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Prime Numbers

April 21, 2011 - Dave Hecei
Having the latest digital SLR is cool. Having the latest technology is mostly a convenience. You might have a faster shutter, ultra-sensitive sensor, and great metering system to help you in creating a great photograph. The camera body is only a small part of a system. A great lens is crucial in producing great photographs. And a prime lens is one that will help you do just that.

When you buy into a camera system, whether it be Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Sony, etc., the best place to invest your money is in glass. Lenses are what really make photography possible and great lenses can help you produce great photographs. Buy the best lens you can afford and then buy the best camera body you can afford. The lenses you buy today will work now and likely 10 years from now. When you can afford to upgrade to a new camera body or upgrade to a more advanced model, your lenses will still work on newer bodies in the same system (of course Nikon lenses won’t work on Canon bodies and vice-versa).

I like to think that there are essentially three types of lenses for SLR cameras – zoom, macro, and prime. A zoom lens is sort of how it sounds. Lenses come in various focal lengths from wide-angle to telephoto. Zoom lenses are designed to ‘zoom’ from two focal lengths. Popular DSLR zooms come in ranges like – 12-24mm, 17-55mm, 28-135mm, 70-210mm, 18-250mm, and 100-400mm. These are just a few of the hundreds to choose from, depending on your camera manufacturer.

A macro lens is a special purpose type lens. It allows the camera to focus extremely close to a subject. I love macro photography so I have owned a few macro lenses over the years. A macro lens is a special design that usually is a single focal length, special lens elements to allow for a very flat focal plane, and extra long focusing threads allowing the lens to focus extremely close to a subject.

This brings us to the Prime Lens. Today zoom lenses are dominant. This has been helped by sophisticated computer designs and specialty glass formulas that have allowed zooms to have excellent performance. But back in the days before the zoom was king, prime lenses ruled. A prime lens is simply just a single focal length lens.

When I first started using 35mm film cameras, most every SLR sold came with a 50mm lens. To create your system back then you also had a couple wide-angle lenses (20mm, 24mm, 28mm, or 35mm) and a couple telephoto lenses (85mm, 100mm, 135mm, 200mm, 300mm, or 400mm).

Since a prime lens is just one focal length the design of the lens is much more simplistic. Since there is less glass for light to go through, prime lenses are sharper, faster (allows more light through), and have less distortion than a zoom lens. They are also less expensive.

Another way to go is to combine lenses. If you like shooting flowers, insects, or any very small subject then why not get a Macro lens. Instead of buying a 200mm prime lens, get a 180mm or 200mm Macro lens. The cost will likely be similar, plus a macro lens is ultra sharp and more versatile.

There really is only one negative to a prime lens, it’s only a single focal length. This makes a prime lens less versatile than a zoom. When shooting you have to move either closer or further away from your subject, to properly frame the image. This is not in any way a major flaw. Just think of it as less convenient. Amazingly sharp and colorful photographs will easily offset this inconvenience.

For DSLRs with APS-C sized sensors, the best prime lens to start with is the 50mm (either the f/1.8 or f/1.4 - whichever you can afford). This is the least expensive lens from most manufacturers and acts as a slight telephoto lens on APS-C models making it great for portraits. A 50mm f/1.8 can be found from $100-$150. Other popular choices are 24mm, 28mm or 30mm, 85mm, 100mm or 105mm, and 200mm or 300mm. Pricing will vary depending on the speed of the lens, or what the largest aperture is. A 300mm f/4 is slower than a 300mm f/2.8 but will be priced about one half to one quarter the price. (The Canon 300mm f/4 IS L is $1400 while the 300mm f/2.8 is almost $5000)

It’s best to stick with the camera makers lenses, but third party lens makers do a pretty good job these days. Sigma is really becoming a major lens manufacturer who has many prime lenses to choose from – everything from 4.5mm to 800mm.


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