Digital Photography Tutorials

An introduction to prime lenses

What is a prime lens?

I have a penchant (some would say unnecessary addiction), to prime lenses for my dSLR camera. This is an expensive habit to have but I can’t help it, I just love the images they produce so much!

wisteria - 85mm f/1.8 lens
Wisteria – Canon 40D and Canon 85mm f/1.8  lens

A prime lens is one that has a fixed focal length – that means you can’t zoom in and out. Your first thought might be that this sounds quite restrictive and much less convenient, and in many ways, yes, you’re right. However, I believe there are so many wonderful reasons why prime lenses are amazing and totally worth it – hopefully I can convince you to consider joining me in this expensive habit. Maybe you do already!

Horny cow - 85mm f/1.8 lens
Horny Cow – Canon 5DMkII and Canon 85mm f/1.8  lens

Why I love them

  1. Prime lenses do not have any moving parts, therefore the build quality tends to be much higher.
  2. Lenses are optimised to let in as much light as possible i.e be ‘faster’ – this is a good thing, it means you can shoot in low light, use faster shutter speeds and get lovely shallow depth of field – look for those small f numbers after the focal length, for example, Canon EF-85mm f/1.8
  3. Whilst they may still seem quite pricey, the equivalent quality lens that zoomed would cost a much more.
  4. It makes you better at composing photos – rather than being rooted to the spot and zooming in and out until what you have is nicely framed, you are forced to move around to find the best shots.
  5. The ones I have used seem to have a certain je ne sais quoi, a unique ‘character’ – this may be me reading too much into it, but for instance, even though I have a 70-300mm zoom lens which I could easily set to 135mm, I much prefer the photographs my prime 135mm f/2.0 takes.
  6. We manage OK with non-zooming eyeballs, don’t we?!

Why they might not suit you

As mentioned before, you may find yourself in a situation where it would really be helpful to zoom in or get wider, in which case a zoom lens would be ideal.

Also, if you are like me and find yourself a bit smitten with these lenses you will end up with a camera bag that weighs you down like a ton of spuds – I find a small pack pony is useful in this situation though.

shoes - 50mm f/1.4 lens
Shoes – Canon 5DMkII and Canon 50mm f/1.4  lens

How to choose

Some people will have very specific requirements for a lens in which case it becomes much easier to choose – a landscape photographer will probably want wide (short) lenses and won’t need to worry too much about the speed of the lens as they will mainly be setting up with a tripod – a sports photographer however will want a long focal length and a fast lens so she can freeze the action.

For me though, I’m a walk around photographer and I want a lens that will be versatile in all sorts of situations. For anyone on a budget (aren’t we all) you may have heard of the ‘nifty 50’ – a 50mm lens is a great all-purpose one to start off with – it’s the one that closest mirrors human vision which may be why it feels so natural to use. Whatever brand of lens you use you will find there are a whole raft of 50mm lenses varying in speed (and price) – the f/1.8 is around £70/$100 which is quite the bargain!

vintage finds - 50mm f/1.4
Vintage Finds – Canon 5DMkII and Canon 50mm f/1.4  lens

I tend to use flickr like a giant photographers shopping catalogue; I type in a lens name into the search box and browse through to see how I feel about the images I’m seeing – if I keep coming across photos I like that all use a particular lens I will check it out on a review site, I like the one at Then it’s the scary bit; I look at the price. Nine times out of ten I give a low whistle and step away from the Internet for fear of agreeing to sell a kidney to feed my habit. I am lucky enough to have made some money from photography which I have invested back into equipment (that’s my rationalisation for it, anyway), so sometimes I will actually splash out and buy one (then I need to have a bit of a lie down)!

My collection

  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens
  • Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
  • Canon EF 135mm f/2 L USM
  • When I had a cropped sensor camera (my Canon 40D) by far my favourite lens was my Sigma 30mm f/1.4 – sadly it wasn’t compatible with a full frame camera and was the only downside to upgrading to my 5D

danish pastry - sigma 30mm f/1.4
Danish – Canon 40D and Sigma 30mm f/1.4  lens

(I have a wishlist too, it’s quite long – let me know if you want to see).


At the end of the day though, it’s not about the lenses at all, or the camera. It’s about you, your vision, your photographs. Use what you love, love what you have and get out there and use it!

queen anne's lace - 135mm f/2.0 lens
Queen Anne’s Lace – Canon 5DMkII and 135mm f/2.0  lens

Do you have a favouite lens? Is it a prime lens?

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    13 September 2011 at 23:25

    My favorite is a 50mm 1.8 that I bought shortly before buying a new camera. Unfortunately the auto-focus is not compatible with the new camera but I can still manual focus with it.

  • Reply
    urban muser
    13 September 2011 at 23:33

    your photos are lovely! i really dig my Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens but it’s the only prime lens I have. your collection is inspiring :)

  • Reply
    14 September 2011 at 00:34

    me too! just ordered an 85mm, gets here Monday. Also have a 35mm and a 50mm.

  • Reply
    14 September 2011 at 20:42

    My 50mm lens is my go-to lens. I love it so much. I’ve never thought of getting other prime lenses (mostly because I spend my money on vintage film cameras) but I think if I ever were to do more digital, I would definitely get more primes. :)

  • Reply
    Betty Thompson
    15 September 2011 at 20:11

    Lovely images Angie your review of the prime lenses now has me smitten, and the change in the purse flowing!;D

  • Reply
    27 September 2011 at 13:00

    Great photos, especially with the f1.4 lens. Prime lenses don’t even have to be expensive – I’ve bought a couple of second-hand Pentax lenses, a 50mm and a 28mm, for my Pentax K-7. Of course, it means manual focus, but that’s what I was used to in film days anyway. I never use the zoom now.

  • Reply
    18 October 2011 at 23:34

    Thanks for this post, I have one prime lens (Nikon 50Mm F1.8D Af Nikkor Lens Auto Focus) and likewise love the particular quality of the images captured with it. I’m sorry to say I’m terribly ignorant – could you explain the difference between the three primes you own? What do those 50/85/135mm figures denote? Thanks for any light you can shed. PS you take lovely pictures!

    • Reply
      19 October 2011 at 19:17

      Hi Colin – thanks for the kind words :)
      The lenses are numbered in this way to show how long the lens is…
      – a small number (i.e. 50mm) will have quite a wide field of vision – imagine a wide landsacpe
      – a bigger number (i.e. 135mm) will have a narrower field of vision but be more ‘zoomed in’
      Hope that makes sense! :)

  • Reply
    31 October 2011 at 00:10

    Ah thanks. I’m on the lookout then for an affordable wide-angle prime, it’ll probably be a Nikon 24Mm F2.8D Af Nikkor Lens next time I’m feeling impulsive…

  • Reply
    10 November 2011 at 00:59

    I really love primes as well, and have decided to not buy any more zooms.
    My faves are my 50mm 1.4 Canon and a 90mm macro by Sigma, which is really quickly turning into my fave thing ever.
    Happy to stumble upon your blog, am off to browse some more.

    • Reply
      10 November 2011 at 20:14

      Hi Mel, I’m with you – I can’t imagine buying anything but a prime lens now! I have the 50mm f/1.4 but not experienced the Sigma 90mm at all – I am intrigued!
      I am so happy you stumbled across my blog too 😀

  • Reply
    13 November 2011 at 15:59

    I love my 35mm/1.8. While I cannot really make a comparison with zoom or kit lenses as I got my D5100 together with this prime lens, I do not see much reason to consider zoom lenses any time soon. Sure, there was thought/concern in my mind of a prime lens being kind of a limitation (did I buy the right lens? etc.). But with six months of shooting, it just confirms that I have made the right choice. I have to think and walk around to get the shot I want, and she delivers, esp. during evenings/at night. Cannot recommend that lens highly enough.

    • Reply
      16 November 2011 at 00:30

      I’m with you – prime lenses rock!

  • Reply
    20 March 2013 at 13:39

    I differ in opinion. Zoom lens is far more versatile. Granted a prime lens allows more light but it also creates very shallow depth of field. While this is good for creative shots, it is a problem for general holiday photographs, where you want to show many things. Also, for holiday shots, it will often crop top of landmarks. Zooming with feet is a misnomer as it changes the perspective. So, in short, if you want to be creative (or a professional), go for prime lens but for all other amateur photographers, a zoom lens is far more versatile. In fact, you can take amazing night shots using kit zoom lens – just use longer exposure.

  • Leave a Reply