The first lenses ever to be sold were prime lenses. But that doesn’t mean they’re outdated. Prime lenses are still popular today, both among the stars of the photographic world and among enthusiasts. Prime lenses do bring special challenges, but these are easy to overcome. And your reward for using them will be high-quality, sharp, and high-contrast photos.
The greatest advantage of prime lenses is their optical quality. That is, the quality of their images—their contrast and their bokeh (those magical blurred backgrounds). Prime-lens pictures will hardly need any post-editing. These lenses achieve their high quality by having few moving parts. As an overall rule in optics, the more moving parts (such as a transfocator, optical stabilization, or even a badly manufactured case), the lower the image quality.
These Lenses Are Fast
Another advantage of prime lenses is that they are very fast lenses. Normal lenses let you go down to about F 1.8 for wide and medium lenses (although you’ll also find values like F1.4, F1.2, and even F0.95—but only at very high prices.) The higher the focal length, the higher the minimum F-stop.
Example: normally lenses with transfocators (i.e. with a zoom) go to a focal length of 400 mm (e.g. the Canon 100-400 mm lens, which has a lens speed of 5.6). Meanwhile, prime 400 mm lenses have lens speeds of up to F2.8. And that’s a major difference.
Since prime lenses are fast lenses, you can keep taking pictures even in bad lighting conditions. But note that a prime lens may not have a built-in optical stabilizer. Stabilizers are only added to telephoto lenses, but these are their own special prime-lens category.
What They Lack
Too much praise looks suspicious, so let’s look at some downsides of these lenses. The biggest one is that they’re not universal. If you want to do real photography with prime lenses, you’ll need several of them. That means you’ll be paying more for your overall photo kit.
Also, prime-lens photography is not for beginners. It demands you be an ace at using your camera’s manual or semi-automatic mode, so you can get the most out of your lenses. It also demands that you know your composition. It can take some time to get used to zooming in or out using your feet, and not using the vastly-more-convenient lens ring.
Mirrorless cameras are worth a mention here. These cameras are mainly intended for travelers and advanced amateurs. Their biggest disadvantage is that so far, they have a poor lens selection. Fujifilm offers a few lenses, but they are all prime lenses. So have a good idea in advance of what you want to photograph, and how. Olympus as well offers a line of prime lenses for its mirrorless cameras.
If you’re serious about photography, then don’t be scared of prime lenses. They’re demanding, but they’ll bring you better pictures, and you’ll be a more confident photographer. They’ll also teach you where to stand to get the shot you want. That way you won’t waste time zooming—you’ll just compose, sharpen, and shoot.
A Little History in Closing
Great photographers generally shoot with prime lenses. I’ll mention just one name here that’s forever tied to one camera and one lens. That name is Heny Cartier-Bresson. Bresson always used a Leica with a 50 mm lens.