What is a prime lens and why should you use one?

Hey folks, this is a quick guide that’s mostly geared towards beginners in the field of photography.

In this guide we’ll explain what a prime lens is, the advantages and disadvantages, and why you should have at least one or two in your kit. Enjoy the read!

What is a prime lens?

A prime lens is just a lens with a fixed focal length. What this means is it simply cannot zoom, and it is locked into its perspective. Prime lenses come in many shapes and sizes, and, despite being a rather simple concept, have been improving constantly over the years along with all other photography gear.

The only real disadvantage of a prime lens is that, indeed, it is a fixed focal length. This can be a problem for those used to versatile zoom lenses. However, oftentimes the advantages vastly outweigh the cons. Let’s jump into it.

Massive collection of Sony lenses. Photo Credit: Sony Alpha Universe

Why should I use a prime lens?

Better Optical Quality

There are a lot of reasons to use a prime lens, but the biggest is that the optical quality is simply better than zoom lenses. If you take a prime lens and compare it to a zoom lens in a competition of sharpness, the prime lens will win pretty much every time without fail.

This is due to the fact that prime lenses don’t suffer from diffraction as they don’t have as many glass elements as a zoom lens requires. Additionally, primes have a wider aperture, which allows for better background blur (bokeh) and low light performance.

Smaller Size & Weight

Another big advantage is size. Prime lenses are almost always smaller than zoom lenses. This is due to the same point above, there’s simply less stuff that needs to go into a prime lens since it’s so much more simple.

While some photographers may not mind having a huge setup, I personally think that I’m much more likely to take my camera out and practice if I don’t have to lug around a massive lens.

Size comparison between a zoom lens and a prime lens.

Usually Cheaper

Next up: prime lenses are usually much cheaper than their comparable zoom counterparts.

While some photographers may be unconcerned about cost, a prime can offer incredible value to a newcomer who either can’t afford the expensive gear or is unsure if they want to invest heavily in the hobby.

Take the Sigma 30mm F1.4 for example. It’s razor sharp, small, and is pretty dirt cheap. To get even remotely comparable sharpness in a zoom lens, you’d be looking at something like the Sigma 18-50mm F2.8 which costs around twice as much. Budget zooms, to be frank, tend to suck.

Perfect for Learning

Finally, primes are just good to learn on. There’s an old photography saying that goes, “zoom with your feet instead of your lens,” and that pretty much means instead of relying on a zoom lens, use a prime and learn to move your body instead.

I personally started with Canon’s kit zoom lens many years ago, and I didn’t feel like I really started getting a grasp on things until I picked up their 50mm prime.

Even now, almost a decade after getting into photography, I still feel way more creative shooting with a prime versus a zoom.

So what prime lens should I choose?

This is a question that greatly comes down to what you like to photograph. Remember, you cannot zoom with a prime, which means you are one hundred percent locked into what you’re shooting with.

Below, I’ll offer up some of my top favorites in different focal ranges. These are for the Sony a6000 lineup, but the focal ranges are applicable to any crop sensor camera.

Looking to focus on doing mostly wide angle work? Consider the Rokinon 12mm F2.0.

Want to have a nice, catch-all prime that can capture most subjects? I love my Sigma 30mm F1.4.

Finally, if you’re looking to focus more on the telephoto side of things, consider a tighter lens such as the Sigma 56mm F1.4.

Of course, there’s prime lenses for everyone. Some photographers prefer wide, some prefer mid-range, some prefer ultra-telephoto. There’s no right or wrong answer.

Thanks for reading. 🙂


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Credit to Otattemita on Flickr for the thumbnail image of this article.

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