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Picture This: Prime Time

Although zoom lenses are better than ever, don’t forget the old standby: the prime lens.

By Earl Nottingham


Once upon a time, almost every new 35mm SLR camera came with an interchangeable 50mm prime lens. The 50mm lens (often called the “Nifty Fifty”) was common because its focal length approximated the angle and perspective viewed by the human eye; it was neither wide angle nor telephoto and was commonly referred to as a “normal” lens.

This lens followed the legacy of most other camera lenses designed throughout the years in that it was limited to a single focal length, hence its designation as a “prime” lens. Other prime lenses of varying focal lengths — wide angle or telephoto — were designed to meet individual shooting needs such as landscape or portrait photography. The relative simplicity of their single-focal-length design meant that they could be produced relatively inexpensively and be small in size, yet retain excellent optical quality. Unfortunately, it also meant that the photographer had to carry several lenses to cover all of the focal lengths needed for a particular shoot.

Enter the zoom lens. As the art of optical design left the slide-rule era and entered the computer age, lensmakers were able to apply complex formulas to multiple lens elements that could be shifted within the lens barrel, allowing a photographer to enjoy several focal lengths from one lens. Although rudimentary incarnations of zoom lenses had been developed in the early 1900s and gained popularity in the movie industry of the 1930s, the commercial viability of zooms that could produce a “quality” image began only in the 1970s. In those pre-computer days, the optical formulas required of the many elements in typical zoom were less than stellar, leading to an assortment of color aberrations and lens distortions. Even well into the ’80s, many professional photographers would shy away from a zoom, considering it inferior.

Boy, times have changed! Thanks to modern computer lens design, it’s safe to say that most of the zoom lenses on the market today can match or exceed the sharpness and color quality of most prime lenses, especially the older models. With camera makers providing many options of zoom ranges — everything from super-wide to telephoto — the photographer is not limited to a fixed focal length and can shoot more creatively and spontaneously, and also carry less weight in a camera bag. In addition, many of the longer zooms incorporate image stabilization for even sharper images.

But what about our old friend — the venerable prime lens? Well, it turns out that the same science that has given us superb zooms has also created a whole new stable of extremely sharp primes. In fact, due to their inherent speed and sharpness, there’s a resurgence in the popularity of prime lenses in the photographic community. There’s also an educational byproduct to using a prime lens, especially with a simple (preferably with manual settings) SLR. With this setup, new photographers can concentrate on basics like composition and exposure, without being overwhelmed by the whistles and bells of many newer cameras.

Personally, I enjoy using the basic 50mm f/1.4 lens for shooting in situations that require a very shallow depth of field or for shooting in very low light where the faster lens speed is needed. The same can be said for my good old 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, my go-to lens for portraits where a shallow depth of field is desired.

This might be the perfect time to go through the closet and dust off those old single focal-length lenses and put them to use. In fact, it’s prime time!

 

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For more on TP&W magazine photography, go to our Photography page

 

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