Hi, guys! It’s Mandi here to talk to you about how you can affordably improve your photography with the use and understanding of prime lenses. When I first bought a DSLR camera (digital camera with interchangeable lenses) in 2008, I didn’t really know what I was doing. My Canon Rebel XTi came with a standard low-quality zoom lens, and because of that, my photos weren’t up to the quality I had hoped.
I quickly became a student of digital photography and learned that the lenses you use can dramatically improve your photos, even if your camera isn’t baller (and mine wasn’t). Back then, I didn’t even know the difference between a prime lens and a zoom lens—all I knew is that I didn’t want to waste my hard-earned money on the wrong lens. And man, oh man, lenses are expensive, you guys! I searched online for lenses based on reviews and cost, and that’s what led me to prime lenses.
So what are prime lenses? You may be used to zooming in and out with your camera when taking photos, but prime lenses don’t zoom—they stay fixed at one focal length. In simple terms, a focal length is the distance between the subject and the “eye” of the camera.
So why buy a lens that doesn’t zoom? Well, for one, they are much less expensive than zoom lenses because they have less interchangeable parts. Want a nice lens that will help you shoot in low light and give you beautiful photos with great shallow depth of field?* Well, a zoom lens rarely goes lower than f/2.4, which is a big difference from the f/1.4 of my prime lenses. What’s the big deal about the f-number, you ask? The lower the number, the shallower the depth of field and the better your ability to shoot in low light. That’s a big deal to me as a photographer. Zoom lenses with nice glass and low f-numbers can easily run way over $1,000. Or you could give up the zoom function for a prime lens for $100-$500, depending on the quality of glass. What a deal, right?
When I was lens shopping all of those years ago, I thought it would be silly not to save money and gain quality by getting a prime lens. I mean, who needs zoom? I can always use my feet too zoom, right? And I could always add more prime lenses in different focal lengths as I got the money. The decision seemed easy. Well, I’ll admit—it’s a bit more complicated than that.
*In simple terms, depth of field is when your subject is sharp in focus and the rest of the image is blurry.
WHAT LENSES DO I USE, AND WHY?
If you’re in the market for a lens upgrade for your DSLR and want the best lens for your money, I highly suggest you consider purchasing a prime lens. I’ve really enjoyed each of the three prime lenses I’ve purchased and would love to tell you all about them to help make your shopping decisions easier. Here are the lenses I currently own:
Your camera type should be the first thing to consider when deciding which prime lens you should get. If you have a lower-end DSLR, it probably has a cropped body, versus the more expensive full-frame cameras. This difference in camera sensor sizes isn’t something I knew about when I purchased my first Canon Rebel, which is a cropped-body camera. I was blown away when a friend showed me how a picture taken from the same spot with the same lens as mine looked on his full-frame camera. The comparison made it seem like my lens was zoomed in—but prime lenses don’t zoom! His full-frame camera captured so much more! To see this difference for yourself, check out the comparison images above. They were both taken with a 50mm lens from the same spot, but you can see the dramatic difference between the two sensor types.
What does that mean for cropped-body camera users? You should compensate for image cropping by purchasing a lens with a shorter focal length, such as a 28mm or 30mm lens, instead of the 50mm lens that was used in the above images. A 30mm lens would probably end up being the most used lens in your camera bag—a great lens to start out with. But if you want to branch out and expand your lens collection, read about the uses and quirks of each of my prime lenses as I explore their use with different subjects.
CONSIDER YOUR TYPICAL SUBJECT MATTER
Another important factor when selecting a prime lens should be your subject matter. What kind of photos do you plan to take? Let’s explore each of the subjects I usually shoot and how each lens performs.
Food photographers usually like to get up close and personal with their subject matter, which would make an 85mm focal length ideal (as shown above). This lens appears more zoomed in than the 30mm or 50mm lenses I own, so it’s great to get detail shots without having to move in closer to the subject. Of course, you can use a wider angle lens,* but your image will not be the same. Let’s discuss the differences below, as shown on a full-frame camera.
*A wide angle lens has a shorter focal length which allows for more content in the frame of the camera, but also results in distortion or light loss/vignetting around the edges of the image.
In the above images, you can see how I had to physically move closer or farther away to capture the same image with three different prime lenses. The content of the photo ended up generally the same, but because of the quirks of each lens, we see some differences.
The 30mm lens is so wide that it acts almost like a fish-eye lens, causing dramatic distortion—the foreground of the image is enlarged and the background becomes much smaller. Distortion is more of a concern when shooting up close to a subject. The problem lessens the farther you move from the subject—but we’ll discuss that later.
The 50mm lens has less distortion than the 30mm lens, but you can see that compared to the 85mm lens, there is still actually a bit of distortion when shooting so close to a subject. The 85mm allows less of the background in the image (great for food or small-scale product photographers) and no distortion. It’s my favorite lens to use in detail shots like this.
Portraits can be varied in style, of course, and the lens you use will make a big difference in both the style and the content of your photo. The photos below show basically the same image, taken from the same spot, with three different lenses.
As you can see, the 30mm lens allows more content into the photo. This is great if you’d like to feature a beautiful background or if you’d like to have the person in your portrait be shown from head to toe and don’t have much room to physically back away to take the photo. But take note that when using a 30mm lens on a full-frame camera, you will experience vignetting.* The 50mm lens makes for a prettier composition, in my opinion. It takes away less of the background and allows for a more intimate capture of the subject, while still sharing details like what she’s wearing or holding. Want to get even more intimate, though? Then the 85mm is your guy. It gets right in there, cutting out most of the background and focusing in on the subject. The 85mm is also a great lens for taking candid portraits at parties. People don’t realize you’re taking their photo from so far away, so they let their guard down and you can capture their natural smiles and laughter. This is a method I use a lot when photographing wedding receptions.
*Vignetting is also referred to as light loss. It is when the corner edges of the image are darkened because of the presence of the lens wall in your camera’s sensor. Vignetting can be somewhat corrected with photo editing software like Photoshop or Lightroom, but even with digital manipulation, you will lose some of the detail in your image.
If you’re a blogger, chances are you’re taking some photos from above. You know the gig—artfully styled sections of citrus for a margarita recipe, or maybe some scattered supplies for a DIY project. The type of lens you need for this kind of shot depends on your sensor type (cropped or full-frame, as we discussed before) and the area of your subject matter.
I usually end up standing on top of my table to take this kind of photo, but with my 30mm lens, I end up with my toes in the photo. I’ve found that for my purposes, the 50mm lens gets enough in the photo, but if I’m taking an aerial shot and need to get a lot in the frame, I’ll switch to the 30mm lens and just watch out for my feet.
I rarely use my 85mm lens in aerial shots, because you just don’t get a lot in the frame. But if the subject I’m shooting is on the small side, I might use it to lessen the distortion that you might get with a 30mm or 50mm lens.
Lifestyle photography varies so much, so really, any lens works great for this kind of subject! It just depends on what you want in the moment or how tight your quarters are. You’ll probably resort to a wider angle lens like a 30mm if you’re at a restaurant, whereas if you’re outside in an open field, you have plenty of space for any lens you want.
Just like with portrait photography, if you want more of the background in your photo, a 30mm lens is great. For more intimate shots, use something more “zoomed in,” such as an 85mm lens. In between? Grab a 50mm lens. Choosing a lens for lifestyle photography is pretty simple and depends on what kind of composition you’re interested in.
Shooting interiors is a little bit tricky. It’s difficult for a camera to capture the essence of a room like our human eyes can. When we see photos of homes on blogs, we see only a small portion of the space, because we’re limited to the camera’s eyes.
When I take photos of my home, I usually use both my 30mm and 50mm lenses. The 30mm is helpful to get more of the room in the shot, but it results in some distortion and vignetting, so I prefer to use the 50mm lens if I have space. I rarely ever use my 85mm lens for interior shots, but if you want to capture a vignette, it’s a great lens to use because you end up with no distortion.
TRY IT BEFORE YOU BUY IT!
If you’re still not sure what kind of lens you need, why not rent one for a fun weekend of photography experimenting? If a friend doesn’t have what I’m interested in, I rent equipment from lensrental.com to see how I like something. While I love all of the lenses I’ve acquired, the one I use the most is my 50mm lens, but back when I had a cropped-body camera, I most frequently used my Canon 28mm f/1.8 lens (may she rest in peace). I lost that lens (GASP—I know.), but it’s comparable with the Sigma 30mm lens I purchased to replace it.
If you’re interested in even more photography knowledge that I frequently put to use for my projects here at A Beautiful Mess, check out my recent post about using artificial lighting. And if you have any questions about prime lenses, ask them in the comments section below, and I’ll do my best to answer them for you!
Credits // Author and Photography: Mandi Johnson, Photos edited with Spring and Valentine of the Signature Collection.
Perfect examples really grateful you added images to explain the differences, I’ve got a Sony a6500 as I needed a low end video camera for my web design projects too and got a fixed lens as my knowledge is quite limited and am learning on the job. Since making that Initial investment, the other thing I’ve been after is too shoot pictures of my small office to add to my website. I know I need a wide angle lens. Seeing your examples is really interesting especially seeing how close you are able to stand on that first shot is amazing and thats a 30mm. Ive seen you can get as low as 10mm for my Sony camera, that will be even closer!
I would like to get a prime lens for my Canon T3i, but after reading a couple reviews saying a prime lens wouldn’t make much different on a cropped body frame camera, I was wondering if I should get one still and if it would still do it’s job?
I’m primarily looking for that bokeh effect for the background so that’s why I was thinking about the prime lens. Also, between the 50mm -1.4 and 50mm-1.8, would it make a huge difference if I had gotten the 50m 1.8 instead of the 50mm 1.4 (besides cost)
Hi Mandi!! I love this post, thank you for the information! I, too, have the Canon Rebel, and I work on all of the types of shots you mentioned! So if you HAD to choose on of those lenses, which would it be??
Great article. I have a Canon crop body, EOS 50D, that I use less and less due to weight it represents.
Last year I bought an Olympus micro 4/3, Pen EPL-5, along with an high quality EVF and standard zoom lens to overcome the weight factor. Soon I realized that I needed more lenses so I bought a cheap adapter for the Canon lenses I own and another for a small Pentax Super Takumar 50mm that I bought for maybe 30 bucks. Boy… I was blown away by the results, the Takumar was on par with Canon L glass (it may even surpass it).
From there on I became addicted of buying old glass. I have lenses from Konica, Pentax, Chinon, Olympus, Canon FD and FL (58mm/1,2) and some more that I don´t remember now. All of those lenses bought for a pittance, and the results are nothing short of spectacular.
True, I gave up autofocus, but that made me more aware of my photo technique, made me look deeper into what I was trying to do forcing me into taking time before shooting away.
Any mirrorless camera will let you adapt old glass. I prefer Olympus since it´s got in body stabilization, and not less important, it has a collection of quality primes at “decent” prices in case you don´t want to give up auto focus and automation. I bought the 1,8/25mm Olympus prime since I have not been able to get a fast-decent 28mm, which gives the “normal” perspective, and where I live there is not much use for wide angles (which in case of need, I cover with the kit lens). That is the problem with micro 4/3 bodies, wide angles are expensive (Olympus 12mm/2,) or inexistent in old glass, something which is solved in full frame bodies of the Sony´s A7´s.
I am convinced that I found a treasure in old glass which has been neglected due to the lack of electronics (and automation in consequence), and therefore, dirt cheap. Don´t be fooled into thinking that they are made of lower quality glass. Most of them are superb and will give you brilliant results when properly cared and used. Each one has a different personality, renders colors and bokeh in different ways. Please, be forewarned, I found that all of the old lenses require a good cleaning, and some (the Pentax I mentioned, fi) need to be disassembled, but it is a small risk to take if the lens costs 30$. I use a Konica 135 that I disassembled and got rid of some (there is a small trace of fungi still present) of the fungi that it had. The results are just fine. Sharpness might be affected but I cannot tell for looking at the pictures (FWIW, ever since the old glass came home I found the best way to deal with fungi is to keep lenses uncapped, sun tanning every once in a while -direct sunlight, no less- and in an open shelf with moving air around)
I am selling now my Canon gear due to the fact that I use it less and less. I keep an eye on used lenses and in Sony´s A7. The day Sony decides to put in body stabilization, if and when Sony decides to manufacture such a beast, I will buy one of them.
And a dozen adapters.
You can check out my reply to your comment above— I’m sharing the 30mm lens in my camera bag, and have been responding to individual questions about specific lenses as they pertain to each commenter’s own camera. I bought that specific 30mm lens when I was shooting only with a cropped body camera, and I still use that camera at weddings, so I’ll keep it. I am considering getting the Canon 35mm lens for my full-frame camera too, though.
It’s true that not all 30mm lenses will give vignetting on a full-frame camera, but I was sharing the lenses in my collection, and the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 art lens does create vignetting on a full-frame sensor. I agree that 30mm is definitely a long way off from fisheye, but it does create subtle distortion and comparing it to a less severe version of what a fisheye lens does helpful for inexperiences photographers to understand what exactly distortion is. You can see in the first set of comparison photos that the 30mm lens does distort the image, making what is closer to the lens seem much larger than the rest of the image in a distorted way from what you get with the 50mm or 85mm lens. Distortion isn’t just relegated to cheap lenses, though you could minimize it by getting something like an L series lens. I’d wager to guess most ABM readers can’t spare over 2k on a camera lens just to get around distortion issues.
Incredibly helpful!!! Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m in the works of finding the best digital camera for shooting my blog and also for capturing memories of our daughter. This was exactly the info I was hoping to find – made so much sense! Thank you!
That was a really helpful post! I just bought a DSLR camera because I want my blog to have quality images. Posts like these are great which explain things in clear terms, because Im definitely not a professional photographer … yet!
Hi Tanja! I must admit, I rarely take nature photos. The 600d is a cropped body camera, though, so I would more likely recommend something of a wider angle, which would be a focal length shorter than a 50mm. Probably a 30mm-35mm would be a good option for you. Hope that helps!
Oh yeah! You are going to LOVE LOVE LOVE that 50 on your full frame camera. You must be so excited!
Hi Lotoya! Actually, the Canon Rebel T3i is a cropped body camera, and I’m assuming you probably use your 18-55mm lens more than the other one? If that’s so, I would suggest getting something in the 28mm-35mm range. I love the Sigma 30mm lens I shared above, and prefer it to the 28mm f/1.8 lens Canon offers. You shouldn’t have vignetting problems with your cropped body camera, and you could use this lens in tighter quarters. I think it’s a good balance for daily use!
Yep just did a quick google. Your vignette is because you are using a Sigma DC lens, which is a crop frame lens, on a full frame body. It’s nothing to do with the fact that it’s a 30mm lens specifically. A 30mm lens (or even wider) designed specifically for a full frame sensor would not result in a vignette.
Saying you will experience vignetting on a full frame camera is incorrect. If you are using a 30mm lens designed for a crop frame camera on a full frame camera you might. It depends on the lens though. And 30mm is quite a long way off being a fish eye. Fish eye lenses are usually between 8mm and 16mm. One of my most used primes is my 24mm and I don’t get any vignetting or ‘fish eye’ style distortion. Distortion is a by product of cheap lenses, rather than specifically related to focal length.
Hey, I am pretty sure the 600D has a cropped sensor, so keep that in mind when buying your lense 😉 If you want a full frame you need to look at the 6D but there is a massive price difference.
I bought my 50mm lens on your recommendation. I can’t work out what I want for the next time I travel though. My stock lens cut off half of the Eiffel Tower last time. I’m hopeful the 50mm will work better next time.
A great intro to prime lenses. My first was the very cheap 50mm f/1.8 which I adored. I’ve just purchased the 35mm f/1.4 and I am in love. At the moment it hardly ever comes off my camera! Reading this, though, I’m seriously considering upgrading my 50mm and then I think an 85mm will soon be following 🙂 I just love how much crisper my images are with primes as well, than on a zoom lens. It has totally changed the look of my photographs and I love them!!
Great post! I want to take more nature photos. what lense would you recommend me? I have a canon 600d. thank you.
Pretty soon I will finally be upgrading from my Rebel to a full-frame camera after a long 7 years. I own the 50mm 1.8 lens and have always kind of regretted not getting the 30mm one instead. I didn’t realize how much different it will look with my new full-frame camera! Thanks for the comparison!
This was extremely helpful for a very amateur but enthusiastic photographer. Just found out my camera is cropped…Thank you!
Thanks so much for this, Mandi! I’ve always had trouble with knowing where to even start when it came to new lenses. This gives me a good place to start my research for my next lens! I should mention, I liked this post so much I’ve featured it in my latest round-up! http://thecommoncreative.blogspot.ca/2014/05/curated-byvol-6.html