What is a Prime Lens, why you need one, and which one to buy.

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Congratulations, you finally took the plunge and bought your first DSLR/mirrorless camera! Your pictures are great, and you’re learning new things about your camera every day. But two months in, you get bored. Your 18-55mm kit lens is limiting you. You can’t get that creamy bokeh you always see on Instagram, and you feel like your image sharpness is lacking. Yep, you’ve officially outgrown your kit lens.

Don’t worry, we’ve ALL been there.

You should feel proud you’ve made it to this point, as it’s a testament to your artistic prowess. Now that you’ve been shooting for awhile, it’s time to invest in your first prime lens.

Okay, what is a prime lens?

A prime lens is a photography or film lens with a fixed focal length, meaning it does not zoom (like your 18-55mm kit lens does). While this limits the versatility of the lens, prime lenses have a much more unique and artistic look. Typically, prime lenses are faster (meaning they have a wider aperture which allows more light to enter your camera), sharper, have deeper contrast and bolder colors, are smaller and lighter than zoom lenses, and have overall better image quality. Prime lenses come in many different focal lengths and apertures, and they all serve their own unique purposes. Your first prime lens is your first step into the world of fine art photography, and shooting with one for the first time is quite an experience.

Advantages of a Prime Lens over a Zoom Lens

Before we get into the many different types of prime lenses, I want to talk a little bit more about why prime lenses are so great. As stated before, prime lenses are faster because of their wider aperture (lower maximum aperture number). While professional level zooms usually have a maximum aperture of around f/2.8, prime lenses can get as wide as f/1.4 or f/1.2 (or even as wide as f/.95!). This wider aperture translates into many different benefits while you’re shooting. Including more light, and a shallower depth of field.

More Light

A wider aperture allows for more light to enter your camera. The difference between f/2.8 and f/1.4 is two full stops. That’s a ton of light! Why does that matter? It matters because more light allows you to lower your ISO if you’re shooting at in low-light situations (resulting in less noise-grain), and increase your shutter speed during the day (great for freezing motion).

This image shows us the difference between a stop of light. The middle photo is exposed correctly, while the photo on the right is overexposed one stop, and the photo on the left is underexposed one stop. It shows us how much light one stop actually is.

Shallow Depth-Of-Field (BOKEH!)

When looking at images from professional photographers, you might notice how the background of the images are often out of focus. In photography, we call this bokeh, and it has become a popular stylistic technique. You can get bokeh in your images by using a wide aperture lens. The wider the aperture, the more shallow the depth-of-field. In other words, wider apertures decrease your focus plane so only one small part of the image is in focus, while the rest is out of focus.

Here we see two shots that are more or less the same, with the only different being the aperture. The photo on the left was shot at f/16, and the photo on the right at f/1.4 You can see the different in depth of field here, as the photo on the right has a much shallower depth of focus compared to the more uniform and thorough focus we see on the left.

What are the different kinds of prime-lenses?

As stated before, prime lenses come in many different shapes and sizes, and each one was designed for a specific purpose. There are several different categories of prime lenses that help us identify what field of photography they are used for:

  • Ultra Wide: 12mm, 16mm, 21mm
  • Wide: 24mm, 28mm, 35mm
  • Standard: 35mm, 50mm
  • Portrait: 85mm, 105mm
  • Telephoto: 135mm
  • Super Telephoto: 200mm, 400mm, 600mm, etc.

While all of these focal lengths are popular in some way or another, there are several that can be considered “core” focal lengths. The term “core” is certainly ambiguous, but when it comes to prime lenses we are mostly talking about lenses like 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 100mm. These are focal lengths that are somewhat versatile, and are quite popular in many different fields of photography. Most major lens manufacturers make some variation of these lenses, and they are easy to find. Unless you’re a hardcore wildlife, sports, or interior photographer, these are the type of prime lenses you’re most likely to buy. But, more on that later.

These are core lenses simply because they are used in many different fields of photography. For example, 24mm (arguably the widest “core” lens), is great for not only interiors and landscapes, but fashion as well. The same can be said about focal lengths like 35mm and 50mm which are are used by professionals in many different fields of photography, and are perhaps the most versatile prime lenses available. Longer focal lengths such as 85mm or 100mm are great for things like portraits and food, making them quite popular lenses as well.

Focal lengths wider than 24mm (ultra-wide) and longer than 135mm (telephoto) are quite limited in what they can shoot. However, they are absolutely crucial for certain types of photographers. For example, wildlife and sports photographers require ultra-telephoto lenses (400-600mm) to capture action from a distance. This allows the photographer to get up-close shots of their subject despite being extremely far away. However, a lens of this magnitude is not very practical in other fields of photography. The same can be said about ultra wide lenses such as 12mm. A 12mm lens is great for things like landscapes, interiors, and video-work, but other than that it’s not very useful.

 

A NOTE ON CROP FACTOR (Important)

When talking about focal lengths (35mm, 50mm, etc.), we are almost always referring to the full-frame equivalent focal length. Full frame and crop are referring to the sensor size of the camera. A full frame sensor is larger than a crop sensor, hence the name. A 35mm/50mm lens on a full-frame camera is NOT the same on a crop sensor camera. If you have a cropped-sensor camera, you must multiply your focal length by ~1.5 (depending on your camera make). So, a 33mm lens on a crop sensor x 1.5 (for the crop) = ~50mm and a 24mm lens on a crop sensor = ~35mm. If you have a micro 4/3 sensor, you must multiple even more. In this article, all focal lengths we are referring to are full-frame equivalents. 

A few 50mm lenses. Most manufacturers make a multiple prime lenses of the same focal length, but with different maximum apertures. Lenses with a wider maximum aperture (such as f/1.4 or f/1.2) can be very expensive and are created for professionals. Lenses with apertures like f/1.8 or f/2.0 are much more affordable, and are created for the consumer level market. 

Specialty Prime-Lenses

Specialty prime lenses are created for even more specific purposes. Examples of specialty prime lenses are tilt-shift lenses which can alter the plane of focus resulting in a unique look, macro lenses which have a very low minimum focusing distance allowing you to get incredibly close to your subject for maximum detail, and fish-eye lenses which cause heavy distortion. Ultra-wide and super telephoto lenses can also be considered specialty lenses because of their lack of versatility.

A Samyang 24mm f/3.5 tilt-shift lens, which might be used for interior photos.

Vintage (Old) Prime-Lenses

Vintage prime lenses are timeless staples in photography, and they have made a comeback in recent years. For the most part, lenses are quite durable if properly cared for. They also maintain their value quite well, allowing for a bustling vintage lens market. Vintage lenses don’t have the same technology that modern lenses do, resulting in images that maintain a more “timeless” or vintage look. Many old prime lenses still work on modern bodies with adapters, and with the introduction of mirrorless cameras that have the ability to adapt any lens, the market has seen a resurgence. For example, Sony Mirrorless cameras have the ability to adapt any lens for use on their bodies.

A Sony A7 with an adapted vintage Argus 50mm f/3.5 prime lens. Photo by John Neel.

Which one should you buy?

We’ve discussed quite a few lenses in this post. Reason being, I wanted to give you the knowledge to understand which lens might be best for you. With that said, prime lenses that fall under the “standard” category are certainly the most popular of the bunch simply because they do so many things well. There are two prime-lenses that you can really never go wrong with, as they are not only versatile, but affordable and yield stunning images. These two lenses are the 35mm and the 50mm. These are both fantastic lenses, and are perhaps the most popular prime lenses to ever be made. Both have their own signature qualities, as well as their own drawbacks. Let’s take them one by one.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 (left) and Sigma 50mm f/14 (right). Both popular prime lenses for professionals and enthusiasts alike.

50mm

Why It’s Great: Not only are 50mm lenses usually cheaper than 35mm, they are also smaller. 50mm is an amazing focal length for capturing a relatively deep depth of field without sacrificing too much versatility. The 50mm allows you to create more separation between your subject and the background, create beautiful bokeh in unfocused areas, and instantly gives your photos an artistic look. The 50mm is a fantastic lens for portraiture, food, and street photography.

Why It’s Limited: The 50mm is not as versatile than the 35mm simply because it is not as wide as a 35mm, meaning your field of view is more limited. You will miss shots with the 50 if you are in small small or cramped environments, such as shooting indoors.

A portrait I shot of an elderly man in rural Vietnam. 50mm.

35mm

Why It’s Great: The 35mm is a universally famous lens that is great for many different settings. The wide focal length allows you to capture more in your frame and shoot in tighter spaces, making the lens more practical and versatile than the 50mm. Although the depth of field isn’t as shallow as the 50, you can still achieve some beautiful and artistic bokeh. The 35mm is a classic focal length that has been used by some of the most famous street and fashion photographers of all time due to its versatility and sharpness, and is a fantastic travel lens.

Why It’s Limited: The lack of a deeper zoom results in a shorter depth of field resulting in a somewhat less artistic look, and more image distortion (bending of the image) than the 50mm. If you are looking to separate your subject from the background when shooting portraits, the 35mm is not up to par with the 50 on this.

Shot at 35mm.

The image below is a perfect example of the difference in focal length. On the left we see the shot from the 50mm lens. The 50mm lens brings us closer to the subject, but also helps separate the subject from the background. It also has less lens distortion than the 35mm (although the difference is small), which is why the 50mm is more popular for dedicated portrait photographers.

The 35mm on the other hand has a wider depth of field which allows for more subject matter in the frame. It also results in less bokeh, but this isn’t always a bad thing. As stated before, the wider focal length allows for a more versatile lens.

Photo by Digital Rev TV

Which one is best for you?

These are both fantastic lenses, and there is no clear winner here. Ultimately, it depends on your style. If you like having more subject matter in your images, shoot many different things, and often shoot in more tight spaces, the 35mm might be for you. But if you enjoy of bit of separation between your subject and the background, don’t mind being slightly more limited in versatility, and are looking for a slightly cheaper option, the 50mm might be for you. In my personal opinion, I recommend the 35mm due to its versatility. But, everyone is different and your decision should be your own! Whichever decision you make, you can’t go wrong with either of these lenses.

Lens Buying Guide:

These are the most popular lenses for each camera system. I have included 50mm and 35mm lens options for both full-frame and crop sensor cameras across most popular camera companies.

SONY Crop Sensor

Sony SEL35F18 35mm f/1.8 Prime Fixed Lens $398.00

Sony SEL-20F28 E-Mount 20mm F2.8 Prime Fixed Lens $348.00


SONY Full-Frame Sensor

Sony 55mm F1.8 Sonnar T FE ZA Full Frame Prime Lens – Fixed $998.00

Sony 35mm F2.8 Sonnar T FE ZA Full Frame Prime Fixed Lens $798.00

Note: There are more expensive versions of these full-frame lenses available. 


CANON Crop Sensor

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM Lens – Fixed $129.00

Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM Lens $129.00


CANON Full-Frame Sensor

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens $110.00

Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM Wide-Angle Lens $549.00

Note: There are more expensive versions of these full-frame lenses available. 


Nikon Crop Sensor

Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras $196.95

Note: Nikon does not make a 35mm equivalent prime lens, only a 50mm equivalent.


NIKON Full-Frame Sensor

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 2215 Fixed Focal Length 35mm f/1.8G ED Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras $526.95

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G Lens with Auto Focus for Nikon DSLR Cameras $216.95

Note: There are more expensive versions of these full-frame lenses available.


FUJI

Fujinon XF35mmF2 R WR – Black $399.00

Fujinon XF23mmF2 R WR – Black $449.00

Fujinon XF35mmF1.4 R $599.00

Fujinon XF23mmF1.4 R $899.00

Note: Fuji does not make consumer level Full-Frame cameras.

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2 thoughts on “What is a Prime Lens, why you need one, and which one to buy.

  1. Thanks for such an awesome review, Sean! I definitely see the sigma 35mm 1.4 being a perfect fit for my canon 70d body. Cant wait for that bokeh!

  2. Sean,
    You have a positive stalker on your hands. I’ve watched a couple of your classes on Skillshare and now I’m learning more off your own site. I’m looking to become a full time professional photographer and you’ve helped me immensely by shedding light on the many paths one can take. I’ve recently poured a lot of money into a Sony system starting with the Sony a7riii after having a Canon 7D for many yrs. The humble photography section of my site has all the Canon pics from the past few years when I wasn’t serious.Glad to see you are primarily a Sony guy. Great work on your classes.
    Note: Not to be a nudge, but I think there is a typo above on the site:
    “Why It’s Limited: The 50mm is not as versatile than the 35mm…”
    On another note, seandalton.com is worth nearly $10K?

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Hey! I’m Sean, a professional photographer, content creator, and world traveler. I’m glad you’re here reading my blog, and I hope you can learn a thing or two. Have a look around, and feel free to check out my other content via my blog, Instagram, or YouTube channel.

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