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Depth of Field
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Many beginner photographers wonder why professionals prefer prime lenses over zoom lenses. After all, it seems a little contradictory. Why would you pick a lens that is limited to only one focal length when you could have one that covers a wide range of focal length. It seems that it would cut down on a lot of inconvenient lens changes. But there are several advantages that primes have over zooms. I should note, however, that zooms have continued to improve in quality over the years, but are still not at the same level as primes.
Most prime lenses are built with higher quality material than zooms. Construction is often metal instead of plastic. The glass optics are sharper and many have special coatings to help prevent lens flare and chromatic aberration. Manual focusing rings are larger, rotate smoother, and have a larger degree of rotation so that it is easier to fine-tune your focus point. Some also include a weather seal on the back to keep dirt and moisture out of the lens. Primes are generally much smaller than zooms too, making them less of a hassle to carry around.
This is perhaps the main reason that most professionals use prime lenses. They simply produce better image quality than zoom lenses. They are sharper and faster, and they have less vignetting and lens flares. These performance issues are extremely important to professional photographers who produce high-quality work. Zoom lenses attempt to be a jack-of-all-trades. But since there is a whole range of focal lengths within one lens, it often suffers performance and quality issues at the short end or long end or both.
Primes are faster in two ways. First of all, they have larger apertures to let in more light. This allows for faster shutter speeds in low light conditions. Telephoto primes are often used by action and sports photographers who want to freeze fast-moving subjects. Primes are also faster in terms of focusing speed. Sports and events require quick reflexes in order to get the best shots. But if your lens doesn't focus as fast as you can point it at your subject, then you may miss out on the best shots.
Believe it or not, prime lenses bolster creativity by limiting your focal range. With a zoom lens you are likely to stand in one spot and zoom in or out to get a shot. When you have a prime lens, you are often forced to move yourself or the camera in order to re-frame your shot. Sometimes your prime lens will be too telephoto or too wide for your subject so you have to re-think your approach to photographing that subject. These restrictions cause you to be more conscious about how compose your images. Look at the famous photographer Cartier-Bresson. He's known as the man with one camera and one lens, a 50mm prime.
One of the most attractive features of a prime lens is the shallow depth of field it produces when shooting wide open. The ability to throw you background in to a soft blur of colors is certainly appealing as it often makes photographs more engaging. With a prime, you can really make your subject standout, which is why many portrait, sports, and street photographers use these lenses. It can also make your portfolio look more professional. This is not to say that you can't take great photographs with greater depth of field. You obviously can. But it takes some skill to know when and how to use a shallow depth of field.
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Photo copyright Spencer Seastrom
Written by Spencer Seastrom