All About Prime Lenses & Focal Lengths

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.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.

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.WHAT ARE 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:

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.CONSIDER YOUR CAMERA TYPE

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.

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.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.

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.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.

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.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.

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.

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.

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.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.

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.

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.

 

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.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.

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.

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.

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.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.

Ready to buy a nicer lens for your DSLR, but don't know where to start? This post shares all about prime lenses and how they're an affordable way to achieve higher quality photos.

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! 

-Mandi

Credits // Author and Photography: Mandi Johnson, Photos edited with Spring and Valentine of the Signature Collection.

  • I just got a Nikon 5100 so I’m bookmarking this with a smile on my face. Thanks so much for the post. It made my head hurt but I will triumph!!

  • One of the first lenses I bought was a 50mm lens, and it really does do everything, it’s my favourite go-to lens. Thanks for explaining about the different lenses, I was thinking about a 30mm lens at one point, but for now I’m not in any rush for it 🙂

  • Thank you so much for this! I’m looking to get my first “real” camera and I don’t know much about lenses other than I’ll need some. This is such valuable information!

  • This is an incredibly awesome article! Great description of what does each lens do, plus the pictures showing the differences. From now on I will show it to anybody who’s starting his adventure with DSLRs and prime lenses! Thank you for writing this real quality materials for free! It’s amazing!

  • This was my favorite photography post in a long time! I recently bought a new Canon so this was incredibly helpful and I loved the comparison of lenses with the same subject and distance from subject. I would love more posts along these lines. Thank you!!

  • This article really helped me out! Thanks so much! I’ll safe the link and read it over when I’ve got enough money to afford the Canon EOS 600D.
    That’s not a cropped body, right?

  • Wow, this is such an incredibly informative post! I’ve been switching back bet 35mm and 50mm for my prime lens but always feel the need for more variety. I’m thinking of getting the 15mm-200 zoom but it’s so clunky for carrying around on the daily, 15-85mm may just do the trick! Awesome write-up!

    xo- Julie
    Peace! Love! LOL!
    Haute Khuuture Blog

  • I love this post cause I just went through these thoughts when deciding about getting a 35mm prime to go with my 50mm. (I went with it and LOVE it!)

    I have a quick question. For all the pictures, are you using a full or crop sensor camera? I’m especially interested in the interior shots, since I love how wide the 30mm shot is. But I wonder if my cropped camera would look like the 50mm instead.

    Thanks!!
    xxAmy

  • oh wow thank you thank you for this info!! i have been considering a prime 50mm for a long time. i have a bottom of the rung Nikon though so now i’m wondering if the 35mm would be better…? will definitely be checking out the rental option to play around. so detailed and helpful, thanks again!

  • Shooting interiors is the hardest for me, especially with artificial lighting. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on that!

  • I was JUST searching for this info. What a coincidence that my favorite blog offers the comparison just at the right time. Thanks Mandi! 🙂 Totally going for the canon 50mm f/1.4 for my first prime lens.

  • this is such a great article!! i’m a photographer & enjoyed reading everything you wrote. it made perfect sense & was so clearly explained. well done lady!! I’m a hugggeee fan of my sigma 35mm lens, between that & my canon 50mm, I’m usually set 🙂

  • Holy sh*t, this post is incredible!! I’ve been shooting for almost 10 years but really love the way you broke this down in simple terms. I’ve found that a 50mm really is a great standard lens to have for a prime to cover all your bases. Turning around and sharing this with everyone I know who will find it helpful!!

    http://www.blondeinthiscity.com

  • Mandi, this was an incredibly helpful post! Thank you for the information, as well as the many photos that help illustrate the points.

  • thanks for the this post, Mandi! buying camera gear can be so nerve-wracking because of the sticker shock, but it’s so fun. your comparison photos and showing how close you had the camera is soooooo helpful. really clearly written and presented.

  • What a helpful guide – thanks for going into so much detail and providing examples for each type of photography!

  • THANKS FOR WRITING THIS POST LADIES. I just received a Canon Rebel T3i and am currently looking to get a new lens. I already have a 50 mm so I wanted to look into getting something like a 35mm or even the 30mm. I do agree that renting a lens or even borrowing one from a friend can be beneficial.

    Looking forward to seeing more posts like these ones.

  • Oh wow, this is cool! I love the tips for the lenses under each style. I’m still using a point and shoot but can’t wait for the day when I can upgrade. When I do, I know where to come for the right camera, lenses, and how to use them 🙂

    Love and Luck,

    Laurali Star

    http://www.thesecretsurprisinista.com

  • This post is exactly what I’ve been wanting lately! I got my first DSLR a few months ago and am confident and love it enough to take the next step and get another lense! Thanks!!

  • This is so incredibly helpful. I have a 50mm right now but it is so close up that it is hard to get all I want in the frame. However, I love the depth of field I get. I must have a cropped body camera! I think going to a 30mm might be just the ticket. Thanks for this!

  • OMG it’s like you read my mind with this post! I just needed it spelt out to me in black and white really, sure Amazon has it’s descriptions but it’s great to know which lens is best for in blogger terms. I think I need to start saving for a full frame camera, I have a Canon 35mm lens but will there always be vignettes at the edges? Would also be good to know which lenses are good for landscape, catwalk, etc.

    Thanks so much!

  • I’ve been loving seeing photos using A Beautiful Mess actions. Have you guys thought about expanding your filters on the app? Maybe something similar to the actions?

  • Such a great post! I’m still learning how to take better pictures and my first lens was a 35mm. I’ve now added an 85mm to my wishlist.

  • This is a wonderful post. I myself started out with the XTi and I still have mine. I am hoping to someday soon upgrade to a full frame. I own the 50mm 1.4 and 20mm 2.8 I love my lenses they have taken my photography to a whole new level. This post does a wonderful job illustrating the differences and how you use them. Bravo!

  • thank you for this post! i love photography but feel my generic “it came with the camera” lens is quite limiting! but im so inexperienced, i know nothing about lenses so this was really helpful 🙂

  • I do a feature on my blog called Photography Corner and I’ve actually just been writing about the difference between these types of lenses- how weird!
    Really enjoyed this though. It’ll be helpful to a lot of people!

  • Thank you Mandi!! This is perhaps the most useful post I’ve ever read on camera lens. Thank you so much for using photos to show the pros and cons. I’v e been eying the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 for a while and now think I need the Canon 85mm f/1.8 as well.

  • This post was SO helpful, thank you so much! I am definitely going to refer to back this after I save up for a DSLR. 🙂

  • This was a really well written and helpful post! I loved the breakdown based on subject and I loved how each subject had photo examples from each lens. Thank you, Mandi!!! 🙂

  • I wouldn’t rush for it! I love the 30 for taking it out on the town, and couldn’t do lifestyle photography without it because of the tight quarters and such. Smae goes for interiors- it’s a must for me. But when you’re in control of the environment and doing posed portraits and such, the 50 is just marvelous!

  • I just googled that camera, and it appears to be a full frame camera, so you’ll get tons of extra space in your photos! It will have you giddy over the photos you’ll get with it. 🙂

  • I have a zoom lens for that reason, but honestly rarely use it. I just miss the depth of field that I get with my 50. But it makes sense it you’re out and about and want to take photos from far away, but don’t want to stash an 85mm lens in your purse. 🙂 That’s how I lost my 28! Huge bummer.

  • Glad it was helpful for you! Yes, I used a full frame (Canon 5D mark II) camera for every single photo, except for the one on the right comparing full frame vs. cropped body. If you want to see some interior shots I took using my most recent cropped body camera (Canon Rebel T2i), check these out: https://abeautifulmess.com/2013/02/at-home-with-mandi-johnson.html. These photos used a variety of lenses, but mostly I used a zoom lens set to around 30mm focal length. It’s still a bit wider than the 50mm would appear on a full-frame camera.

  • I would try renting the 30 or 35, because you’re right— the 50mm might be a bit tight for the look you’re wanting with a cropped body camera. I shot with my 28mm lens on a cropped body for years, and it shot like my 50mm does on my full frame camera.

  • I love the Sigma 30mm lens on my T2i! I would beware of getting the 28mm f/1.8 lens from Canon, though, because it has a tendency not to blow out images, as weird as that sounds, and the edges are never sharp. I was about to send mine into be repaired when I straight up lost it. I figured it gave me a chance to just try a new wide angle lens, and I love the Sigma 30!

  • I haven’t shot with a 35mm lens, but with my 30mm on my full frame camera, there is always vignetting. I can correct it a bit digitally, but then I lose quality where I lighten around the edges. A friend of mine said Lightroom has a preset to correct that, which I’d be interested in seeing, but I don’t have Lightroom.

  • I already knew about prime lenses, but this article made me anthousiastic again. I guess its great for beginners and more advanced photographers. I’d love to see more posts on photography

  • I really liked to read this article! So helpfull! I also have some lenses for my canon DSLR camera, but I only use the canon 50mm 1.8 lens. Now still searching for a good lens to use while traveling. Maybe it’s the 30mm?!

  • I only own a 50mm lens, which does the trick great, but I’ve been wanting to invest in a 30mm or 35mm, what exactly is the difference? Also, I love seeing the differences in pictures! Awesome post.

    xoxo
    Taylor

  • This is AWESOME and really explained this stuff in a clear way. I’ve messed around with cameras for years but knowing excatly what camera lenses ill capture is confusing and all the techy photography sites are not always helpful.

    Here’s a question: I have a Sony NEX5N. I love it. Its the size of a P&S but has a huge sensor and the ability to change lenses (I had a lot of fun buying weird Russian on lens on ebay). I would like to buy my first prime lens but can’t decide between a 30mm and a 50mm. I take a lot of photos indoors (outfit shots when its too cold to go outside, sewing tutorials etc) so I’m worried that a 50 may be too zoomed in to really be helpful. On the other hand, I really love the blurred background you get with a 50mm and its much better in low light (ie. indoors) conditions. Would a 30mm be helpful indoors? Will I be able to get those lovely blurred backgrounds with it? I’ve played with a few in camera stores but its a big purchase and I haven’t been able to make a decision yet!

  • Great post! I’m just starting to branch out past my kit lens and would really be interested in hearing how other photographers manage multiple lenses. Do you bring all of them with you? Do you have a really big bag or case? I have a micro four thirds DSLR–and I’m always torn between taking advantage of its small size and just throwing it in my purse as-is, or hauling a big bag with multiple lenses with me.

  • I worked in a camera store for a year, and my advice to anyone who is debating between the 50mm 1.8 and 1.4 is it’s worth it to save up and go for the 1.4…. the quality of the lens & the pictures makes it sooooo worth it. Seriously, don’t be cheap when it comes to lenses because the quality of the picture is 100% attributed to the quality of the lens vs the camera 🙂

  • Thank you so much ! I loved the comparison of lenses with the same subject and distance from subject. I would love more posts along these lines.
    Thanks again !!
    XO From France

  • Thanks for the GREAT post! I am currently working through #BlogLove and picked up a 50mm today to take some better project shots. Such a great comparison of the difference the lenses make!

    Thanks again!

  • AWESOME!! This post answers EVERYTHING. I take a lot of people photos with my camera, and I wanted to ask this same question. I have a Nikon D3100 and it’s a crop-body camera. I was looking into a 50mm lens for it because I like that length. Would you reccomend a 25mm on a cropped body as well for something a bit more wide angled?

    Thanks! 🙂

  • That is a very helpful post! Though I believe most of us, hobby/wannabe photographers, have cropped body cameras.. And as you showed yourself the difference is huge! But thanks anyway, hope to see more posts from you!
    Cheers

  • This is SO helpful! Thanks! Could you do a post on natural light? Or have you already done this?

  • I haven’t used the 35mm, so I don’t know its quirks or what its aperture is, but that extra 5mm from the camera’s eye may help reduce the amount of vignetting that occurs with the 30mm. I would read reviews to see quirks of the lens, like if it loses sharpness around the edges, has trouble with blowing out your photos (I noticed that with the 28mm), or has other issues users have discovered.

  • You can definitely still get the blurry background with a 30mm f/1.4, but it won’t be as strong the further from the lens your subject is. If you have a full-frame camera, I would get a 50mm, but if you want full-length photos of outfits indoors in a tight space, the 30 would be your guy! If you have a wee bit more space, the 50 would do nicely. It would be great if you could borrow a 50 to see if it works. If it does, I would select the 50 over the 30, only because you will have some distortion and vignetting with a 30mm lens on a full-frame camera. Does that make sense?

  • If I’m out and bring along my camera, I usually keep my 50mm lens on the camera (on my full-frame camera), but sometimes I’ll stash the 30mm lens in my purse if I think I may want it, or need to take a group picture at a dining room table or something. It’s not very big. When I’m shooting professionally, I have a large bag, but find it more useful to wear a jacket with pockets so I can stash lenses in them. It’s pretty easy to get used to switching out lenses quickly. I do it in a flash during wedding ceremonies and have never missed getting a good first kiss shot or anything like that. 🙂

  • Yes, I agree! The 1.8 might be okay at first if you absolutely are tight on money, but the glass on the 1.4 will hold up better over time, and the moving parts too, I’m assuming, right?

  • Great information! I’ve been considering saving up for a lens for my camera but not sure which one to go with! This has definitely given me things to think about, and I probably would go with the 85 just due to the fact that I do take quite a lot of close ups! Also any tips for taking photos from above? I always seem to end up taking it at awkward angles so any tips would be great!
    Lauren | OhHay Blogs!
    xxx

  • Pretty much all my photos are taken with my Sony 50mm f/1.8 lens. I sure do love a good low f-stop!

  • Great read! I just purchased the Canon 6d & am in mad love with her! I also did have the Sigma 30 mm 1.4, but sold it due to the vignetting. I still have my good ole 50 & 85, & am swooning for the Sigma Art 35mm 1.4!! The resale value in the 30mm Sigma is pretty great, & you could go for the Canon 28 or 35 f2 for about the same price & not have the dark edges! Just an idea! Thanks again!!

  • I just recently bought a used Rebel, and am practically clueless about what I’m doing. This post was so helpful! I am sure it took you quite some time to write; thanks for it!

  • Thank you so much for the no-brainer explanation! I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to get the hang of my DSLR for a while now (despite reading a bunch of tutorials, the gist of which I understand to be ISO…blah blah blah…focus…blah blah blah….light) and with your photo examples I FINALLY understand the difference between lenses and why they are important. I’m looking forward to future posts. Thanks a bunch!

  • I have just started a blog, and this is exactly what i needed. Thanks, Mandi.. helps a lot.

    xo, Hems
    agoldentulip.blogspot.com

  • Thanks so much for all the information! My husband does film work but sometimes I think he gets bored with explaining all this over and over to me. It was very useful to be able to see a picture taken with all three lenses side by side.

  • Mandi, this is such a great post. Probably my favorite so far on ABM. I wish I’d read this a few years back…I struggled for years testing out lenses and cameras (many regretful purchases!). I’ve wound up with similar gear to you MarkII and mostly prime lenses. I think this post is a MUST READ for beginning photogs! I don’t know much about SEO but I think if there is a way to tie this post in with ‘examples of photos with different lenses and focal lengths’ it’d grab so much attention! I remember searching the internet for that and not finding any info in nearly such a neat and helpful package.

  • Thanks for such a great post! I honestly don’t think I’ve seen such a great detailed post about lenses in a long time. I have a 50mm lens and it was the best purchase I’ve ever made for my Canon. It’s drastically improved my photos, that’s for sure. Lately, I’ve been thinking about adding to my collection and have debated a 35mm or an 85mm lens. So glad you included both ends of the fixed lens spectrum for me to compare with!

  • Yup! You can literally feel the quality difference in it’s weight when you hold one in each hand. Anyhoo, there is my two cents on your great post!! You really nailed each lenses aspect and personality 🙂

  • This is an awesome post! Thanks so much for sharing so thoroughly about prime lenses. Ha…I didn’t even know they were called prime lenses until recently…I referred to them as the “non-zoom” lenses. 😉

  • I can even say enough thank you hahah, this post it’s so helpful, CONGRATS!!! For me it’s really important to know this kind of stuff since I’m studying photography! And there’s some things that my teachers explains and I didn’t get all of it, but you made it so easy!! Thanks, thanks. I love your blog sooo much, and you both and pretty much everyone that works with you are so a big inspiration to me!

    Love, Beatriz from Venezuela?

  • Great article that covers so many important points and you explain them so well!
    I’m a photographer and when people ask me to ‘quickly teach them how it works’ and what lens to get I always recommend the 50mm 1.4 as a start into serious photography. I started out with just this one lens and learned so much with it.

  • “I can always use my feet *to zoom, right?”

    Sorry I always bother you guys with typos! It’s my pet peeve! I loved this post, Mandi. I’ve heard of prime lenses, but I’ve never really learned anything about them before now. The information was incredibly helpful!

  • TERRIFIC post. Simple language yet solves the problem. I own a second-hand Canon EOS 20D with its kit lens and having tried friends’ cameras to see the differences, I had always known it was something to do with the lens and what I know now, full-frame vs cropped-body, but nobody could enlighten me and I had spent hours with Google just to have a headache.

    Thank you soooo much, Mandi and A Beautiful Mess. I still have to save for a non-kit lens, but at least I know now why my pictures do not look the way I want them to.

  • great post!!! i have a canon 60d and a 50mm 1.4 as my main lens (awesome for everything <3) I'm now considering buying either a 30mm or a Canon EF-S Objectif 10 / 22 mm f/3.5-4.5 USM for landscape

  • Really great article!!! My first lense after the kit-lense was a manual 50mm (cropped body pentax) and I learned SO MUCH! I purchased a few more manual vintage lenses and I love them but honestly I bought a 17-50mm 2.8 now to have an “every-day” lens for holidays etc. I am still dreaming of a 35mm prime though 🙂
    Could talk about it for hours!!!
    xx, Sarah

  • Hi I just got my Canon 70D and I love it. For now I got 18-55mm and 40mm lenses( seems as I got not very special ones) but anyway I love my 40mm pancake. I’m going to share my Canon with my husband but his more to astrophotography. Thank’s for sharing useful tips.

  • Very informative – love the pictures! I hope you do a similar post on zoom lenses because I’m in need of a new one after mine smashed to pieces.

    Erin, beingerin.com

  • This is so helpful! I have been having some issues with the pictures I take, and now I’m thinking that I really need to check out the lens that I am using. I’m definitely going to bookmark this!

  • My goodness! How informative!!! Thank you for this post, I am currently in the process of picking out my first ever DSLR. I had no idea what prime lenses were until now. And this post definitely helped me as to what kind of lens I should get for myself. 🙂 I really enjoyed reading this post. I look forward to the next photography related post.

    cheers!

    Greets from the Philippines,
    G

  • Wow, I’m just on the verge od buying my first SLR camera and this post is just what needed! I opted for Canon 60d body but I’m still in two minds about the lens. I was going to go for Canon 28mm f/1.8 but then I discovered there is another one: Canon 28mm f/2.8 and this one has IS! So, what now? 🙂

  • Love the article but it leaves me with the question “how do you know if your camera is crop body or full frame?”

  • I’m just learning the ins and outs of my 3XTi (think that is what it is called). I got it for Christmas. I have only used the lens that came with it and only on auto mode. This post is most helpful and have ‘liked’ it on my bloglovin’ for future reference!
    Thanks,
    Patti

  • Thanks so much Mandi for an interesting post and one I can understand! I think my photography brain just grew a little.
    I have a Canon Rebel which is my first ‘big girl’ camera and I am just getting used to using it on manual only. I have become interested in a new lens and this post has been such a help, and the idea of renting a lens to try, genius. I am going to see if my local camera shop in St Louis rents.
    I do lots of close ups of jewelry as well as family and outdoor shots, so I might need to save for a couple of lenses.

  • First the photography section in the Blog Life e-course, and now this post! ABM, you are really making it so much easier to understand photography and my camera. I had no clue about the cropped body & full frame cameras. It makes so much more sense now!

    Guess after I get an instax camera (been on my wishlist for years because of my childhood love of my mom’s Polaroid), the next thing on my photography wishlist is a better lens. And eventually a new camera body (I had a hand-me-down from a friend who used to do photography professionally, which is great for learning)!

  • Just be aware if you get a 25mm, you will get even more distortion than I showed with my 30mm. It’ll be fine as long as you’re not taking pictures too close up. The kind of distortion I’m talking about is more than just vertical and horizontal lines having a sort of bubble look to them, but for instance, if you stick your arm out for a selfie, your nose will look larger than it really is because of the distortion. You’ll still get that on a cropped body. I would hesitate to go any wider than a 28mm lens, but that’s just me! 🙂

  • I really wanted the Canon 35 f/2, but I really needed that extra edge with the 1.4 on the 30, basically just for shooting wedding receptions. It gets so dark, and I hate using my Speedlite if I don’t have to! But I’m really thinking about the Sigma Art 35mm now. No vignetting, eh? Tempting!

  • a 40mm is a good compromise between the range of 30 and 50! I wouldn’t say it isn’t special. 🙂 It’s a great lens to have if you can’t afford two different lenses more on other ends of the spectrum.

  • My advice is if you’re shooting in low light, such as indoors at parties and gatherings, you’ll really appreciate the lower f# of the 1.8. If you’re mostly granted bright, natural light for your photography, then I wouldn’t worry about it. 🙂

  • A quick Google search should do the trick if you’re uncertain. Camera descriptions should say if it’s full sensor or cropped. Good luck!

  • Great post! Thank you Mandi! Question for you, I currently am shooting with a Canon T3i and a couple of medium grade lenses that take good photos but I know I’m missing a ton with my mid-level equipment. Problem is, I cant afford to buy a full frame body and lenses right now but want to be able to increase my image quality while I save up for more upgrades. For reference, I shoot mostly lifestyle type things. So, would you suggest getting myself a new high end lens to start out with or save up and get a new full frame body before upgrading my lenses?

    Thank you!
    Taylor

  • Great Advice! I bought an 50mm prime lens some years ago and well, that’s the only one I’m using regulary. I love it not to be able to zoom. Not exactly when I have to climb my chairs to take a photo from above, but for all the other situations it just makes things easier. I don’t have to think of zooming in or out for a photo, I just take it. That’s it.

  • Thank you so much for this info. I’ve been debating wondering which lenses are best for crafting shots. You’re the best!!

  • Very useful info! I owned a 50mm/1.8f and it’s great. I want to change some of the other focus lenses, and I have never thought of renting lenses before I buy them : But now I’ll have that on mind 😉

    Thank you!

    P.

    http://theslowpace.com

  • Thank you so much for taking the time to write this all out and taking all the comparison pictures to go with!! I’m sure it took a while… I have a Nikon d610 with a 50mm lenses and I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of difference having a 30mm would make for interior shots. And also what would be a good lenses for close up product photos and food photography! How did you know? You answered them all. So so grateful for this! Thanks a million!

  • woh seriously awesome post! i have the same camera, bought it used off a photographer friend, with only one lens so far – 50mm! i do all my shooting with it but darn it i definitely want to expand my lens horizons… you guys are so helpful!!! xo

  • oh my goodness this was the best blog post ever! I have been doing amateur photography for years and have never had anyone explain focal lengths as well as this! Also had NO clue about the difference between a full body and cropped frame! Thank you so much!

  • Fantastic post…I even took notes! I recently picked up a Canon 50D and love it…definitely looking into more lens options and this post helped a ton!
    Thanks!

  • Ok, wow. This was super helpful, thanks so much!

    I just got the Canon Rebel T5i + a 50mm 1.4 prime (b/c I’d read so many good things), but because I didn’t know about that whole full-frame/cropped-body thing, I’ve been wondering why my 50mm shots are so difficult to take -the gymnastics I’ve been doing, I tell ya! 😉

    *light bulb moment!*

    I’ll have to look into 28mm or 30mm lenses.

    I’d love to see a post on little gadgets that can ramp up a beginner DSLR (like those shade things on the end of lenses, or remotes, basic tripods, etc.). =)

  • This was a very insightful post! Well done! I just have a few questions for you 🙂

    I am just wondering what lens you would recommend for a cropped body camera to get the images that a 30mm and an 85mm would product on a full frame camera? Also, with cropped body cameras, at what mm will the lens produce a vignette?

    Thanks 🙂

  • Thanks Mandi! This is super informative. I just bought my first ever dSLR (a Canon Rebel) and it actually arrived in the mail today (!!!) so reading this was perfect timing for me! I’m definitely a photog novice and am looking to learn. Thanks for the detailed info!! Love your features here and love your blog!

    xo

    Jamie

  • I’m not sure about the 85. I happily used the 85 with my Canon Rebel, though. It’s definitely a zoom lens, though. So not for anything closer up, with the exception of something like food photography where you’re looking to get more detail shots. A 30mm lens would be great on a cropped body camera, honestly. It will act more like a 50, but not quite— So maybe it will act more like a 40mm on your camera? (I don’t have a 40mm lens to compare it to.) If you go wider than a 30mm lens, you will be getting into fisheye territory. I did use the 28mm f/1.8 on my cropped body camera and enjoyed that one, despite its quirks. I was preparing to send it in for recalibration before I lost it. ;(

  • This is such a helpful post; will pin and refer to it often! Thank you!

  • I absolutely love this write! I’m barely dipping my feet in the field of photography and just have a Canon T3i and this really helps me gain a much clearer understanding. Thank you!

  • This post was the bomb. I purchased a DSLR in 2012 I have a Cannon Rebel T3i. Like you had no clue what I was buying but knew I needed it. I am learning the camera but still don’t know what I am doing lol. I have two zoom lenses that came with the camera. An 18-55mm and 75-300mm. I use the 18-55mm regularly, now I need to expand to the 75-300 based on this post. Now I have no clue if I gave full frame or cropped style camera. I assume it’s full frame . Thanks you for the resource to rent lenses. I am going to try a prime lens for sure. What do you recommended I buy based on the zoom lenses I always have?

  • Thanks Mandi! I just assumed that a 50mm on a cropped body would be comparable to a 85mm on a full frame 😉 Looking forward to more photography posts from you!

  • Thanks so much for sharing the difference between 30mm, 50mm, and 85mm premier lenses. I bought Canon dslr with lenses few years ago and still confuse what are the difference. This post is definitely helpful and answers everything. Thanks!

  • This was extremely helpful for a very amateur but enthusiastic photographer. Just found out my camera is cropped…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!

  • Great post! I want to take more nature photos. what lense would you recommend me? I have a canon 600d. thank you.

  • 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!!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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!

    http://www.pagebypaige.ca/

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    Cheers.

  • 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??

  • Hello!

    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)

    Thanks!

  • 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!

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