Primes: Cutting to the Chase.

Photograph © Jeremy Wade Shockley 2010.

There has been a lot of discussion lately in the photographic world about the advantages of Prime Lenses over the ever-popular telephoto (zoom) lenses commonly attached to Digital SLR cameras. I find myself both giving and gaining wisdom on the subject often enough that I feel compelled to say a few words on the subject.

Prime lenses, for those who are new to the craft of photography, are the old standard. They are small, compact lenses with a fixed focal length. With these lenses the photographer is forced to move in closer to a subject or change to another prime lens. The ease and versatility of zoom lenses has become the increasing favorite among enthusiast, while many ardent professionals still use and swear by their primes.

With that said, here is some personal background. When I began shooting in my early twenties I packed a Pentax K1000 around Ecuador with nothing more than a fast 50mm fixed lens. Two years later, I would add a 28mm and a very seldom-used 80-300 telephoto for my extended assignment in Africa. I had glamorized visions of capturing cheetahs in mid flight across the golden savannas, brandy in hand. I would have done better to leave the zoom, perhaps packing a few more Steinbeck novels in its stead. During those two years in Africa, I never wanted for any other lens, exploring the cultures and landscapes of that rich continent, shooting only my 28mm and 50mm.

I returned a year later with a basic Nikon DSLR setup, and again made some of my best images using prime lenses. The above image of a young schoolgirl was shot using a Nikkor 50mm f1.8 as the very last of Africa’s golden light reflected on Lesotho. The least expensive lens in Nikon’s fleet, exceptionally fast, and rendering a beautifully shallow depth of field when shot wide open. This lens works out to be roughly an 80mm when used on a digital camera with a DX Sensor- the conversion being a multiple of 1.6.

While the quality of prime lenses is often times superior, the cost is almost always low. These lenses are simple, lightweight, and razor sharp. Pictured below is an image taken from Nikon USA’s product site, the 35mm prime is considered by many to be the standard in focal length for street photography. Note: When shooting on a DX format camera, 24mm would be the closest equivalent prime lens.


Enough of the tech stuff, let’s talk practicality. When it comes to camera gear, I love to keep it simple and small. This equates to portability, and a presence that is less obtrusive. This style of photography is ideal for Photojournalism and travel photography. A large lens, no matter how inexpensive, is an attention getter. Prime lenses are less likely to get you mugged, easier to pack around in a day pack, messenger bag, and ultimately less expensive to replace if damaged, stolen.

I would say that a simple approach leaves you to focus on what matters, your photography, save the gear for the studio and those who enjoy using it. A solid camera, three prime lenses, and a sense of adventure will be all you need to create your best work- at home or abroad!

Cheers, Jeremy

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2 thoughts on “Primes: Cutting to the Chase.

  1. Good post. Last year, went to France (paris, normandy, brittany) and had one camera and a 20mm, 35mm and 50mm. (DX crop factor makes them roughly 30mm, 52mm and 75mm… Perfect!)Never missed my zooms. (though, I'd never give them up! They serve a purpose for sure.) In March, I'm going back and yes, same kit. Can't wait.Good light to you, my friend.

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  2. Mike, Thanks for the comment, there is so much beauty in simplicity, especially for travel photography, street photography and even adventure photography demands that one travel fast & light.The new Nikkor 24mm 1.4 prime is really the silver bullet of fixed lenses for any one shooting a DX camera! Fast & pricy no doubt.Cheers, Jeremy

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