it very troublesome to be changing lenses all the time?

You’ve hit the nail on the head! That’s why they call dSLRs and hybrid dSLRs “interchangeable lens cameras”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My collection of prime lenses for the Canon EOS 5D (24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 100mm macro) and Olympus Pen (28mm, 35mm, 50mm equivalents). I do have two professional zooms (24-70mm and 70-200mm f2.8, but they’re too big to fit in this photo.

When the earliest SLRs were launched decades ago in the early part of the 20th century, the philosophy was that you would keep changing lenses to obtain your desired image.

599px-Leica_M3_mg_3848

A 1954 Leica M3 rangefinder camera with a 50mm prime lens. (Image from Wikipedia)

Somewhere along the line, zoom lenses were created to provide convenience to the masses, and over the years, primes have been relegated in importance. However, prime lenses are still manufactured in the thousands (if not millions) because photographers who want the best quality will still use them.

The question is why should an average Joe – who doesn’t care about photography technicalities or even manual exposure – use prime lenses?

Prime lenses can be cumbersome, relatively expensive (usually a few hundred dollars to a few thousand each), and horrors of horrors, you would actually have to remove the lens on your dSLR and possibly expose the image sensor to the elements!

First, let me explain some fundamentals in photography.

The reason why we have different lenses (zoom or prime) is to provide different focal lengths. The focal length determines the field of view (or what you can capture within one image).

image

A quick overview of different focal lengths, from the excellent site DPreview.com

The smaller the focal length, the wider the view. So a 24mm lens will give you a nice wide angle for taking landscape or group photos, while a 200mm lens will capture a very small part of the scene, or what we commonly call “zoom in”.

I don’t wish to spend too much time explaining this, so you might want to check out some useful online guides from Canon and Panasonic to choosing the right lenses that suit your photography needs:

Canon lens guide

Canon’s guide to lens choices

Panasonic lens simulator

Panasonic lens simulator

Now that you understand the purpose of different lenses, let me persuade you to stop using zoom lenses.

1. Prime lenses provide the best possible image quality (most of the time)

If you’re taking a photo, you’d want the best possible image quality for the money.

Prime lenses are designed just for one specific focal length each. Most zoom lenses have to cover a wide range of focal lengths, so various compromises are made on either image quality or light gathering capability (ie. aperture sizes).

I’m pretty assured that the Canon EF prime lenses that I own produce the best possible image quality (I shot my own wedding photos with them and enlarged them to large, beautiful posters).

But I’m not so sure about my Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4/3 ones that work with my Oly Pen. Largely because these are first generation designs and it takes several iterations for a lens maker to optimize the lenses.

Still, I’m less fussy these days and I’m pretty satisfied with the sharpness and color rendition of my current m4/3 lenses.

So if you’re getting a m4/3 camera from Olympus or Panasonic, I can tell you that you’ll get sharper images if you get their pancake prime lenses (17mm and 20mm, or 35mm and 40mm equivalents) than if you get their zoom lenses.

2. Prime lenses allow you to shoot under very low lighting conditions.

Ever tried to take a photo indoors and found them all blurry or very grainy? The dimmer the scene, the more difficult it is for a camera to get enough light to expose it right.

Now most people run into this issue whether they are using compact cameras or dSLRs because the consumer-grade zooms they are using just cannot take in enough light. One solution is to increase the light sensitivity (ISO) of the camera, but it can lead to very grainy/noisy photos.

Prime lenses can suck in a lot of light thanks to their “fast” apertures (f1.8, f2.0, f2.8 and so on). So without having to change the ISO to a high, grainy setting, you can shoot sharp images comfortably using a prime lens.

3. Prime lenses are smaller and cheaper than professional zooms.

One of the main reasons why people stop using their dSLRs is the sheer weight of the body and lens.

The consumer-grade zoom lens that came with your dSLR as a kit lens is neither too heavy nor big. But it’s pretty useless for shooting indoors without a flash, and we all know how natural lighting produces nicer photos indoors. These lenses are mass produced on the cheap for the masses who aren’t too fussy about image quality and are just happy that the lens can autofocus.

24-70mm_F2.8_L

There are professional zoom lenses which offer similar light-capturing capabilities and high image quality as prime lenses, but they weigh a ton. For example, Canon’s popular EF 24-70mm f2.8 lens (above) is nearly 1kg and gets very tiring to use after long hours. I’ve done long travels with this lens and I can tell you, it’s no fun with an aching shoulder. And did I forget to say this lens has an SRP of S$2,699? Of course, the street price is not that steep, but I’ll use SRP as a benchmark for comparison’s sake.

And unless you’re using a professional and weighty body like the 5D or 1D series, the lens would be unevenly weighted on your light entry-level body (eg. EOS 600)

 600px-Canon24mmf280200

In comparison, a Canon EF 24mm f2.8 prime lens (above) is only 270gm and is a great fit no matter which camera body you’re using. It has an SRP of S$679.

If you get a 24mm f2.8, 35mm f2.0, 50mm f1.8, and an 85mm f1.8 set of prime lenses to cover the same focal length as the 24-70mm f2.8 zoom lens, the total cost adds up to about SRP $2,066.

Imagine, you can save a bit of money too.

Finally, a small prime lens on a dSLR is not as intimidating as a huge or longish zoom lens, and you’ll find people more willing to smile for the camera. 

4. Prime lenses promote disciplined photography and get you to think before you shoot.

To me, this is the most important reason why one should use prime lenses. Photography demands one to be able to visualize the end result, even before bringing the camera up to your eye level.

Once you know what you want to take, and how you want to take it, you would be able to decide quickly which focal length, exposure, ISO speed and white balance is required.

So for example, I see my kids fooling around in the house, and I go through this thought process:

dancing

“Hmm, I need to capture both of them dancing and that means I need more headroom and space on the sides, so they don’t drop out of the frame. But I want to have a close crop with minimal wide-angle distortion, so I’ll use my 50mm lens for a natural focal length.

The room lighting is pretty bright – so I can afford to use f4 on my lens, with at least 1/60 sec shutter speed to freeze action as much as possible.

The room is naturally lit by sunlight, so let’s stick to sunlight white-balance and ISO 400 for a balance between image noise and being able to capture the action.”

So I take out my 50mm prime lens, set the ISO to 400, white balance to Sunlight and use f4 and 1/100 sec shutter speed.

Voila, I get the image I desired to capture.

Now for a person using a consumer-grade zoom lens, it is possible to go through the same thought process above and set the focal length correctly. But his lens may not even allow him to shoot at f4 at 50mm because it has a much smaller and less light-efficient aperture.

And trust me, when I use zoom lenses, I don’t think so much about the photo settings either. I become a slave to the convenience of zooming in and out.

So prime lenses are a great aid in thinking through how you want your photo to turn out, and exercising your ability to make the right judgment calls and executing the right exposure settings.

Note: A lot of photo enthusiasts think that great photography is about getting the exposure right using the best gear. Actually, those are basic pre-requisites. Great photography comes from being able to visualize the end result, and working as fast as possible to transform a fleeting thought to a concrete image. Once you get this elements right, even a handphone camera can produce amazing results (especially in today’s scenario where the iPhone 4 produces images of very nice tonality and decent sharpness, but of course, still loses out in image detail to dedicated cameras).

5. Prime lenses have good resale value….unless they’re mouldy and dirty from poor maintenance!

I hardly use my two Canon L-zooms now, but they’re still working great and I’m loathe to sell them off. I do use them when there are some urgent wedding requests from buddies, and I do like to frighten the official photographers who sometimes use consumer grade lenses (oh the horror) because they have little idea what is essential in professional photography.

Using prime lenses may seem kind of old school and inconvenient. But if you’re serious about learning or improving your photography, I personally believe that prime lenses provide the best EXPERIENCE and RESULTS.

Any decent prime lens on a good dSLR body provides professional results from the get go. And if it doesn’t look professional, it’s probably due to your photography skills!

So, ready to put aside your zoom lenses? 

2 Replies to “Stop using zoom lenses!”

  1. Actually I say the exact same thing (zoom with your feet) to people, and I’ve generally got a surprised but positive response. Must be a different crowd. Or maybe people are getting used to it, with all the hip retro-cameras also having fixed lenses.

  2. I used to have a GR1 (until it got nicked): 28mm fixed lens. What a sweet little camera! I never felt (okay, on the odd ocasion I did) hindered by the only “choice” I had: moving around myself. I also remember a professional photographer saying once: “get closer to the subject of your picture.” The combination of advice and camera delivered loads of great photos. The thing is, you get creative with only a single, fixed-length lens… 😉

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