In praise of primes

Getting back to basics and shooting with prime lenses is a rewarding way of getting something extra from your camera. And, says Nick Smith, by using your legs more you are more likely to fully engage your subject We all know how fashion is very dependant on photography, but Inot entirely convinced how much photographers are influenced by trends when selecting their hardware. And yet, I think that Iidentified a trend in lenses: more and more outdoor photographers are turning their backs on their size fits all’zoom lenses in favour of good old-fashioned primes. The more photographers I interview for Outdoor Photography, the more frequently I hear the words: days I seem to be moving away from my 16-35mm/24105mm/70-200mm, etc., and am starting to get better results with fixed focal length lenses.’Despite primes never really dying out in serious photography, they really are old-fashioned. Theythe lenses your dad used to have. In his day, when he bought a new camera it routinely came with a 50mm lens mounted on the front. That was the lens’of yesteryear. Now, of course primes come in all shapes and sizes, from the fish-eye to the wildlife and cricket bazooka. In praise of primesWhichever you decide upon, youmaking a statement about yourself because, even with their limitations, primes are the thinking photographerlenses of choice. In fact, it is precisely because of their limitations that we find ourselves using our brains more. And this is a good thing. Despite the myriad of microprocessors that camera manufacturers manage to cluster around the sensor, cameras canthink. Thatour job. Although it was never their intention, zoom lenses make us lazy. If we canget close enough to our subject all we have to do is rotate the lens barrel and the world is brought to us, if not quite on a plate, then with a minimum of effort. This in turn leads us to being satisfied that we are now close enough to take the shot, and so we take it. And this helps us to feel that wesomehow short-circuited the notion that if your photographs arengood enough, younot close enough. But I donthink when Magnum founder Robert Capa said those words he was really inciting us to use zooms. On the contrary, he was urging us to get up close and personal. With standard prime lenses you have to do this, and my experience of them is that while you may have to work harder to get your shots, they will be better shots. Itnow passed into photographic folklore that war photographers such as Nick Ut used only the most minimalist amounts of equipment and techniques: something like a 35mm prime stuck on the front of a Leica camera that would be permanently set at f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/125th sec. The idea behind what is almost certainly an urban myth is that with a set up like this, all you had to do as a photographer was to engage with the subject. If this involved a brush with life-threatening or harrowing scenarios (think Utphoto of the 9-year-old Kim Phuc fleeing from a napalm attack) then this was simply the cost of doing business properly. Thankfully, wenot all conflict or hard news photographers. But this principle does apply, albeit in a very watered down way. If you simplify your kit and make the decision to use your legs to gain access to your subjects, rather than a steadily increasing arsenal of long lenses, youget pictures that look more dynamic and will certainly beat the pants off those passive, static images taken with zooms that could have been taken by anyone. Donget me wrong: the standard zooms that everyone uses are great bits of kit. Itjust, well, everyone uses them. And if this isnenough to convince you, then at least consider that one of the best things about primes is you get so much more for your money. Seriously. The standard 24 105mm f/4 zoom-the kit lens that came with my top-end DSLR body —has a list price in the region of the four-figure mark. My 24mm and 105 mm primes together came to considerably less than this. In praise of primesAnd while Ino professor of optics, my instinctive eye tells me that they perform at least as well, if not better. Logically speaking, they should do: after all, the cost of the components goes into the glass itself and not the mechanical engineering required to move it up and down the barrel. You also tend to get a much wider range of aperture sizes at both ends, meaning that you can —and I do —go nuts with depth-of-field effects. You also get the additional benefit of being able to shoot in lower light conditions without forcing the ISO, which enhances image quality. And as if that isnenough, both of my primes are genuine macros. As I say, it may not appear to be the case at first glance, but there is more to the prime lens than meets the eye, and I for one am a diehard convert to the new fashion of using my legs to get closer to my subject.

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