Primes and zooms

Andrew F
Andrew F
Nov 18, 2014 · 3 min read

I think camera manufacturers have lost their way when it comes to the “kit lens”. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s the 50mm (or something close to it) WAS the kit lens. My first 35mm SLR as a 14-year-old in 1981 was a Minolta SRT200 and it came with a cheap but sharp 45mm f/2 Minolta Rokkor lens. Want a tighter view such as for a portrait? Step closer and watch out for perspective distortion (big noses). Want to capture more of a scene? Step back, just stay out of traffic. This taught not only about composition and field of view, but perspective and distortion as well. Most new photographers with their first SLR back then read a manual written in terrible English, but with outstanding charts, diagrams and yes, sample photos that really showed how exposure, focus and depth of field worked.

Like most new photographers, I read the manual, tried the various settings and then soon wanted more than my standard lens could give, which was quite a lot looking back. Since I was most interested in photographing people, I bought a telephoto next. Since I liked shooting outdoors in natural light, I added a cheap 135mm f/2.8 (Sears Focal brand, made by Kiron) and suddenly new tools became available. Compression, bokeh, selective focus all found their way into my photographs and combined with the 45mm lens I had quite a few tricks up my photographic sleeve.

Then I thought that a zoom lens would combine everything and greatly improve my photography, so I bought a 28–105 and later an 80–200. My photography deteriorated as I zoomed with my wrist instead of my feet. I added an automatic exposure camera (Minolta X-570) thinking I needed more speed. Not long after I lost interest in photography as nothing on my negatives or slides reinforced the passion. The more convenient my equipment it seemed, the less interesting my images.

Long story short, coming back to photography some 4-years-ago I started with an SLR and a zoom lens and quickly found myself where I was when I quit. I then read and interesting article about using a film Leica with only a 50mm lens for a year, and while I didn’t do it, I came fairly close. I bought a used Leica M Monochrom and a few prime lenses, but mostly I shot with a 50mm.

Let me tell you, that 50mm lens brought the passion back. I still love using the Leica and it is my favorite tool for non-family pictures. I now own four 50mm lenses for it (three are vintage) and 35mm and 90mm lenses. The Leica forces me to slow down. I tried an SLR again last year, a Canon 6D with a zoom lens, and it sucked the creativity right out of me. For family and color work now I use a Nikon Df that forces me to slow down, and of course my main lens on it is a standard lens, the excellent Nikkor AF-S 58mm f/1.4G, which rarely is taken off, and when removed is always switched for another prime, often a slow-hanlding vintage prime without automatic focus.

I own a few compact cameras with zoom lenses, and use them frequently when I travel. My outlook has changed though, and now I see my current one (Leica X Vario with 28–70 equivalent) as a small camera with four slow primes. I tend to set the lens to either 28, 35, 50 or 70mm and leave it there as I walk around my subject, making that initial focal length selection based on the perspective effect I hope to capture and/or size and distance limitations. In this way, I keep the creativity alive despite, rather than because of the zoom lens. Still, for serious photo outings, I’ll always put a prime lens on an SLR or rangefinder and maybe, just maybe, another prime in a pocket.

Happy shooting.

Andrew F

Written by

Andrew F

Attorney and amateur photographer

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade