Going Prime

Canon Camera with Prime lens. Image credit:  Alexander Gref  CC-by
Canon Camera with Prime Lens
Image credit: Alexander Gref CC-by

As more and more folks are spending the extra money to buy a “nice” camera, I often get asked what kind of camera they should buy. The short answer is the camera doesn’t matter, the lens does. As a photographer you will replace your body 3-4 times in ten years, but you’ll probably pass your lenses on to your children. You will fall in love with your glass, not your camera body. So for those of you thinking of buying a “nice” camera, pick a brand, even buy a decent body, but save your money for your first lens.

The next obvious question is what lens to buy? Well I definitely have an opinion about that…

…you need to get your self a prime lens.

A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length. This means that there is no zoom, and I promise it will frustrate the hell out of you. Especially if you are making the jump from a 20x digital zoom point and shoot piece of crap, to a pro-sumer SLR. But this is precisely the point.  This lens will teach you to see the world as a camera does, it gives you a sense of how the little black box works. It will teach you to zoom with your feet, to move closer to your subjects, and develop an ability to visualize.  It will make you a photographer.

The other reason to get a prime is because they are generally cheaper than their wizbang 700x zoom counterparts. Sure the taglines make them an easy sell. “You’ll be able to zoom in on the pimple on your awkward teenagers nose from 50 meteres” might make a good sales pitch, but that’s not photography, that’s faux-tography. The art, the essence of photography, especially of people, is born of the intimacy between the image and the subject and the counter play of compositional elements in the scene. All that too say that the camera is not the key to photography, you are.

Prime lenses also usually have a higher speed, which means that they require less light to get correct exposure. My personal favourite lens is a 50mm 1.4 canon prime lens. This lens is considered normal because it resembles the field of view you would associate with your own vision. This lens also has a minimum aperture of f1.4 which means that it practically makes light. I rarely shoot flash, and with this lens I can do without artificial light in almost every situation.

Without going down the rabbit hole of exposure, let’s just say that it makes images possible that wouldn’t be otherwise because of the low light. This narrow aperture also gives me a razor thin depth of field which makes images of my kids simply amazing. By getting in close and shooting with a narrow aperture I can make almost any candid image a portrait, with silky smooth backgrounds. This blurred effect makes my subjects stand out from their backgrounds and is the hallmark of portrait style images. As well, by leaving only their eyes in focus I disguise the filth on their clothes and the snot perpetually leaking out their noses. Even when we haven’t gotten around to bathing them in days, they always look amazing because of this narrow depth of field.

This 50mm lens of mine is unassuming, it is light, and otherwise ideal for just carrying around. Sure I have to move closer to my subjects, but that’s the point. I have to think about my composition, look for good light, and work for my images. I hope the results speak for themselves.

The following collection of images was shot over an hour or two during a geocaching outing with my family last week in the Barrie area. I think you can see how this single lens on an admittedly antiquated body (canon 5D Mark II) takes amazing pictures if you use it well. As well, when hiking with family having a light and very capable lens makes all the difference. Most of my best images have also been shot with this lens.

So that’s my advice, buy a used, refurbished older camera (20meg or better) and get yourself a prime lens, I recommend a 50mm to start. Prime lenses are the best value for your dollar in photography, but like any bargain they require a little work on your end. But don’t let that you dissuade you, go prime. You’ll thank me for it later.


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