Sunday, October 31, 2010

Giving up the zoom … 6 reasons I shoot with prime lenses most of the time

I’ve found myself trading in my zoom lenses for primes.
I’ve had three Canon L series zooms: 17-40mm f/4.0, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200mm f/2.8. Together, these three lenses seemingly gave me unlimited coverage from a wide angle 17mm to the telephoto 200mm focal length. In use, however, I almost always employed these zooms at either their shortest or their longest focal lengths. That means I effectively had five lenses: 17mm f/4, 24mm f/2.8, 40mm f/4, 70mm f/2.8 and 200mm f/2.8

I transitioned over to primes because I wanted faster and sharper optics at those focal lengths. I found myself doing a lot of indoor natural light shooting at events and parties. For me, a secondary advantage of the primes is that they tend to be smaller and lighter than the zooms. That means they’re a bit less intimidating to subjects when I point my camera at them. And there’s less fatigue after a couple of hours of continuous shooting at an event.

The prime lenses suite my shooting style. I don’t photograph sports or races. I tend to shoot architecture and landscapes, do some portraits and product shots, and photograph an occasional event or party. This is an important point to note. I don’t need to quickly change my field of view on the fly with the type of photography I do.

When shooting events, I like to carry two bodies. One camera is a full frame digital SLR, the other is an SLR with an APS size sensor. I interchange lenses between the two cameras depending on the kind of effective focal lengths I want. At a recent reception that had round banquet tables set up along with a podium for presentations, I mounted a 50mm f/1.4 on my full frame Canon 5D. I put a 135mm f/2 on my 1.6x Canon 40D, giving me an equivalent focal length of 216mm. I can’t afford an f/2 200mm telephoto, but I have almost the same thing when I mount the 135mm f/2 lens on my 40D. The two cameras with the lenses thus mounted gave me pretty good flexibility as I moved around the room photographing individuals, pairs and groups of people. At a different event, I might mount a 24mm f/1.4 on the Canon 40D for a somewhat wider than “normal” lens, and put the 135mm f/2 on the full frame 5D for a short telephoto. In a really packed event, where I’ll be shooting groups at close range, I’d put the 24mm f/1.4 on the 5D and put my 85mm f/1.8 on the 40D for head shots (this is the same coverage as a 135mm on a full frame, by the way). It’s all a matter of what I anticipate needing in a given space and setup. Having two cameras with different sensor sizes that take the same lenses means each prime effectively gives me two different focal lengths at the same wide maximum f stop. What a deal!

So, at the risk of perhaps over generalizing, I find, based on my internet research and my own empirical data, that high quality super wide primes tend to be …

1. Sharper … because there are generally fewer elements in them

2. Faster … because they come in wider f stops, and because fewer elements in a prime lens means more light transmission than a zoom at the same f stop

3. Lighter … because they are smaller

4. Less conspicuous … again, because they are smaller

5. More creative … because they make me move around more (I “zoom” with my feet)

6. Less expensive … in most cases (but not all)

… than top of the line zooms that cover the same focal length.

The only Canon zoom I still currently own is the 24-70mm f/2.8 L. Why? It was the first L lens I bought, I loved it when I got it, and I still love it as the one lens to mount on my camera if I’m going to tour around a city with one camera on my shoulder and no camera bag. I consider it my choice for a walk-about lens. But it’s two stops slower than my f/1.4 lenses and a full stop slower than my f/2 lenses. When factoring in transmission loss due to more internal elements, my slowest prime that falls in the range of this zoom is more than twice as fast. I just don’t like to use this zoom for indoor natural light shooting unless I know the place will be as bright as a basketball court during a game. And when I find myself still walking around outside after dark, I really miss my super wide primes when I only have that zoom with me.

Photographers might find top of the line zooms well worth the investment because of the versatility they offer. They are truly astoundingly sharper than less expensive models. Compared to high quality primes, many gladly accept the trade-off in some sharpness when wide open and in some speed in low light, because a fine zoom lens is a pleasure to hold and behold. I don’t disagree in principle. I just don’t usually shoot in situations where zooms demonstrate their greatest value.

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