Brian's Photo Blog — Article 322
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Mystical Union With Ansel Adams Via Prime Lenses?
Thursday 8 May 2014   —   Category: Shooting
About a year and a half ago, I wrote in my article Micro Four Thirds Lens Kit Revisited,
I’m dreaming about going on some experimental outings — perhaps to Portland, or the OSU campus in Corvallis — and take ONLY prime lenses with me. On one hand, it would be quite limiting to take pictures without any zoom lenses. But on the other hand, it would be an interesting challenge, and I believe it would sharpen my photographic skills.
Because that was around the time I started to get fed up with photography, I never turned that dream into reality until now. Last week I went on a photo outing to McDowell Creek Falls County Park, leaving my four zoom lenses at home and taking only my five primes.

Why would I do such a thing? Why would I even buy prime lenses in the first place? Will such a practice really make me a better photographer? Or have I merely fallen prey to myths, propaganda, and out-of-date information? These are excellent questions which I will ponder and attempt to answer in the remainder of this article.

If you do a search on Google for the advantages of prime lenses, you will find hundreds and even thousands of articles which tout the benefits of going prime. For an article which might represent many of the others, see Five Reasons You Should Be Using Prime Lenses. It could be possible to group these advantages into two categories — what I would call the “physical” advantages and the “metaphysical” advantages. Let’s start first with the physical ones (not in any particular order).
  1. One common claim is that the build-quality of prime lenses is generally superior to that of zoom lenses because there are fewer moving parts and fewer glass lens elements. Prime lenses are simpler and easier to build, whereas complicated zoom lenses are more prone to manufacturing faults and limitations.
  2. A prime lens has to produce a good, sharp image at only one focal length, whereas a zoom lens has to try to achieve the same level of image quality at a wide range of focal lengths, which is much more difficult.
  3. Primes lenses are generally faster than zoom lenses. The maximum aperture of primes lenses are often in the f/1.2 to f/2 range, while zooms are, at best, in the f/2.8 to f/4 range. Because of this larger aperture on primes, a number of benefits are touted:
    • Because more light reaches the camera sensor, either the shutter speed can be increased, reducing image blur, or the ISO can be lowered, reducing image noise. It’s also less likely you will need to use a tripod.
    • The depth of field is reduced, resulting in an out-of-focus background (and foreground) which causes the subject of the photo to stand out more.
    • The aesthetic quality of the highlights in the out-of-focus portions of the image (called bokeh) is generally more pleasing.
  4. On the whole, prime lenses tend to be significantly cheaper than zooms, but there are exceptions.
  5. Primes are generally smaller and lighter lenses, while zoom lenses are usually bigger and heavier.
  6. Because prime lenses are smaller, they require filters which are also smaller and cheaper than the filters for the larger zoom lenses.
When we turn our attention to what I would call the metaphysical (beyond the physical) benefits of prime lenses, things get murkier and less well-defined. Broadly speaking, there are many articles which claim that using prime lenses instead of zooms will make you a better photographer. How’s that? Continuing with our list above, specific aspects include:
  1. By developing your composition skills. Rather than composing your shot by standing in one place and merely rotating the zoom ring, it is argued that physically changing your position by moving closer to or further from the subject, and perhaps even changing the camera angle to the subject by moving from side to side, will teach you to consider different perspectives and help you discover better compositions.
  2. It is further argued that by using a zoom lens, the photographer becomes more passive in his composition, and limits his creative choices by relying on the zoom lens rather than on physically changing his position relative to the subject. Moving around and considering different perspectives makes the photographer much more engaged in his compositional choices.
  3. Taking these concepts even further into the metaphysical realm, it is claimed that using prime lenses will cause you to “see” better, whatever that means exactly, and however that is somehow achieved.
  4. Some talk of using prime lenses instead of zooms as a way of getting back to the primordial roots of photography. They argue that the past masters of photography didn’t use zoom lenses (because they didn’t even exists back then), therefore, if we want to get back to the fundamentals of photography as these ascended masters practiced it, we should follow their example of using only prime lenses.
  5. A few extremists may even feel that they can tap into the creative spirit of these past masters by emulating their technique and the type of photographic equipment they used.
Do these claimed advantages of using prime lenses instead of zooms hold any water, or are they only so much babble and propaganda? Let’s examine the main points, using my own Micro Four Thirds lenses, and my recent outing to McDowell Creek Falls County Park, as concrete examples.

I took all five of my prime lenses with me, all made by Olympus: 12mm, 25mm, 45mm, 60mm macro, and 75mm. Keep in mind that because of µ4/3’s 2x focal length multiplier, these lenses have a 35mm equivalence of 24mm, 50mm, 90mm, 120mm and 150mm, respectively.

My normal practice would be to rely mostly on zooms. Two of my Panasonic lenses would cover the entire focal length range (and more) of the five primes: my 12-​35​mm f/2.8 (24-​70​mm equivalent) and its big brother, the 35-​100​mm f/2.8 (70-​200​mm equivalent).

Now that I have set the stage with my two groups of lenses — five primes vs. two zooms — let’s examine each of the touted advantages listed above and see if they really live up to the claims of their proponents.
  1. While it is true that prime lenses are less complex than zooms, it is also true that the two Panasonic zoom lenses under consideration have excellent build quality, with metal barrels and weather sealing. In contrast, none of my prime lenses have weather sealing, and only two have metal barrels (12mm and 75mm) — the other three have plastic barrels. Unfortunately, nebulous terms like “build quality” can mean different things to different people.
  2. I came back from McDowell Creek with 83 photos. When examining them in Adobe Lightroom at 100% magnification, I was not at all wowed by the incredible sharpness of the images. In fact, in some of the photos I was disappointed by a lack of sharpness. Overall, I would say that the image quality from my primes is no better, nor any worse, than the quality from these two zoom lenses.
  3. Three of my primes (25mm, 45mm, 75mm) have a maximum aperture of f/1.8, which is one-and-one-third stops faster than the maximum aperture of f/2.8 on the two zooms. My 12mm prime, an f/2.0 lens, is only one stop faster, while the 60mm macro prime has the same f/2.8 maximum aperture as the zooms. For this outing, the extra speed of the primes was no benefit at all. Because I wanted long exposures in order to smooth the motion of the running water, almost all of the shots were taken with the lens stopped down to f/18! However, under other conditions, I could imagine that the faster speed of the prime lenses could be a definite advantage, even though they are not that much faster than the zooms.

    On the other hand, I have found that when shooting with my 75mm prime wide open at f/1.8, it is VERY easy to have a depth of field that is too shallow. This was especially evident when I was taking close-up photos of leaves. Sixteen of the images in the Autumn Leaves 2012 album were made with the 75mm prime. The pictures I took at f/1.8 or f/2 were not what I was wanting, because the depth of field was too shallow, causing most of the subject leaf to be out of focus, as you can see in the photo to the right. Almost all of the images which made it into that album had an aperture setting between f/4 and f/5, and even those often had less depth of field than I would have liked. In retrospect, I should have stopped down even further to the f/6 to f/7 range!

    One of my favorite photographers, Robin Wong from Malaysia, wrote in a recent article (see his Point 3 about halfway down the page):
    ...looking at the images in this blog entry alone, I never wished I had shallower depth of field, in fact I stopped down my aperture to F2.8 or F3.5 (to get more zone in focus) instead of shooting wide open at F1.8 all the time.
    And British portrait photographer Lindsay Dobson wrote in an article from last year:
    ...often these photographers don’t understand the depth of field equation, nor are they necessarily clear as to what they will be shooting and which settings would be appropriate. Would I have chosen a shallower depth of field for any of these photographs? No, absolutely not, the pictures would have been useless — I am pretty much at the limit of having enough of my subject in focus.
    Even though, in theory, you might want to shoot frequently at the large apertures which prime lenses provide, you might quickly find that the depth of field is just too shallow to give satisfactory results. Theory aside, in the everyday practice of photography, good zoom lenses have a large enough maximum aperture to provide a sufficiently-shallow depth of field, and even then you will probably still have to stop down a bit to a smaller aperture in order to get enough of your subject into focus.
  4. All of the prices I am about to quote I just got off of Amazon’s Web site, so they are accurate as of right now! Individual prime lenses are often, but not always, less expensive then quality zoom lenses. The Olympus 25mm, 45mm and 60mm lenses are all in the modest $350 to $400 range. But then again, they are not weather sealed and they have plastic bodies. The metal-bodied, non-weather-sealed 12mm and 75mm are going for $745 and $800, respectively. In total, as of today, all five primes lenses together cost $2,680.

    In comparison, the Panasonic 12-​35​mm zoom is going for $998 — only $200 more than the Olympus 75mm prime. And it’s big brother, the Panasonic 35-​100​mm, costs a spendy $1,398, for a total of $2,396 for both metal-bodied, weather-sealed zooms. That’s nearly $300 LESS than my collection of five prime lenses! And instead of being stuck with only five focal lengths, with these two zooms you have at least 89 different focal lengths (12mm to 100mm, and more if you don’t stick with whole numbers but count fractional focal lengths as well)! Clearly, the zooms give you more value for money.
  5. Individual primes often have the advantage of smaller size and weight. But I’m just not ready to limit myself to only ONE prime lens when going out to shoot! Why should I? No, if I’m going on an outing with only prime lenses, all five of them are coming with me — for a total weight of 1,126g (2.5 lbs). In contrast, my two zoom lenses, which cover a wider range and variety of focal lengths, weigh in together at 780g (1.75 lbs) — 3/4 of a pound (about 350g) and 30% lighter than the combination of my five primes! In addition, the five primes take up a lot more room in my pack than the two zooms. Clearly, the zooms give you more performance and flexibility per ounce!
  6. My two zoom lenses both use the same 58mm filter size. Four of my prime lenses use a 46mm filter, while the 75mm prime uses the same 58mm as the zooms. So even though the 46mm-sized filters are cheaper than their 58mm counterparts, I have to take TWO sets of filters to be fully equipped when using my primes, but only one set with the zooms. In my particular case, the zooms win again!
In summarizing the physical benefits of prime lenses over zoom lenses, I would say that the common arguments are on pretty shaky ground, relying on hype a lot more than on reality. I’m not at all convinced that I should abandon my zooms and use primes full-time instead. On the contrary, after this examination I see my zoom lenses with a new appreciation! Well, even though prime lenses might not have any decisive, clear-cut physical advantages over zoom lenses, what about the benefits I have referred to as metaphysical? Are there huge and/or important advantages in this realm which still might cause me to go prime? Let’s take a look....
  1. I think it might very well be true that prime lenses could help me develop my composition skills by forcing me to change my physical position rather than just twist a zoom ring. On the other hand, if I keep in mind the principle of moving my body to compose a shot rather than just standing in one place, I can do that just as well with a zoom lens attached to my camera as I can with a prime lens. It’s not really the lens that’s the issue, but my mentality as a photographer.

    Furthermore, in some situations you just can’t move to a different spot to take a photo because of environmental limitations. For example, when I came to the 119-foot Royal Terrace Falls at McDowell Creek Park, the only place to get a good view of the falls is from the bridge over Falls Creek. There IS no other location to get the shot from.

    When I used my 12mm prime lens, I was disappointed with the overly-wide angle of view, which ended up making this gorgeous waterfall look too small, as you can see in the photo to the right. But when I switched to my next-higher focal length, a 25mm prime, I was frustrated to find that the angle of view was now too narrow, and I could not fit the entire waterfall into the frame. So I had to take three separate shots of different sections of the falls, and then stitch them together back home with my PTGui software. You can see the resulting image here.

    It would have been a WHOLE lot easier to have a zoom lens with me, and simply dial in the proper focal length — 17mm, 20mm, or whatever — to get the composition I wanted. With only prime lenses, I was forced to settle for a composition I didn’t want, or to jump through a lot of hoops in order to improvise and overcome the focal-length limitations of primes.

    Well, I supposed I could shell out another $428 for a Panasonic 20mm prime and yet another $400 for an Olympus 17mm prime. But that would only serve to add even more expense, weight and bulk to my lens kit, not to mention further inconvenience. OR, I could simply use the excellent, flexible 12-​35​mm zoom lens I already own. I think the choice is evident!

  2. It seems true that limiting yourself to prime lenses does cause you to become more active in your photo composition. Because you don’t have zoom functionality, you are FORCED to move your body in order to try different compositions.

    I noticed this on last week’s outing to McDowell Creek Park. At one point I came to a captivating view of McDowell Creek as it approaches the top of Majestic Falls. At the place where I had stopped to admire the scene, I composed a picture with the 12mm lens that was already on the camera.

    When I reviewed the resulting photo on my camera LCD (top image to the right), it looked nice, but it just wasn’t the same as what had captivated me when looking only with my eyes and not through a camera. I knew that I wanted the tree on the left to be in the photo, along with the creek, but there was too much else in the frame along the other three edges. The corner of the observation deck in the upper right corner was particularly annoying.

    When I switched to my 25mm prime, what I saw through the viewfinder was a lot closer to what I was seeing without the camera. The ugly railing was gone from the right side of the frame, but also missing was the tree on the left. So in order to get the composition I wanted, I had to move the tripod a bit away from the falls and to the left. Once I found the perfect spot, after a bit of effort and trial and error, I got the shot I had envisioned, as you can see in the second photo (which you can click on to see a larger). So in the end, both a focal-length change AND a location change were needed in order to achieve the desired result.
  3. I think I kind of understand what they mean when they say that using prime lenses will help me to “see” better, but it’s still a bit early to say for sure. After all, I’ve gone on only one photo outing with primes. After a couple more such experiments, I might be able to be more sure about that claim.
  4. There does seem to be something romantically true about getting back to the primordial roots of photography by limiting myself to prime lenses only. After all, isn’t that how our hero Ansel Adams did it? And isn’t that how my very own amateur-photographer grandfather did it? Even though it may be only sentiment, there is still an attraction, a power, and a certain satisfaction in going zoomless.
  5. So, while I was shooting with prime lenses at McDowell Creek Park, when all is said and done, did I have a sense that I was getting in touch with that primordial essence of photography? Did I achieve a mystical union with Ansel Adams via prime lenses? Or if not with that ascended master, at least with my grandfather? Well, I’m sorry to report that I didn’t reach such transcendent heights. All of my experiences remained in the physical realm, which I will briefly share about below.
Well, I do have to say that I changed lenses quite frequently during my three hours of photo taking at McDowell Creek Park. I was trying to keep the 25mm (50mm equivalent normal) lens on my camera most of the time, but when you are trying to capture landscapes, often you just have to go wide angle. So I basically kept switching between these two lenses. I used the 45mm, 60mm macro, and 75mm lenses for only a few shots.

There are some definite disadvantages to changing lenses frequently. First of all, it does take some time. Secondly, it makes it much more likely that you’ll end up dropping a lens at some point. Thirdly, without doubt you’re going to get more dust on each end of your lenses, and on the camera sensor too. And you’ll probably end up with more accidental fingerprints on the lenses as well.

All in all, you’re much better off changing lenses the least amount possible, which is easier to do if you are using zoom lenses. Because the normal, everyday lens I keep on my camera is my 12-​35​mm zoom, that single lens can do the work of both the 12mm and 25mm prime lenses, plus 22 other focal lengths.

Nevertheless, I will say that I think using only prime lenses did help me to see things differently, and to approaching composing my shots in a more active, engaged manner — even if I can’t exactly explain how. So that’s a positive benefit! I’m still intrigued by this idea of going on outings without any zoom lenses, so I think I will do at least two more before I decide if I want to call it quits or not. In closing, I’ll leave you with an image I made, which was inspired by this article — my own feeble Ansel Adams imitation, using one of my vintage cameras. Perhaps I will achieve that mystical union after all!

MARCH 2015 UPDATE — After a couple more prime-lens-only photo outings, I have now come to my final verdict on prime-lens-only photography.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 322
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Reader Comments
On April 2, 2015, Lisa wrote:
Brian, I am so happy I came upon this article that you wrote. I love zoom lenses! They allow me to crop in-camera and compose how I choose. I do not like cropping after the fact! That causes me to learn composition too, as I earnestly try to carefully cut closer and closer, leaving out bothersome extraneous things. Or not being pleased at all because there ARE very often physical limitations to how close, or far away, you can get. And what about in-city landscapes, when you need to bring the top part of building in? And who wants to lug all of those lenses around? The points you make are so spot on!

One of the most amazing lenses is the Leica 28-90 f/2.8 It is so sharp and pulls the image in closer and closer as needed. Having printed some of these from film, I can attest to the amazing sharpness of this lens.

I love zooms, however every photographer out there poo-poos them and makes you feel like you are not professional or a jerk if you use them. They lower their eyes and cast them down as if you are doing something shameful! Well I think not! So thank you for this. I will not feel badly ever again.

Are you shooting with a mirrorless camera? I still shoot film and plan to keep doing so, using my wonderful Nikon 28-70 2.8 lens. Boy does it produce gorgeous results! It performs beautifully on the F100 camera.

That being said, I love the medium format film cameras. I have a Mamiya Rangefinder — sorry, hard to focus and you only get 10 shots, but what shots they are if you can get it right! And a Mamiya 645, but that weighs a lot. I have the zoom lens for that, but I don't think Mamiya did a great job with that zoom — as if it were an after thought that no one would take seriously. It's an OK lens, but they should have made a better zoom lens for the 645 because it is a pleasure to use.

I hate the idea of carrying around all those lenses and changing them while the moment slips away. Thank you for making us zoom shooters not feel so badly about how we shoot, and what we prefer to shoot with. Love your blog — please keep in touch and hopefully you will remind people to still shoot film! Film is beautiful!

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post has been edited for clarity, and none of the links were in the original.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 322
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