To prime or not to prime

To prime or not to prime

Prime or Zoom

For a long time I have had the same lens I’ve used for landscapes on my digital camera with no issue.  I used the Canon 17-40mm L lens and it did all the wide angle shots I wanted with no real issues.  It was light, accepted filters and again it was light! So why now have I chosen to shoot only primes which are so much heavier and bulkier? And believe me the weight difference is considerable.

Medium Format

Recently I set myself a little bit of a challenge to only shoot film when I went out and as with any of the old medium format film cameras the only option is to shoot using prime lenses.  On my Mamiya 645 I only have 3 lenses: 45mm, 80mm and 150mm.  This roughly covers in 35mm format: 28mm, 50mm and 85mm.  So with this set up I had much fewer options available at any one time but yet I was consistently happy with my images and never found composing a shot particularly difficult, I just had to use my legs a little more.

An example here of a shot using the 150mm lens from across a small lake.

An example here of a shot using the 150mm lens from across a small lake.

So when I came back to using my digital camera and I began to have a lot of choices I actually found that I couldn’t decide on which focal length to use or I didn’t trust my gut instinct with my initial composition and would often use the zoom to compose with in the end.  This may work for some people but I found that I spent a lot more time trying to work out the best composition and shoot a large variation of the same scene with slightly differing focal lengths so I could choose later.  I wasn’t happy with this as I didn’t really feel I was understanding how to compose again and I wanted to be able to – as cheesy as this sounds – see the image before I even took out my camera.

Pre-visualisation

I am no compositional expert and I am still learning massively myself but I’m finding that by have only prime lenses now I can pre-visualise a shot much easier and quicker.  This saves me time of setting up to realise I don’t like the image and also of the endless zooming in and out to get the image I like.

To select the primes I wanted to switch to I had a look back through and some of my favourite images to see which focal lengths I generally shot at anyway so I could get something closer to what i would end up shooting anyway.  From what I could see a lot of my shots ended up being around 20mm – 35mm so I decided on a 24mm and a 35mm prime lens as this gave me close to what I would use on a regular basis.  At first I wondered whether it would be limiting but when I went out shooting I realised quite quickly  how close these two lenses end up being anyway so a 24mm-28mm would be negligible anyway.

This is shot on a Sigma Art 24mm Prime Lens

This is shot on a Sigma Art 24mm Prime Lens

This is shot on a Sigma Art 35mm prime Lens

This is shot on a Sigma Art 35mm prime Lens

Hopefully it can be seen int he pictures above how close the 2 focal lengths are.  I like the 35mm as it can help to compress the image a little more than the 24mm but I do feel there is not a lot between them.  This is then what helps me to see the image before I set up.  I now know roughly what each image will frame like within a couple of footsteps of each other and can make a decision much easier and without zooming in and out to try and make a composition fit.  For some people this might work but for me it simply doesn’t!

Sharpness, Distortion, Chromatic Abberation etc

When I was looking into primes this is something I initially researched around primes being sharper with less distortion etc but then I came to my sense and remembered I am generally the limiting factor in my images and with much older lenses I’d produced images I’d been happy with on film that was grainy and no distortion correction.  there are plenty of in-depth reviews and comparisons around if you’d like to know but for me this actually became a very minor reason for my switch.  I also know many photographers producing unbelievable result on the same gear I was using so I am in no way saying this is the only way.

Negatives

There have to be a few downsides to shooting primes only and there are, though they are ones I can happily live with.  The first major draw back is weight – and there is now a lot of it!  With the decent quality primes they tend to be quite large and the bodies of them normally are a mixture of plastic and metal.  This results in having 4-5 pieces of equipment at nearly 1kg each.  For example both of the Sigma lenses I now have are around 660g each and the 70-200mm zoom I have weighs in at 1.3 kg. Add in your camera, filters and a tripod and the weight soon stacks up.  It’s definitely a full commitment.

The cost – it isn’t cheap!  I have had to sell quite a lot of my redundant gear to afford these two lenses but for me I feel it’s worth the exchange.

Changing the lenses – I don’t mind this but sometimes for the difference between 24mm and 35mm I can literally just walk forwards and I have something fairly similar.  I can imagine in more high speed situations this wouldn’t be ideal either, e.g sports, but I think it would just need a little more forward thinking.

 

Overall

I’m not trying to convince anyone to shoot only primes here but I’m hoping this might help anyone who is considering to make the change across.  It’s an expensive change so I think it’s one you need to be sure about before exchange all you own in for a couple of lenses.  My main piece of advice would be to make sure you look at which focal lengths you are most likely to shoot at and not the ones you may shoot at once every 3 months.  You’ll be carrying all that around or it’s money away from buying the next quality level of lens up.  Also, try setting yourself a challenge of only shooting with one focal length on your zooms for a while – can you get used to it or do you yearn for the options a zoom provides.  It’s a much cheaper way of finding out!