A Prime Example

Is a fixed focal length better than a zoom? Well, some say it’s just personal preference, others will argue that primes give better image quality whilst the rest will kick their heels in never to let go of that all encompassing zoom. As you can guess it’s a debate that has been going on for a long time and will never go away. So, here are my two pennies worth.

Firstly, a few technical considerations to set the scene. As a general rule primes do give better image quality (image quality is not necessary due to the lens so lets assume optical quality here) than zooms. Optically they are significantly less complex in design and easily allow for well corrected aberrations. Distortion is usually less (personally a big deal with using film) because whilst a zoom has to compromise a prime is the best it can be at that focal length. Bokeh (out of focus areas) and falloff are also more pleasing and predictable. And lastly, primes can have much faster maximum apertures. A very big advantage and the main technical reason why I will always choose a good prime over a zoom. Now yes, in the age of DSLR’s with high ISO performance this may not be much of an issue but you’d be surprised what an extra couple of stops of light gathering ability can do for you. Handheld available light shooting can produce some very impressive and incredibly real images. On the flip side of the coin, a good zoom is incredibly convenient and will let you shoot what would otherwise have escaped you. I often wish I had a larger zoom on my DSLR to capture and document moments that present themselves. That said, I rarely go out to ‘create’ an image with my digital zoom.

Now, apart from all that I’ve mentioned above, there is one creative reason why I feel that a prime is worth the extra effort. Once you get use to your fast 20mm or 50mm you start to ‘see’ as it does. Or at the least, you can quickly recognise what a scene will look like at that focal length and where you need to be to get the best results. Your mind has already formed the picture so you can get into position and simply fine tune. Now this doesn’t happen overnight but it sure beats wandering around zooming in and out because you can’t make up your mind. Primes also have the advantage of being smaller and weighing less giving you that much needed freedom of movement when you need to start running because the light fading. Still not convinced? A good prime is cheap so go and give it a try. You may be pleasantly surprised.