Fast primes lenses: take pro looking photos without spending pro money

In the lush and balmy Botanical Garden, Debra just couldn’t make her camera do what she wanted.

When she took a close up picture of the flowers, the background was too busy. It just wouldn’t blur out.

On some photos, the whole image turned out blurry. Then the camera said she needed a flash. She really didn’t want to use a flash.

What should she do? She knew what the professional photos should look like, but she wasn’t getting them.

This is one of those times when the tools matter.

Debra was shooting with the kit lens - the 18 mm to 55 mm lens that comes with many cameras. It’s great for a lot of situations, but in a low light or busy scene, it struggles.

For the photos Debra wanted, she didn’t need to buy a $2,000 lens. For as little as $200, she could have solved her problems and created magic.

“Do you have a fast prime lens?” I asked.

“A what?!”

“A fast prime lens. It’s a lens that lets you get a very wide f-stop, but it doesn’t zoom.

 

What is fast?

We evaluate most lenses using two sets of numbers -- the widest aperture or f-stop and the focal length or zoom.

For example, the standard kit lens that comes with many entry level DSLRs is an 18 mm - 55 mm f/3.5 - f/5.6.

Fast refers to lens’ lowest f-stop number. The lower the number, the wider the lens will open. In the case of your kit lens, its widest opening will be f/3.5. That’s not too bad, but there’s a catch. It only opens to f/3.5 at the widest focal length, 18 mm. 

Of course that lens will zoom to 55 mm. As you zoom in, the widest aperture will begin to restrict progressively. At the 55 mm end of the lens range, the widest aperture will be f/5.6.

Why do you care? Your f/stop helps you create depth of field -- the amount of space in front and behind your subject that is in focus. If you want a very shallow depth of field -- or a blurry background -- using a low f-stop can be helpful.

You will also care in low light situations. If your f-stop is narrow, f/5.6 for example, then you will need to compensate with either a higher ISO or a slower shutter speed.

Both of those choices have their drawbacks. A higher ISO can create more noise in your image; a slower shutter speed can lead to camera shake.

To avoid both of those challenges, professional photographers tend to treasure lenses that can use a very low f-stop.

 

Why the professional lenses cost so much

The 24 mm - 70 mm f/2.8 is a clear favorite for most professional photographers. Many will also add the companion 70 mm - 200 mm f/2.8. Those lenses can range from $1,800 to $2,400 depending on the manufacturer.

Why do they cost so much? Unlike the kit lens, when you zoom with these professional lenses, the maximum opening of the aperture remains at its widest point, f/2.8. That is very helpful if you are photographing in low light. It also helps you create a more shallow  depth of field.

These are two options that could have helped tremendously in a low light situation like the Botanical Garden. But they are very expensive options.

 

Why the prime?

A prime lens is the less expensive alternative. You can usually get them with a very low f-stop, usually f/1.8, but they have no zoom. That means you zoom with your feet.

If you are willing to forgo the zoom on your lens and move your body, you can save thousands of dollars. More importantly, you can get the kind of performance that you tend to see in more expensive professional cameras.

At the Botanical Garden, I used a $200 50 mm f/1.8 to blur out the background and capture images free of camera shake. I didn’t need a tripod or a flash. Would a tripod have been helpful? Yes, but not necessary.

If you want a lens that lets you take professional looking photos without spending professional money, start with a fast prime.

 

Canon 50 mm f/1.8. Photo by Richard C.

Nikon fast primes -- 28 mm f/1.8, 50 mm f/1.8, and the 85 mm f/1.8. Photo by Dustin Gaffke.

DSLR fast prime recommendations

Wide Angle

If you are shooting indoors in small spaces, you might need a wider angle to capture the whole scene. This is also useful for travel and architecture. On a full frame camera, you will see a wider peripheral view. On crop sensor, or entry level to consumer DSLRs, you view will look similar to your eye.

Canon 28 mm f/1.8 - $450ish

Nikon 35 mm f/1.8 - $200ish

 

The Nifty 50 

Every camera bag ought to have a 50 mm lens, in my world. It is lightweight, fast, and inexpensive. This is a great walkaround lens.

On a full frame DSLR, your images will look relatively the same distance as they do to your eyes. On your entry level and consumer DSLRs, it will look like a slight zoom.

Nikon 50 mm f/1.8 - $200ish  

Canon 50 mm f/1.8 - $125ish 

You can spend more money on f/1.4 or f/1.2 versions of this lens, but unless you are a professional or a serious enthusiast, you won’t need the upgrade.

 

Portraits

Longer lenses make great portrait lenses because they are more flattening effect is more flattering on facial features. It also makes it easy to separate your subject from the background with a shallow depth of field.

Nikon 85 mm f/1.8 - $500ish

Canon 85 mm f/1.8 - $420ish

 

Nikon 105 mm f/2.8 - $900ish

Canon 100 mm f/2.8 - $600ish 

 

Longer focal length

Try these lenses for indoor sports where you can get relatively close to the action. You’ll be able to fill the frame and stop the action. They are also great options for portraits.

Canon 200 mm f/2.8 - $800ish

Nikon 180 mm f/2.8 - $900ish

Do you have a favorite fast prime? Share which one and why in the comments? Do you have a question about a fast prime? Ask that in the comments, too.

 

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