Scrap the kit lens: go mid-range prime!

Scrap the kit lens: go mid-range prime!

If you’ve recently bought a new camera, chances are it came with an 18-55mm zoom lens. This is what we refer to as the “kit lens” because it always comes bundled with camera kits. The reason many cameras come with the kit lens is because it gives new photographers the chance to experiment with different focal lengths and find the ones that they like best. However, you may soon finding yourself wanting to upgrade from this lens when you find that, despite its versatility, it’s not giving you everything you need in terms of performance from any one particular focal length.


Pros of the Kit Lens

This versatile lens, with a range of focal lengths, provides an array of options when you are still finding your photographic "identity." Do you prefer to capture the whole scene or do you like to "detail in" and get intimate with the subject? You may be able to capture a wider range in terms of subject matter without having to switch lenses, allowing you to experiment and discover your favorite focal length that suits your style of photography. 

However, you have less artistic leeway with each of these focal distances.

Cons of the kit lens

Kit lenses usually go down to f/5.6, but when using this aperture, there still may be distracting background shenanigans that distract from the beauty of your subject matter. This is especially why you want to go prime for portraiture work. More importantly, the quality of components in kit lenses is normally sub-par, resulting in inferior image quality.

Enter the 50mm Prime

Notice how shallow the depth of field is in this image.  The focus falls off almost immediately behind the main subject.  

Notice how shallow the depth of field is in this image.  The focus falls off almost immediately behind the main subject.  

What is a prime lens?

A prime lens is one that has a fixed focal length, meaning you cannot change the focal range of the lens. Compare this to a zoom lens, like the 18-55mm, which has a range of focal lengths to choose from. The 50mm prime is the most popular lens ever made.

Why go prime?

Though some photographers may feel limited using a lens with a fixed focal length, it actually does help to sharpen rusty compositional skills, almost like an exercise your high school photo teacher assigned. Prime lenses have a wider maximum aperture than zoom lenses, with the most common max. apertures being f/1.8 and f/1.4. Using such a wide aperture will create more background blur and “bokeh,” which allows for more artistic freedom by isolating the subject from everything else around it.

The number after the focal length, 1.4, indicates the maximum aperture.

The number after the focal length, 1.4, indicates the maximum aperture.

Prime lenses have focusing scales on the lens barrel, which allows for greater precision in manual focusing. This is especially important for wide angle lenses used in landscape photography and in low-light when autofocus is not an option, and you must focus by the numbers.

Image Quality

Prime lenses typically have more sharpness than zoom lenses. They also have less distortion because the glass is optimized to do one job, as opposed to having to do many jobs as with zoom lenses.


If you want to go prime without breaking the bank, the 50mm and other mid-range zoom lenses are the most affordable out there. Primes don’t need any zoom capabilities, so manufacturers can get away with making quality glass and selling it at affordable prices, but only in the most popular (mid-range) focal lengths.

The Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens goes for just over $100 and many photographers don’t notice a great difference between this and the Canon 50mm f/1.4, which goes for $400.  

Faster Shutter Speeds

One big advantage of a wide aperture, such as f/1.4, is that it allows you to capture the moment with faster shutter speeds and better image quality in low light situations.

Improve your artistic visions

Lauren mainly shoots with a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens. It challenges her to crop in the camera, like they taught you in your high school photo class, and to “detail in” on particular elements of a scene. This feels like you are peering into the personal world of the subject. During the film days, 50mm was a standard lens because it is supposed to have the same perspective as the human eye’s.

Shooting with a lens without zoom capabilities forces you to become one with the camera, moving your body closer and further from the subject in order to determine the most intriguing composition. In this way, you are becoming more interactive with the subject.

yellow leaves.jpg

Additional tip

If you want to experiment with light by shooting at a wide aperture in bright lighting conditions, invest in a neutral density filter. At an affordable $50, this piece of equipment may be a game changer because it allows you to get a shallow depth of field even on a bright, sunny day.

Focal Lengths on Digital SLRs

Though the 50mm was designed to mimic the perspective of the human eye on a 35mm film camera, beginner and intermediate digital bodies have smaller sensors (APSC-sized) than 35mm film. This affects the looks of the look of images taken with a 50mm prime in two main ways:

  • Images will look like they were taken with a 75mm lens on a 35mm film camera, meaning they are much more cropped in and actually aren't the "true" perspective of the human eye.
  • The depth of field won't be as shallow at your max aperture as it would be on a film camera. If you are interested in ultra shallow depth of field for artistic effect, you may either want to consider upgrading to a full-frame DSLR camera (which has the same sensor size as 35mm film), or pull out that old film body you have sitting at the bottom of your basement closet.