26 Feb Primes vs Zooms: A Different Perspective

Source: Fujifilm X Blog

By Mark Gilligan

“Is it worth me buying any prime lenses for landscapes? I have read that a zoom will do all I need?”

That’s a question that pops up from time to time but before I give my answer we need to look at what they are and what they can offer. Without going into the technical detail too much (you can check out the tech specs on the web), I will keep it simple.

Prime lenses

Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths and do not zoom. If it’s a 50mm lens or a 35mm lens that’s it. You cannot zoom in or out. Because they don’t possess the internal glass or elements that a zoom lens needs to do its job, they are subsequently lighter. For those of us that walk far and wide for the perfect landscape, lightness in kit is a plus, but is that all they offer?

In the main, primes are generally faster with f-stops as low as F1.2. Because of this, shooting in low light is not a problem but that aperture may not be conducive with a vast landscape before you. You tend to see portraiture and wedding photographers utilising primes with wider f-stops more because of this and I have to say they do tend to give a better ‘edge to edge’ image with less diffraction.

Is there a down side? Well, some folk would say that they are restrictive because of their inhibiting focal lengths and you would need a range of lenses to enable you to capture what you will see rather than using one all-encompassing lens. A zoom – I don’t subscribe to that and I will explain later.

Zoom lenses

As for zoom or compression lenses, they are generally heavier because of the elements in the barrel that they need to compress or open up the landscape. They come in a variety of ranges to suit all types of photography but landscape photographers generally go for very wide, such as an XF10-24mmF4 to much bigger, telephoto lenses, i.e. the XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6. In other words, you can shoot from right under your nose to infinity or pull a mountaintop in towards you that is several miles away. You would still need a number of lenses in your kit bag though.

A zoom such as an XF18-135mmF3.5-5.6 would be ideal for compactness or should you decide to keep your bag light when walking the fells. They are a plus when taking away on holiday. It has an f-stop range from F3.5 -5.6 but the available light abroad is usually more forgiving. In other words, zooming at its maximum is well within capabilities.

The downside? Unless you dig deeper into your pocket, they will usually be slower than the primes with a minimum f stop as mentioned of F3-5 to F5-6 at their maximum zoom. Therefore, in theory, we would need more light at the ‘top end’. We can lessen or overcome that though by using a higher ISO which would enable us to capture the image but with a possible compromise in quality, i.e. a bit more grainy. That’s another blog topic!

Me? I regularly use both types of lenses and when asked why I still use primes when zooms are easier, my answer is simple. They make you work harder as a photographer and that’s a big plus in my book. I am always looking to learn and develop.

Fujifilm GFX 50S, GF120mmF4 @ F8 | 1/250 | ISO200

The photo above is the beautiful Loughrigg Tarn in the Lake District and the fells in the background are the iconic Langdale Pikes. Although it is a lovely place, this shot doesn’t do it justice. Why? It is taken with the GF120mm prime lens on the GFX camera and that lack of zoom, using the fixed focal length, is restrictive as the foreground of water is uninteresting. It is deliberately shot that way for this article because I have stood in one place and not explored either the location or the primes at my disposal.

That’s the beauty of primes though. They make you get those feet moving and improve your compositional skills. In showing you a negative side it opens up the reasons why you should not dismiss prime lenses; they make you walk around and improve your eye for photographs, the subject matter that makes a better image.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know many like me will walk around with a zoom on the camera too but that restriction tests you more as a photographer and opens up your approach and thought process.

Fujifilm GFX 50S, GF23mmF4 @ F11 | 1/40 | ISO200

To take this image, I changed to a wider prime with a focal length of 23mm because I wanted to show the beauty of the location and its surroundings. It’s what I would term ‘an establisher’. The swan is a bonus, but I did wait for it to ‘pop’ into that position!

Fujifilm GFX 50S, GF23mmF3 @ F11 | 1/30 | ISO200

I kept the same lens on and went exploring and found this beguiling tree that simply begged to be photographed. It isn’t a classic image but one that places it in the location and gives a different perspective. It is un-cropped and the composition is aided by the restriction of the prime.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, XF10-24mmF4 @ F9 |1/250 | ISO 200

The photo above is a typical English summer’s day. I know its not raining but stay with me… This is not an uncommon view as we drive around the countryside. Whilst we don’t all have the lakes on our doorstep, a wheat field on a lovely afternoon can also offer you, as a photographer, the opportunity to capture a scene you shouldn’t ignore.

I have always loved the bigger picture and if you know my images you will be aware that I enjoy photographing big vistas. A good wide-angle lens allows me to do this. In this instance, I used an XF10-24mmf4 zoom to capture the grandeur of the view. The zoom was at its widest (10mm) and as such the depth of the field (not depth of field!) is exaggerated. The trees look 400-500 yards away but in reality they were no more than half that distance. The big sky is vital to the image and so in order to ‘pull you into the frame’ the wide zoom emphasizes that.

So why didn’t I use a prime? I could have done but I was literally driving around from one place to another, looking for shots and so in order to save ‘leg work’ I chose the zoom.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, XF50-140mmF2.8 @ F2.8 | 1/1000 | ISO 200

In order to isolate the mid frame of the wheat in the above image, I used what I call, the ‘beast’… the XF50-140mmF2.8, and focused on the middle row of husks. It is a very fast lens and I took this at F2.8, 1/1000, ISO 200. I didn’t want to go trampling across the field (never do that anyway without asking permission) and so I let the lens do the walking for me.

Both of those images were taken from the hedgerow outside the field then I jumped back into the car and set off for another location.

For me the argument isn’t about what’s better; zooms or primes. They both have a role to play in shooting landscapes but more importantly these are my reasons for for having primes in my kit bag:

  1. They stop you being lazy. By that I am not just referring to the ‘leg work’ we have to put in, but the fact that you work harder to make the shot
  2. They are excellent for your development as a photographer and anything you can explore/utilise that helps you change your perspective on how you see things can only be good for that.

I started taking photographs over half a century ago and I am still learning.

More from Mark Gilligan

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