Brian's Photo Blog — Article 382
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My Final Verdict on Prime-Lens-Only Photography
Saturday 28 February 2015   —   Category: Equipment
Ever since I got my first interchangeable-lens camera in 25 years — back in early 2011 — I have been pondering the pros and cons of buying and using prime lenses. I have read numerous articles which have extolled the virtues of prime lens photography. I was so enticed by their arguments that I ended up purchasing a number of prime lenses as I have been building my Micro Four Thirds lens kit.

After many months of ruminating on the subject, last spring I wrote an extensive article about the advantages and disadvantages of prime lenses. I don’t want to repeat myself here, so if you have not yet read Mystical Union With Ansel Adams Via Prime Lenses?, I strongly encourage you to do so, because today’s article will be referring to, and building upon, what I wrote then.

I had neglected my prime lenses for nearly two years before I went on my first prime-lens-only photographic outing in May 2014 to McDowell Creek Falls County Park. The following month I went on my second “prime” outing to Alsea Falls and Green Peak Falls. Earlier this month I made my third “prime” pilgrimage, this time to the campus of Oregon State University. My next planned “prime” outing would be to the Oregon metropolis of Portland. Right after my first prime-lens-only photographic outing, I wrote the above-mentioned Mystical Union With Ansel Adams Via Prime Lenses? article in which I described in detail the many claimed benefits of using prime lenses. Then I compared those claims to the reality of my experiences in order to see if such claims held any water or were only so much babble and propaganda.

I have a strong desire to quote large chunks of that article — all of it is so relevant to what I want to say here — but I will restrain myself. However, I will allow myself one short quote:
“In summarizing the 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.... Still, I’m 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.”
Now that I have made those two more “prime” outings, the time has come to review my experiences and reach a verdict. Does using prime lenses instead of zoom lenses make me a better photographer? Do I produce better pictures? Does using only prime lenses take me closer to “true photography”?
In yesterday’s article I took a look at the myth of “true photography.” A quote from Ansel Adams in that article, as well as a quote from myself, are very pertinent to the subject of today’s discussion. First, some insights from Adams regarding photography:
When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.

You don’t take a photograph, you make it.... Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.
At the end of yesterday’s article, I concluded:
It has been often said that “the best camera is the one you have with you.” It is just as true that the best photographic equipment is that which enables you to best capture that inner image which Ansel Adams was referring to. The image is what matters — the various pieces of camera equipment are merely the tools.

Common sense says to use the tools which work best for you and help you to achieve your goals. Such advice takes us away from the mystic belief that certain equipment or particular techniques are the “essence” of “true photography.” We photographers have been sidetracked and hindered by that myth for long enough!
If there is anything “true” about photography, I think it rests in being “true” to the inner vision which you are trying to express through the art of the photographic process. Whatever helps you achieve that is valuable; whatever hinders you is worthless and should be abandoned.
When we look at a Van Gogh painting, for example, do we judge it based upon the type of brushes, the types of paint, or the type of canvas he used? Rather, don’t we evaluate it by the artist’s skill in communicating his inner vision, and the impressions it makes upon our thoughts and emotions?

Would we insist that he was not a true artist, or engaged in true artistic endeavor, just because of his choice of certain tools or techniques? That’s exactly the conclusion that the ignorant “experts” of Van Gogh’s day came to. History has proved how wrong they were — as Don McLean so eloquently expressed in his tribute song to Vincent Van Gogh.

In light of this, why in the world would anyone claim that a person is closer to “true photography” just because they use prime lenses instead of zoom lenses, or because they use (or don’t use) any other specific technique or piece of equipment? It is sheer folly, and a complete distraction from what photography is actually all about.

By disdaining zoom lenses, it seems to me that the proponents of prime-lens-only photography are indulging it a small amount of Neo-Luddism. On the other hand, rather than appreciating and emulating the artistic vision and skills of Ansel Adams and other great masters of photography, they erroneously idolize the tools these masters used — their equipment and techniques.

It is impossible to know for sure, but it is easy for me to imagine that Ansel Adams would have wholeheartedly embraced modern photographic tools like digital cameras, zoom lenses and image editing software. I believe he would have judged these tools by their effectiveness in helping him express his inner artistic vision, and not by some arbitrary moral value placed upon those tools.
There are photographers who take great pride in presenting a photo just as it came straight from the camera, without any processing in Photoshop or any other image editing software. They wear this accomplishment as some sort of badge, as if it proves that they are a better photographer than those who process and manipulate their photos after taking them.

In contrast, Ansel Adams believed that only half of the creative process occurred behind the camera, while the other half took place in the darkroom. It is reported that he would sometimes spend a whole day in the darkroom just to produce one print. Not only did he take wonderful shots, but he knew how to bring out the best in them during processing.

The proponents of prime-lens-only photography also wear their approach as some sort of badge, as if it proves that they are a better photographer than those who use zoom lenses. Judge the photographs of zoom lens users if you must. But what’s the point of judging their tools? Is taking photos with a prime lens somehow, in some sort of mystical, mysterious way, “better” than using a zoom lens? What I discovered on my three “prime” outings was that limiting myself to using only prime lenses definitely hindered my photographic expression rather than helped it. There were many times that I didn’t have a lens with the proper focal length to accurately capture with my camera the artistic vision I was seeing in my inner eye. And often, when trying to photograph objects like buildings or waterfalls, it was simply not possible to position the camera, with my prime lenses only, in the exact spot that I needed in order to realize my vision.

Not only is constantly swapping between one prime lens and another a real pain, it also allows dust to enter the camera body and settle on the sensor, creating ugly blemishes on my photos. Furthermore, it’s easy to miss a spur-of-the-moment shot because I have the wrong lens on my camera. Rather than helping me soar to the great heights of the ascended photographic masters, using only primes lenses clips my artistic wings, so that I am hobbled and grounded.

After these three frustrating and disappointing outings, I have decided to cancel my fourth planned “prime” outing to Portland. To be sure, I will still go on a photographic outing to Portland, but I will be leaving my prime lenses at home, and taking my versatile zoom lenses instead. My prime-lens-only experiments are over, and they have been a miserable failure as far as I am concerned. The only prime lens that has any value to me is my wonderful Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro. I love close-up photography, as evidenced by my 139 (and counting) macro photos. Whenever I go on any type of photographic outing, I make sure to bring along this indespensible tool.

As far as my other four Olympus prime lenses go — 12mm, 25mm, 45mm and 75mm — I very much regret the nearly $2,500 I have wasted on purchasing them. In light of the way used equipment loses its value, I would most likely not even recoup half of that amount if I tried to sell them. I suppose, now that I am the unproud owner of these hunks of glass, plastic and metal, I might as well keep them, just in case, however unlikely, they end up being useful one day.

I’ve learned an expensive and painful lesson the hard way. If in the future I ever decide to abandon the Micro Four Thirds system for some other camera system (also unlikely), and am in the process of building another lens kit, I will absolutely not by ANY prime lenses except for a macro lens. Through my experiences I have determined that they are not the proper tools to help me express my artistic vision.

However, if prime lenses are useful tools to help you express your artistic vision, then I don’t want to discourage you in any way from using them. In fact, those four Olympus prime lenses I mentioned could be available for purchase at a discounted price! E-mail me at brian(at)byrdphoto(dot)com if you are interested! Way back in my very first article, just over four years ago, I finished by writing:
In the end, the quality of the camera equipment is not the most important issue. You can have a top-of-the-line professional camera system, and still take mediocre photos. And there are people who take awesome pictures without having awesome camera equipment.

When it comes down to it, really, the most important equipment is not the camera or lens, but the inner photo­graphic eye. That reality takes a lot of the pressure off to find the “perfect” camera system. I simply need to let my photographic eye lead me, no matter what equipment I happen to have in my hand.
And that is my final verdict on prime-lens-only photography!
UPDATE — MARCH 15 — I’ve decided to sell my four Olympus primes lenses after all, along with four other pieces of Olympus camera equipment. Find out all the details in my article Spring Cleaning Fever.
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 382
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Reader Comments
On August 3, 2015, Bob S. wrote:
I have been using the ZS... series cameras and am close to getting the ZS50 but wonder if a micro 4/3 system would be worth the much greater expense. Your writings have been very helpful but one variation is missing.

Your prime lens study eliminated that choice for me. So the 4/3 2-zoom-lens (2zlt) remains competing with the ZS50. Some disadvantages of the 2zl kit are dust on the sensor, or in the ZS50 lens, and time to change lenses. The missing variation is two 4/3 bodies one for each zoom lens.

Actually, the best for me would consist of:
  1. A dedicated 4/3 sensor wide-to-medium lens camera sealed for dust and moisture, the size and features of a ZS50, and
  2. A dedicated medium-to-long one similar to 1.
They would cost around $800-1000, each, but be worth it. I think #1 is available in some versions. But not #2. What do you think of this, say 30x total zoom, quality 4/3 kit?

Thanks, Robert
On August 4, 2015, Brian wrote:
In reply to what Robert wrote above:

It is not possible to have a 30x zoom range with only two m4/3 lenses. The closest you can get is about 21x using a lens like the Panasonic Lumix 14-140mm (or a similar lens from Olympus), combined with the Panasonic 100-300mm. Neither of these lenses are considered to be “pro” quality, nor are they weather-sealed. To get a 30x zoom range with high-quality lenses, you will need three.

It is hard for me to see the point of buying an interchangeable-lens camera, and then always keep the same lens on it. In that case, you would probably be better off with a superzoom bridge camera, like these listed on the DPReview Web site.

Comparing a pocket camera like the Panasonic ZS50 to a Micro Four Thirds camera is like comparing apples to oranges, or a moped to a Harley.

The ZS50 is small, lightweight, relatively inexpensive, but does not have great image quality. I used it when I want to travel light, or when I want to be discreet. For these advantages, I can often give up some image quality.

But the vast majority of the time I carry around my Olympus OM-D E-M5 m4/3 camera, along with five lenses. Even though all this equipment is expensive and heavy, it is worth it because image quality is important to me, and I usually don't need to be discreet.

Because these two types of cameras fulfill two totally different roles in my photography, it is not a matter of buying one but not the other. I have invested in both, and I use the appropriate tool for each photographic occasion.
On May 9, 2016, Wim wrote:
I agree with most of what you say about primes etc. In short, we have to make compromises and try to get as close as possible to our photographic aims. I got rid of my big Canons and lenses, just too bulky and heavy, most of the time I not in a mood for that. Now the highest level I use is a Canon 100D with 10-18mm and 55-250mm, both very light and pretty good. In between I either carry the 50mm macro or the 40mm pancake. But I really love my Olympus Stylus 1, now there is an excellent compromise between weight/size, versatility and image quality. And since a short while I walk around even more often with my Lumix TZ70 (ZS50), THANKS a million for your pages on that little machine — they helped me get the most out of it...
Brian's Photo Blog — Article 382
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