Prime Or Zoom? We Evaluate Using Just 50mm

Depending on the sites that you visit you will find that some people recommend that photographers stick to prime lenses. There are advocates of the 35mm lens, the 50 mm lens the 85 mm lens and more. Some famous photographers throughout the ages just used prime lenses. I’ve seen wedding photographers shoot weddings with just two prime lenses and get very good results. And then there are photographers who insist that just one lens will do. Often times it’s a 50 mm lens or thereabouts.

At Lenscraft MFT we are sometimes asked what our view is and therefore this overview is designed to answer that question and include shots from a couple of shoots taken this year where we used a combination of primes and zooms to try to establish our own feeling about prime lenses.

For some, prime lenses are the ultimate but most lenses sold are zooms.

For some people prime lenses are the absolute pinnacle as far as photography is concerned but they are by far not the majority as far as photographers and gear acquisition is concerned. Look at all the various lenses that are released each year and you will notice that the majority of them are zoom lenses and particularly zoom lenses where the emphasis is on producing better focusing and higher levels of sharpness so that the zoom lens is getting very close to the performance of a prime lens. Albeit with the side-effect in full frame of producing lenses that are incredibly heavy. Seriously when you try to lift some of those lenses you get an ache in your shoulder pretty quickly on any shoot without a tripod exceeding 30 minutes. Talk about working out!

Zoom lenses dominate professional photography.

Primes are lighter but as we say they do not dominate photography. The other side of the equation is photographers who insist that zoom lenses are the way to go. Two lenses that have become synonymous with professional photography are the 24 to 70 mm lens and the 70 to 200 mm lens. These two zoom lenses cover just about every usable focal length suitable for just about every application apart from shooting wildlife. Sure some landscape photographers will go wider and the 16 to 35mm lens has become quite prominent among this group. Then there are people who just go for a standard single zoom lens such as the famous 24 to 105 mm lens or 28 to 135mm lens. It would also be a fair observation that the majority of professional photographers using 35mm cameras who shoot mainstream professional photography are in the second camp using zoom lenses.

In medium format most of the lenses are fixed prime lenses and so it’s difficult to get away from the concept of just using primes especially if you want a bright lens. At Lenscraft MFT Photography we’ve used several medium format cameras in the 36 – 100 megapixel range and mostly with lenses in the 55 mm 70 mm and 90 mm focal length. We did once use for some time the Leica 30 to 90 mm S series lens which was remarkable but its widest aperture was 3.5 which while good for medium format wasn’t bright enough for what we wanted. We always encourage people to look at lenses around the F2 .8 aperture for better light transmission.

So we come back to the question of prime or zoom? Is the one better than the other? Or are they simply different tools in the armory afforded to photographers?

Your lens choices have a huge impact on your style.

Why is this question important? For the simple fact that the lenses you choose will have a definite impact on your style of photography. With zoom lenses you tend to move less and try and photograph from a given position whereas with prime lenses you generally have to physically move in closer and thereby change your viewpoint. Even changing your position just a couple of meters can have a tremendous impact on your style of photography and the type of photographs that you take. When you have to get in closer you really do connect to the energy in the shot and it becomes easier in the majority of cases to capture a story. It’s just life and the way it is. One of the most important things you will learn about taking photographs is this simple quote “when you think you are close enough then move in closer.”

Learning to fill the frame is such an important aspect of photography. Prime lenses with their fixed focal length required the photographer to move in order to get the framing in the right place for the story to work. With a zoom lens you simply zoom in but you must remember that the perspective changes as you compress the image. It’s not the same perspective that you would get if you were to physically move to the right location to take the shot with a prime lens such as a 50 mm or 85 mm lens.

It’s refreshing to see images taken with prime lenses.

Today one of the reasons that images shot with prime lenses seem to have such a refreshing feel is the fact that most lenses used are zooms and therefore most images that we see in advertising or online are shot with a zoom lens. There’s something very nice about the perspective of the 50 mm lens which some people reckon is reasonably close to the viewpoint that we have as a human with two eyes. Others by the way argue that the 35mm lens is probably more correct but I think it may depend on different perspectives. For me the 50 mm lens approximates to the way I see the world and therefore I’m comfortable with it.

Over the years I’ve owned and used a number of 50 mm lenses. I currently retain three out of the 9 50 mm lenses that I’ve used.

I retain the Nikon 50 mm 1.8 lens, the Sigma 50 mm 1.4 art lens & the Mikaton 50 mm 0.95 lens with Sony mount. the Nikon lens is just a very nice small lens that performs well. The Sigma 50 mm 1.4 art series lens is one of the sharpest lenses that you can fit onto a Nikon camera. The Mikaton 50 mm 0.95 mm lens with Sony mount is unique being manual focus and having a remarkable way of isolating the object that you are trying to photograph. It is such a good lens that it is mounted on the Sony A9. (Which may appear to be a travesty due to the awesome focusing power that the A9 apparently has [not sure I agree] but for me this combination is unbelievably good so I stick with it.) Every so often I like to shoot a few days away with just a 50 mm lens and this time I decided that I would shoot with the Sigma lens and the Mikaton lens.

Generally for my style of photography I like to have a 24 to 70 mm lens and a 40 to 150 mm lens so going away with just 50 mm lenses on the principal cameras is a real departure from the usual style. Just as we were about to leave I realized that we would probably also get the opportunity to shoot some wildlife and therefore I packed a Canon camera equipped with a 100 to 400 mm lens which for most of the trip languished in the back of the car and was only brought out on two occasions where it seems likely that I would be able to get some reasonable wildlife shots. But frankly during most of the trip there was absolutely no need to have the zoom lens along. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit a historical site not far from the West Australian city of Geraldton and I went to the site shooting just with the Sony A9 and the Mikaton 0.95 lens and after I had gone through I did the walk-through again with a zoom lens to get some additional photographs. When I compared the photographs I had taken with the two lenses it was obvious to me and also I might add obvious in terms of the results and comments and sales of photograph, that people preferred the Mikaton 0.95 50 mm photographs to those that had been taken with the zoom lens.

Why 50mm?

The reason for choosing the 50 mm is just personal. I’ve tried 35mm as a focal length and in fact the first lens that I ever owned was a 35mm lens but the 50 mm to me just seems to be right for me. So there’s nothing scientific about the choice it was just that we wanted to try out shooting with primes as opposed to shooting with zooms with two 35mm full frame bodies and just see the sort of shots that we were able to get.

The Sigma 50 mm F1 .4 art lens is an exceptionally good lens that has been termed professional. I’d agree with that. It’s solidly built and performs quickly. It’s also quiet and it’s always nice to find that the lens that you are using is quiet when it focuses. We found that it is crisp when it comes to the rendition of the image and we paired this particular one with the Nikon D850.

In contrast the Mikaton 50 mm 0.95 aperture lens is not focused on being the sharpest lens on the planet but on giving you the opportunity to work with that magnificent focal length and aperture combination and that amount of light falling through the lens onto the sensor. It produces a very different book. In the past I’ve owned a variety of 0.95 mm aperture lenses including the most famous but I found that the Mikaton, which is also a manual focus lens, outperforms a lot of these other lenses in reality in the field. This lens was paired with the Sony A9 and I activated focus peaking to help me establish the precise focus point. This is obviously one of the benefits of using a mirror-less camera and an electronic viewfinder.

We did two trips. Initially we did spend some time in Geraldton itself and because we stayed on the coast I was able to shoot some of the evening light. The West Australian coast is called the sunset coast because it gets the sunset obviously. This can produce different lights in different parts of the coast. Because of the length of the West Australian coast you do tend to get some interesting variations in the form of light that you get at sunset. We’ve picked up on this we’ve been developing images. It is a very warm light when you’re shooting in Geraldton and, with the way that the light played on the water and other things that we were able to photograph, it was very pleasing. We weren’t there very long however because we wanted to pay a trip to an historical site on the way back.

On the way back we came through an historical village and looked at some of the early settlements established. There was the opportunity to go through a variety of places and get a feel for what it was like to live in that earlier era over 100 years ago. What’s interesting about this trip is that I had the 0.95 50 mm Mikaton but I had a zoom lens on the other camera that I had with me.. I chose to go through the site and just shoot with the Mikaton and then I went back through the venue with the zoom lens trying to pick up some shots that I thought that I had missed. In reality, in every instance where I had taken similar shots with the two cameras everyone that’s viewed the images prefers the shots that were taken with the 50 mm. Again remembering that zoom lenses compress the image as you zoom in it changes the perspective substantially whereas when you shoot with a 50 mm lens [a prime instead of a zoom] you are establishing a focus that looks very similar to that which is seen by the human eye. As you can see from these images not everything is in focus but by picking a focus point that worked with the image that I was trying to capture I feel that most of the images hit the spot really well. What do you think? Let me know.

All but one image here was taken with the Mikaton 50mm 0.95 Speedmaster lens.

The second lot of shooting was done around the area of Yallingup in the south-west of Western Australia and included some shots around the town of Busselton. I initially was a bit concerned in this instance because there were some very friendly birds that wanted to come and visit. Some ringnecked parrots that wanted to try and pinch some Apple. Normally I would reach for a zoom lens and try and zoom in to try to get the shot but in this case, while I did have a zoom lens and camera down in the car park, Murphy’s Law dictates that when you leave the scene to get another camera the scene changes. I knew the bird would fly away long before I could get back with the zoom. So I had no choice but to slowly slowly edge my way towards the parrots and try to get the best shot that I could and what is interesting is that in this instance I got over a hundred images that were quite close-up and beautifully detailed. These shots were taken with the Sigma 50 mm lens.

The following morning after these parrot shots were taken I slipped down to the coast in the morning light to see what the Bay looked like because there were some strong winds and driving waves coming in. It had a very fresh look. I was thankful to grab a coffee from the coffee truck parked near the bay. Believe it or not in Western Australia we do get cold especially when there’s a cold wind blowing in off the ocean. The car park at this point is slightly elevated and you’re able to look down across the rocks and get a really good sense of the power of the waves coming in. In this instance it was necessary to walk over the rocks and get quite close to the front of the bay in order to try to get photographs of the waves coming in. Now this is where a zoom lens would have been a better fit. You have to be very careful working in situations like this that you do not put yourself in a dangerous situation. I struck a balance between getting close enough to get the shot that I was after and not standing so close to the wave that I risked any serious mishap. I did get a fair amount of spray on me and the camera gear but again that’s the benefit of using professional equipment like the Nikon D850 and the Sigma lens.

On this trip we also paid a trip to an area called Canal Rocks where there’s a bit of a walkway and a bit of rugged coastline. Again I never in any way felt that I was being limited as a result of just using the 50 mm lens for this sort of shooting.

Learning to travel light

Like most photographers, I found that I very quickly adjusted to having to move and get in closer to the shot that I was trying to take. You just adjust to the camera and the lens that you have. There’s no point in trying to carry around every lens for every conceivable situation. It interesting when people first get into photography and you see them start to amass a certain number of lenses. Then they carry a huge heavy camera bag or have one of those large cases on wheels that they take with them because they think that they’re going to use all of those different lenses and all that different gear. It doesn’t take long for them to realise that 95% of the time they will shoot with perhaps just one or two lenses and that they can travel very light.

The 50mm forced me to take photos I would have missed.

Choosing to shoot with the prime lenses in these instances as shown in these images allowed me to get images that I wouldn’t ordinarily have taken that are in my view very pleasing. I didn’t at all feel that I was missing out because I wasn’t using a zoom lens for these images. After doing this photography I came away pretty much convinced that this was the way to go. I do have a rig that contains two of the finest zoom lenses that I’ve ever come across which are the Olympus 40 to 150 mm micro 4/3 zoom and the Nikon S series 24 to 70 mm zoom. But in the second kitbag that I have the option of taking with me I have two cameras equipped with primes. In fact I have exactly the two primes and the two cameras that are referred to here. They have stayed on the camera. I never go anywhere without having at least one camera equipped with a prime 50 mm lens and you may well have guessed which one of the two it is. Yes the Sigma may be the sharpest lens but it is the Mikaton 0.95 50 mm lens that wins the day for me at least.

Value for money wise you get primes for a lot less than zoom lenses. You can get a sharp 50mm lens for budget dollars and get a clarity that will amaze you. You have to spend a lot of money in full frame terms to get a quality zoom to get similar quality. Standard zoom lenses aren’t bad but never have the same crisp imaging of a prime. The exception is the Olympus Micro Four-Thirds MFT approach where you pay a lot less than you would expect for a professional zoom lens.

Well I’ve spoken to some time here and I’ve given you plenty of samples of the sort of photography that I like to do. Why don’t you come back with some of your own observations about cameras and lenses that you prefer to use. If you prefer zooms as do a number of photographers then that is all well and good and if you prefer primes as do many photographers that is also all well and good. But why do you use that particular combination? And how has it affected your photography? Chip in and we will be happy to hear from you and even, depending on the nature of the article, be prepared to put up some comments in article form from any readers. All the best for now. Niel.

A few comments re Lenscraft Photography. When we comment on equipment in these pages the comments are based on use in the field. They are never based on a single use or just a couple of days using the equipment. We try the equipment with at least two disciplines in photography and determine how it performs from there. Lenscraft Photography is a website devoted to photography and sharing experiences with equipment. We are not affiliated with any manufacturer. We have used equipment professionally from Canon, Nikon, Ricoh, Minolta, Sony, Leica, Olympus, Hasselblad, Zeiss, Sigma, Pentax, Zenit, Bronica, Rollei & Kodak.

Some of these companies have been absorbed into others. Currently we regularly use equipment from Olympus, Nikon, Sony, & Hasselblad. [Plus lenses from Zeiss and Sigma]

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