Time to get rid of those zoom lenses and return to fast primes

Written by Gary on January 3rd, 2010

With the surge in digital photography over the last decade, the general public have demanded zoom lenses and manufacturers like Olympus with their Four Thirds system have responded to this demand by manufacturing a range of beautiful zoom lenses as well as very good consumer zoom lenses.

Zoom lenses can be wonderful lenses to take with you when you don’t have much time to really think about your subject and move position to appropriately compose it. They make great lenses for travel and general purpose as well as for many commercial photography genres.

Despite this, zoom lenses have many problems:

  • they often have a relatively small aperture such as f/3.5-5.6 which means you will have much difficulty controlling depth of field, ability to blur the background, and force a high ISO to manage low light
  • large aperture zooms (eg. f/2.0 Olympus or f/2.8 Canon or Nikon) are large, heavy and very expensive
  • they are much bigger and heavier than for a prime of the same aperture
  • they make you lazy and in the process stop you thinking about the subject but instead distract you by making you decide which focal length you want to use instead concentrating on the subject, or moving around and actually seeing changing perspectives that can be achieved
  • if you are photographing a commonly photographed subject, using a 28-100mm zoom range tends to result in similar photos to what everyone else produces while prime lenses with large apertures allow you to create something that is more likely uniquely yours.

When I go walking, whether in the forests or in the streets, I usually only take 2 cameras and 2 lenses with me – depending on how I feel, it may be different ones each time, but nevertheless I restrict myself to 1 to 3 actual focal lengths and then look for subjects that suit these.

My favorite focal lengths in 35mm terms are:

  • 21-24mm – please Panasonic or Olympus, make a 10-12mm f/2.8 (or even better, an f/2.0) Micro Four Thirds lens – not a 14mm – we don’t need more lenses at 28mm!
  • 35-50mm f/1.4-1.8 – hence the popularity of the superb Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 MFT lens (and I do love the Leica-D 25mm f/1.4 Four Thirds lens)
  • 85-100mm f/2.0 – the Olympus 50mm f/2.0 macro is very nice but needs revamp for MFT, Canon 85mm f/1.2 is too hard to use, I would prefer an 85mm f/1.4 on Canon but have to settle with the nice f/1.8 instead.
  • 180-200mm – the Canon 135mm f/2.0L lens on my Canon 1D MIII is just a great combination, I would love Olympus to bring out a 100mm f/2.0 MFT macro lens!
  • hand holdable 400mm – the Olympus 50-200mm ZD lens is great but I wish they would make a more compact 200mm f/2.8 or even a 250mm f/3.5 prime. I wouldn’t bother with 400mm lens on a full frame Canon or Nikon – it would be too big for my liking.

Having only 2 focal lengths with you creates a beautiful simplicity which enables your brain to focus on other decisions, allow you to create more interesting photos by forcing you to see more creatively, and has the wonderful bonus that it will not cost you as much and thus the less money you spend, the less you have to work, and the more time you have to take photos!

The smaller the kit you have, the more you are likely to take it with you, and by using primes with larger apertures than zoom lenses, you get better quality images at lower ISO, shallower depth of field and more blurring of the background to make your subject pop out in your images.

In my mind, there is really only one zoom I would be bothered routinely taking with me if I had the above lenses available to me, and that is the Panasonic HD 14-140mm OIS zoom as this is optimised for HD video and will practically give as good, if not better results than any other kit lens or even my Canon 24-105mm f/4 L lens.

Obviously special niche photography will require other lenses such as:

  • tilt-shift for architecture
  • Canon 200mm f/2.8 for astrophotography
  • ultra wide angle lenses for special creative uses although these tend to be more difficult to use well
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 for Canon/Nikon wedding/fashion photographers

This reversal in trends is partly the result of the surging popularity of Micro Four Thirds camera with their compact size and generally much simpler operation than pro dSLRs which allows one to revisit the days of the Leica where the focus was on the subject and not on the complexities of cameras.

Small, fast prime lenses really compliment Micro Four Thirds as it reduces the need to resort to high ISO and allows more shallow depth of field and ability to blur the background – all of these have been issues with smaller sensor cameras such as Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds, but which large aperture lenses help to address.

Micro Four Thirds is bringing fun back into photography and allowing people to really see the world in a different light. It allows them to create high quality images without looking like a pro photographer with all the expectations or subject intimidation that creates.

For more thoughts on the future of photography- see Kirk Tuck’s New Year’s blog post.

Kirk also points out another great feature of the Olympus E-P2 in this post which further adds to the simplicity of portrait photography – it is the first digital camera with sufficient image quality that can shoot in square format AND display the image in real time efficiently AND allow you to shoot in B&W with a green filter for portraiture – now all he needs is a nice fast wide aperture portrait lens for MFT which has contrast detect AF.

ps. 3 days after writing this post, Andy Westlake at dpreview.com posted a blog in a similar vein – “On lenses for small cameras


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Damen Stephens says:

    Hear, Hear !! The 50mm f2 macro should be the next lens to get the Micro 4/3rd’s treatment. Whilst they’re at it – a firmware update to full manual mode on the Panasonic GF-1 video would be nice …