Back to Basics: 5 Reasons Why Beginners Should Invest in a Prime Lens

If you have a friend who just got into photography and they ask you to recommend a first lens to buy in addition to the standard kit lens, chances are very good you’re going to tell them to go prime. Of course, their next question will inevitably be ‘why?’

When that question comes, just point them to this great short video by photographer Toby Gelston. In it, Gelson outlines five reasons why a prime lens should be taking up space in their new gear bag. From value to that bokehliciousness, Gelson covers all of the basics so that you don’t have to.

(via PictureCorrect)

  • Howard Yermish

    One of my favorite exercises with my camera is to put on my 50mm f1.4 (Canon) and walk around in search of shapes. Always helps me get unstuck or out of a shooting rut. Zooming with the feet is such an important take away here too, even if you have a zoom lens.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    Heh. Among those reasons, only bokeh and small size are certainly applicable for Lensbabies. The rest (light gathering, quality, value) are … debatable, to put it mildly.

    Incidentally, am I the only one who thinks that most beginners would find the 50mm f/1.8 a bit too narrow for general use on cropped sensor cameras?

  • OtterMatt

    I have the super-cheap Nikor 50mm f/1.8, and I think it looks great on my APS-C camera. It’s certainly not as bad as that photo you showed there.
    Either way, though, part of learning is figuring out how to work around limitations. I think that could be a good lesson all on its own.

  • OtterMatt

    Light, so you can leave your camera on your body while you walk, which can lead to some great photos.
    Cheap, so you can get decent glass on a budget.

    Small, so they don’t intimidate a subject on the street.
    Cheap, because they have less glass and moving parts.

    Versatile, due to the larger aperture options, so you can shoot closer up or wide-angle.
    Did I mention CHEAP?

  • Patrick Schmitz

    As zoom lenses are more complex they’re also more expensive, making the arhument about the quality of a prime versus a similary priced zoom is a bit flawed. That’s comparing a high quality prime with a average quality zoom.

    I own a Canon 35mm F2 lens which is truly amazing, but so are my 24-70mm F4 and 70-300mm F4-5.6. The 35mm is ideal for stret photography. As I shoot a lot of nature/landscape the zooms are often better as zooming with your feet is often impossible and you mostly don’t need a very wide aperture.

  • George Loch

    I would say these are all good reasons but, when I teach my students the benefits of starting with a prime lens, the primary motivation is to make them a better, less lazy photographer. A prime encourages you to MOVE. You have to move your camera , therefore yourself, to get an ideal composition. This makes for a good habit to not let moss grow under your feet and consider moving around the subject and observing the high and low angle options as well. It makes photography so much more of an exercise in ‘making’ a picture and not just taking one.

  • Stephen S.

    And I’d counter that it depends contextually on who the students are. In some situations, and presumably in yours, that is an astute analysis of a worthy goal. But in other situations, the primary goal is not to make students “better, less lazy” photographers, but rather to keep them enthusiastic.

    I used to teach music. Parents would constantly ask, “How long should I make my kid play [clarinet, flute, etc] before letting him switch to guitar?” My answer was always the same. Your primary obstacle is getting the kid in the habit of practicing, of using the instrument. If starting him on guitar—or in this case, a zoom lens—can help with that initial obstable, then go for it.

  • Valerie

    My favorite lens by far is my 85mm! Have three other primes in close running. ;)

  • James

    I love the Bokeh on my 85mm, but it just can’t match my 50mm in the “leave it on the camera” category.

  • Valerie

    I keep buying and selling those things LOL for one reason or another they haven’t worked out but then I got a new one and it was my “leave on the other camera” lens and I only had it for a short time when it mysteriously wouldn’t work anymore. It’s currently somewhere on a UPS truck heading back to me from Nikon’s repair facility, so we shall see!

    I am a Bokeh freak. I admit it.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    The funny thing about many photographers though is that they insist that prime lenses make them “less lazy” while disregarding the potential for laziness in being reliant on bokeh. Too many portrait photographers would rather blur distracting backgrounds using their prime lenses rather than move their asses to find more complementary backgrounds. Why not find a location that doesn’t require shooting at f/1.2-1.8?

  • docholliday666

    My Zeiss primes and Coastal Optics prime ain’t cheap, nor are the set of DigiPrimes for motion…nowhere near cheap.

  • Martin Nilsson

    I love my EF 50 mm f1.8 II, but I do agree that with crop factor the 80-85 mm is a bit too tight for a lot of situations. I also managed to apply my to years of learning how to shoot to figure out it’s “worthless”.

    Giving that it is about 85 mm you should us about 1/85 – 1/100 second shutter speed. And in all fairness, f/1.8 or for a bit better quality around f/2.2-f/2.5, with a shutter speed if 1/100 isn’t THAT much of an improvement to setting my kit lens at 24-30 mm f/3.5-f/4 with a shutter speed of 1/40-1/50 or given the IS even longer. But 1/20 or 1/10 seconds isn’t the best for shooting persons. Using a 30 mm prime would change all this though =)

    And of course, with my kid running around the 50 mm prime beats the crap out of the kit lens. So there is that of course =)

  • Eric Frame

    He wasn’t talking about those, dummy. Nikon makes a great set of 1.8 primes that are a fantastic value.

  • Zos Xavius

    If you shoot an aps-c camera, try an old 28mm. On the plus side, its 28mm, which is super useful on a FF camera. This will give you a FoV of 42mm on normal aps-c sensors (sorry canon), which is in my eyes nearly damned perfect and a total swiss army knife. Its just a bit wider than 50mm on FF (which I find too restricting) and a bit tighter than 35mm on FF, which is often a bit wide. It will teach you how to tighten your compositions because your fov is still a bit tight. It also is a better match for the eye IMO than 50mm. There is a reason so many 40-42mm lenses were made over the years. Its a really great focal length. If you want to know a secret, the old tamron 02B 28mm/f2.5 is adaptable to nearly any camera via adaptall rings and is probably one of the better 28mm lenses out there. Sure there are better cult classics, but it goes for really cheap and is generally underrated. Its only real problem is some mild softness at the edges due to CA. It was the lens that really turned me on to the focal length on a crop sensor.

  • Lee Harris

    When I am working I use a lot of lights etc, so when I am traveling or taking photos for myself, I take my camera with just a 34mm equiv f1.8 (my fave is actually 40mm but Panasonic cocked up that refresh so I changed).

    Other advantages are that knowing the field of view of a lens because you use it so much means you can learn what will fit in the frame before the camera even goes to your eye, useful in street photography. Also it is a great myth that choice is what people always want, that it is liberating; more often than not it is a curse and can kill creativity, a simple high quality lens will often solve that freeing you up to just be creative.

    A quick note on 50mm. I hate them! In the old days I found a rare 40mm f2 for my OM cameras and fell in love, it felt so right and it was tiny, not so long ago I learned that actually 40 mm is roughly equivalent to the field of view our eyes have, so maybe that explains it.

  • Lee Harris

    Showing off is also expensive it seems

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  • Pickle

    I think he’s being a bit disingenuous when he keeps comparing f/5.6 lenses to f/1.8 lenses. I think f/2.8 zooms go much further. Let’s compare that 50mm f/1.8 lens to the 70mm end of a 24-70 f/2.8 lens zoom and see which looks better and has nicer bokeh. My money is on the 70mm end because it’s a better focal length for a headshot than 50mm is, and the extra focal length equalizes the bokeh if not improves it.

    With low light, yeah of course f/1.8 is going have more light but often at f/1.8 or f/1.4, the depth of field is going to be too narrow to be useful anyway and so you’re going to have to stop down so you might as well have the convenience of being able to zoom in for closeups and going wide for group shots.

    That’s not to say primes don’t have their place, but I think one needs to focus more on f/2.8 zooms on the wide end of the spectrum first and only get a prime or two if there is a big use for it, like for a portrait at 85mm f/1.8 or f/1.4 . To say “you need to get a prime and like it!” is kind of BS.

    Just this past weekend I was shooting with a guy who had a f/1.2 canon and he was frustrated that he could only shoot at 24mm or 50mm and to frame his shot 40mm was the sweet spot.

  • Pickle

    There is no such thing as “zooming with the feet” because as soon as you walk closer, the perspective changes giving you a completely different picture.

  • Sean Hurt

    That 24-70 2.8 is pretty far from entry level. Hes talking to beginners. A 50 1.8 costs less than 200 bucks. That 24-70, while it has awesome image quality, likely costs more than beginners are willing to shell out for photos of train tracks, leaves, their dog, or their kids.

  • Bewar3them00n

    It’s just a turn of phrase, not meant to be taken literally!
    Primes are an antidote to lazy shooting, and while there are good quality low light zooms out there, that might do the job of two primes, on a DSLR they turn it into a weighty beast at times.
    It’s more for the person new to DSLR cameras, who automatically think a kit lens will give pro results, they need to be persuaded into buying a body and a couple of quality primes instead.

  • Brett Ryan

    I already use a Nikon 35mm/1.8 and it is one of my favorites.

  • Alan Klughammer

    I have to reply to the “50mm is the perfect focal length” sentiment. I personally “see” much more telephoto (probably because my eyesight is so good) so my “perfect leave-on-the-camera” lens is closer to 105mm equivalent.
    My favourite lens of all time was my old manual focus 105 Nikkor Micro. Second is a 70-200 zoom, but it is a bit heavy as a carry around lens.

  • Zos Xavius

    I’ve had long zooms on my cameras for long periods of time and love telephoto. It really depends on your subject matter. I often switch back and forth between a telephoto and a wide angle zoom.

  • Zos Xavius

    A prime is very good for beginners because it forces them to think about their shot more, especially the composition. Zooms are too convenient in a way.

  • Howard Yermish

    Yes, walking gives a totally different perspective, which is exactly the idea. Often I see people new to photography thinking that zooming with the lens is the same as moving closer to the subject. It’s not, and using a prime lens is a great way to learn how to find lots of different perspectives.

  • OtterMatt

    Bet hats aren’t cheap either, not for a head as large as yours.
    But you know what? My Nikor 50mm f/1.8 only cost me $120, and it takes some fantastic photos. I wouldn’t recommend any other lens for someone starting out, certainly not your over-compensatory wallet-burners.

  • Scott

    Primes are great and I use them when I can, but don’t automatically think zoom lenses are only for people new to photography. Canon’s 24-70 2.8 and 70-200 are two of the most common pro lenses in use. And yep, they are heavy! Sometimes we can’t move backwards and forth and only have seconds to get a shot and zooms are essential. However, for personal work and getting creative, it’s hard to beat a 50 1.4!

  • Sanjoy Banerjee

    One of the important reasons to add in my view…. simply because it makes you a better photographer and forces you to compose & frame with your feet and get more creative with degree of subject isolation, play with light and experiment in many other photographic skills.

  • Howard Pepper

    I’ve got the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 prime lens. I use it on my EOS 6D as a walk-around lens. I love the bokeh you can get with it, and I also love how fast it is. I got a really great deal on it through Amazon, and really love it. I am also looking to get the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.