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Thread: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

  1. #1
    Tim's Avatar
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    How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    What's the best way to choose a Prime Lens that really suits your photographic style? I had an idea of making use of past photo records to tell me which would be the most useful. See the full article on my website:

    http://www.gnomeplanet.com/tutorial/...prime_lens.php

    Tim, currently in Kuala Lumpur.

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Quote Originally Posted by Tim View Post
    What's the best way to choose a Prime Lens that really suits your photographic style?
    Hi Tim,

    It's my personal belief that this type of thinking actually reduces opportunities for good images. It's a bit like how if the only tool you have is a hammer, then the only problem you'll be able to solve is a nail - whereas if you have a toolbox (akin to 1 or 2 zoom lenses) ten you can tackle a far wider variety of problems.

    In my mind, if all you have is a prime them all you can shoot is whatever suits that focal length -- with a zoom lens you can record a far wider variety of scenes. So a prime may allow you to get "a" good shot, a zoom may well allow you to get THE shot in front of you.

    Personally (and this may surprise), but I actually have more primes than zooms - but - (a) they're specialty lenses, and (b) I use zooms 20 times as much (if not more).

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Hi Tim,

    An interesting subject that merits discussion. Thanks for the linked article. As it common with a focal length analysis you seem to use your zoom lens at both ends of the zoom range. This just shows that often we think need a bit more adjustment and keep going to the end of the zoom. Then we settle for that rather than the hassle of changing lenses.

    Focal length analysis shows you what you are typically framing. You then need to question how a prime at that focal length would improve the image over a zoom, enough to overcome the negatives as Colin pointed out.

    Primes used to be sharper. That was because zooms used to be very hard to make well. However modern zooms are sharp enough for it not to matter. What a prime can still deliver over a zoom is a very wide aperture, optimised background blur (bokeh), less distortion, smaller size, close focussing and tilt-shift movement. The later 2 are very specialist and so not covered by zooms.

    Distortion:

    If you use the wide lens a lot where it has distortion then your should ask whether it is worth seeking a prime, or buying photoshop to correct it. The distortion should be easy to look up for your lenses and the focal lengths. Given you shoot a lot of wide angle shots then this may be relevant.

    Aperture & Bokeh

    The wide aperture is something you may be able to look at in EXIF with an analysis of the F-stop at which you shot the different focal lengths. You may find that not many shots were done wide open. Question yourself why. Was it the fear of not hitting the lenses sweet spot for performance? If so then a prime would offer you a better choice.

    If you often find yourself out-of-light (night shots, indoor shots, etc) then a wider aperture will help. However if the subject is not moving then I'd prefer image stabilisation or a tripod. Indoors I use a flash.

    If you want to separate the subject from the background then a specialist wide aperture lens will help. However this is not a general walk around lens since it only covers one focal length. So you are back to carrying multiple primes lenses verses having one nice zoom.

    Size:

    Some primes are smaller. However these may be old primes that have not been updated by the manufacturers recently. Manufacturers have been keeping their top-end primes up-to-date for the specialist users. They seem to have let the old primes slip into obscurity, probably because the zooms are now so good. So the size advantage should be evaluated with respect to the specific prime for the focal length in question.


    A flaw in the EXIF analysis is that it can only show you what lengths you had available. My fictional EXIF analysis would have a huge number of shots taken at a 500mm focal length. (Given that this is fiction they would also be great photos I really want to keep.) However the real analysis will only tell you what primes will supplement your current lenses. Do you then sell the zooms?

    Finally it should be pointed out that the best lens is the one you have with you. You will make the most of what you have. It is better than no camera at all.

    Regards,

    Alex

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    There are probably three ongoing arguments in photography...

    Prime vs. zoom

    Flash vs. available light

    IS (or some other shake deterrent) vs. no IS

    Each argument has its merits and its proponents. No argument is 100% correct or 100% wrong. Your style of shooting will determine which is better for you and that solution may or may not be better for another photographer...

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Not being a smart alec, but I prefer not to use primes because they restrict me too much during composition.

    Last September on the Oregon coast while shooting the sea stacks, I mostly used my 24-105, and the EXIF data indicated focal lengths from 24 to 105. And if the zoom would have gone longer I know I would have used a few longer focal lengths.

    Using primes I would have gone crazy changing them all the time as there are so many (infinite) options for framing in this type of topography. And when the tide is coming in, there isn't a lot of time to waste.

    Glenn

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    I'm about as uninspired a hobbyist as there is in photography, so consider the source. But I started out my DSLR photography with a wonderful standard prime as my only lens (the Nikon 35 mm f/1.8 on a D5000 body). I loved it. But I rarely use that lens any more. I have gravitated to a three-lens kit for the most part -- the wonderful Tamron 28-75 f/2.8 for standard focal lengths (my default lens for just about everything); the spectacular Tokina 12-24 f/4 DX II for when I'm trying to capture that nose-pressed-against-the-glass up-close-and-personal look; and the OK-but-not-exciting Nikon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 VR for either when I can't get close enough to my subject otherwise or I want to collapse the apparent distance between subjects in a shot. I hope one day to have enough money to replace the 70-300 with the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII + a Kenko 1.4 TC, at which point I will probably consider my kit complete.

    The point is that looking at the number of times I use one focal lenth over another wouldn't tell much about what lenses I need -- my "compositional space" encompasses all three zooms. If I usually shoot with the standard zoom (and I do), it doesn't mean that the Tokina is not needed. It just means that the shots I usually want to take don't call for that capability. But, when they do, I know exactly where to go to get them. And, in truth, the shots that I am most fond of seem to disproportionately have been taken with the Tokina.

    I think that the reason so few of the shots that I like are taken with the 70-300 is because I have an attitude about the lens, not because it isn't appropriate for most shots that I might take. If I get the 70-200, I expect that I will use it a lot more than the 70-300. If I think of the lens as wonderful, I look for opportunities to participate in its glory. That's just a quirk of my personality, I suppose. But looking at my actual choices of focal length in my existing photos doesn't really take any of that into account. As always, YMMV.

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    A fast Zoom Lens is only a packet of Prime Lenses from which to choose . . .

    that is of course if the Zoom Turret is used correctly.

    WW

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Thanks for all the useful and thought-provoking comments. Interesting to see that people talked more about primes vs zooms rather than the benefits of assessing their own personal shooting style. However, if that's what we prefer to talk about, then here's my take on the subject:

    As you might have noticed from my website, I take travel photos. Where there's not much time available, a zoom is very handy as it allows me to capture, if not the perfect photo then at least useable and saleable ones. Its not ideal though, and if I am lucky enough to photograph at a more leisurely pace, I much prefer to use a prime lens. I believe that most people will take better photos with a prime lens, simply because it forces them to walk around more. With a zoom, there is too much of a temptation just to stand still and zoom in and out. This might provide a pleasing frame, but it will not show how the positions of the different compositional elements will move around in relation to one another, and so affect the final image. A photographer of many years experience who has spent time with primes and is well used to walking about *can* use a zoom properly, choosing the correct lens for the job from William's "packet of primes", but if you start with a zoom and stay with a zoom, I feel you are putting yourself at a disadvantage. Just noticed an article on Ken Rockwell's site:
    http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/fixe...r-pictures.htm
    which goes with this point, and makes others better than I can. I recommend a read of the article.

    Tim, currently in Kuala Lumpur.

    My next big road trip: London to Sydney
    http://www.gnomeplanet.com/trav_tim/...rland_2012.php

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    WOW Tim! That overland trip would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. If only I wasn't 71 years old...

    However, the Ken Rockwell article is as much crap as Ken usually spouts!

    IMO for my style of shooting, there is really nothing better than a pair of top-line zoom lenses for travel photography.

    I often do not have as much time or control over my travel photography as I have over organized shoots closer to home and zoom lenses really are valuable to me because of their versatility.

    My combination of 17-55mm f/2.8 IS and 70-200mm f/4L IS lenses on a pair of 1.6x cameras (I use a 40D and a 7D) is ideal for me. The addition of a second camera in my travel bag has paid off for me both in ease of shooting and as insurance. I fell climbing a slope in Alaska and broke my 40D camera. I had a 30D with me which saved the trip photographically for me. I don't mind the gap between 55 and 70mm but, I would not enjoy reverting back to shooting with primes. Especially these days since we can achieve very good to excellent image quality from high grade zoom lenses.

    At one time, I did a lot of film shooting with a Leica M-2 35mm camera along with 35mm and 90mm lenses. This was a decent combination but certainly not in the same league as my pair of zooms. It was a lot better than a single prime lens but, I missed a lot of images because I either did not have time to change lenses, the environment was to dirty or dusty to change lenses or because I was occasionally too lazy to switch lenses. Note: I used the M-2 Leica and 35mm + 90mm lenses because that was the kit that the Navy purchased and issued to photographers to use.

    I am not a lazy photographer and I am very willing to move around to get the best shot. However, "zooming with your feet" is not always possible or convenient. An example comes to mind of shooting the traffic in downtown Xian, China where I was shooting from the top of the city walls. Using primes would have restricted my coverage to only what the one or two focal lengths covered. Having a 17-55mm and a 70-200mm zoom lens at my disposal allowed for more creative coverage and enabled me to crop in the camera.

    How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Another venue in which my zooms came in handy was at the Terra Cotta Warrior Museum, where I was resticted to the walk around gallery at the sides of the enclosure.

    How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Additionally, the fixed f/2.8 aperture and excellent IS of my 17-55mm zoom also makes it a pretty viable low light glass. IMO, it is better for available light shooting than my 50mm f/1.8.

    How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    www.rpcrowe.smugmug.com
    Last edited by rpcrowe; 23rd January 2012 at 06:01 PM.

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Quote Originally Posted by Tim View Post
    What's the best way to choose a Prime Lens that really suits your photographic style? I had an idea of making use of past photo records to tell me which would be the most useful. See the full article on my website:

    http://www.gnomeplanet.com/tutorial/...prime_lens.php

    Tim, currently in Kuala Lumpur.
    OK, now I'll answer it - as best I can.

    Style of shooting takes some time to develop. At the beginning, we tend to shoot everything and anything; then we start to realize that we have preferences in what we shoot, and also how we shoot it. Perhaps this is style?

    Maybe the question would be easier to answer if it read "choose a Lens" etc. I say this because I have two zoom lenses and two fixed focal length lenses. I had a third zoom lens (sold) because after awhile I realized that a 12-24 mm zoom rarely was used (because of my style).

    I would suggest that choosing any lens can be a gamble, but after some experience, one gets a feeling for it.

    On the subject of your second post, most people will take better photos with a prime lens, simply because it forces them to walk around more.

    If one is lazy or disinterested, nothing will force them to walk around more. If one is motivated and interested in what they are doing, and understands perspective and point of view; whether it's a prime or a zoom seems to be immaterial. I tend to select the tool that's appropriate: a fixed FL macro for closeup/macro, and a fixed FL TSE for landscapes or where the tilt/shift is useful.

    Then there are the points made by Richard about difficult circumstances where one simply can't move enough. Mountains come immediately to mind.

    And in closing - I won't even bother looking at a Ken Rockwell article - Richard pretty well sums him up.

    Glenn

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Quote Originally Posted by Glenn NK View Post

    And in closing - I won't even bother looking at a Ken Rockwell article - Richard pretty well sums him up.

    Glenn
    have to agree about Ken.

    I came across a guy call Allister Freeman who is a wedding photographer (I'm told a good one) who said :

    "There's an old saying that only amateurs can afford professional kit. Well, I'll give you one piece of advice that I rarely see on the blogs or forums and might just save you a penny or two:

    Get ONE camera and ONE prime lens. Buy nothing else until you are so familiar with them that, even without the camera to your eye, you start to see the world in a series of 35mm/50mm images (or whatever focal length you invest in).

    This industry is simply full of too many ex IT professionals obsessed with these tiny little computer thingies that make images. The photographer's ability, or opinion and stance on image making, is an absolute priority and should not be underestimated. If you don't know how to practice your craft, or haven't spent the time learning what makes a good photograph and applying your own unique style, no amount of kit is going to help you."

    I'm not sure I entirely agree with all he says but I do think a prime lens makes you think. In the days of film the kit lens was a 50mm prime and you couldn't just crop so people learnt to compose in the camera.

    and yes I am known to use a travel zoom so what do I know but on my m4/3 camera all I use are a 14 f2.5 and a 20f1.7 (28 and 40 equiv)

    horses for courses

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Quote Originally Posted by thequacksoflife View Post
    "The photographer's ability, or opinion and stance on image making, is an absolute priority and should not be underestimated. If you don't know how to practice your craft, or haven't spent the time learning what makes a good photograph and applying your own unique style, no amount of kit is going to help you."
    I didn't really feel I was qualified to offer comment on this subject but then I figured I could offer up newbie's perspective.

    I started with zooms as everyone tends to do, although none of them are kit lenses. And I'm going to put my hand up as one of those people that relied on the zoom to get the frame that I wanted when I first started off. i do believe that when you're first starting out, there is a tendency to rely on the zoom. Kerry is far more artistic than I can ever hope to be and while she might shift from side to side to change perspective, she rarely moves forward or back.

    i think I really only started doing this myself when I got my 50mm, which sees duty on my camera 90% of the time. That's partially because it's the best quality lens I own, that I take mainly portrait photos, and I do actually enjoy the fact that I have to move around to compose the photo right.

    For me it was more about getting into the habit of doing it - once your in the habit of moving, then I think you can work with zoom lenses and know that you'll change perspective to pick the better shot. These days I move left and right, forward and back, up and down, and occasionally stand on my head to get the composition that I'm looking for

    I think the other key thing is to understand the impact of different focal lengths on a photo. I'm not convinced that a lot of up and coming photographers really get around to understanding the impact of different focal lengths. i know that I didn't. I read more than a few books and forced myself to experiment with photos at fixed focal lengths before I finally begun to understand their effect on composition. Did a prime help in this instance? Not really. I just locked myself into only shooting at 17mm until I understood what photos at this focal length looked like. These days, I tend to think about what focal length I want to shoot a scene in, and then worry about what lens I have on the camera (I don't have many so that's not too big an issue )

    Would I prefer a zoom over a prime? Absolutely. I've been in situations where I really could have used the flexibility and lost a shot because i didn't have it. Can I afford a zoom lens that has the same quality as my prime? Nope. So i'm forced to think faster and more creatively than I would if I had a zoom. Do I mind? Absolutely not. There's a sense of satisfaction one can get from producing a great photo with limited equipment. Of course, that assumes I've actually produced a great photo

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Quote Originally Posted by Tim View Post
    Thanks for all the useful and thought-provoking comments. Interesting to see that people talked more about primes vs zooms rather than the benefits of assessing their own personal shooting style.
    This is a more comprehensive response to the Original Post and also addresses the content of the web linked article.


    Perhaps my first post was mistaken, misinterpreted or misunderstood.
    And also perhaps our definition of “Photographic Style” differs.
    Style (noun) – a distinctive or identifiable form in an artistic endeavour and or a way or method of doing something.


    The purpose of the exercise as stated:
    “In an effort to improve the sharpness and clarity of my travel photography, I have been considering swapping from Zoom lenses to Prime lenses.”

    Certainly harnessing FL data identifies which FL have been used.

    The mean, median and mode of that data could be used to make rational choices, typical of an Accountant or CFO in a company wishing to send the Artists out to do their work in a conforming, disciplined and light weight manner with a set of tools comprising those most usually required to make better technical quality images than if (a set of) zooms were employed . . .


    But this begs the question as to how does one address Photographic Style, when the PHOTOGRAPHIC STYLE calls for the choice of the FL which are not accounted for in the Prime Lens collection (of only three or four Focal Lengths)


    Taking the data in the web link:


    What about all the worthwhile photos taken in the 45 to 70mm range?
    If the bag only has a set of primes: 18, 35, 150 and 300 – where does that leave the Photographic Style to make the 237 worthwhile shots in the 45mm to 70mm FL range?

    Or does one nuke the quality and use the 150mm lens . . . and crop in post?

    ***

    Harnessing the data of FL used with zoom lenses is not new.

    It is a technique used by some educators and mentors, this is how I first came across it and I use it – both with Students and also with W&P Photographers in Workshops.

    With all due respect and no malice intended – my interpretation of the two graphs posted on the link are prima facie indicative of the typical use of zoom lenses, by most Photographers.

    There is no statistical spike of any merit at about 150mm and both lenses are used at the wide (I suggest) by default: simply because the GENRE is mostly landscape work and this data prima facie is NOT indicative of any Photographic Style.


    HOWEVER:

    If one is to interrogate “Photographic Style” then the analysis (beyond the first glance of all those wide angle shots) should be to ask and answer: WHY all those OTHER Focal Lengths chosen. (other than 18mm and 28mm)

    If indeed, there was a definitive, creative and STYLISTIC choice to USE ANY OTHER FOCAL LENGTH than 18mm; 35mm 150mm and 300mm – then that is the data for analysis . . .

    And likely the conclusion would be to have all those Focal Lengths available.

    If we are talking PHOTOGRAPHIC STYLE – then I suggest we throw out the Bean Counter thinking.



    A fast Zoom Lens is only a packet of Prime Lenses from which to choose . . .
    that is of course if the Zoom Turret is used correctly.



    WW
    Last edited by William W; 24th January 2012 at 05:01 AM. Reason: making my bettest grammar

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    I am old enough to remember when there were absolutely no zoom lenses for still cameras which would provide adequate quality. The first zoom lens I ever touched was in 1966; a Nikon 43-86mm for the Nikon F series film SLR cameras. I loved shooting with it but when I viewed my proofs, I put it back in the cabinet and never shot with it again. The image quality was horrible. I later tried a Canon manual focus zoom for 35mm film cameras around the early 1980's. The result was pretty much the same. I didn't like the quality I got from the lens and shot with it only a few times and continued using primes for all my shooting.

    However, when I purchased my first DSLR, I bought a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens and decided, that the image quality was not really too bad. And then, when I replaced this lens with a 24-70mm f/2.8L and a 70-200mm f/4L, I decided that the image quality was great and these would be the lenses I would continue using.

    I was wrong, I replaced the 24-70L with the 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens. It was not that I disliked the image quality of the 24-70L, just that the focal range of 17-55mm was better suited to my 1.6x camera. I replaced the 70-200mm f/4L with the IS model which opened up wide avenues of photographic opportunity.

    Now, I would never use an extended range zoom lens. I have a feeling that many photographers who dislike zoom lenses equate zoom lenses to the extended range 18-200/270mm zooms or the 18-55mm kit zooms. I agree, the quality of these lenses would not be good enough for me and, if they were the only zooms available, I would probably be using primes as I did in my film camera and manual focus days. Heck the marginal quality of the nifty-fifty exceeds many of these type zooms.

    Maybe, and I say MAYBE, some primes produce better image quality than top-line zooms but, except for pixel peepers, top-line zoom lenses, properly used and properly post processed will produce image quality equal to most any use and will often get you the shot you need when you can't get it with your prime.

    The oft-stated statement that "Primes make you a better photographer" is rubbish! What you shoot with has no bearing on your photographic expertise. It may have some bearing on the quality of finished product but, I have yet to see any proof that if you take away a mediocre photographers zoom lens and issue him a prime, you will see an epiphany in his photography. I also doubt that a prime lens users photography will deteriorate if he starts using a zoom lens.
    Last edited by rpcrowe; 24th January 2012 at 01:34 AM.

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Hi Richard

    very interesting response. I was quoting from a longer article which you can find here

    as you can see he doesn't dislike zooms perse and gives his reasons

    I totally agree with you over the travel zooms and I own one! They have a use but I know its the worst lens I own and I suspect it will be sold sooner or later.

    Both zooms and primes have their uses. there isn't a zoom that can give the creamy bokeh of say an 85 f1.4 but then again the flexibility of a good mid range zoom will be useful for some photographers.

    As to your last paragraph I understand what you are saying BUT you've been brought up shooting primes and therefore you've learnt to frame rather than stand somewhere zoom away and then crop it to get what you want on the PC.

    Of course you are right you won't see an epiphiany in a moderate photographers photography but maybe they'll be forced to think......

    kind regards

    Pete

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Quote Originally Posted by William W View Post
    A fast Zoom Lens is only a packet of Prime Lenses from which to choose . . .
    that is of course if the Zoom Turret is used correctly.
    WW
    That last line is the big assumption! I don't think I'd be comfortable just using primes though....

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Quote Originally Posted by Tim View Post
    ... I believe that most people will take better photos with a prime lens, simply because it forces them to walk around more. With a zoom, there is too much of a temptation just to stand still and zoom in and out. This might provide a pleasing frame, but it will not show how the positions of the different compositional elements will move around in relation to one another, and so affect the final image...
    These two ideas can be contradictory. While I agree that most people use a zoom 'incorrectly', if one does understand the relationship between focal length and perspective, then one can, and should, use one's zoom to alter the "the positions of the different compositional elements " and "move around in relation to one another".

    But, you can't do that with a single prime which has been Crazy Glued to your lens mount by a tyrannical photography instructor. You have only one focal length. So, I think there is an argument to be made that new photographers should have a zoom, not a prime, Crazy Glued to their camera mounts so they can learn how to manipulate perspective (which entails using both your zoom ring and your feet), and not be allowed near a prime until they understand the process.

    You have to recognize how to produce this manipulation in the viewfinder before you can look at a scene with your eyes and envision how it will look at different focal lengths.

  18. #18

    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    I don't have a viewpoint on this yet other than to say I feel like I should be the person who shoots only with primes, but I can't tell it if that is because I am looking for the secret sauce to taking a better photo or if it's just cooler to say I shoot nothing but primes. Time will tell. To the original poster a question - just because data is sorted doesn't mean it has meaning, and you can often derive skewed results out of statistics chasing well-intentioned hypotheses. What I mean by this is, and forgive me if I'm wrong, but are you in love with all 2287 photos used in the analysis? If only to verify your hypothesis and result, I think you would be well-served in picking out your top 100 photos, or 50, or whatever number of photos it takes to come up with the group of ones you love and cherish the most and re-run the numbers.

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    The benefits of shooting with a zoom lens are probably very easy to find and aside from weight there are probably very few stands against this type of lens. I would find an article from a photography who only uses a prime and see what their reasonings are and what they view as hurdles. I use both and when I am only traveliing with the prime, I wish I had the zoom and so on. When I went caving a few months ago the 50mm f/1.8 prime or my 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 was the only option and I chose the prime because of its wider aperture. Any lens longer than the 18-55mm would have been dinged and dented by the time I got out of the cave.

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    Re: How to choose the Prime Lens that suits your style

    Quote Originally Posted by Shadowman View Post
    The benefits of shooting with a zoom lens are probably very easy to find and aside from weight there are probably very few stands against this type of lens
    Cost is I think the other issue I think. The higher quality zoom lenses are more expensive than one or two primes, although if you were to get enough primes to cover the zoom range you might be looking at an equivalent cost.

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