Let's begin with a primer on prime lenses (sorry, that was just too good to pass up).
A prime lens is a lens for a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera with a fixed focal length. This is a good start, but let's simplify further.
A prime lens cannot zoom.
With a zoom lens, you can switch back and forth from a wide angle to telephoto view depending on the situation. Even if you're far away from your subject, you can still get a close-up shot.
Zoom lenses offer a great deal of flexibility and are good lenses to travel with since you can take one lens that covers a range of focal lengths. If you only had prime lenses and weren't sure if you'd need a wide angle or telephoto, you'd have to carry 2 or 3 lenses at all times.
So why would anyone bother with a prime lens?
There are three pretty good reasons:
- Prime lenses are clearer - since they don't have a lot of moving parts like zoom lenses, prime lenses can be very precise. Many professional photographers only use prime lenses because of the superior image quality.
- Prime lenses are cheaper - zoom lenses are fairly complicated, while prime lenses have been around since the introduction of the 35mm SLR film camera. Manufacturers have had plenty of time to get these lenses perfect, and their simplicity means that you won't pay an arm and a leg for one.
- Prime lenses are lighter - if you really like to take your SLR camera on hikes, then you don't want a 3 pound lens attached to your camera. While you won't get the flexibility that a zoom lens offers, you also won't get neck strain with a light-weight 50mm prime lens.
Now you know more about prime lenses and why a photographer would want to use one instead of a zoom.
But how can a prime lens improve your photography?
Remember how I said that zoom lenses were flexible? Well, there's one drawback to using a zoom lens all the time: it makes you a lazy photographer.
You can stand or sit in one location and zoom in and out to your heart's content. Not happy with the wide-angle view? Zoom in. Want wide-angle? Zoom out.
With a prime lens you have to physically move your body if you want to change your angle of view.
Now don't get me wrong - when I say that a zoom lens makes you a lazy photographer I'm not talking about the amount of exercise you get when you take photos.
I am referring to the fact that when you have a prime lens attached to your SLR camera you really have to think about your composition. Not being able to zoom in and out on a whim really makes you focus on the elements in your photo.
If you don't like what you see, the act of physically moving your body connects you more with your environment and the image you are trying to capture.
While this may sound like a lot of spiritual nonsense, it's really true. Try it out for yourself. Stick a prime lens on your SLR camera (borrow one from a friend if you have to) and leave it there for an entire week. Even if you're tempted to switch back to your zoom, don't.
Use the prime lens for an entire week, and see if it doesn't make you think a lot more about how you are composing your photos.
When you think carefully about your composition before you just start snapping away, your photography is bound to improve.
Chris Roberts purchased his first digital SLR camera 3 years ago, and hasn't looked back. He continues to learn and write about digital SLRs to this day on his web sites, the Digital SLR Guide and The Best Digital SLR For You