canon ef

What is a prime lens?

We've taken a jump over 'O' and landed directly on 'P' for the next part of the Photography Fundamentals series. Here, we'll be taking a look at prime lenses, what they are, and why you should have one. At least one. In fact, we reckon that until you've got a decent prime lens, you've not really lived, photographically speaking. Here's why.

Define prime

What's a prime lens? For once, it's a simple definition: it's a lens with a fixed focal length. They might be 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm, whatever, they just don't move. And yes, this can most definitely be a good thing.

A bit of history

Back in the infancy of photography, we never had anything but prime lenses. When you bought a camera body, you also had to buy a camera lens to go with it. A 50mm ƒ/1.8 was pretty much the slowest lens you could buy as a starter kit.

To this day, a 50mm ƒ/1.8 is the cheapest lens you can buy in the entire Canon EF lens arsenal. And if you don’t have one, you’re missing out.

Canon's 50mm ƒ/1.8 - a bargain at under £100

From your first prime, you move on. You might get a faster ‘normal’ prime, like a 50mm ƒ/1.4 or a ƒ/1.2 (or, if you’re intro your retro gear, the incredibly bright Canon 50mm ƒ/0.95. This lens is four times faster than the human eye, and is one of the fastest lenses in the world along with, for example, the lenses available for the Nikon 7 range finders in the early 1950s.)

If you’re into landscapes, a 28mm would be the natural choice. 85mm, 100mm, and 135mm prime lenses became the de facto standard for portrait photography all ’round the world.

Nikon's 85mm ƒ1.8

The first zoom lenses were patented in the early 1900s, and the first commercial production of zoom lenses for stills photography started in the early 1960s. All of a sudden, zoom lenses were all the rage.

Why would you limit yourself to a single focal length, when you can cover a whole range? So, manufacturers shrugged, and started creating zoom lenses.

What’s going on now?

Nowadays, all ‘kit lenses’ (lenses you get bundled with camera bundles) are consumer-grade zoom lenses. My dad recently got suckered into buying an 18-55mm and a 55-200mm lens (after I explicitly told him to buy a Canon 28-135 ƒ/3.5 Image Stabilised lens… Tssk, doesn’t the lad know I run a photography blog, or something?), for example, and he isn’t stupid. It’s just too tempting to get a wider zoom range, in the hope that the increased flexibility will get you the photos you need.

Tamron's 18-270mm offers a huge focal range, but is it as sharp as a prime lens?

The thing is, a zoom range is all good and well, but ultimately, it’s all about sharpness. Are your photos so crisp they jump out of the screen at you? If not, you’re probably doing something wrong. So what happens if I tell you that one of the sharpest lenses a consumer can buy is also the cheapest lens Canon makes? You’d be surprised, right? But it’s the truth. Time and time again, people are amazed when they review consumer-grade zooms against far cheaper prime lenses. But — as Tabaware explores — they aren’t even in the same league.

So why is this? Well, it’s damn simple, really… it’s far easier to mass produce a prime lens: Because it only has to be sharp at one focal length, the optics are a hell of a lot simpler. So they can concentrate on getting it to be really good, rather than just being good enough.

Why should I care?

It really depends, to be honest: What do you want out of your photography? If you are looking for convenience and holiday snaps, by all means, go for the first and best zoom lens. Hell, I've a few of them myself and love to use them, but still, there’s a certain feeling of zen about using prime lenses. They can be slightly limited, sure, but they’re also sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel, cheap as a bag of crisps, and they are just a better idea overall, especially as you are just learning about photography.

Peacock butterfly

So, if you’re in the market for a new camera, and the kit comes with some two-bit zoom lens, see if you can’t convince the salesperson to do you a deal. “So, you want to sell me this lens? How much does it normally cost? Interesting. I can see that you sell a 50mm ƒ/1.8 for less than that. Can you give me one of those instead?” Sure, money-wise, you’ll lose out. But your portfolio will thank you for it for years to come.

Are prime lenses really such a good idea?

Well, yes, I would argue so. I'm a frequent traveller and it isn't unusual for me to get on a plane with just my camera body, a 50mm ƒ/1.4, and Canon PowerShot S95.

Check out the gallery from one of my trips to Vietnam, or a bigger collection of my photos taken with the humble 50mm.

Convinced yet? Good. Head over to your favourite photographic retailer, and buy yourself a lovely little prime. Lazy? Okay then - Canon users, click here. Nikon users, click here. Pentax users, you can click here. Sony users, click here. And Olympus users, click here. You're welcome.


  • Prime lenses are lenses with fixed focal lengths
  • They are usually sharper than zoom lenses because they have fewer moving parts
  • And fewer moving parts also makes them cheaper to manufacture and less likely to suffer from a fault

Noise << Photography Fundamentals >> Quality versus quantity

EISA 2013-2014: who won what

In 1982, the editors of 20 European publications met to dole out a 'Camera of the Year' award. It went to the Minolta X700. From that meeting, EISA—the European Imaging and Sound Association—was formed and since then, the group comprising representatives from 50 magazines across 20 European countries has been doling out awards that recognise excellence in consumer electronics every June. The awards have grown considerably since 1982 and now encompass audio, home theatre, in-car electronics, video, mobile, and green categories as well as the original 'Camera of the Year' prize. And yes, the photo category is far more extensive than just 'Camera of the Year' now. Looking at the winners, its a broad reflection of where manufacturers are deploying their resources and focusing their efforts. Nothing is especially surprising in the camera categories, but perhaps the lens classes are of more note?

Here's the run-down:


Camera 2013-2014: Nikon D7100

Advanced Camera: Sony Alpha SLT-A99

SLR Camera: Canon EOS 100D

Advanced SLR Camera: Canon EOS 6D

Compact System Camera: Samsung NX300

Advanced Compact System Camera: Olympus PEN E-P5

Compact Camera: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX50/HX50V

Advanced Compact Camera: Fujifilm X100S

Travel Camera: Olympus TOUGH TG-2


Lens 2013-2014: Tamron SP 90 mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD Macro 1:1

Zoom Lens: Tamron SP 70-200 mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD

Professional lens: Canon EF 200-400mm ƒ/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

Compact System Lens: ZEISS Touit 2.8/12

Compact System Zoom Lens: Panasonic LUMIX G Vario 14-140 mm ƒ/3.5-5.6

Photo-Video cameras

Photo-Video Camera 2013-2014: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3

Photo-Video Accessory: Manfrotto MVH500AH

Action Cam: GoPro HERO3 Black Edition


Photo Software: DxO Optics Pro 8

Innovation of the Year

Photo Innovation 2013-2014: Samsung Galaxy NX

TIPA awards 2011


The Technical Image Press Association has just announced their favourite products of 2011 from their General Assembly, which convened in Istanbul (lucky sods). Representatives from 29 member magazines didn’t just discuss which cameras and imaging products they liked the best, but that does seem to be the most interesting bit. There were over 40 categories, from best entry level dSLR to best photo kiosk (yes, really it was the Mitsubishi Gift Kiosk, by the way), so here are the edited highlights.


They’ve shared the love around here:

  • Best entry level: Canon Eos 600D (yes, I want it even more now)
  • Best advanced: Nikon D7000
  • Best expert: Olympus E5 (it must be the being rugged thing)
  • Best professional: Pentax 645D

Compact cameras

Nikon's P300

Again, there’s been another even split across different manufacturers for these prizes.

  • Best general: Nikon P300 (did they read our reviews round-up yesterday?)
  • Best expert: Olympus XZ-1
  • Best superzoom: Canon PowerShot SX230 HS
  • Best premium camera: Fujufilm Finepix X100

Mirror-less cameras

Okay, so they called them compact system cameras. And there aren’t so many from which to choose. But anyway.

  • Best entry level: Samsung NX100
  • Best expert: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2

Sigma 70-200 lens


  • Best entry level: Tamron SP 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di VC USD
  • Best expert: Sigma APO 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM
  • Best professional: Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

And some of the rest

  • Best film: Kodak Professional Portra 160
  • Best tripod: Vanguard Auctus Plus 323CT
  • Best imaging innovation: Sony SLT, Translucent Mirror technology

You can check out the full list of winners, including best inkjet paper and photobag, on the TIPA website.

The magic of fill light

Lightroom is magic - and as photographers, we've never had it this good.

There you are, after a long day of shooting, and you realise that some of your favourite photos are too contrasty, with parts of the image bathing in darkness. Adobe Lightroom to the rescue...

I was playing around with my brand new Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens in my kitchen on a rainy day, and was experimenting with a new reflector I was building (it works great, but more about that in another post). Some of the photos that didn't work out so well ended up on my camera, and then on my computer, and then in Adobe Lightroom. I figured I'd see if I couldn't edit one of them into shape a little, and was (re-)astonished by the fantasticness of Lightroom's Fill Light slider.

Starting with this photo:


I started experimenting with various settings. You can crank up the exposure to make the rest of the image brighter, of course, but that would over-expose the already bright highlight on the right of this Hershey's Kiss.

So, by instead adjusting the Fill Light slider:


I was able to recover the shadows remarkably well:


A closer look at the image shows that you do gain a bit of digital noise:


But it's possible to reduce it quite a bit by using Lightroom's rather phenomenal noise filters:


Of course, as always, it's much better to ensure that you get your lighting right when you take the photo; you get less noise, higher quality, and more precise control about what the hell you're doing. And yet, it's rather fantastic to see how photographers are given a lifeline if you balls things up just a little bit too much.

How did we ever survive without Lightroom?

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© Kamps Consulting Ltd. This article is licenced for use on Pixiq only. Please do not reproduce wholly or in part without a license. More info.

Stopping down a Canon EF lens

A stopped down lens should look a little bit like this. Or a lot like this, in fact. The size of the hole depends on how far you've stopped down your lens.

If you’re used to manual lenses, you know how easy it is to stop them down. If you are a little bit more advanced than that, and have ‘graduated’ to more advanced lenses, stopping down a lens (i.e making the aperture smaller) while it is not attached to a camera body can get a little problematic. There is a way to do it, however… 


All of Canon’s newer lenses (the whole EF and EF-S series) have electronically controlled aperture. Normally, that’s great, because you can select what aperture you want with the thumb wheel or via the camera’s menu system, instead of having to do it with a wheel on the lens itself.

There is a trick you can use to stop down lenses, however. Mind you, this is probably a bad, bad thing to do, and it may break stuff. Having said that, I have been doing this for years, and it seems to work fine, without any adverse effect.

A stopped down lens should look a little bit like this. Or a lot like this, in fact. The size of the hole depends on how far you've stopped down your lens.

Stopping down a lens is done by putting the lens on the camera, and setting the camera to either manual aperture (A or Av) or fully manual (M). Select the aperture you want. Then, press and hold the aperture preview button. If you don’t know where that button is, it is probably the one near the bottom of your lens, on the side. The one that you never use. Yes, that one. Press it, hold it, and then take the lens off the camera exactly like you would do normally.

If you have done it right, you are now holding the lens, which should still be stopped down. It should look approximately like in the picture with the red circle.

Finally, this trick for setting the aperture is not a “recommended” method (not that there really is one), but at worst the “ERR 99″ or “ERR 01″ it may produce on the camera can be cleared up by turning the camera off and back on.

So why would you bother?

Well, this trick will come in most useful when you’re using your lens detached from the camera, obviously. This would come in particularly useful in macro photography, such as if you are using non-electronically connected spacers between your lens, so your camera can’t send the right signals to the lens to make the aperture change.

If you are reversing your lens with a set of reversing rings (or using my nifty homemade lens extender), it would also be useful, if you want to use the lens at anything other than fully open.

And hey, it’s a nifty trick. Sometimes, that ‘s all you need, right?

Finally, if you like this post and want to learn more about macro photography, check out my book on macro photography (in the sidebar over there →).

Do you enjoy a smattering of random photography links? Well, squire, I welcome thee to join me on Twitter -

© Kamps Consulting Ltd. This article is licenced for use on Pixiq only. Please do not reproduce wholly or in part without a license. More info.