A prime lens is a camera lens that has a focal length that’s fixed. In other words, in order to zoom in or zoom out, you — the photographer — need to get closer or further away from your subject. Some people view this as a handicap (all the moving!). But, they are wrong. Prime lenses, because of their comparatively simple optics (in contrast to zoom lenses), offer incredibly sharp images, better bokeh and have fewer moving parts, which means fewer parts prone to breaking. Professional photographers have long sworn by these prime lenses (the 50mm specifically) for their reliability, speed and ability to capture images similar to what the eye sees. But there is more to prime than the 50mm. We’ve outlined three of the most common prime lenses, buying options for each focal length and camera type, and a few tips on how to wield this glass.
Editor’s Note: Yes, we left off the 35mm. The 35mm is a fantastic lens, but in recommending a stable of prime lenses, the 28mm and 50mm each offer a more distinct optical scenario, and we like distinction.
Make the Viewer Feel Like They’re There
If you’re looking to give a larger sense of what is happening in a given area, a 28mm lens is a perfect choice. It is considered a wide lens, meaning that it’s great for outdoor shooting and capturing large scenes and objects. The tradeoff to the wide angle is a fair amount of distortion (i.e., the proportions in the picture start to get wonky) towards the edges of the frame. Use the 28mm for city scenes, outdoor action photos, and more candid, informal portraits.
The Street Photographer’s Weapon of Choice
If you aspire to the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Diane Arbus, a 50mm lens is a prerequisite. Street photographers have long praised the 50mm’s ability to capture images with a low level of distortion and to grab a still image with essentially the same perspective of what your eye sees. This makes composing images fast and relatively painless. 50mm lenses also tend to be lightweight, affordable and sharp, which gives you no excuse for not having one in your kit.
For the Portrait Photographer
If you’re looking to take your portrait photography to the next level, look no further than the 85mm lens. Whether you’re shooting in a studio or on location, the 85mm captures enough of the frame to set your subject in context with the background, without leaving a bunch of dead space at the edges of the frame. It’s long enough that you don’t have to get uncomfortably close to your subject for a headshot, but wide enough that you don’t have to stand in the next room for a shot with perspective. Most 85mm lenses open wide to about f/1.4 to capture great bokeh and the background melts away with soft colors, which is especially useful when shooting on location.
Three Lens Options
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM (Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony mounts available) $828
Nikon AF FX Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G (Nikon F-Mount) $477
Sony SAL-85F14Z 85mm f/1.4 Carl Zeiss Planar T (fits Sony Alpha series cameras) $1,698