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The "Primes" of Life

An introduction to Prime Lenses for DSLR cameras.

While I am in my 50’s now this is thankfully not a post about the Prime of Life. I have never really figured out precisely when this so-called, mystical Prime of Life is supposed to happen anyhow. Instead, today we will talk about Prime lenses for (DSLR) cameras and provide a few examples of what can be done with them.

This particular post will be geared towards DSLR users who want to learn more about what they can do with this amazing technology. If you are already quite experienced with a DSLR and prime lenses, or don’t really care about camera stuff…please feel free to just simply enjoy the photos that are posted with the article. I will keep the techie dribble to a minimum, but I will give you a TD Here warning when we need to discuss some details. Fair enough?

Those of us who had a 35mm SLR film camera back in the day will remember the standard lens that came with the body then was a 50mm Prime lens. They were small and light but provided only a fixed focal length and no zoom capability. Despite their simplicity, they delivered wonderful images to us.

Many of us quickly replaced that seemingly limited 50mm lens with a zoom lens, marketed at the time as being almost as good as the 50mm but with the increased flexibility of zoom. The 50mm often then went into the camera bag and rarely saw the light of day after that. Today’s DSLRs typically come with only a kit zoom lens such as an 18-55mm, 18-105mm or 18-135mm and not a prime.

The 50mm lens is often referred to as a standard or normal lens as it provides a field of view equivalent to that of our eyes. So when we take a photograph with at a focal length of 50mm everything looks just as it did to our eyes.

So, are you currently using only zoom lenses with your DSLR now? It’s ok if you are, really. Today’s zoom lenses provide a great value, flexibility and generally more than adequate image quality for emailing and posting our images online, as well as having the occasional print made. And yes…some of us still do print some of our photos! 

TD Here: Many of us have what is referred to as an APS-C, or crop-sensor, camera. Unless you know you have a full-frame camera you likely have a crop sensor camera. To determine your effective, 35mm film-equivalent focal length you must do some simple math. For Nikon, multiply your focal length times 1.5, for Canon use 1.6. To achieve roughly the equivalent focal length of a 50mm lens, you would select a 35mm lens for a crop-sensor camera. For Nikon a 35mm lens gives you an effective focal length of 52mm and Canon 56mm, close enough to 50mm.

With that out of the way let’s consider the first three images, taken with a 35mm prime. Note the high level of image clarity and sharpness for the in-focus areas. This sharpness is the result of the higher image quality provided by a prime lens. The softly blurred background is the result of using a wide aperture.

TD Here: Prime lenses typically offer wider apertures than most consumer-grade zoom lenses, going to F2.8 and often wider such as F1.8 or F1.4. Note that the smaller this F-Stop number is, the wider the lens opening. In addition to controlling how far the lens opens when the shutter release is pressed, the aperture also controls the Depth of Field (DOF). A wide aperture gives you shallow DOF, allowing you to softly blur the background and separate your subject from it. A small aperture gives you a deeper DOF, keeping more of your image in focus. You might use a deep DOF for a landscape shot for example, where you want the whole image crisp and sharp.

Ok, so it looks like a 35mm prime is a great lens for a crop-sensor camera….and it is. Should you use a 50mm prime on a crop-sensor camera, even though your effective focal length would be 75mm on Nikon, 80mm on Canon? Absolutely!!! A 50mm lens on a crop-sensor camera provides you with a short, telephoto range that is great for many situations such as close ups, candid shots in group settings and even some portraits.

Consider the next three spring images taken with a 50mm prime. These are all close ups, taken at distances of 2’ to 4’. Do you see here how these look different than the first three? The first thing you will probably notice is the softly blurred background as a result of using a wide aperture. Looking closer, you will also see that each image is slightly more compressed then it appears to us in real life. That is a side-effect of a telephoto lens….making distances appear shorter so everything appears closer together than it really is.

Now consider the remaining images taken with a 100mm Macro (prime) lens. A Macro lens is used when you really want to get up close and personal with your subject, usually within a foot, and fill the frame with it. Today’s macro lenses are capable of capturing an image at a 1:1 or life size ratio or at a 1:2 half-size ratio. The images looks greatly magnified when viewed on your computer screen.

In Macro shots, you will note the amazing level of detail in tiny things that are revealed to us as a result of the very close focusing distances and high image quality provided by the lens. If you would like to do extreme close ups of things like flowers, bugs and the like, a Macro lens is what you really want to use.

Ok we are about out of space here for the blog format and have just barely scratched the surface. Hopefully you found this somewhat informative, and are now inspired to get your first prime lens!

Would you like to hear more in-depth discussion about prime or other lenses such as wide-angle, using Aperture priority mode to control DOF, close ups, macros, or similar topics? If so, leave a comment here.

I would encourage you to read an article I ran across recently on the Wonderful World of 50mm Prime Lenses. Please do take the time to view many wonderful sample images reference in the article. You may find some inspiration there.

Post your photos from prime lenses here and tell others which lens and aperture you used. Or, if you have a great spring photo I recommend you post it to Patch's Spring Photo Contest before 5pm on May 31st.

Now grab your camera, your new prime lens and go capture some spring!

Mark

You can also follow me on on Blogspot and TPT’s Capture Minnesota site.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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