Advantages of Using Prime lenses over zooms
As a Liverpool wedding photographer, I want to create the most amazing and original images I can for my clients. When I first started as a wedding photographer, Like most people I went for zoom lenses. I used to use the 24-70 f2.8 and the 70-200 f2.8 combination on two cameras. It took a long time for me to realise why the 35mm is the best all-round lens.
I could certainly capture anything I wanted in the room without moving. They are reasonably fast at f2.8 and in combination with the latest high ISO camera bodies you can capture most things without flash. Like most people I was worried I might miss something if I didn’t have every focal length between 24mm and 200mm. There are many reasons why I use prime lenses for my wedding photography, I will try to explain in more detail why primes are so much better than zoom lenses.
Weakness as strength
The one major perceived advantage of the zoom (the actual ability to zoom) I think is its biggest weakness from an artistic perspective. And the commonly perceived wisdom that a prime lens biggest weakness is its fixed focal length is again actually its greatest strength. That is quite a statement I just made, and if you bear with me I will explain why.
Having a zoom makes you lazy and stops you thinking as hard about composition and different viewpoints. Because you have (in the case of the 24-70) a 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm (just short of the classic 85mm) you don’t think in terms of the focal length. You don’t think ‘this scene will look good zoomed to 35mm’, you usually will just zoom until it looks kind of ‘right’. So when you look through your images in Lightroom you will see loads of different focal lengths as you were zooming away.
If you are papping the guests and you raise your 24-70mm zoom to shoot, you will more than likely zoom in to just around the subjects you want to photograph. Not only are you not pre-visualising you waste precious time zooming then spot focussing and then re-composing. Even though this takes a very short time relatively, you are more likely to miss the moment you were trying to capture. With a prime lens you have already seen (pre-visualised) the scene and all you have to do now is to centre focus and re-compose. Not having to zoom will save you time to capture more moments. As my confidence and ability grew in my journey as a wedding photographer, I started noticing that some of my best compositions were usually at the end of the zoom range of that particular lens. And if you follow me that is my point about why zooms are really a hindrance to your real creativity.
Discovering the superiority of primes with the limits of a zoom
A shot I was particularly pleased with earlier on in my career, I noticed that I had framed the subjects within an ornamental background. It looked like I had set the shot up using the background as a framing device. Checking in Lightroom I noticed I was at 70mm. I realised that at the end of the focal length of the zoom there is no more ‘zoom’ so I had to compose the scene as I was seeing it through the lens. This made my composition more thoughtful and I had incorporated the background elements more stylishly. That was my first step in realising the improvement in composition with a fixed-length lens. This is why I think primes are superior to zooms artistically.
A different approach
When you start using prime lenses you start being able to see what the scene in front of you will look like with that particular focal length. Zooming impairs your ability to compose the scene, and you miss the opportunity to incorporate different elements into your final composition and thus your images are more one-dimensional and less interesting.
With a prime lens, you learn to compose your shots more deliberately and more creatively. Also because you are not wasting time zooming, you will capture more ‘moments’. Have you ever seen the small lens most film directors have around their necks? Chances are it’s a 35mm lens. The director uses it to ‘see’ what the scene in front of him will look like when filmed. He is pre-visualising his movie.
Primes are lighter and less obtrusive.
I use two bodies with a leather harness, with two combinations of prime lenses. I use the 24mm and 50mm as a working pair and also the 35mm and 85mm as another combo. Both combinations are tiny compared to my old set-up of the Nikon 24-70 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8. You are carrying much less weight so have more energy later on in the day. You are also less obtrusive which allows you to mingle more and get closer to your subjects. You definitely capture more intimate moments. I remember trying to navigate through the guests with my zooms, especially the Nikon 70-200 which I literally bashed into kids one more than one occasion!
Primes make you work harder and think more critically about your composition.
Even if you don’t zoom with your feet, primes make you think about your composition more because you cannot zoom elements of the image out of the frame. You must incorporate the elements more thoughtfully and intuitively. You will take more risks with your composition as you compose with what you see in your viewfinder, and not what you zoom into it.
You will learn to “see” in that focal length.
Like the film director with the 35mm lens around his neck, you will be able to better pre-visualise the scene in front of you with the lens you have on your camera. You have learned what things look like with that particular lens so are better able to creatively capture the scene. Thus you will develop your own look or style much more than using zooms.
Primes are faster and more intuitive.
Because you are getting better at pre-visualising you don’t need to zoom, and waste precious time when trying to capture the scene. You are just focussing, which will result in more captured moments with better composition.
The perceived limitation of a fixed length lens actually frees your imagination
If you look through the portfolio of some of the more famous photographers from the twentieth century, you will notice they have a certain look and style that is consistent in their work. This is because they used prime lenses, and usually a 35mm or 50mm lens. Because you have to think more about your composition, you will become more imaginative with your framing and become more adventurous with your composition. You will also learn which focal length you prefer to work with and so start creating your own look and style too.
You get in closer to your subjects
Because you don’t look like a paratrooper with your full frame camera and huge zoom lenses, you will be able to get closer to your subjects. Although some of the latest full-frame Sigma Art lenses are not tiny, they are compared to a full-frame zoom lens. A smaller camera and lens is less noticeable and more importantly less intimidating to your subjects. I find people accept you more as the photographer and are less likely to look at you when you point a camera their way.
Better low light photography
The biggest advantage of primes is their light gathering ability. A prime at f1.4 is gathering 4 times as much light than at f2.8. I just don’t use my flashes any more; there is no need, even in winter.
A maxed-out ISO at 6400 and a shutter speed of 1/30 suddenly becomes a very usable 1/120. You really are more invisible in the evening without that on-camera flash giving you away and making the lighting flat and uninteresting. You will start to understand and work with the natural lighting more, again improving the quality of your images.
Wide Aperture – Shallower depth of field – More beautiful Bokeh
At f1.4 you can use your 35mm and isolate any subject in the room at any distance. So you can use objects in the foreground and in the background as framing devices. At f2.8 these objects have too much definition and distract, rather than become abstract shapes at f1.4 A subject at 85mm and f1.4 will pop your subject with a background of pure colour and shape. You just can’t get that look with zooms, especially at the wide end.
Primes are sharper
The latest primes are sharp at f1.4 If you stop them down to f2.8 they will blow your f2.8 zoom out of the water.
Your standard zoom has a lot more barrel and pincushion distortion than an equivalent prime. Chromatic aberration and vignetting are much more prevalent too.
Switching to primes
If you are keen to switch to primes, next time you edit a wedding look at your metadata in Lightroom and identify which focal length you use the most. You could hire a prime lens with the focal length identified in Lightroom for your next wedding or buy a cheap second-hand f1.8. At your next wedding have a go for 15 minutes during the bridal preps, the drinks reception and evening time before the first dance. You can pop it on your camera and go for a walk once a week to learn how to see with that focal length.
If you are serious about documentary wedding photography primes will help you get closer and capture more. Switching to primes has been a real game-changer for me. It has improved my photography, and my approach to my weddings massively. Get a cheap 50mm and have some fun, I promise you will improve your photography too!