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50mm Prime Lens: Prime Lenses Simply Require Two Steps Forward or Two Steps Back

What's a prime lens?
It's a lens that has ONE focal length: 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 135mm for example.  A zoom lens on the other hand may have a range like 24-105mm or 70-200mm.

So why use a prime lens vs. a zoom lens?

Canon 50mm 1.4 Prime Lens

Canon 50mm 1.4 Prime Lens

1) Quality - Although the Canon 50mm 1.4 is pictured on this post, you could get a 1.8 50mm lens Canon for $125 or Nikon for $216 (prices as of this post from B&H) over the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 KIT lens.  You'd be able to shoot in lower light better for one thing and you'd also likely see a difference in image quality for another.

2) Lower f/Stop - I have already mentioned something about the f/stop above, but I will expand on it here.  You will not find a zoom lens with a f/1.4 or f/1.8 lens opening.  Most zooms have a minimum f/2.8 lens opening and you will PAY A PREMIUM for those.  The lower f/stop will allow you to shoot better in low light, but there are also other advantages which in my opinion are often seen in the quality of the image.  However, a Canon "L" 70-200mm f/2.8 will definitely yield some serious quality but it's a BEAST of a lens both in carrying it around and the price.  Although I own it, I do shoot a lot of my in studio portrait work with my 85mm f/1.8 prime lens because it's a great focal length for portraits and is easier to handle than the 70-200mm BEAST.

Why a 50mm lens?
For many years, the standard lens that came with 35mm cameras was a 50mm lens.  In 1981 when I got my first real camera, Pentax ME-Super, it came with a 50mm f/2.0 lens.  There is a reason for that: It's because a 50mm lens is the ideal focal length for standard 35mm and creates a natural look that's neither wide angle or close up like a telephoto prime lens.

I shot a lot of 2 1/4 X 2 1/4 film in the 1980's.  The standard lens for that format which created the same effect as the 50mm on a 35mm camera was an 80mm focal length because the negative was larger thus needing a longer focal length to keep the natural look of the final image like the 50mm prime creates for a 35mm format.

Two Steps Forward and Two Steps Back...What?
As I mentioned above, I shot 2 1/4 film a lot in the 1980's.  As a matter of fact, it's the format that I used for most of the weddings that I shot (I don't do weddings now.).  I had ONE lens. That's right! ONE LENS.  It was the 80mm standard lens that's the 35mm camera equivalent of the 50mm lens.  I shot group shots, candid shots, cake cutting shots, bride and groom leaving the church, getting in the limo, the ceremony from the balcony and any other shots required at a wedding.  I would take two steps forward if I needed to get closer or two steps backwards if I needed to get further away.  My legs were my built in zoom lens feature. With a prime lens, you don't just stand in one spot and zoom in and out.  If you want the shot, you have to MOVE to get it. It's a great way to help you understand composition.

Zoom lenses do serve a purpose and I love shooting with my 70-200mm f/2.8.  However, you should have a PRIME LENS in your bag and a 50mm is a great lens to start with.  Try spending a day walking around shooting with just a 50mm lens.  You'll love it and you'll likely never regret it.

I own several prime lenses and have others on my wish list.  I have also found prime lenses very helpful for shooting DSLR video, but that's another post for another time.

Happy Shooting!

David Williams
Professional Photographer - Raleigh, NC


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David Williams

Short Bio About The Author: I'm David Williams a professional commercial photographer focusing on corporate and business clients with some personal branding, lifestyle photography in the mix. My love for photography began in late 1981 while still in High School. I started making money with his camera in 1982. Brenda, my wife, and I started working together in photography in 1988 shortly after we met. Brenda and I married in 1989 and have two adult daughters. Please be sure to get a quote for services if needed. Call or Text: 919.723.8453. Please reach out to connect with me on LinkedIn.