Friday, 15 November 2019

Building a Prime Lens Kit

Zoom Lenses

When I first set out on my photography journey I used zoom lenses as they offer a lot of flexibility and are a perfect starting point for any would-be photographer. In fact a lot of camera bodies are available with a cheap zoom lens bundled as part of the package. Despite this versatility they do have the caveat that they tend to not be as sharp as prime lenses. 

Along with the 18-55mm kit lens that came with my first camera, another of my first zoom lenses that I bought was an 18-200mm f3.5-f6.3. During my initial phase in photography this lens practically lived on my camera as it seemed like a great all-round lens. The focal range was superb which afforded me great versatility but optically it was far from great. Images lacked sharpness and the colours weren't quite right. It also had a very slow and noisy autofocus motor and of course you lose a lot of light when zoomed in to 200mm due to the lens not having a steady aperture throughout the focal range. To combat that I would have to use a slower shutter speed or if that wasn't possible a higher ISO which in turn produced a more grainy and poorer quality image.

I then moved on and bought both 24-70mm and 70-200mm f2.8 lenses. These lenses both came at a significant cost but are both great lenses which served me well for my needs. In fact I still own them but rarely use them now.

Advantages to zoom lenses:
  • Versatile as the photographer doesn't have to move about as much
  • Don't have to carry as many lenses
  • Speed - ability to capture at different focal lengths quickly without having to change lenses
Disadvantages to zoom lenses:
  • High quality zoom lenses with fixed apertures can be pricey
  • Not as sharp as prime lenses
  • Tend to be bigger and heavier than prime lenses
  • Apertures not as wide as prime lenses


Prime Lenses

Prime lenses are lenses with a fixed focal length. So if you need to change your composition and move closer to or further from your subject you would need to physically do so as there is no means to do this via the lens.

In more recent years I have turned more towards prime lenses and in fact aside from occasionally using a 16-35mm for interior work I now use primes exclusively. Prime lenses tend to be a lot sharper than zoom lenses as they are dedicated to optimally work at a specific focal length and there is less glass that moves around in the lens which reduces diffraction.

With prime lenses it’s possible to shoot in lower light situations as they feature wider apertures than the typical f2.8 of a zoom lens so you can get lenses which shoot at f1.4 or sometimes even wider. A result of having a wider aperture is that you can achieve a much shallower depth of field (DOF). They can also force you to think more about each shot and make you a more creative photographer as you don’t have the luxury of standing in one spot and zooming. You have to “zoom with your feet”.

Advantages to prime lenses:
  • Cheaper than zoom lenses
  • Sharper than zoom lenses as there is less moveable glass to cause diffraction
  • Ability to shoot in lower light situations due to wider apertures
  • Usually smaller and weigh less than zoom lenses
  • Make you a more creative photographer as you think more about each shot
Disadvantages to prime lenses:
  • You need to carry more lenses to cover more focal lengths
  • Cannot zoom
  • You need to change lenses if you want another focal length
Samyang AF 35mm f1.4 FE on a shoot

The lenses I use

There are a number of prime lenses that I use on a regular basis which I find would form part of an essential prime lens kit for most photographers. A 35mm f1.4, a 50mm f1.4 and an 85mm f1.4. These three lenses will cover most situations for most photographers. I know a lot of wedding photographers who indeed just use these three lenses to cover an entire wedding with amazing results. When shooting food for various clients I tend to use the three mentioned above but also add in a dedicated macro lens for close up detail shots of the food. So for this Samyang’s 100mm f2.8 macro lens is perfect.

85mm lens is not just great for portraiture

An 85mm lens is pretty much ideally suited to portrait photography as it gives a good amount of compression between the subject and the background. An essential piece of kit for any wedding photographer as it allows you to be a little further away from your subject. At this focal length it doesn’t distort facial features like a wide angle lens would. I use my 85mm to get beautiful, detailed images of drinks/food where I need to isolate the subject from the background by using a relatively wide aperture to capture a shallow DOF with stunning bokeh (out of focus elements). This can also be used on a cropped sensor camera and give a focal length of around 127mm depending on crop factor.
Sony A7Riii with Samyang AF 85mm f1.4 FE @ 1/160th, f3.5, ISO 160

The "Nifty Fifty"

A 50mm lens is also sometimes referred to as a "Nifty Fifty" as you can get cheap versions which offer great bang for buck performance and usually come with an f1.8 aperture. This is possibly my most used focal length. I love using my Samyang AF 50mm f1.4 FE when taking candid photos of my family or for shameless self portraits. I also use it heavily for food photography as it can pretty much be used at any angle including top-down or side on for images of food. This lens creates beautiful bokeh in the image allowing you to make your subject stand out from the background. At this focal length you still don't get much distortion as you would with wider lenses and it compresses the background and subject together nicely. This can also be used on a cropped sensor camera and give a focal length of around 75mm depending on crop factor.

Sony A7Riii with Samyang AF 50mm f1.4 FE @ 1/100th, f11, ISO 200

Everyone needs a 35mm right?

A 35mm lens has a similar angle of view to what the human eye sees so has to be one of the most versatile focal lengths and can be used for just about anything ranging from street photography to architecture to wedding photography amongst others. I tend to use my Samyang AF 35mm f1.4 FE when photographing overhead food shots of multiple dishes to get as much in the shot as possible without having to position the camera as high as I would if was shooting with a 50mm or longer focal length. This can also be used on a cropped sensor camera and give a focal length of around 52mm depending on crop factor.

Sony A7Riii with Samyang AF 35mm f1.4 FE @ 1/100th, f13, ISO 200

Macro Lenses - great for close-ups and so much more

Macro lenses are essential if you want to shoot close up images. These lenses have very close minimum focus distances which allow the camera to get closer to the subject. They also feature a really narrow minimum aperture so that you can control what you want in focus. Dedicated macro lenses are also renowned for being the sharpest type of lens with its main use being for highly detailed images. They also make great portrait lenses as the focal length is usually pretty long, around 90mm - 180mm. The typical aperture range on a macro lens is f2.8 - f32 as the closer you are to the subject the shallower the DOF so a narrow aperture is essential to retain as much detail and focus as possible. The caveat with shooting with such narrow apertures such as f32 then the amount of light be allowed onto the sensor is very little so to compensate you would need to either use a faster shutter speed, higher ISO, a tripod or introduce flashes or studio strobes. I shoot food using a studio strobe so I can keep my ISO down which will also give me a better quality image.


Zoom lenses offer a great deal in terms of flexibility and as such I think are a great way to discover as a beginner what you like to shoot. Both types of lenses have their advantages and disadvantages but I think that after experiencing different types of photography the quality in terms of image sharpness and the ability to shoot in low light will be a major determining factor which will steer most photographers in the direction of prime lenses. If you are trying to capture images with stunning bokeh then a prime lens is a must. Prime lenses will make you a more creative photographer and you certainly can't go wrong by getting a 35mm, a 50mm and an 85mm. If you're a landscape shooter and want something wider than 35mm, Samyang also has a great range of options for you.  From the ultra-wide AF 14mm f2.8 which offers great optics at a very good price to the smaller "pancake" lenses - AF 18mm f2.8, AF 24mm f2.8. Let's not forget the tiny AF 35mm f2.8 which is a very capable lens and great for travel photography and the AF 45mm f1.8 (which fits right in between the 35mm and 50mm range). Out of all these lenses there's something for everyone.

Below are some images captured using some of the lenses mentioned above:

Sony A7R with Samyang AF 50mm f1.4 FE @ 1/80th, f3.5, ISO 64
Sony A7R with Samyang AF 50mm f1.4 FE @ 1/100th, f2.8, ISO 100
Sony A7Riii with Samyang AF 35mm f1.4 FE @ 1/160th, f8, ISO 125
Sony A7R with Samyang AF 50mm f1.4 FE @ 1/50th, f2.2, ISO 200
Sony A7R with Samyang AF 50mm f1.4 FE @ 1/160th, f8, ISO 200
Sony A7Riii with Samyang AF 35mm f1.4 FE @ 1/320th, f10, ISO 100
Sony A7Riii (Crop Mode) with Samyang AF 50mm f1.4 FE @ 1/160th, f5, ISO 125
Sony A7R with Samyang AF 14mm f2.8 FE @ 1/25th, f4, ISO 64

Sony A7R with Samyang AF 24mm f2.8 FE @ 1/500th, f5, ISO 100

Sony A7R with Samyang AF 24mm f2.8 FE @ 1/200th, f4, ISO 100

Sony A7R with Samyang AF 35mm f2.8 FE @ 1/30th, f9, ISO 100
Sony A7R with Samyang AF 35mm f1.4 FE @ 1/125th, f2.2, ISO 64
Sony A7Riii with Samyang AF 85mm f1.4 FE @ 1/250th, f11, ISO 100

Sony A7Riii with Samyang AF 85mm f1.4 FE @ 1/200th, f13, ISO 200

Thanks for reading!

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Samyang AF 24mm f1.8 FE