Regression to the Prime(s).

Zeiss 80mm Planar on a Sony a77. Delicious combo.

Happens every time. I get a new camera from a new company and I start reading all the propaganda about how great their high speed zoom lenses are. When I shot with Canon, Nikon and Sony I drooled over and bought those fast zooms. How could I not when everyone else was doing so? The promise is always the same: a wide range of "must have" focal lengths instantly at my service, coupled with a maximum aperture that seems fast enough to do almost anything. And here's the sad part: Every time I ponied up and bought the holy trinity of fast zooms I found myself, one or two jobs later, pining for the primes.

Yes, the 16 or 17mm to 35mm f2.8 zooms seem sharp enough but are they sufficiently well corrected to be used for what I think they should be used for (architecture and technical work)? Invariably not. And I hardly need a wide zoom to photograph people. I would almost always be better off with the well corrected prime lens. Perhaps a nice 21mm f 2.8 Zeiss? Then, when I'm playing around with the longer zooms it always seems to me that f2.8 on an 85mm prime or a 100mm prime gives me a little extra pop and sparkle, a bit more bite than the wide open apertures of the 70-200mm behemoths.  Not to mention that there are times when one actually wants to experiment with what happens visually when we use our fast primes at or near their widest apertures. None of this takes into consideration the comfortable formalism of being cosseted by not having to choose variations in focal lengths...

I bought a Nikon D7100 a week or so ago with the idea of using it for quick events with on camera flash. Nikon's flash system has always been really good. I figured the camera, along with the 18-140mm zoom lens would be a great "grip and grin" system for walking around in dark conference halls and gala ballrooms making flash lit snapshots. No question that the focus is quick and the files are great. But within a day of buying the camera and zoom there I was, back to pick up an AF 50mm (even though I have  drawer of fun, manual focus 50's.).  And then a couple days later for a 35mm lens. I just like the way prime focal lengths work with my brain.

I have a Samsung camera that was sent to me for evaluation and it came with a nice 18-55mm zoom lens and a very competent 50-200mm zoom lens. I shot a bunch of "test" frames with the NX30 camera and the zooms and the images were good but I quickly got bored and put the camera in a drawer. Then I started getting unexpected boxes via Fed Ex. First came a 30mm f2, which got my attention. It's a fun lens and close to the 50mm focal length on a 35mm film camera. It was the lens that made me pull the camera back out of the drawer. But the fun quotient jumped up ten notches when the next box came and it had an 85mm f1.4 NX lens inside. Now the camera and the small collections of primes is packed in an Airport Security wheeled case for use on a job tomorrow. No question, the zooms would do the job well enough but the primes do it with added fun.

This is not a new phenomenon for me or anyone else who shoots both for fun and business. We're always covering the bases and then dropping in a bigger dose of fun. And it's usually all about the lenses. Take my Panasonic system as an example. I made my initial lens selection when I bought the GH4 and it included the 12-35mm f2.8, the 35-100mm f2.8 and the 7-14mm f4.  All great lenses and all more than enough for my use in still photography and video productions. But I just had to add those unique and quite sharp Sigma dn Art lenses (19, 30 and 60mm). Then I realized that I really wanted a fast 85-90mm equivalent so I grabbed one of the Olympus 45mm 1.8's. But that made me realize that a nice, two lens, travel and art system would be well served by tossing in a 17mm f1.8. The 45mm and the 17mm do make a nice duo but they are both well balanced by the addition of the 25mm f1.4. And so it goes.

When I pack the bags for work I tend to take the zooms. When I pack the bag for fun I tend to take the primes. Rarely do I pack both. When it comes to shooting I think I have the most binary brain. It's always this or that but never both. It's either an assortment of primes or two wide ranging zooms on two bodies. It all seems easier if you can start the day making that overarching choice and ignoring whatever you chose to leave behind.

When I need to go bare bones it always makes sense to consider a wide angle to short tele zoom as a sole optic but it never works that way for me. Maybe it's my history and habit born of repetition but if I can only bring one body and one lens it's invariably a prime that finally, after an agonizing selection process, makes it onto the camera and, nine times out of ten, it's a 50mm equivalent. Something about balance. Anything wider is too wide. Anything longer is too constricting.

When it all gets distilled down my taste in cameras and lenses is all about regression to the prime.


Rufus said...

When talking of primes, I wonder if you will ever be tempted by the siren song of those delicious, exotic hard-to-attain primes... those upmarket seductresses from Zeiss with the Otus range, Sigma and the ART lenses and, even, using a Leica Summicron on your GH4...

You would not be the first photographer to strap on a stupidly expensive prime and fall in lust.

I know quite a few shooters currently in raptures with their D800 Nikons and a Sigma Art, Zeiss Otus or the exotic Nikon 58mm 1.4G..

Poor fellows seem to get unusually enthusiastic, as if they have rediscovered some mojo, once lost.

And they shoot wide open all the time. Whats that about?

Kaspar said...

That picture of the Sony with the Zeiss lens made me drool, I just haven't found a cheap Hasselblad/M43 adapter yet =)
I just shoot for fun, but I also prefer to shoot with primes. Although I have to adapt to the current focal length, a higher flexibility in terms of light conditions and depth of field due to larger apertures is more important for me.

Frank Grygier said...

The Nokton 17.5 and the Nocticron 42.5 are amazing primes for M43 system cameras. Not sure what to do with zooms. I'm not sure if I will ever want to use them. Love the names they use for prime lenses.

David Zivic said...

I think you did the right thing. Corporate spending is down and 6 figure photo projects might not be happening. your bid for 3 days sounded very affordable and hardly a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Conversely when I was young I worked as a custom woodworker and got a lot of jobs when I was not the lowest bidder. Good reputation and I interview well. Now I am a Yacht Broker in Cabo San Lucas, mexico and the same holds true with commissions. The project will also be a nice and current addition to your portfolio.

I am, I guess, a prosumer amongst photographers. I have sold my Nikons D200 and D700 to coincide with my new philosophy.
I wanted something that didn't feel like I was carrying around a small transmission and a users manual that wasn't the size of a phone book. When this mirror less thing appeared It caught my attention. I am left eyed, so when someone released a center viewfinder, full frame sensor with interchangeable lenses I was going to be "all in". I bought an excellent adapter so my Nikkor lenses work and they work excellently 3 are primes with aperture ring on the lens and one zoom which I never sen to use. Very retro, but I now enjoy walking around with my wonderful compact Sony A7r, set on M with prime lenses and an aperture ring. BUT, imagine my surprise when one of my favorite blogger trashes my new camera with what I thought was an absurd review……
I deleted VSL rom my favorites tool bar. Then I got to thinking and realized that we shoot totally directly. The battery has plenty o life for me. After Nikons the shutter noise is not that loud for me, and I work around start up time and the reboot delay…..not a big deal to me.
So you are back on my favorite toolbar with TOP and Luminous. I miss Shutterfinger.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks David, I need to clear up one thing though. The bid I referenced on the other post today was not one of mine (though I wish it was!).

Welcome back to VSL. Nothing much has changed.

neopavlik said...

That "Zoom Lust" is strong.

If I went Nikon FX (which I plan to by February ) my longest FX lens would be my 105 / AI-S (which is amazing whenever I can focus it properly). 85/1.8G if we're talking autofocus.

I haven't made that jump to Nikon FX yet but I'm already feeling strong pressure that I'll have to get one of the big telephoto zoom 2 point 8s when I do. Your post might help me to get the 70-300 VR, find my favorite focal length and then put the $ towards that closest prime.

Anonymous said...

"And here's the sad part: Every time I ponied up and bought the holy trinity of fast zooms I found myself, one or two jobs later, pining for the primes."

Yeap, suppose that's inevitable. I went through that same process a long time ago, during the film era, but to me that process was pretty short and easy. Probably thanks to my day job at the time. I made the decision quite early on to go for primes, and simply skip the zooms. For that same reason. My favourite zoom is still the good old sneakerzoom.

I have had a couple of zooms during the digital era, too, though. Mostly the kit zooms that sometimes come with the new bodies, and one tele zoom, which I traded for a prime lens after a short ownership.
But knowing myself, I've kept on getting and using mostly primes, even after taking on the recent endeavour to reboot my career and try my stubby entrepreneurial wings as a freelancer/visual artist.

Actually, I do have one zoom lens that I use regularly and probably keep it, namely the Zeiss lens attached to the RX-10. But for the interchangeable lens camera(s), it's all primes, for now, and probably in the future, too. I know there are some pretty decent zooms out there but...
You'll know what comes after the but. :)

"I bought a Nikon D7100 a week or so ago with the idea of using it for quick events with on camera flash."

Hmm, sounds like the proverbial (perpetual) VSL-wheel has finished yet another full spin. That was quick, it only took a couple of months. ;)

Sorry, couldn't help the snarkasm, but suppose most of us here are like that. Incurable gearheads. One way or another. Case in point, the number of comments in gear related posts as opposed to the art/business related ones.

"And they shoot wide open all the time. Whats that about?"


David Grieveson said...

"When it all gets distilled down my taste in cameras and lenses is all about regression to the prime."

Interesting choice of verb. Watching Kirk go from one system to another, picking up lenses as he goes, does seem rather like following an alcoholic down the aisles of a liquor store.

Still, its fun to watch him weaving from side to side, throwing apparently random bottles into his basket. Its mildly diverting trying to second guess what he'll pick up next, though I'm not sure what its got to do with photography. Perhaps we (the readers of VSL) could set up a lottery, buy a ticket to "guess what kit Kirk is going to buy next?"

Racecar said...

Totally get the prime experience: It's what we grew up with. When I first started shooting 35mm film, my "holy trinity" of lenses was: 28mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4, and a 135 f/3.5. This lens combo was light weight, compact and all I really needed. Later on I replaced the 135 with a 105 f/2.8 macro. I tried a 28-50 f/3.5, but I never warmed up to it, so I chucked it.
We are comfortable with the primes - especially the "normal" focal length because that's how we started out in photography. The 50mm f/1.4 and 1.8 were standard issue with many 35mm cameras. Consequently many of us ventured out into the world of image-making, equipped with a bright and shiny 50mm lens. The wide angles were a novelty and great for exaggerating perspective. The tele was nice for getting in close and isolating subjects, which was rather useful in some situations. But if I had been forced to choose only one lens, it would have chosen the the "normal" (50mm) lens.

Rick Baumhauer said...

On m43 cameras, I definitely prefer primes, both for the overall quality and for the better subject isolation. For most of my commercial work (very run 'n' gun, no scouting, make a business look good in an hour or less), I can get by with the Panny 7-14 on one body (I'd take a 8-9mm rectilinear prime if somebody made one, but they don't) and primes on the other (usually the 17 1.8, with the 45 for portraits and the 25 for in-between).

The big exception to this is if I'm in a situation where I might need to change focal length frequently and quickly, like an event or class (did the latter yesterday). Those are the situations I specifically bought the Olympus 12-40 for, and it's awesome for what it is, but I'd still prefer to shoot primes if possible. They just balance better on the cameras, and I'm (finally) getting to know exactly what I'll see through each one.