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Thread: Prime and Zoom Lenses

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    Deucalion's Avatar
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    Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Hi everyone... I have a question about prime and zoom lenses... I've been reading a lot about digital photography I've always come across the comment that a prime lens is a good lens to have for a beginner specifically mentioned is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM prime lens would that be a good place for a beginner like me to start? and would it fit my Canon 60D?

    I have an 18-135mm IS kit lens that came with the Canon 60D and I have no complaints about it

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Hi Reginald,

    I think that depends upon how comfortable you are with the equipment that you have. The 50mm lens can be really useful for learning composition (at least that's why I got one recently ), and a good portrait lens in the long run. It is also faster than kit lens, which can be useful for handheld photos and during low-light situations.

    However, with an effective focal length of 80mm, it is not very useful as a general purpose single lens. The 35mm prime might be more suitable for that. If you are just starting out, my suggestion would be to stick to the kit lens for the time being as you can take a wider variety of photos with that. Later, you can buy lenses, primes or zooms, as per your needs and interest.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Quote Originally Posted by Deucalion View Post
    I've been reading a lot about digital photography I've always come across the comment that a prime lens is a good lens to have for a beginner specifically mentioned is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM prime lens would that be a good place for a beginner like me to start? and would it fit my Canon 60D?
    Hi Reg,

    I've heard that too, but to be honest, I don't agree with it.

    One upon a time there was the argument that "primes were sharper than zooms", and whilst technically it MAY still be true, these days the reality is that the sharpness of both primes AND zooms are MORE than adequate. Put another way, there's really no reason to choose prime over zoom when it comes to sharpness anymore.

    So really it comes down to primes usually having a small advantage when it comes to maximum apertures (like F1.8 -v- typically F2.8 -> F5.6 for most zooms) - BUT - (and as you can see, it's a BIG but), (a) using a lens wide-open is likely to restrict you to a razor thin depth of field, and (b) modern cameras have such fantastic high-ISO performance, the days of us NEEDING wide apertures to "get the shot" are pretty much behind us.

    So zooms are fast enough - they're sharp enough - and they enjoy a tremendous versatility by virtue of their variable focal length.

    Personally, I think many people look at the results they can get from a fixed focal length differently to what I do -- it's not that folks can't get a great shot with the nifty fifty, the problem is that the ONLY shot you can take with them is the type of shot that suits them. I like to take the approach "this is the scene presented to me - now what tools do I need to capture it" sometimes the answer is 14mm ...

    Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Sometimes it's 400mm ...

    Prime and Zoom Lenses

    If all you have is 50mm then in both cases, you're sunk.

    So I think of prime lenses as specialist tools for specialist uses whereas zooms are the general-purpose workhorses of the industry. If all you have is a hammer, you'd better hope the problem is a nail. On the other hand, if you have a swiss army knife, you'll be far better equipped to handle a far wider variety of problems. Zooms are the "swiss army knifes" of photography.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    I think that Colin said all that has to be said... and I think he is right.
    the only think I would add is that in some cases prime lenses are a cheaper way to obtain a very good results
    In exempl. , for portrait shots, using a cheap 50mm f1.8 can leads to results hard to be achieved with a cheap zoom as 18-135mm,
    portait zooms as the 24-70 f2.8 are much more expensive
    isn't it?
    N

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    I like primes a lot, especially in the "standard" range. The most important problem I find with zooms is that they make me lazy. You may have more character than I do, so this may not be an issue for you. But I find that I think a lot more about composition when I'm going to have to move my ass anyway than I do when I can just twist my wrist to change the framing. Furthermore, I find that I give essentially no thought to the (back-to-front) perspective change and depth of field differences when I zoom, but I give a lot of thought to that sort thing when I need to select a different lens. There isn't anything chiselled in stone about not thinking about these things when using a zoom: I just don't do it when it involves so little effort.

    Secondarily, there is a huge difference in brightness between f/1.x and f/2.8 or worse. There are lots of available-light photos that I simply could not take at ISO 3200 with a zoom lens that I can take without problems using a bright prime. Colin's point of view just doesn't line up with my experience at all on this matter. My first bright prime made a huge difference in my attitude as a photographer. I simply expected to be able to shoot anything that I could see. Assuming that any shot is within reach of your equipment really changes your attitude as a photographer IME. Of course, YMMV.

    I should add that I like zooms for out-of-standard focal lengths. For example, I have the Tokina 12-24mm f/4. The thing that I really like about this lens is that UWA is so specialized that I often feel the need to get away from it. 24mm is close enough to standard to allow me to shoot without changing lenses in many contexts. So, for example, I expect to use the Tokina when I tour Montecello later this spring -- I'll want a single lens, and this is a narrow enough zoom that it isn't as crappy as a travel zoom, but wide enough that I can take the entire tour without feeling that I needed more lenses. Again, YMMV.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Quote Originally Posted by tclune View Post
    I like primes a lot, especially in the "standard" range. The most important problem I find with zooms is that they make me lazy.
    I don't mean to be sarcastic, but simply want to point out an error in the above statement.

    Sugar can "make you" fat, caffeine can "make you" jumpy; and alcohol can "make you" intoxicated.

    However, a lens cannot "MAKE" you lazy. A more accurate statement might be, 'When I use a zoom lens "I CHOOSE TO BE LAZY".

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Using a zoom often enables me to keep my feet dry when standing on a quayside or beach, etc. It also prevents me from falling down a cliff in an attempt to get closer.

    More a case of being necessary than lazy.

    Both zooms and primes have their place, depending on your location and/or subject material.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Quote Originally Posted by tclune View Post
    There are lots of available-light photos that I simply could not take at ISO 3200 with a zoom lens that I can take without problems using a bright prime.
    ... and if that's the type of photo that you like to take then that is indeed "good territory" for the use of that specialist capability of a prime lens. On the "flip side" though, I would argue that most people probably don't take natural light photos of "bats in their cave" as a matter of course, and thus would probably lose a lot more shots due to not having the correct focal length available.

    Colin's point of view just doesn't line up with my experience at all on this matter. My first bright prime made a huge difference in my attitude as a photographer. I simply expected to be able to shoot anything that I could see.
    If by "shoot anything that I could see" you mean "correctly expose anything you could see" then I'm sure that the fast nature of the prime went a long way towards this - however, again, - what's the point of either a correctly exposed photo that 'fails to fly" because it's at totally the wrong focal length, or not being able to take the shot in the first place due to an incorrect focal length lens being the only option available?

    If one is a mechanic and all one has is a 10mm spanner - then if one is faced with only 10mm bolt heads then all is sweet - unfortunately (as in life), the average car will have 10mm, 12mm, 17mm, 8mm bolt heads - at which point the mechanic with only 1 sized spanner can't complete his mission, whereas the mechanic with the adjustable spanner gets the job done.

    Assuming that any shot is within reach of your equipment really changes your attitude as a photographer IME.
    Yes, but that's an assumption that just doesn't pan out in the real world, IMO. With only a fixed focal length one is going to be limited to only shots that suit that focal length; I don't think a mechanic who limited himself to cars with only 10mm bolt heads would be very successful, although I'm sure he would be very very good at undoing 10mm bolts!
    Last edited by Colin Southern; 20th April 2011 at 11:07 PM.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Quote Originally Posted by Colin Southern View Post
    Hi Reg,
    So really it comes down to primes usually having a small advantage when it comes to maximum apertures (like F1.8 -v- typically F2.8 -> F5.6 for most zooms) - BUT - (and as you can see, it's a BIG but), (a) using a lens wide-open is likely to restrict you to a razor thin depth of field, and (b) modern cameras have such fantastic high-ISO performance, the days of us NEEDING wide apertures to "get the shot" are pretty much behind us.

    If all you have is a hammer, you'd better hope the problem is a nail. On the other hand, if you have a swiss army knife, you'll be far better equipped to handle a far wider variety of problems. Zooms are the "swiss army knifes" of photography.
    I think Colin said most of it. The only thing that I would add is that the maximum apertures (apart from speed) have another nice feature compared to some of the slower zooms. If you like to shoot with bokeh in your photo, some of the fast lenses give better results.
    When I compare my 18-200mm F3.5-5.6 zoom with the 50mm F1.8 isee a clear difference in this respect.

    And a Swiss Army knife can't really be used to hammer nails with. It's too light and plasticy for that.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Quote Originally Posted by Letrow View Post
    And a Swiss Army knife can't really be used to hammer nails with. It's too light and plasticy for that.
    Actually ... I carry a CyberChamp model that's pretty wide - and it has quite a bit of metal across the back ... and I actually have used it as a makeshift hammer. Not something I recommend though as it's not particularly kind to the metal (although it really depends on what I'm hitting of course).

    Tell you what though - in all seriousness - if I had to be stranded on a desert island with only a few things, my swiss army knife would definately be top of the list, by a long long way ... I use it many times each day, and there's nearly always a tool I can use/abuse to get a job done. It's not always the ideal tool, but 49 times out of 50 it gets the job done.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Quote Originally Posted by Colin Southern View Post
    Tell you what though - in all seriousness - if I had to be stranded on a desert island with only a few things, my swiss army knife would definately be top of the list, by a long long way ... I use it many times each day, and there's nearly always a tool I can use/abuse to get a job done. It's not always the ideal tool, but 49 times out of 50 it gets the job done.
    Well I am a fan too, it is nice and full of gadgets. Over the years though I have also acquired a Leatherman Wave. I'd take that one to the island, as it is much tougher and more practical. And can actually be used as a hammer, because it is all metal (but still too light for real hammering).

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Standard and Telephoto zooms are definitely a good tool to carry. Prime lenses are best for shots that you want very sharp and a very narrow focal length. Zoom lenses can be just as sharp as a prime, but usually require more light for the same exposure.

    I have a 50mm F1.4 that is a fun lens. I took it with me on a vacation to the Caribbean and only used it on a few photos. I used my 28-135mm and a 14mm F2.8 much more than the 50mm. The 50mm is a favorite to me.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Prime lenses have changed everything for me. I started out with Canons 24-70mm but eventually saw the value in Primes. Now I shoot with them only and WOW am I ever happy. My fave lens is the 135mm 2L lens. The one to two extra stops does make a major difference for so many factors. Give Primes a try and you'll see the value.

    I do however use one zoom and thats the 17-40mm 4L lens.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Interesting thread ... good to read so many diverse points of view. One comment from a 'rank amateur' is that they are generally smaller and lighter so if you are off somewhere where 'zoom me in Scotty' is not planned/needed then they are excellent. I have a 35mm prime and use it a lot ... can crop quite a bit also if I want to 'zoom'. Probably not the way's of professionals but its OK for me ... though I ain't doing so well in recent comps

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Just about everything that needs to be said on this subject has already been said, but I'd like to add something.

    Although one of the reasons for having a a fast prime is, as Colin insinuates, that it lets a lot of light in (fast), and with today's high ISO cameras that's not so much of a concern anymore, what they ALSO do is give you a shallow depth of field. You can't generally get such a shallow depth of field on a zoom so you can't isolate as well (although to some extent you can replicate the effect by blurring the background digitally).

    For example I have a 50mm f1.2, and that's a really interesting lens to use for people portraits precisely because it produces such a narrow depth of field - not because it just lets in a lot of light ie under dark conditions.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    I love love love my 35mm 1.8 for indoor low-light occasions.....family events, parties, restaurants, binge drinking/blackmail etc. and under those circumstances my goal is to capture some photos purely for historical value. Its definitely a crap shoot, depending on the venue you're still kinda screwed, but at least with 1.8 or 1.4 or you have some sort of chance of capturing something......while you're saving your pennies, nickles and dimes for an SB-900

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    At the risk of beating a dead horse...

    I have nothing against prime lenses. I cut my teeth on prime lenses and of course used them in the years before still camera zooms of any quality were available. I have both zooms and primes but, except for my long telephoto lenses and for my macro lens; I shoot virtually all of my imagery with top-line zoom lenses...

    I hear prime lenses touted as being so much sharper than zooms. Sure, many primes are sharper than many zooms (especially when the zooms are not top-line) but, quality zooms provide all the sharpness I need for my uses. I seldom enlarge any image past 11x14 inch (or metric equivalent) and my pair of go-to zooms is perfectly capable of providing enough quality to make those enlargements and probably a lot larger prints...

    Additionally, I tend to do most of my cropping in the camera and need very little post processing cropping. I can do this because I carry a pair of 1.6x cameras with 17-55mm f/2.8 IS and 70-200mm f/4L IS lenses providing a focal range of 17-200mm at my finger tips (I don't miss the 55-70mm gap)...

    If I were shooting with primes, I could only "crop in the camera" from two lens to subject distances (only one if I were using a single camera instead of two). Proponents of the "prime only" systems love to glibly state "Just crop with your feet!" That is an over used cliche. Cropping with one's feet is possible only in certain instances and while the photographer is foot cropping, the subject may have been using its own feet to get away. Additionally, often cropping with one's feet means a walk of a hundred meters or more and/or travel across rivers, canyons or other barriers...

    Since I use virtually all of my frame for my final image, my zooms probably provide an advantage against primes in which the prime lens photographer (unless in the serendipity exact place to frame with his lens) needs to use a wider lens and then crop what the photographer needs out of a partial image....

    Additionally, the creative use of flash - be it a portable hotshoe flash bounced off-camera or studio flashes with softboxes or umbrellas will negate the absolute need for exceptionally fast lenses. Available light purists often disregard the fact that what light there is available is often not the best for photography and when they use the widest apertures, their DOF is incredibly thin...
    Last edited by rpcrowe; 28th April 2011 at 03:59 AM.

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    Re: Prime and Zoom Lenses

    Quote Originally Posted by rpcrowe View Post
    At the risk of beating a dead horse...
    Oh brother, I hear you!

    I have nothing against prime lenses. I cut my teeth on prime lenses and of course used them in the years before still camera zooms of any quality were available. I have both zooms and primes but, except for my long telephoto lenses and for my macro lens; I shoot virtually all of my imagery with top-line zoom lenses...
    I actually have more primes than zooms ... and it's STILL the zooms that are on my camera most of the time.

    I hear prime lenses touted as being so much sharper than zooms. Sure, many primes are sharper than many zooms (especially when the zooms are not top-line) but, quality zooms provide all the sharpness I need for my uses. I seldom enlarge any image past 11x14 inch (or metric equivalent) and my pair of go-to zooms is perfectly capable of providing enough quality to make those enlargements and probably a lot larger prints...
    Well said. I'm making images up to 66" wide shot with my zooms, and they're still fine.

    If I were shooting with primes, I could only "crop in the camera" from two lens to subject distances (only one if I were using a single camera instead of two). Proponents of the "prime only" systems love to glibly state "Just crop with your feet!" That is an over used cliche. Cropping with one's feet is possible only in certain instances and while the photographer is foot cropping, the subject may have been using its own feet to get away. Additionally, often cropping with one's feet means a walk of a hundred meters or more and/or travel across rivers, canyons or other barriers...
    I think it's probably true to say that it's easy to get ** A *** shot with a prime ... it's just not always that easy to get *** THE SHOT THAT YOU WANT *** with a prime.

    Since I use virtually all of my frame for my final image, my zooms probably provide an advantage against primes in which the prime lens photographer (unless in the serendipity exact place to frame with his lens) needs to use a wider lens and then crop what the photographer needs out of a partial image....
    A point that's often over-looked.

    Additionally, the creative use of flash - be it a portable hotshoe flash bounced off-camera or studio flashes with softboxes or umbrellas will negate the absolute need for exceptionally fast lenses. Available light purists often disregard the fact that what light there is available is often not the best for photography and when they use the widest apertures, their DOF is incredibly thin...
    I'd like to think that I'm known for pretty good lighting ... and with the possible exception of shots aided by a reflector, I can honestly say that the number of quality shots I have - taken with natural light only (talking portraiture here) - number pretty close to zero. Again, I'm not saying it can't be done, but more often than not it's going to be a struggle, and I'd much rather make things easier, not harder. I suspect that the majority who "prefer" fast glass purely for salvaging low light scenes probably just don't understand flash lighting. I know that probably sounds harsh - and I appreciate that there are many exceptions - but I do feel that that's probably an accurate statement (and yes, for many years, I was one of them).

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