I Love Prime Lenses

an article by Toronto wedding photographer Calin – www.bycalin.com

What is a Micro Wedding

Image courtesy of Photography by Calin – www.bycalin.com


Before we start, if you are a wedding photographer, make sure you don’t miss the Best 100 Wedding Photography Tips. If you are a wedding photographer, you might find this blog post inspiring and I want to give you food for thought. 

1 Prime Lenses Are Light

A few years ago, I knew I needed something to take my photography to the proverbial “next level.” After spending about $60,000 in equipment (yes, you read that correctly) with mediocre results, I stopped, took a step back and analyzed the situation.

I had every Canon piece of glass possible, every strobe and light modifier, yet I did not see any improvement in my work. In fact, I was getting worse as the more equipment I bought, the more I fumbled when I used it. It is just not humanly possible to master such a vast amount of equipment in such a short period of time.

My acquisition curve was way steeper than my learning curve. As such, I would often find myself in situations where I could not understand what was going on. I had a severe case of GAS! For the ones not familiar with the acronym, GAS is Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

I was lost in a sea of cameras, lenses, strobes, flashes, reflectors, soft boxes, umbrellas, light stands, gels, filters, battery chargers, clamps, backdrops, etc. I remember all my equipment would fit in two trunks. It was ridiculous! Instead of focusing on moments, I was paralyzed, trying to decide what lens was the best for the situation.

The moments were just flying by and I was missing them in my quest for the perfect lens-camera-flash-modifier combination. I looked and was moving like a Teutonic Knight, slow and tired under his heavy armour. My muscles were so sore, I could not move properly for about three days after a wedding. Yes, it was that bad, but it was worthed in the name of my client’s wedding photography.

One day I came across Chrisman Studios website. Yes, if you are a bride and can afford them, book them as soon as possible!! They are definitely worth the money they are charging!!! If you are a wedding photographer; you have to visit their website. You will be impressed!

Anyway, The Chrismans and now their other photographers were delivering stunning results. I just had to take a closer look at their gear. I was sure they had some secret “weapons” I was missing. Oh, I was saved!!! If I just spent another few thousand bucks, I would finally become one of the best photographers.To my stupefaction, when looking closer at their gear – that by itself cost me a few good days – I noticed something strange.

The Chrismans DID NOT use a lot of gear. Yes, you heard it right; they did not carry hundreds of lenses, flashes and others. They only use two cameras and two lenses. The 35mm and the 85mm. Now there was something even stranger. Many of their photos were not taken with the most expensive 35/85mm lenses. Of course they were not using cheap kit lenses, but they were also not rocking the heavy top of the line primes either. It was very, very strange!!!

Shocked by my photographic revelation, I decided to look at other great photographers: many of the Top Fearless Photographers used primes: Davina and Daniel, Fer Juaristi, Two Mann were all in the prime lens camp. They were all using the 35mm-85mm combo (and maybe a macro lens and a very wide one, but that was rather the exception). Yes, it made perfect sense!

These guys travel a lot and they can not just pack two trunks full of equipment, it is just not possible, so they had to adapt or pay exorbitant airline fees.

Even more, if one photographs with only two lenses mounted on two cameras, one has to know them by heart after a while. It’s just like driving a car to work every day. If you switch cars every day, you are never quite comfortable with all the buttons and can never know the limits of each of them Bingo! I had my answer! In my crazy race to become a better photographer, I was not taking the time to master each piece of gear I had: I did not realize the 16-35 mm is soft when wide open at 16mm, that my macro render things completely out of focus at f2.8, that my 85mm 1.2 misses focus at f1.2 and if you breathe or had coffee, you could kiss the sharp photos good bye.

The more equipment you have, the more time you need to spend to master it, so the longer it takes you to become a good photographer. This is definitely counterintuitive! I remember when I started I took some of my equipment with me when I met clients, as I wanted to show them I was serious about photography. I was carrying maybe $25,000 worth of photographic equipment in one bag, and my clients were indeed impressed. About 99% of the ones I met booked me, and I thank them for that.

I am indeed serious about photography, and I honestly thought that more equipment means better photos, right? Wrong, despite all the marketing noise we hear from Canon, Nikon, Profoto, Sekonic and other famous photographic equipment providers. Sorry, my beloved Canon! As such, I made the switch! I dropped the zooms in the middle of the wedding season.

Here is my list of lenses and their weight gear before the switch: 1) 16-35mm 2.8 II (1.4lb) 2) 24-70mm 2.8 II (2 lb) 3) 70-200mm 2.8 II (3.28 lb) Total weight: 6.6 lb. Yes, it does not seem a lot, but if you carry that in addition to your other gear for 12 hours, that is quite a lot. After the switch: 35mm 1.4 (1lb) 85mm 1.2 (2.2lb) Total: 3.2 lb.

In conclusion, I dropped more than 50% of my lenses weight!!! My back is definitely happier now and I take less time to recover, to a point where I photographed 3 weddings back to back on a few weekends.

2 Prime Lenses are Sharp

With the proliferation of high definition cameras using sharp lenses is crucial. Before, medium format cameras were the way to go when it came to high resolution, but recently Canon launched the 5DS and 5DS R with a 50mp sensor!!!

I am not sure why Canon is still in the megapixel race when the dynamic range of its cameras is behind Nikon. For example, a 5Ds has a 12.4 stops dynamic range vs the Nikon D750’s impressive 14.5 stops. For the non geeks out there, that means that on a sunny day, the sky will look blur on a Nikon D750 and white on a Canon 5DS 0r Canon 5DS R.

The Nikon D750 is as good as the human eye in terms of dynamic range!!! However, the dynamic range is a completely different story we will address in a different blog post. Prime lenses are sharp!!!

Below you can see a portrait of a stunning Indian Bride on her wedding day taken with the 85mm 1.2 at f1.2 (wide open). Though the hair piece is showing signs of chromatic aberration common to photos taken with the Canon 85 1.2, the photo is tack sharp.

Chromatic aberration can be easily fixed in postproduction, but I left it untouched on purpose in case you are looking for flaws of this great lens.

An Indian bride posing with her hands in front of her face captured using prime lenses.

Image courtesy of Photography by Calin – www.bycalin.com

My favorite lenses are the Canon 35 1.4 L, the Canon 85 1.2 L, the Canon 100 2.8 L and the Canon 135mm f2L though I have to admit I also own the Canon 85mm 1.8 which is an amazing lens for the price. While I don’t have any scientific or lab comparison and I am not a fan of pixel peeping, I can definitely say the prime lenses are sharper than their zoom peers at the same focal length.

Even my Canon 24-70 2.8 L II launched in 2012 can not compete with my 35 1.4 launched in December 1998!!! We are obviously talking about the widest common aperture comparison. The Canon 35mm 1.4 is extremely sharp at 2.8 while the 24-70mm 2.8 II provides very usable photos, but of slightly lower quality than the 35 prime lens.

A similar comparison between the Canon 70-200mm 2.8 L II and the Canon 85mm 1.2 L II at f 2.8 , shows a clear advantage of the Canon 85 1.2 in terms of sharpness, again at their widest common aperture, f2.8.

Lego bride and groom photographed with prime lenses.

Image courtesy of Photography by Calin – www.bycalin.com

Finally, my third secret “weapon” is the Canon 100mm 2.8 L macro lens (The image above was shot using that lens). It is a fantastic lens and while I have never used the consumer 100mm macro, I can attest to the professional L lens quality.

This lens can be used for macro photography, but also portraits, though it is somewhat slow to focus. I would advise against using it to photograph fast action scenes such as wedding receptions because of the slower focus. Still, this is an EXTREMELY SHARP to a point where you need to need to do serious skin softening if you photograph a bride’s portrait using the Canon 100 mm 2.8 L II macro.

It is interesting that in our megapixel race to the top; we made human subjects look slightly worse. A comparison between the 100mm macro and the 70-200 mm 2.8 L II at f2.8 is difficult because the two lenses have two different purposes.

The macro lens is made of plastic and very light, focuses close (which is extremely useful for detail shots) but lacks the focusing speed of the Canon 70-200mm 2.8 L.

If you are debating between primes and zooms, I urge you to look through your photos and see if you shoot a lot at or around 24mm, 35mm, 85mm, 100mm, 135 mm. If that is the case, you can easily switch from zooms to primes and gain in image quality.

3 Bokeh is Splendid

Bokeh is originally a Japanese word that means out of focus, and it is the stardust in the top photo on this page. The word has been adopted by photographers who creatively butcher its pronunciation in a million ways. Pronounced properly, the word rimes with “mocha” (coffee) in fact if you change the m in mocha, you have the perfect pronunciation. Prime lenses have a bokeh that is more pleasing to the eyes when compared to zoom lenses at the same focal distance.

4. Colour Quality is Unbeatable

Color is another element that differentiates primes from zooms. Generally prime lenses capture better the color, producing more vivid imagery. Sure colors can be enhanced in post processing, but a prime lens gives a photographer a head start. While it is very difficult to explain, many photographers can tell when a photo was taken with a prime lens.

5. Subject Isolation is Outstanding

Because the shallow depth of field produced by prime lenses at wide apertures (f1.2 -f2) , they cause a drastic separation of the subject from the background. In wedding photography, that is key when photographing in cluttered environments such as hotel rooms. If you analyze the ring photo at the top, the ring is clearly jumping out of the page and you can see that only a sliver of the granite base is in focus.

6. They Focus Fast and Need Less Light

Another huge advantage of the prime lenses over the zooms is the fact primes need less light and generally focus faster than zoom lenses.

For example, my 35mm f1.4 needs four times less light than another 2.8 L lens or eight times less light than a professional f4 lens. Even more, the consumer lenses go from f3.5 to f5.6 and at the longest range of the focal length a consumer lens needs sixteen times more light than my prime lenses, or in the case of my 85 1.2 about eighteen times more light.

To compensate for that, one has to raise the ISO by 2-4 stops. In a dark church where the ambient exposure is f1.4, ISO 800, 1/100s, a photographer using a consumer lens needs to increase ISO anywhere between 3200 and 12,000 which creates a lot of noise and drastically reduces sharpness when noise is corrected in post processing.

At f1.4, ISO 3200, my images are perfectly usable even in a dark church, while the zoom colleagues would have to reject quite a lot because of the high noise that appears over ISO6400. If the photographer uses a crop camera (consumer) that is a recipe for disaster as the performance of consumer camera in low light is poor at the time when this article is written.

With the advent of the mirrorless cameras with insanely great low light performance, many DSLR photographers switched to Fuji or Sony.

While the camera does not make the photographer as I mentioned in my other blog entry, a minimum set of equipment will reduce the chances for failure. That is also why your friend with a camera will not be able to take the photos I am going to take in extreme situations using my prime lenses.

A serious problem with low light is that lenses have a tendency to “hunt” for focus and find it difficult to focus. Unfortunately, neither the primes nor the zooms excel in this area. However, because the primes allow at least four times more light than the zooms, they also have a tendency to focus faster, with some exceptions, notably the Canon 85mm f1.2. That lens is notoriously slow focusing in low light because of the weight of its glass and the insanely shallow depth of field.

To give you an idea how shallow, when photographing a bride from 9 feet, her eyelashes are in focus while anything else is out of focus. That has multiple advantages: first, it has a skin softening effect in camera.

Second, and even more important, it makes the subject “pop” or jump off the page if you wish. The downside is that one needs to take quite a few shots to make sure the eyes are in focus. If you are like me, with a low tolerance for soft photos, you will find that the keep rate is slightly lower at f1.2 especially for moving subjects.

That makes this particular lens is no go for receptions for many wedding photographers. They chose instead to work with the 85 1.8 lens, which is fast focusing in low light and delivers good quality for the money. However, this is not an article about the Canon 85 f1.2 but rather about the prime lens family so we will move on.

7. They Make You a Better Photojournalist

Zoom lenses groom lazy photographers. When I was using zooms, I used to always react to events as it took me a fraction of a second to zoom in. Primes are unforgiving! If you are not in the right spot, you either shoot too wide, or you crop the photo and make it unusable.

8 They Will Improve Your Composition

After a while, you learn how to see in frames 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. Your composition improves, you stop wasting time guessing which lens to use (you only have 2-3 options) and you react much, much faster as you now ANTICIPATE the events as opposed to reacting.


If you are a new photographer and are debating between acquiring prime lenses or zooms, by all means go with the primes. You will not regret it!