Prime Lenses // What’s different besides the length?

I had an email from a reader asking why there are different size prime lenses. “Can’t I just walk further back if I want to get more in the picture?” she asked. And you know, I used to wonder the exact same thing. But I’ve bought, tried and sold so many different prime lenses that I can tell you from my first hand experience about the differences in these lenses. They are…

Focal length :: the most obvious thing you’ll notice in different lenses is the focal length. Some are 50mm, some 24mm, some 85mm. A 24mm lens will show a much wider view than an 85mm lens and it will physically be shorter to look at and lighter to hold. What you see when looking through your lens is called ‘focal range’. This is what changes when looking through different length lenses. But also, lens compression differs and this is a very important thing to consider.

Quality :: different lenses are made to different specifications. And if the saying “you get what you pay for” is ever true, it’s never moreso than when talking about lenses. For example, the price difference between an 50mm 1.4 and 50mm 1.2 is about a grand. You’re not paying a grand for an extra f/stop, you’re paying for a better quality, better build, better model lens. You’ll get more clarity, more sharpness, more more more.

Sharpness and Clarity :: Yes, different lenses will give you different levels of image quality, sharpness, clarity. You’ll want to check out forums to see what people feel about different lenses in comparison. As far as I can remember, the 85mm was far sharper and clearer than any of the other primes I had at the time.

Distortion :: the wider lenses are made for landscapes. You would never want to take a portrait with a 24mm lens unless you wanted it to look wild. Longer lenses (like to 85mm or longer) are ideal for portraits because you won’t get distortion. You’ll get a nice, flat, compressed image. Don’t let having the wrong lens in hand stop you, though. Lightroom has a nifty lens correction area which will automatically notice which lens was used and use those lens profiles to correct the image.

So, yes, there are many different factors that make different lenses more or less ideal for your particular subject matter or style of photography. To try before you buy or just for the fun of it, you can hire different lenses from a rental company.

  • Lea Hartman

     I’m totally a prime girl. I sold my zoom lens last year and bought an 85mm to add to my small arsenal. While I do occasionally wish for zoom capabilities when shooting my own kids on a day to day basis, I much prefer the prime for work. I’ll probably nab a standard zoom at some point but overall, I’d pick a prime any day. ;)

  • Mmcgrane2921

    This is good timing to read Elizabeth.  I’m wondering if you can guide me in the right direction re: the best options for an indoor low light lens.  I have a 50 1.8 (lusting after the 1.4) but sometimes, in a small room in my house, it gets me “too close” to photograph my daughter.  I had wondered about a 28 or 35 for inside the house and use the 50 more for outside.  But I did worry about distortion.  I’m new to lens exploration, after abandoning the kit lens.  Thank you for any tips you might have.   Wonderful help and stunning work, as always!

  • Anonymous

    Yes I know what you mean about getting too close. Switching to a full frame camera (canon 5D) totally opened a whole new world in that respect (literally!) But you’ll just have to go with a wider lens for you current situation. I had the Canon 24mm and it was wonderful. If you get distortion, both LR & PS have quick fixes for that. In fact, I have a video tutorial for that:

  • Noor

    Oh never mind, I got the answer to my question at the other post in this post