Now that Olympus’s 40-150mm f/2.8 zoom is here, the Micro Four Thirds system is almost mature. With upcoming ‘Pro’ lenses from Olympus like the 300mm f/4 and the f/2.8 7-14mm, we’ll have have a choice of of zooms from ultra wide to medium telephoto, in a variety of apertures and covering from tiny to (comparatively) large.
What’s more, the compromised sharpness, bulk and weight of zooms is a thing of the past. They are not only the bread and butter kit lenses of cameras, they are the upgrade path too. The logical upgrade from the kit 14-42mm f/3.5~5.6, decent enough lenses in themselves for most photographers, is an f/2.8 standard zoom. Faster, sharper and bigger but not really big. Distortion used to be a factor in zooms, barrel at the short end, pincushion at the long. But the grand optical illusion that is in-camera correction has hidden that. We can now build zoom lenses that conventional optical design does not allow. Who wants a single focal length when they can have an all in one 14-150mm, wide angle to telephoto and all stops in between.
Whichever way you look at it, the prime lens is an anachronism. It’s yesterday’s lens for yesterday’s photographers. It is a late lens. It has passed on. It has gone to meet it’s maker. Except it hasn’t.
Olympus is to introduce a 300mm f/4 we are told. Panasonic recently put on sale a 42.5mm f/1.2. There is the 17, 45 and 75mm f/1.8 and the 15 and 20mm f1.7. Sigma make them and so do Voightlander. They are not only still being made, they’re proliferating. Why do people who have bought into what is probably the most technologically advanced of all camera systems still covet a single focal length lens that is not too different from something they could have bought 50 years ago?
The obvious answer is that they are faster and it’s true. I’d observe, though, that with perfectly usable ISO performance up to ISO 3200, and an f/2.8 zoom, an extra stop or stop and a half doesn’t make that much difference. Nonetheless, a half-credible reason.
Next, they are sharper. Actually, the latest zooms can often match primes for sharpness and even when they fall short it is at the edges which hardly matter under the conditions where you are likely to be working a lens wide open. Stop a modern zoom down a stop or two and the edges come in anyway. How often do you shoot a landscape at open aperture?
Now the big one. Depth of field. You have me there. An f/2.8 lens on an MFT camera has the same depth of field as a f/5.6 on a full frame camera. On my film cameras shooting a portrait I would use an 85 or 105mm Nikkor at f/2.8 to isolate the subject from a fussy background. My Olympus 45mm f1.8 prime comes much closer to that than any zoom. That’s why I own one. I regard it as one of my all time favourite lenses along with the 180mm f2/8 Nikkor and the 150mm Zeiss Sonnar for Hasselblad. Just thinking about those lenses make me….no, too much information.
But I can refute the depth of field argument. If that was the reason, why does anyone buy the 12, 14, 15, 17, 20 and even 25mm primes? No-one buys standard or wide-angle lenses because they want shallow depth of field. More often you want a bucket load of depth with such lenses so as to get foreground and background sharp and accentuate the steepened perspective that they afford.
So, I’ve proved that you don’t need a prime lens except a short telephoto for portraits. Forget it, save your money. A reasonable question would then be, ‘well, David, why don’t you practise what you preach?’ It’s simple. I can muster all the logical arguments I like against prime lenses and I’ve done so here. But in the end, I like them.
I like the feel of them and the size of them and speed of them. If they had body odour I’d probably like that too. I like they way they impose their discipline on me so that if I want to frame more tightly I can’t just turn the zoom ring, I must move in closer. They force me to consider my picture so that the space I am working in manipulates me rather than my lens manipulating the space.
I always tell others to treat a zoom lens as a series of fixed focal length lenses. If you are taking a picture set your zoom to 42mm and move back. Set it to 25mm and move in. To 14mm and move in further. Note the difference in perspective and the profound effect that has on your image. I tell others that but I am as lazy as the next photographer and it is so much easier to just turn the zoom ring.
A zoom allows you to master your environment. A prime forces you to submit to it. I often go out with just one prime and allow it to manipulate me. If it’s the 17mm and I want to make a portrait, I can either make an ugly perspective distorted one or I must step back and include some background. I am forced to think about what I want to include. The 45mm does the opposite, it forces me to think about what to cut out.
If I were training a photographer and he asked me if he could borrow the GX7 for the weekend, I’d say ‘sure. And any lens you like as long as it’s not a zoom’.
The heading to this blog is Primes, who needs em? The answer is, we all do.