Prime Lenses 101
If you currently don’t own a prime lens, you are missing out, my friend! If the kit lens that comes with your camera just isn’t cutting it anymore and you are ready to upgrade, This post is for you! This is the most popular subject that I get asked about and I feel like I need to give a proper explanation on lenses and which ones I recommend and why. Because lenses are a HUGE investment for your photography and I want to help you make the right choice. So before you get started, grab a cup of coffee or tea and use the bathroom before-hand because this is going to be a long and detailed post!
Let’s get started!
What is a prime lens? A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length aka NO ZOOM. You physically have to move your body to determine how close and far you want to photograph your subject. So yes, you will have to work a little harder, but the outcome will be worth it and who can complain about burning a few more calories, amirite?!
For one, Prime lenses offer better quality to your images. For two, studies show they perform faster than zoom lenses.
I, 100% believe that having a quality lens is more important than having a quality camera. So if you’re deciding whether to upgrade your camera vs your lens— go for the lens! Some one actually tested this theory. They paired a cheap camera with an expensive high quality lens as well as pairing a cheap lens with a expensive high quality camera and saw that the cheap camera with the high quality lens performed better!
This is why I always choose to invest in the lens when I decide to upgrade my equipment or add to my collection.
When purchasing a prime lens, you will need to decide what focal length and aperture you would like your lens to perform.
FOCAL LENGTH | Examples: 35mm, 50mm, 85mm
This determines the distance to subject.
With a 35mm lens, you will have a wider image and you have to stand close to the subject. Great for street photography, fashion, big group wedding shots.
With a 85mm you will have a more cropped image and you will have to stand further away from the subject. Great for focusing on just the subject, close-ups and details, a solid bokeh background.
APERTURE aka F-Stop| Examples: f/1.8, f/1.4, f/1.2
The aperture controls how much light is let into your camera. The more light that is let in, the more bokeh (buttery blurry goodness in the background) your camera is able to capture. So you always want to get the lowest aperture as possible while still being able to get a clear image.
You’re going to notice the pricing for the f/1.8 lenses are going to be more affordable than the f/1.4 lenses. You’re also going to notice the f/1.4 lenses are wayyy more affordable than the f/1.2 lenses.
The lower the aperture (aka f-stop) the more expensive the lens and the better the quality. For example, you’re going to have a higher quality image with a f/1.2 lens than a f/1.8 lens. But you’re going to have to spend more money. I have found that 1.8 lenses also seem more light weight and as if the lens itself is made with low quality material.
When searching for a prime lens, you are going to come across these lenses:
35mm f/1.4 | 35mm f/1.2
50mm f/1.8 | 50mm f/1.4 | 50mm f/1.2
85mm f/1.8 | 85mm f/1.4 | 85mm f/1.2
I’m only going to mention the 35mm, 50mm, 85mm because those are the only ones that I have tried, can recommend, and seem to be the popular three options for prime lenses. Currently, I can only recommend lenses for Canon users but feel free to use this as a guide if you own a camera from another brand.
You always want to make sure that the lens you are interested in investing in is compatible with your camera. Back in the day when I switched camera bodies, I had to give up a few lenses because they weren’t compatible with my new camera body. Sad day. So please always do your research!
Here are all of the prime lenses that I have owned-
Canon 50mm f/1.8 | duration of ownership and usage: 2012-2014, This was my first prime lens, however I gave this away to a friend because I stopped reaching for it.
Canon 85mm f/1.8 | duration of ownership and usage: 2016, still own but kept as a back-up. Haven’t reached for this lens in years. I originally purchased this lens to test out the 85mm focal length before making the investment in the Sigma 85mm.
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art | duration of ownership and usage: 2015-today. If I could only have one lens- it would be this one.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art | duration of ownership and usage: 2017-today. I use this lens for close-ups or if I want a solid blurry background for full-body shots and details.
What I currently use + sample images
You would be surprised that I actually don’t use a Canon lens even though I have a Canon camera body. I have completely converted to Sigma Art lenses. I have nothing against Canon lenses, but I have found them to be more expensive than what I was willing to spend— The Canon L series (the lens that has a solid red band wrapped around it) is double or triple the price of what Sigma has to offer. I also researched many comparisons and have found that the Sigma lenses performed more sharp and at a higher quality for half the price. After purchasing my first Sigma lens— the 35mm f/1.4 lens Art. I was SOLD on Sigma lenses! This lens gave me the editorial look I was going for and really upped my photography game. It was quite an investment, back in the day (2014) I spent around $900 on this lens after tax. I only used this one lens for two whole years until I decided to add the 85mm f/1.4 art to my collection. These are the only two lenses I carry with me during my blog and brand fashion shoots.
Here are some sample images from my work using the 35mm:
For the full body images, if you have your f-stop set to f/1.6 or lower, the background is slightly blurry and lens captures a wide image. This will allow you to not lose as much detail in the background. When focusing on just the details, you'll notice the background will become even blurrier.
Click to enlarge
Sample images from my work using the 85mm:
The images are slightly more cropped than the 35mm. You'll also notice that the background will always have a nice blurred out background. Achieve this look by setting your f-stop to f/2 or lower. With my photography style, I like to shoot with my aperture wide open meaning f/1.4 which is the lowest aperture this lens offers.
Click to enlarge
What lens should you get?
I think this depends on your budget, your experience with photography, your style of photography and what focal length/aperture you prefer.
If you are completely new to prime lenses, photography in general and have a low budget. I would recommend trying a lens with a 1.8 aperture. The Canon 50mm 1.8 lens was my first prime and it was under $200 which is impressively cheap for a lens.
If you are new to prime lenses and have a decent to unlimited budget— go for the lens with a 1.4 aperture.
If you have an unlimited budget and only want to buy a boujee canon lens for your boujee canon camera— go for a lens with a 1.2 aperture.
Like I said, I only use my 35mm and 85mm on shoots. Most photographers start out with a 50mm focal length lens but to be honest, it was too cropped and too portrait-y for my taste. However, you still may like it! I would recommend to take your camera body to a local camera retailer and test out all of the different focal lengths/apertures before making an investment.
One thing I highly recommend when purchasing your lens— If you are buying it online, go through the brand instead of another online retailer. If possible, I would suggest either buying it in person at your local camera store or buying it online through the brands website. From my personal experience- I did not have a good experience with online retailers such as B&H photo or Adorama. Personal examples- bad customer service, bad communication, never received product in time, refunds would take forever to process. However, I had a pleasant experience when shopping in-store at B&H photo and adorama and can recommend going to these places for purchases. The actual B&H photo store in NYC is seriously like a Disneyland for photographers and the staff is way more friendly in person.
Last but not least,
People ask me all the time which lens do I like more, the 35mm or the 85mm.
To answer this question, I could go to a shoot with just my 35mm and capture all of the images I wanted and I can’t say that with just using the 85mm alone. Heck, I ONLY used the 35mm for two years until I decided to invest in another Sigma lens-- so that should say something about it. For my fashion shoots, I use the 35mm for full body shots, lifestyle shots where I want the background more in focus. I used the 35mm during New York Fashion Week because it allowed me to be closer to the subject as well as the ability to capture the tall buildings because the lens has a wide angle. I switch over to the 85mm when I want a blurrier background, focusing more on the subject. I also use the 85 for detail shots that I want to be more cropped. This lens is great if you want to completely blur out the background for any shot- full body, upper half, details. I prefer not use my 35mm for detail shots because of the wide angle the lens can’t escape. I believe that I use both of these lenses equally during my shoots.
It’s all about personal preference as well! If you always want a nice bokeh— go for the 85mm
If you want more detail in your image and just a nice bokeh for detail shots— go for the 35mm
If you want something a little in-between— look into the 50mm.
I hope this blog post was helpful and congratulations on your new investment! Your images are going to be stunning!