prime lens

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

Crowdfunding an iPhone camera: Is the Ladibird project a scam?

Today, I came across an interesting IndieGogo campaign, for the Ladibird; a snap-on professional camera for the iPhone 5. Initially, I thought it was a brilliant idea, but then I started reading about the product, and I immediately became incredibly skeptical. Allow me to explain...

The sample images

First of all, the thing that made me wonder what's going on, were the sample images. They look fantastic, without a doubt, but when you look at the Ladibird video, you see that the product is just a 3D render. So that made me wonder: Where did the example photos come from? Right at the bottom of the page, they explain that the shots are taken with "a 50mm prime lens on a 12 megapixel Nikon D700".

Now, there's a lot of problems with this, in my mind: For one thing, the Nikon D700 is a high-end professional camera that cost USD $3000. It's also a full-frame camera, with a 36mm x 24mm sensor built in. The Nikon lens used (a 50mm f1/8) is also a mighty sharp piece of kit. Do you think it's fair to use photos taken with a pro-level camera as examples for what an iPhone accessory lens can do?

The specifications

In the IndieGogo campaign, the Ladibird manufacturers do the following:

The Specifications

The thing that isn't clear to me, is why they are talking about a 'mirrorless sensor' as if that's a standard. Mirrorless cameras have wildly different sensor sizes; The Pentax Q has a 6.17 x 4.55 mm sensor. The Sony NEX-6 has a 23.5 x 15.6 mm sensor. The Leica M9 has a 36 x 24 mm sensor. And there are tons of sizes in between.

The lens spec itself, too, is fuzzy. They are talking about a "Ladibird 50mm (35mm equivalent) large aperture prime lens", which patently doesn't make sense, unless they have a sensor that is 45% larger than that found in the highest of high-end SLR cameras. A more likely explanation is that they have their terms mixed up, and that they have a lens which actually has a 35mm focal length (Which is roughly a 50mm equivalent on an APS-C size sensor), but it does worry me: Would you trust a lens designed by a company that isn't sure which way around the crop sensor conversion factors go?

Developing sharp lenses is an incredibly difficult and challenging task.

But what about the large sensor and 50mm?

All of this makes sense, apart from the fact that they are talking about limited depth of field, which doesn't depend on the focal length: There's no reason why a 50mm should have more pleasing depth of field than a 100mm lens. It is mostly dependent on the aperture, but that isn't mentioned in the marketing material.

The Ladibird guys have done a great marketing tasks, but as someone who's written a book on mirrorless cameras, and has technical edited a rather chunky stack of books about photography, I can't help but feel I'm somewhat qualified to evaluate this project, and it's setting off all manner of alarm bells.

In their marketing site, they've equaled small sensors with blurry photos. That's patently not true: The Nikon 1 series have tiny sensors in them, but are capable of producing fantastically sharp images. Similarly, my iPhone 5 has a miniscule sensor in it, a quick browse through the 'most interesting' photos taken with the iPhone 5 on Flickr reveals that many of them are tack-sharp works of art. This would infer that a small sensor is in and of itself no reason to buy a Ladibird.

The other argument they make is that the 50mm f/1.8 lens is cruise control to awesome photos. Now, in most cases that might well be true, but those specs alone aren't enough. "50mm" only means that the lens has a focal length of 50mm. There's nothing inherently better about this, and there are many examples of absolutely dreadful 50mm lenses out there. In fact, I could build a 50mm lens myself out of a couple of lens elements, a kitchen roll, and some Blu-Tack in about 20 minutes, but I can pretty much guarantee that the photo quality is going to be severely lacking.

So, is Ladibird a scam?

I have no way of knowing that, but the IndieGogo page does set off an awful lot of alarm bells.

I won't be backing the IndieGogo campaign myself, and I'll tell you why: I know how incredibly hard it is to build photography equipment, and so far, we haven't seen a single prototype or sample image from these guys. Even the mock-up image doesn't seem realistic (to have a 50mm focal length, the lens barrel would probably need to be longer), which makes me wonder how far along in the process they have come.

If the mockup image represents the current state of play, then I fear they're about to get a rude awakening if they think that $20,000 is enough money to develop a fully functional prototype of the Ladibird. For a product this advanced (Apple MFi; App development; Sensor design; Lens design; Testing; industrial design; production design; prototyping...), I'd estimate you may not be able to complete the full development cycle for less than $150,000. Bear in mind two things: $150k is a very low estimate for a product this advanced, and at the end of this phase, they will have perhaps half a dozen prototypes; they still wouldn't have created a single Ladibird for the Indiegogo backers.

Don't get me wrong, I really do want a product like the Ladibird to exist, but wouldn't part with any money until I've seen at least a couple of sample images.

The biggest worry is that the marketing material is such a hodge-podge of technical, factual, and physics-related inaccuracies... Let's put it this way: if Ladibird was a book, and it was passed to me for technical editing, I'd have to craft a very difficult letter to the publisher, suggesting that it's in a shape beyond where a tech-editor can help, recommending that the book was cancelled or seriously re-written. It certainly wouldn't be in a state to offer pre-selling it to the public.

Or, put in other words: I'd probably just wait until the product is available to buy in a store.

The best camera is one you actually use


Those of you who are following @photocritic on Twitter (or, in fact, if you were paying attention to the RSS feed), can’t have failed to notice that I was out on the road. If you’re making a particularly good job of stalking me, you’ll also have noted a load of photos posted to my Flickr stream, most of which were taken with my iPhone, and some of ‘em were taken with my little Canon Digital Ixus camera.

Yes, that’s right, I was out globetrotting – on a motorcycle, to be precise. Due to the extremely limited space I had available to me, I didn’t bring my full assortment of lenses with me. In fact, I only brought a single lens; My mighty fine Canon 50mm f/1.4 prime lens (I know I keep banging on about it, but you need a prime lens). Then, as I was traveling around, something very, very interesting happened; I didn’t use my SLR camera at all.  


What? No SLR?! You call yourself a photographer?!

I know, it surprised me, too; I brought my little Canon digital IXUS camera with me as a back-up camera, in case something happened with my big camera. And in case I was planning on going out drinking, in which case I consider the IXUS to be as close to you get as a disposable digital camera (have you noticed that you never lose anything you don’t really worry about losing, and always lose or drop your expensive stuff? Exactly…)

So anyway, I was riding along, and the first 1,500 miles, it was raining, and I had my Canon EOS 450D in the top box of my motorcycle. Which means that in order to actually get to it, I would have to:

  • Spot something awesome
  • Get on the brakes, nearly causing an accident with the car driving behind me
  • Park the bike
  • Put the bike on its side-stand
  • Take the key out of the ignition
  • Unlock and open the back box
  • Take the camera out of the back-box
  • Take off my gloves and helmet (can’t use the SLR with my helmet on)
  • Point the camera, take the photo
  • Put the camera back in the back-box
  • Close and lock the back-box
  • Get back on the bike
  • Start the bike
  • Ride off into the sunset

By comparison, taking pictures with my Digital Ixus was much easier; I was less worried about it getting wet, so I just carried it in the inside pocket of my leather motorcycle jacket. That means it’s protected from the rain by my outter rain layer and the jacket itself. As it turned out, this was more than a-plenty: The camera came out perfectly dry every time. Because of this, it was a lot easier to take photos:

  • Spot something awesome
  • Get on the brakes, still nearly getting myself killed because cage-drivers never pay attention, and because my motorcycle brakes are an order of magnitude better than any car brakes
  • Find somewhere safe to stop, and hold the bike upright with my thighs
  • Reach in my inner pocket
  • Point the camera, take the photo
  • Put camera back in inner pocket
  • Ride off into the sunset

All about the opportunism and impulsivity

Now, the fact that I was able to stop on a whim, fish out a camera without having to stop the motorcycle’s engine, without having to lock and unlock the suitcase strapped to the back of the bike, and without having to take my gloves and helmet off, meant that I started the trip taking photos with the Ixus…

… And then never stopped. Sure, at one point (after it stopped raining, of course) I moved the 450D into the tank bag, so it would be easily accessible, but even then, the hassle of taking my helmet off (you’d be surprised: I have to take my gloves off, take my glasses off, then undo the buckle, pull it off of my head, put it somewhere safe so it doesn’t fall off. Then when I want to put it back on, I have to put my ear-plugs (or headphones, if I’m in a music-kind-of-mood) back in, because they invariably get unsettled by taking my helmet off) seemed like too much of an obstacle to bother.

So, despite riding 3500 miles through some of the most amazing landscapes known to man (Seriously, if you’ve never been to Norway, I highly recommend riding or driving from Oslo to Bergen via the Hardangervidda road over the mountain pass, and then follow the coast around all the way to Kristiansand. You’ll be awestruck in the original sense of the word), I never really felt inclined to dig out my SLR camera. In fact, of all the things I brought with me in my (admittedly very limited-spaced) luggage, there were only three things I didn’t use: My long underwear (It never got cold enough to warrant putting them on), my Tyreweld kit (because I didn’t have any punctures) and my Canon EOS 450D.

Needless to say, when you’re on the road for 3 weeks, it gives you a lot of time to think. In the last week, I spent a lot of time wondering if perhaps I should dig out my SLR camera and try taking some photos. And yet, I never did. Which made me think; am I really so lazy that I’m willing to pass up the opportunity for some awesome photos, just because I can’t be arsed digging out a proper camera?

But… Why?!

Part of the reason, I think, is that this tour was never really meant to be a photo tour – if it were, I think I would have taken the time. This trip was meant to act as punctuation between my previous job (which I hated with the passion of an iberian street argument), and my my new job as a writer. But ultimately, I’m still a photographer at heart… So why?

Then it dawned on me; the very same argument for not being bothered to dig out a proper camera is the precise reason why the Apple iPhone is topping the lists for most uploaded photos on Flickr, and why camera phones are so incredibly popular: Phones, by their very nature, have to be very accessible: It’s no good having a telephone which needs to be locked out of a case, taken out of a protective pouch, and pampered into life before you can answer a call. It rings, you fish it out of your hand-bag or pocket, you answer it. This accessibility – and expectation of accessibility – is what makes camera phones such great photography tools; reaching for your mobile phone has become a well-trained movement, whereas most of us are more careful with our cameras. When going out on the lash for a night, you do bring your phone, but you might not bring a camera, for example.

I know I have been slightly schizophrenic in my reaction to camera phones; my hatred of their poor quality optics and results is stemmed by their accessibility (‘everyone’ has a mobile phone, and I defy you to find a mobile phone which doesn’t have a camera on it these days) and ubiquitous presence. Formally, and officially: Camera phones are a good thing. I’ll tell you why:

On this trip, I discovered that having a compact camera which I use is infinitely better than a SLR camera that I don’t use, even if the latter has has the potential for much better photos than the former.

The best camera you own is the one you actually end up using… and that’s worth keeping in mind when you pack for a trip, I think…

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.

Framing and cropping your images


lilies.jpgFor this issue of the Photocritic Photo Critique, we’re going far afield! Joel Legassie is a Canadian who is currently living in Japan, and is an avid photographer. His photos are sharp, stylish, and striking… So can we offer him any advice? 


Joel uses a I use a 6.3 megapixel Canon Kiss Digital (that’s the Digital Rebel / Canon EOS 300D to the rest of us), with the standard 18-55mm lens.

Photo 1:

Water flowers always make for amazing photography, and these Lillies are no different. Initially, the slightly damaged leaves to the left and top of the photo bothered me, but they actually grew on me – the autumnal colours combined with the deel greens and browns of the leaves make a very nice contrast to the strong reds and pinks offered up by the flowers.

The photo seems ever-so-slightly over-exposed: some of the leaves of the flower are a bit whiter than I woul dhave expected. This could be reflected sunshine (i.e the same problem as in our last critique), but I do expect this is a plain overexposure problem. It isn’t overly disturbing in this photo, but nevertheless it would be worth keeping an eye out for in the future.

From the EXIF information embedded in the file, I can see you shot the image at f/8 (a good idea, this is the aperture whee your lens is sharpest) and 1/50 sec shutter time. Personally, I think I would have liked that same photo seen shot with a 50mm prime lens, wide open. If you manage to get close enough to the flowers, that should actually blur out the background ever so slightly, bringing more of the focus on the flowers themselves.

lilies2.jpgThe main beef I have with this photo is that it is a little haphazardly framed. I can’t work out why you decided to put the flowers in the middle of the frame, with the ‘broken’ leaves towards the side. Personally, I have a dirty, dirty fetish, which is (I can tell you all can’t wait to find out…) to crop in tighter. Always closer in to the action. It’s a matter of taste, of course, and I fully respect if you decide to make a different choice, but if I had taken this photo, I would have gone in a lot closer, much like the mock-up crop shown to the right.

The only thing I have done here is to crop a rectangle constrained to an aspect ratio of 3:2 around the three flowers and whatever else came into the frame at that aspect ratio on the left.

Why? Well, for one thing, it gives the image a purpose, a direction, perhaps even a message. The contrast between the wilting leaves on the left, with their dark, decaying colours, against the hope of the pink flowers on the right appeals to me.

The final suggestion I would have made: If there was anyone around, you could have asked them to hold out an arm, a bag, or an umbrella to cast a shadow on the right side of the image. You want the flowers basking in the sun, but anything you can do to help the background be a little less conspicuous would probably be a good idea in this case.


Photo 2:

Joel sent me 4 photos, but I decided to choose another of his photos with flowers in it for the second part of this critique.

This photo is called RishiriFuji. My Japanese is non-existent, but I assume it means ‘mount fuji, and I totally live the idea behind this photo.

What you did wrong in terms of framing in the previous shot, you definitely did right here. The dimmed hazy colours of the mountain covered in gray clouds in the background is balanced out with the oranges, browns and multicoloured bouquet in the bottom right of the frame.

If I were to nitpick, I think there is too little going on to the right of this image, but it isn’t something that is easily fixed with cropping. Personally, I prefer either a 3:2 or a 1:1 (perfect square) aspect ratio for aestetic reasons, but there is no way you can crop this image using either of those without losing too much on the right, or cutting the top of the mountain off. This could have been addressed on location by taking a step back (making the flowers smaller in the image), moving the camera down (which would put the flowers just beneath the foot of the mountains), and then zooming in slightly (to re-establish the frame).

The other niggle I have about this photo is that I feel it is lacking in contrast, and a little bit too dark. The problem is that the lighting is very soft and even, and that upping the brightness by increasing the shutter time or opening up the aperture would have lost the moody feel of the image. You would have ended up with something like this:


… Which completely ruins the beauty and subtlety of the original photo.

If you have a tripod, a flashgun and an off-camera flash lad, you could have tried to frame the image properly, expose the photo for the mountain, and then add a tiny dash of flash light on the flowers, just to really make them stand out in the image. Once again, you have to be really careful, as it is very easy to over-do the effect, but just the tiniest change would really draw more attention to the photo. I’ve simulated it here, but fill-flash is rather difficult in Photoshop, so do forgive me for not getting it quite right:


I hope I got close enough to illustrate what I was trying to say, however!

Anyway, both these two pictures discussed here, and the ones you sent to me separately show a lot of care and interest in photography – I hope this critique serves as a push in the right direction!

The main message to take home, is that after each photo you take, think ‘what is my message’, and ‘what am I trying to achieve’. If the photo you just took doesn’t convey that message, or doesn’t achieve what you would have liked, try to identify why, and to take another photo which may address the issue at hand.

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.