Basics for Beginners: What is a Prime Lens?

Basics for Beginners: What is a Prime Lens?

While exploring the world of photography, you will probably come across the term “prime lens”. It may sound like technical jargon to newbies, but it’s actually a handy lens to know and have. Let’s take a look at primes and explore why they are a favorite among many photographers.

photo by Mona Jain on Unsplash

What is a prime lens?

In the field of photography, lenses can be broadly classified into two categories: primes and zooms. Unlike zooms, which offer adjustable focal lengths, primes have a fixed focal length. This means that when you use a prime lens, you are limited to a specific field of view. For example, a 50mm prime lens will always capture the scene at a 50mm focal length (affectionately called the Nifty Fifty). But that’s not the only option for primes.

captured at f/1.4 in natural light with an 85mm lens
Captured at f/1.4 on an 85mm lens in natural light

Simplicity and image quality

The main advantage of a prime lens lies in its simplicity. With fewer moving parts compared to zooms, primes tend to be smaller, lighter, and more compact. Their simplicity also translates into improved optical performance and image quality. Prime lenses are known for their sharpness, clarity, and ability to capture detail, making them popular choices for professional photographers and enthusiasts alike. Not to mention they can often be a little cheaper than larger zooms.

Captured f/1.8 on 14mm lens
Captured f/1.8 on 14mm lens

Wider aperture and low-light photography

Another important advantage of primes is their larger maximum aperture. The aperture is the opening through which light enters the lens. A larger aperture lets more light through, resulting in brighter images. Prime lenses typically offer wider apertures compared to zooms, often ranging from f/1.2 to f/2.8. This wider aperture allows photographers to shoot in low light without sacrificing image quality or relying heavily on artificial lighting.

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Soft, creamy bokeh at f/2.8 at 85mm

Depth of Field Control and Bokeh

The larger aperture of primes not only helps in low light, but also allows for greater control over depth of field. Depth of field refers to the range of sharpness in a photo, where a shallow depth of field blurs the background and emphasizes the subject. Prime lenses, especially those with wider apertures, excel at producing a shallow depth of field, creating stunning bokeh (the pleasing blurring of out-of-focus areas). This feature is highly sought after for portrait photography and other creative applications.

Stunning sharpness and clarity at f/8
Stunning sharpness and clarity at f/8

Creative flexibility and learning tool

While zooms offer versatility when framing a shot, primes force photographers to think more creatively. With a fixed focal length one has to get physically closer or farther from the subject to compose the shot. This limitation encourages photographers to explore different perspectives and angles, often leading to a deeper understanding of composition and framing. Prime lenses can serve as valuable tools for learning and developing photographic skills.

Final thoughts

Prime lenses offer simplicity, superior image quality, wider apertures and creative flexibility. They are favored by photographers looking for sharpness, low-light performance and the ability to create visually stunning effects such as bokeh. While they may require more physical movement to frame a shot, primes provide a rewarding experience that enhances photographic skills and encourages creative exploration. So whether you’re a beginner or an experienced photographer, consider adding a prime lens to your gear collection and unlock a world of photographic possibilities.

Want to know more about prime lenses?

Check out these other Photofocus articles on the subject:

  • These are the first primes new photographers should buy
  • Prime lenses: the greatest benefits
  • Why I only use prime lenses
  • Three primes under $300 that offer incredible flexibility