Learning to Photograph by Shooting with Prime Lenses: Don’t!!!

A very common advice from photography “experts” is for a beginner to shoot with prime lenses only in order to develop that discipline in learning the art of composition. To be honest, I have only read about this “advice” but never heard this from anyone at all. So be very careful ‘coz you might be getting advice from armchair photographers. Corollary to this is an even worse advice of using a 50mm prime lens because it is THE standard lens. Want to learn more about how awesome your kit lens is? Read this.

Let’s tackle that 50mm lens first. Standard for what? Make sure you know what they are talking about. This focal length is considered standard for 35mm photography. So unless you are shooting “full frame” then you are most likely looking at the wrong lens and that means all of you who are starting with photography (except you rich bastards who got a 5D2 or D700 from the spare change you found under the sofa). Always consider your frame size. On medium format the standard is 80mm, on crop (APS-C) sensor it is 35mm, on 43rds it is 25mm and so on.

Why is it called a standard lens anyway? They say because it closely approximates the human field of view. I’m not sure how true this is. I believe it’s called a standard lens because film cameras back then came with a 50mm lens when you bought them. It was the easiest focal length to manufacture and therefore the cheapest. Even until this modern day of digital photography, 50mm are still the cheapest lenses you can buy from any manufacturer.

With that 50mm out of the way, let’s move on to photography. Shoot with a 50mm prime lens and use your legs to “zoom”. Really?!!! That’s the quickest way for a beginner to give up on photography and dump his expensive toy. And ten times quicker for the poor chap who got a crop sensor for Christmas. Get real people!

But hey, that’s what the famous Henri Cartier-Bresson did. He shot with ONLY a 50mm lens!!! So unless you want to be as good as him then you should do the same. Bullshit! You guys have watched too many Jacky Chan kung-fu movies where he spends countless months just learning the straddle stance before even learning how to punch. The truth is, HCB could only afford one lens and that’s why he shot with that crappy 50mm. He learned that lens by heart that he could probably shoot it without looking at the viewfinder (case in point: that famous shot of a man jumping over a puddle — pure luck by the way).

So why limit yourself to prime lenses? Or worse, to 50mm primes? Zoom lenses are infinitely more flexible. You could do in-your-face photography and shoot the grand vista by going 24mm and in seconds capture intimate details by zooming into 105mm while maintaining the same vantage point.

One of the biggest hurdles in photography is, unlike painting, we have no freedom to reposition our subjects (sometimes I wish I’m Harry Potter and move that mountain closer). If your composition calls for a specific spot then your only other option is the flexibility (or the lack) of your lens. Foot zoom won’t get you that far in photography. Especially in landscape photography where you are chasing light, you can’t afford to change lenses. You will miss the shot and ruin your future shots with the dust that enters your sensor.

Other jokers argue by saying “If you do not want to change lenses then why bother with SLR? Get a point-and-shoot instead!” Changing lenses is NOT the reason we use SLRs. Physics prevents us from having a 10-500mm/1.4 lens that is light, small, sharp and free of distortion and aberations. That is why we change lenses.

If you want to discipline yourself by shooting primes, then set your zoom lens to that focal length and duct tape the barrel so you can’t touch the zoom ring. I tells ya, if you can’t help your self from turning that zoom ring then no prime lens will ever discipline you. You might as well drop the hobby before it becomes a gigantic white elephant.

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9 thoughts on “Learning to Photograph by Shooting with Prime Lenses: Don’t!!!”

  1. I’ve had my kit lens for three years. Now that I’ve mastered that, I’m ready for prime. I don’t know if I would have had the patience (or gotten the point) before now.

  2. May I presume you never shot with a normal prime? Test yourself to one, shoot with only that lens for a year, manual focus, the whole spiel. then re-read your post. Not trying to convert you to get a gem like that but the lens will teach you lots!

    1. I do shoot prime lenses especially with film because I need the extra f-stops unlike in digital where you can push the ISO. Nothing wrong with shooting prime. What’s wrong is when photographers think it’s not good enough unless one shoots with prime lenses in full manual exposure and other unnecessary masochistic techniques when simple and easy is good enough. People tend to concentrate on the acrobatics of photography instead of making the shot.

  3. Zooms DO make you lazy. Primes DO teach people photography faster. And they have faster aperture for creamy bokeh. People that don’t like “zoom with your feet” are just lazy. Well you’re never going to become a good photographer if you’re lazy.

    1. People who are lazy will always be lazy whether they are using zoom lenses or prime lenses. A zoom lens user could always stick to a focal length and shoot if he wishes to learn. I find that people who say zoom lenses make you lazy usually don’t understand or know how to use zoom lenses.

      Those who rely on bokeh are usually people who can’t compose a shot. They also tend to shoot lots of flowers and macro because those subjects don’t require any thinking at all.

      A lot of prime lens users actually are only after their gear while zoom users, most of them on kit lenses, actually want to capture photos.

      Don’t dwell too much on the acrobatics. Make photos.

  4. This thing about 50mm = the FOV of the human eye is a lot of baloney. Takes no account of variables such as viewing distance from the photograph, magnification within the viewfinder etc. etc. It’s just a very useful compromise between tele and wide-angle, and more importantly was the default lens that most SLRs were sold with up to the 1980s. Apart from convention and cheapness of manufacture, there’s no particular reason why 50mm should be seen as a standard. And people persist in referring to it as an ‘essential’ lens on APS-C cameras, when of course a closer approximation to the old 50mm length in FOV terms would be a 28mm lens. Which is why a cheap old 28mm manual-focus lens is a much better way to start familiarising yourself with the world of prime lenses.

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