When I started practising photography again after a hiatus measured in years I didn’t know what genre of photography I wanted to practice which made it harder for me to choose a lens to pair with my Nikon D600 that I had decided to purchase to replace the Canon Rebel I had sold along with the rest of my gear when I gave up photography. I ended up purchasing a 24-85mm zoom lens because I figured it would be a good general purpose lens until I decided what other lens or lenses I wanted.
I also decided that if I’m going to drop a big chunk of cash on a decent camera and lens then I was going to make it worth while and take my photography more seriously. There was only one problem, I still didn’t know which genre of photography I wanted to practice. So I purchased some general photography books and started looking at a bunch of different photographers and photos that I liked. It turns out that I liked street photographers; Henri Cartier Breson, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, etc… they all inspired me to start practising street photography.
Soon after I discovered street photography I learned about prime lenses, i.e. fixed focal length lenses, and became interested enough to want to try shooting with a prime lens. But which focal length? Should I shoot a 50mm prime like Henri Cartier-Bresson? Or a 28mm prime like Garry Winogrand? Maybe I should shoot a 35mm prime like David Alan Harvey? Or should I choose some other focal length? How was I going to decide?
I could buy a prime lens and try it but what if I didn’t like it? I could just sell it and buy another lens but I hate selling things on line. There are a few camera equipment hire places around town. I could hire a lens and try it but that was still going to cost money. I’d rather spend my money on beer, gear, and photography books. Or I could just use my zoom lens as a series of prime lenses, i.e. set it at a particular focal length and shoot at only that focal length and nothing else in between for a while to see which focal length I like the most. So many options. I chose to use my zoom lens as a series of prime lenses.
After using my zoom lens as a series of prime lenses for a while I settled on 35mm and 50mm as my favourite focal lengths. I promptly went out and purchased a 50mm and soon after a 35mm prime lens. I don’t miss my zoom lens at all, I have even ditched my 50mm lens and been shooting exclusively with a 35mm lens for longer than I can remember and I love it, I don’t want for any other lens. Although I still do want for a Leica M7 or MP and a Summilux-M 35mm F1.4 ASPH lens but I digress.
So what is so great about prime lenses that make me so happy that I don’t want to shoot with a zoom lens? It has absolutely nothing to do with bokeh, and less to do with larger apertures, image quality, or size. I love prime lenses because they are simple. I don’t have to worry about lens creep. I can shoot faster with a prime lens because I know what the viewing angle is going to be before I look through the view finder which means I can compose a shot before I even raise the camera to my eye. Street photography is partly about being invisible, being fast can help make you invisible, shooting a prime lens helps me shoot fast and makes me if not invisible then at least a little bit less visible.
The other great thing about settling on a single focal length is that it makes it simple, easy and cheap(er) to switch camera systems. Recently I decided that I’m going to switch back to film photography. Now when I’m looking at a new camera I only need to get one body and one lens and I’m set. I don’t need to replace a host of other lenses.
Of course everyone is different and everyone’s experiences and preferences will vary but I can’t think of anything to not like about prime lenses. Personally I think a 35mm prime lens is the muts nuts of lenses and is my focal length of choice.
If you have never tried shooting a prime lens then try using your zoom as a series of prime lenses, it’s the best tip that I have ever read.
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