Back to the future with prime lenses

What goes around comes around. There is nothing new under the sun. Everything old is new again. I have been rolling those cliché’s around in my head as I have been using a couple new lenses. The most interesting part of the process is how these lenses have taken me far back to my beginnings in photography. Yes, I use the latest in digital imaging gear, but I occasionally go back into the history of the medium to find technologies that make images look the way I want. The funniest part of putting this blog together was learning how a technology that I grew up with as a photographer has been relegated, by many photographers, to the status of a historical anomaly.

What technology am I talking about? Prime lenses! Non-zoom lenses! Whatever you want to call them, they all have certain traits in common. Obviously they are a fixed focal length rather than variable focal length (as in a zoom lens.). Usually, they also have a notably larger maximum aperture, which means you can control the backgrounds in your images so those are either fully out of focus or at least more out of focus than what you get with a zoom lens. Another great attribute of fixed focal length lenses is that they are almost always smaller and sharper than comparable zoom lenses.

I am the first to acknowledge the appeal of zoom lenses, both for the consumer and the manufacturers. On paper, zooms do more, so they appear to be a better buy for the photographer. For the manufacturers, who usually seem quite happy to give up the large maximum apertures on their lenses, the same smaller aperture zooms lenses are easier to make and market.

The two lenses I have been using are an Olympus Zuiko 12mm (24mm after the conversion factor) f/2 and an Olympus Zuiko 45mm (90mm after the conversion factor) f/1.8. I just finished a podcast profiling a friend of mine who is a painter. Those two lenses opened up many new opportunities for me. The telephoto enabled me to do the interviews that are at the core of the piece, with Peter’s fascinating face sharply in focus and the paintings behind him well out of focus. The wide-angle lens enabled me to experiment with unusual angles, again shooting at the largest aperture to keep my ISO low and to control the point of focus. (That podcast will not go live until March so you will need to be a bit patient.)

As I write this I am flying to Asia for workshops and shoots in Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan. All three countries have active street life and nightlife, which I am hoping to explore with my new fixed, focus, large aperture lenses. As I have noted, I love fixed focal length lenses as a photographer because of all the opportunities for creative control that they give me. As teacher, I love the same lenses because they force student photographers to work harder and to think more about their images before releasing the shutter. I strongly recommend fixed focal length lenses to my students, especially a 50mm “normal lens.” Normal lenses are inexpensive, simple to use and they “see” the world most closely to the way our eyes do.

Though zooms are standard on most cameras, typically covering approximately 28mm to 80mm, fixed focal length lenses, especially normal lenses, were the tools of choice for years for many photographers (like me.) Fixed focal length lenses revive that old maxim that the best zoom is your feet, which means that when I work with a fixed focal length lens, I have to move myself around rather then crank the ring on the zoom to change my composition.

At three points in my career I have attained what I thought of as perfection in terms of the gear I used. Though the cameras/film changed, as the end use for the images changed, the lens set-up I used did not vary that much. I was initially a newspaper and later a magazine photojournalist doing daily assignments and in depth stories, first on black and white negative film and then with color slide film. Then, my gear of choice was a couple Nikon film cameras and three lenses, a 28mm f/2, a 50mm f/1.4 and an 85mm f/1.8. I usually had one long telephoto lens ready just in case, typically a 180mm f/2.8.

When I started traveling internationally, doing lots of work in the developing world and shooting only color slides, my gear of choice was a couple Contax G-2 Rangefinder film camera bodies and three lenses, a 28mm f/2, a 45mm f/2 and a 90mm f/2.

Now, I am still traveling a lot and doing lots of work in the developing world, but shooting only digitally. Now, my gear of choice consists of a couple Olympus PEN camera bodies and two lenses, a 24mm f/2 and a 90mm f/1.8. You will notice that I am missing the normal lens that I used to use with my two previous “perfect gear” set-ups. I would happily bring out the third body to carry and use some kind of fixed focal length normal lens like a 45mm or 50mm f/2 or f/1.8 lens but… Olympus does not make one, yet. In the unlikely event they do not know it at Olympus, some of us are waiting quite impatiently for that lens. Today I also usually have one zoom lens handy, in case I need a back up lens or a long telephoto lens, typically that is the Olympus Zuiko 14-150mm (28-300mm after the conversion factor) F4.0-5.6.

In talking with people about my new found joy using these fixed focal length lenses, the photographers I interact with seem to divide into two camps. One group may or may not have even heard of fixed focal length lenses, but either way, they have little interest in such “old school” technology. The convenience of zooms over rides anything else for them. The other camp, where I sit, knows the opportunities that fixed focal length lenses offer the photographer. One interesting note is that age and/or experience are not necessarily determinants of where a given photographer lands in term of this divide. Long time photographers can dismiss the same fixed focal length lenses that “newbies” embrace (once the latter group is introduced to the “old-school” technology.)

The greatest irony of all is that much of this lost on today’s “fix it in Photoshop” crowd. They are willing to spend hours on their computers doing in post-production, with software tools, what would take seconds to do in capture with the right tools (fixed focal length, large aperture lenses.)

4 responses to “Back to the future with prime lenses”

  1. Interesting article! As a newer photographer, primes seem to give me access to larger apertures and sharp photos at an affordable price point. However, it’s challenging with one camera body because I’m constantly switching the lenses.

  2. Indeed, the next expenditure is buying a second camera body, where you keep that second lens, flash card or battery, thus facilitating rapid changing of the same. One thing to keep in mind is that the second camera can be a notably older, simpler, used model since it is used much less than the “main” camera body.

  3. “I would happily bring out the third body to carry and use some kind of fixed focal length normal lens like a 45mm or 50mm f/2 or f/1.8 lens but… Olympus does not make one, yet.”

    David Alan Harvey and Antonin Krachtovil (Donovan Wylie too, I think) have been plugging along nicely for a couple of years with the Henckels-sharp $330 Panasonic 20/1.7, which is of course compatible with your Olympus gear. And for $200 more there’s a Panasonic/Leica-branded 25/1.4 that’s supposed to be sharper and faster-focusing (but bulkier). Or can you only use Olympus because you’re sponsored by them?

  4. I use the best lenses for the project based on my needs (and on my experience.) I looked at both lenses and I was not sold on neither. The 20/1.7 is a bit short and a bit slow to my tastes (I am hoping for something like a 25mm f/1.4 lens.) The 25/1.4 certainly fits the bill but it is enormous in price and in weight too. The two lenses I am using are very small and light, thus I am hoping the “missing lens” is going to be just as small. Finally, I have an old school, possibly irrational approach to using OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer’s) gear. I have had too many bad experiences with non-OEM equipment that was supposed to work just like the real thing. This was true whether I was using the non-OEM gear on Contax, Nikon, Canon or Olympus gear, all systems I have used in the 40 years I have been photographing.

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