From Canon Zooms to Primes ~ A guide

Aug 29, 2010 | News | 80 comments

canon-kit_lr

My complete camera kit. A Canon 5D mk2 with four prime lenses

Here is the story of my switch from zooms to primes and my findings so far.

I have a Nikon kit too that I share with Julie but this feature is about my Canon portrait kit shown above. A year ago I was still shooting weddings with Julie and I used just 3 zooms. A 16-35mm f/2.8L mk11, 24-70mm f/2.8L and the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS. those 3 lenses covered every focal length and I shot them at f/4. Now that I’m shooting both portraits and art, I decided it was time for a change.

Zooms are great when you are covering an event and unable to move around at will. Or when you are shooting groups inside and need to accommodate a latecomer when your back is against the wall. I also love the speed that tiny adjustments to framing can be made with a zoom lens and the near instant capability to get a tighter shot when the moment dictates.

Now that my work is more considered I have the time to look at the scene, design my image and select the lens needed for the job. I create the moments too so I know when they are coming.

What focal lengths to choose
I’m not concerned about ‘holes’ in my focal length range because I can move around to get the framing I want. I now choose a lens for it’s perspective. There are compromises with this approach but I’d rather have 3 or 4 primes than 6 or 7. With this in mind I set about coming up with my fab 4. I was always told to choose lenses that double in focal length with each change ie 24mm, 50mm, 100mm, and 200mm. I wanted to start wider than 24mm and finish wider than 200mm too. I ended up with 21mm, 35mm, 50mm and 100mm. Here’s the story why.

As you can see in the picture above, my complete kit could probably fit in a childs lunch box. I feel liberated now that I have sold my three bulky, heavy zooms. Keeping them was not an option because every now and then I’d be reverting back to my old convenient ways. When I change my kit, that’s it. I need to totally immerse myself in the new kit in order to get to know it inside out.

I’m not a newcomer to primes. From 2005-2008 I exclusively used a Hasselblad H1 with a Phase One P25 digital back and primes. I had 35mm, 80mm, 110mm and 210mm lenses. I eventually sold the 80mm and 110mm and replaced them with a 100mm f/2.2 lens.

The kit was wonderful until it developed a focussing fault. Hasselblad charged me £500 to repair the fault but it was still there. They blamed Phase One and Phase one blamed Hasselblad. It was the camera that was at fault and I got fed up with the bickering and sold the kit in separate components on Ebay.

Wide angle – Choices
I wanted to change my 16-35 for a prime because it wasn’t great optically and I found 16mm too much of a temptation to use and I nearly always regretted having used it when looking back at my work. I looked at the options and decided that the Zeiss 21mm was likely to be my No1 choice of wide angle. If Canon made a fabulous L series 20mm I’d have chosen that. To be sure of a smooth transition to prime I decided to tape up my zoom lens at 21mm using electricians tape and a few thousand frames later I knew 21mm was for me.

There is some general belief that prime lenses are somewhat better than zooms. I don’t find that argument to be true all the time but with the 21mm v 16-35mm it certainly was. The Zeiss prime is in another league. At f/2.8 it is pin sharp, contrasty and doesn’t suffer from chromatic aberration. The only lens I know that is as good or perhaps even better is my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 zoom. The Nikon wide zoom is absolutely amazing.

35mm – A no brainer
I’ve always loved the 35mm focal length for environmental portraits. It pulls in the background so readily without resorting to a wide angle look. The Canon 35mm f/1.4 L gets reasonable press so I decided to buy one from Warehouse Express. At first glance the pictures it takes exhibit all the qualities I expect of an L series lens. It suffers from chromatic aberration at f/1.4 – f/2 but is perfect by f/2.8. I need to shoot some portraits with it now to really get to know what it can deliver.

In testing I found that an in camera micro adjustment of +5 is needed for my 35mm lens to achieve pin sharp AF at f/2.8 over the 1m – 5m range.

50mm – The big decision
I need a 50mm lens too and this proved more difficult to pin down. There are many choices with three from Canon, one from Sigma and one from Zeiss. I ruled out the Zeiss optic because I want AF. The Sigma reviews were mixed and even the good reviewers had to have their lenses recalibrated. I’ve never had much success with Sigma lenses in the past so I didn’t repeat my previous blunders. That left Canon with the 50mm f/1.8, the 50mm f/1.4, and the 50mm f/1.2L.

The 1.8 is very light, cheaply made and performed quite well from f/2.8 and above. It was only let down by it’s build quality. The f/1.4 might well be the best of the bunch. I’ve tried the f/1.4 a couple of times when I’ve been fortunate enough to be leant one by one of my workshop delegates. But I had a dilemma, if I bought an f/1.4 I’d always be wondering how much better the f/1.2 is. So I bought a perfect, hardly used f/1.2 on Ebay to find out. If I want to swap it for an f/1.4 in the future I can simply Ebay my f/1.2 and get the same that I paid for it.

50mm f/1.2 first findings
It’s big and I don’t know why. The front element is much smaller than the lens barrel. It’s heavy and I don’t know why. My 100mm lens is much bigger and yet seems lighter. It’s very expensive and I don’t know why. You get a lot more ‘L’ glass and IS for your money in the new 100mm macro. I thought the secret that justifys the price tag must be the image quality.

I ran some tests… Well, I think this lens should be called an f/2 because at f2 the image quality is sparkling and worthy of the ‘L’ notation. When you open the lens up to f/1.8, f/1.4 and f/1.2 all that happens is the centre of the image gets brighter. The edges don’t change at all leaving heavy vignetting. The centre of the image suffers chromatic aberration too at these wide apertures with obvious purple fringing in contrasty areas. Hmm

I will not be shooting portraits at f/1.2 because the depth of field is so shallow that it looks like a Photoshop effect to blur the image. It is certainly not a natural or a pleasing look. There are some shooters that will love it I’m sure but I’m certainly not one of them. I’m going to shoot at f/2.8 with this lens and really get to know it’s characteristics. It should be amazing at that aperture and I can’t wait to give it a go.

In testing I found that an in camera micro adjustment of +10 is needed for my copy of the 50mm lens to achieve pin sharp AF at f/2.8 over the 1m – 5m range.

After I’ve got to know the f/1.2 for a while I’ll probably buy a 50mm f/1.4 on Ebay and compare the two. I’ll then keep the best and sell the other;)

100mm Macro f/2.8L IS
Wow! This lens rocks. It is pin sharp wide open right across the frame. The IS is amazing letting me shoot at 1/15th second hand held. And I love getting in there to shoot tight close ups. This lens out performs the rest and any zoom I’ve ever used at f/2.8 including the new mk2 70-200. I’ve used the 100mm for two months now and it is fabulous.

Before I settled on the 100mm I tried out a 135mm L lens but I kept getting camera shake even at 1/500th I seemed to struggle to get crisp pictures. The IS on the 100mm is a game changer. I thought about the 85mm too but I dislike the unnatural blur effect of the 85mm wide open, it is way too heavy and it lacks IS.

I’m not yet convinced to pay over £100 for the dedicated tripod bracket for my 100mm lens because it gets mixed reviews and is exorbitantly priced. The copies from China on Ebay are only £20 but are of questionable quality. No doubt the copies will get better and the Canon units will drop in price when they become more readily available.

My zooms are all sold now and my first all prime shoot is Tuesday. You will be able to follow my progress with my prime lenses on this blog.

What are your favourite prime lenses? Please feel free to comment below.

80 Comments

  1. Foto Nunta Brasov

    Hello!
    I use for wedding this lenses:
    Canon 35 f2 IS
    Canon 100 f2.8 Macro
    Canon 24-105 f4 IS
    Canon 70-200 f 2.8 L IS II

    Thank you for the review.

    Reply
    • Damien

      Hi Marius,

      I was thinking to get the 35mm f/2 IS but in the end I switch formats to Fuji.

      Kind regards, Damien.

      Reply
  2. Nicolò

    Hi Damien.
    I have been following you for long time and I respect you so much as a person and as a photographer.
    Thanks to your videos I learned important concepts about lighting techniques.

    I found your article very interesting.
    I mainly shoot landscapes and zoom lenses are more practical, beacuse there are times you are not able to change lens. Often I go to Mount Etna to shoot eruptions…trying to find right places to take pictures, sometimes I have to climb volcanic cones no more alive and when I come back it seems as if I was in a coal mine. A very fine and abrasive volcanic ash fits everywhere. In these conditions very few time I am able to change lens, so zoom lenses help me a lot.

    Nevertheless I love so much prime lenses… I have always appreciated the quality and “personality” of prime lens and as I had the opportunity I got some. Like you I get a Canon 100 Macro L and I totally agree with you: simply superlative, beacuse it is lightweight, sharp, great bokeh, weather sealed, nice colors.
    As wider focal lenght I purchased a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART. Another great great lens. Sigma this time did his job very well. If you don’t know it take a try and let me know what do you think about… ;-)
    I think it is even better then Canon 35mm f/1.4 and not surprisingly I chose Sigma.
    Finally I got a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 too. Unbeatable value for money. When you learn how to use it you can appreciate its quality.
    These are all my prime lens.

    Anyway, I took advantage of this nice article not so much to show part of my camera kit, but to take this opportunity to give a greeting and get you the most sincere congratulations for your beautiful pictures, a source of inspiration for many.

    See you Damien ;-)
    Nicolò

    Reply
    • Damien

      Hi Nicolò,

      Your kind words made my day. Thank you sincerely. Enjoy your adventures in Sicily :)

      Kindest regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  3. Ujwal

    Hi Damien,

    I use a number of primes and zooms. Fortunately for me, my Sigma 50mm F1.4 have been stellar copies ( old crinkle was good but new smooth one is even better) but i prefer using it at F2 and F2.8 where it shines.
    I also use a canon 85mm F1.8, canon 100mm macro and just bought a Tamron 90mm VC Macro lenses which gives awesome gentle swirly bokeh at portrait distances and is a joy to use.

    For zooms, I use a Canon 17-40mm L, Tamron 24-70mm VC ( I sold a canon 24mm F1.4 L and 35mm F1.4 L after buying it ) and a Canon 70-200mm F4L IS which replaced my MkI F2.8 L IS which was basically giving me carpal tunnel syndrome.

    The zooms are my outdoors lenses and ceremony lenses, then they go in the bag. For most of the indoor stuff, the 50mm and sometimes the 85mm gets used along with the Tamron 24-70mm F2.8 VC.

    I find zooms a lot more suited for wedding work and are as sharp as prime at apertures I love to work at…..in the F3.2 to F5.6 range.

    Its such a tough decision….I don’t think I will ever be able to rule out zooms or primes. For me …they complement each other but I think If I had to use minimum gear, I could live with just 24-70mm and the 70-200mm OR a L series 28mm F2 ( if they ever made one… as 35mm just isn’t wide enough when you need one ) and a 70-200mm / 85mm f1.8 to do everything else.

    There are photographers out there who shoot entire wedding with just a 50mm f1.2 or 35mm f1.4 basically at wide open apertures, I think its such a disservice to do such a thing to one’s clients on their wedding day. I have seen too many unflattering bridal portraits and overuse of film simulation actions and 90% negative space in the frame and photos composed like instagram shots. I wonder what will the future generation say about this generation of photographers? I think this era in photography will be categorized in the same classification as what happened to fashion in the 80s.

    Its a breath of fresh air to visit your site and a few other amazing photographers who actually care about providing timeless photos to their clients.

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Ujwal

      Thank you for taking the time to comment so comprehensively. I have to agree with you in all respects and I thank you for your kind words about my photography. Gimmicks like TS lenses, pseudo film simulations and instacrap style does not have a place in wedding photography. That’s my opinion too.

      Stay focussed and inspired.

      Kindest regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  4. kishoom

    Hi Damien,
    Glad to see the 35 and 100 L’s made your list. I only use these two lenses with the 5dii and a 580 exii. I find this combination incredibly versatile as it allows me to enjoy the occasion beside taking pictures. Switching between lenses is as simple as a three step process and it takes me no longer than 10 seconds. I carry the inactive lens in a compact shoulder bag containing extra batteries, CF cards and triggers. If I were to upgrade my kit I would probably buy a second strobe!
    Your article emphasizes the importance of working harder to make unique photos. Without the hassle of dragging excessive gear/weight and working with a limited focal lengths I am forced to think outside the box and plan my compositions with better foresight. Having said all this, if I was planning on making money from all this I’d probably just get a 70-200 f/2.8L is ii and a 1Diii and leave the macro lens at home:P

    Reply
    • damien

      Wise words ‘Kishoom’,

      I eventually bought into a lighter kit altogether and the Fuji X-Pro1 is a dream to use with primes.

      Kind regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  5. Darren Williams

    Thanks Damien, I will. It may just be the motivating factor to keep a prime on both cameras actually (35 or 50 on the other), and a fantastic excuse to blow some cash on the 14mm prime.

    Reply
  6. Darren Williams

    In your opinion Damien, how does the 105 VR stand up to the 85 1.4? I soot with an 85 1.4 exclusively on one camera ans swap between primes and zooms on my workhorse camera (both strapped to my side and used throughout the day at weddings). I would personally find it so hard to let go of the 85 just because of the quality of images it produces. I have thought about getting a 105 or a 135 just for that little extra reach. I mean, the 85 1.4 is hard to rival let alone beat. What are your thoughts????

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Darren,

      The 105 is VR and that makes all the difference in my opinion. I have a 100mm macro IS with my Canon kit and it is the best lens I own. I’ve used the Nikon 105. It’s a bit heavier than the Canon but the images are just as spectacular. Give it a try.

      Kind regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  7. Matt

    Hi Damien,
    interesting post. I’m a Nikon FF shooter and started off with the three zooms 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200. Today I usually carry along 35/1.4 and 85/1.4, occasionally adding the 14-24 (which I’m mostly using @ 20 and 24mm – to handle 14mm properly still is quite a challenge, unless working in a totally controlled situation, which I’m rarely in…).
    Years ago I thought the zooms’ flexibility would help to properly frame. Today I’m sure that the opposite is true. I very much improved framing AFTER switching to primes. This learning curve has actually helped me to improve my images taken with zooms today – I still own the 24-70 and 70-200 and – light permitting – use them during wedding ceremonies, where my set-up is either 35/1.4 plus 70-200 or 24-70 plus 70-200 on two FF-bodies.
    However, when I’m out for my own projects, not having a couple’s once-in-a-lifetime-day in my hands, the 24-70 and 70-200 stay at home.

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Matt,

      I can see your strategy works well and I have to agree with you on the ‘primes make for better composition’ statement. I would suggest you get a 105VR macro next :) It can replace your 70-200! You will get amazing detail shots and sublime portraits too. I think the new Nikon 70-200 doesn’t focus nearly close enough for intimate pictures. The old one wasn’t much better but somehow they have ruined the new lens in this regard.

      Happy shooting and stay inspired. Damien.

      Reply
  8. Darren Williams

    Thank you Damien – as a side issue, did Blaize tell you I’d emailed and called about the Lupo … she has the emails of my questions. Looking to buy! Thanks

    Darren

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Darren, Blaise has been off sick and I’ve been shooting on location for the past 2 weeks. I’ll be in the office tomorrow so I’ll catch up then and get back to you. Kindest regards, Damien.

      Reply
  9. Darren Williams

    I’m a Nikon user and have posted here before, and have been following this thread with interest. Over the last month or so I’ve been feeling a little disapointed with Nikon for various reasons and am thinking of hedging my bets or even jumping ship and getting a 5D Mk III. The main reason is that it appears that Canon may be cheaper pound for pound in the long term for as good as or even better image quality and shooting experience.

    Currently, I shoot mainly with primes 85 1.4 and the new 50mm 1.8, with the 14 – 24 2.8 on at least one of myy cameras.

    I would be looking for the following combo at first (partly because of the initial outlay and I will need to hit the ground running at this time of year:

    – 5D MkIII
    – 85 f1.2l
    -50 f1.2l
    -35 ???

    My main worry is that the 85 and the 50 f1.2L are said to be slow focussing, especially in low light.

    I will be shooting children running, people dancing in very low light, people and people walking and moving about in very low light.

    I tend to work very fast at certain times during a wedding, and expect the autofocus to be spot on. I would need the autofocus to be equally as good as or even better than my Nikon 85mm F1.4 on a D700.

    Thanks in advance …

    I wonder if anyone could let me know if I’m right to be worried about these issues?

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Darren,

      I’d stick with Nikon. The 14-24 is sharper than any Canon wide prime or zoom I have used. The 85mm f/1.4 is amazing and better IMO than the Canon f/1.2. The Nikon 50mm f/1.8 focusses as fast as the Canon 50mm f/1.2. I’m not a great fan of the Canon 35mm f/1.4L So for glass I think Nikon is best. Why it’s gone wandering off the target with a 30+Mp camera I have no idea but I would not swap a thing for now. Both Canon and Nikon have their good points and to be fair to both companies any current DSLR or lens is great be it a £300 entry level camera or a £80 50mm lens.

      The swap might just be the biggest mistake you can make right now.

      I hope this helps,

      Damien.

      Reply
  10. David Bailey

    3 months ago I sold my Nikon D80 + 18-200 and upgraded to a Canon 5d Mk 2 plus the following three primes:

    Zeiss 21 mm F2.8
    Canon 50mm F1.8
    Canon 135mm F2

    Some points emerging:
    1 Framing and compositional discipline is improving of necessity.
    2 Lax zooming habits are gone but some missed shots result.
    3 The Zeiss 21mm is just wonderful for landscapes, rural and urban. It’s so sharp at any aperture with great contrast and colour rendering.
    4 The 50mm is astonishing for it’s price. Lunacy not to have one in the bag!
    5 The 135mm is great by nearly every standard. It does as others say require a steady grip.
    it would be fair to say that I have sometimes missed the ease of use of my 18-200 zoom but overall I don’t regret the decision to move to primes.
    As ever the standard of my images is far more constrained by my limitations than it is by my camera and lenses.
    David

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi David, Great choices of kit. I sold my 135 and bought the 100 with IS.

      Enjoy your photography, Damien.

      Reply
  11. Martyn

    Hi Damien,
    Dont want to drag up a old blog here but going back to comment 52 how did you get so many blurred shots using a 135mm f2.0 that it ruined the experience for you?? unless you need to shoot a low ISO in a low light situation or at F2.8+ then you shouldn’t have any problems especially using 5D/5D2 with 1000iso+
    I often shoot in dim to dark churches at 1600iso+ f2 1/125sec using the 135 and 80% are sharp with very low noise.
    Image stabilising is good but it cant stop people blinking!!!

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Martyn,

      I need at least 1/200th second to hand hold a 135mm lens and get it tack sharp. I can hand hold my 100mm IS at 1/25th second and get it tack sharp. 5 stops difference. I prefer to use about 1/60th with calm subjects and there is no whay I can manage now without IS.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  12. Laurence

    Hi Damien,
    Great post and really insightful. Be really nice to hear how you feel a few months down the line?

    As a relative newbie to photography building up my glass collection – would I benefit from going straight into primes and not getting the bad, or what some people mention, lazy habits of zooms? Never knowing what I’m missing with the zooms and reaping the benefits of primes (hopefully). Or is this running before I can swim?

    The only lens I use at the moment is the plastic fantastic 50mm, I will also get the 35mm and I’m wondering about the 100mm/ 135mm with maybe the 1.4x or the 70-200?

    Cheeiro
    Laurence

    Reply
  13. Gary

    Hey Damien, Which 2 lens are you using most often? If you had to pick only 2 to shoot what you shoot. What do you think of the Zeiiss 50mm F2 would you consider that one. Thanks

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Gary,

      My most use lens by far is my 100mm f/2.8 L macro IS and then it is my 50mm f/1.2 L. I wouldn’t choose a non AF lens tighter than 24mm ;)

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  14. owen

    Hi Damien,

    Thanks for a great speedlight day on Tuesday!

    Reading this thread reminded me that you did the above mentioned fixed 50mm, f1.2 vs f1.4, test during the course …what’s the verdict?

    Owen

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Owen,

      It was not conclusive. At f/2.8 both lenses produce quite similar results but the contrast is slightly higher on the f/1.2 optic. The f/1.2 lens is really heavy though and I never shoot at a wider aperture than f/2.8 so I am considering buying the f/1.4 and using it alongside the big one for a month. Then I’ll sell the one I don’t need. I bought the 1.2 on Ebay so I should get what I paid for it or maybe slightly more – smart move ;)

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  15. Denz

    I’ve owned a lot of lenses to test for myself in the real world of wedding photography which is the most challenging environment for lens choice.

    I always value quality optics, so here is what I currently use if it helps anyone following this thread.

    24mm F1.4L MK2 = wide angle shots and environmental portraits.

    35mm = General purpose indoor and out. Close to how you see the real world at F2.

    100mm L IS = Formal portraits and the detail shots (rings, cake).

    70-200 IS MK2 = Outdoor group shots and outdoor candids.

    In addition I would suggest the 85mm F1.2 for when you want (or have) to use natural light only for those reach-out shots. Extreme bokeh and low ambient light performance are the only reasons to own this lens currently (think wedding ceremony and evening reception candids).

    That’s 5 expensive lenses – but we’ve never had it so good. I hope Canon move the 35mm to a MK2 version soon.

    Thanks

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Denz,

      I must agree with you. Of my four lenses the 35mm is my least used. I just can’t get on with the perspective. I used to love the 35mm focal length when I used to shoot film so I’m not sure what my problem is. I might sell it.

      Cheers,

      Damien.

      Reply
  16. Darren Williams

    Thanks Damien,

    I totally agree, the wide zooms are amazing, but heavy compared to the primes. I tend to use an 85 on one camera and a zoom on the other as I hinted at above. Perhaps I will stick to that for now.

    I think the 135 will be my next purchase though.

    Thanks for the info.

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Darren,

      I had the 135 but it really does need image stabilisation. So many blurred shots ruined the experience for me. When the IS updated version comes out I’ll buy one again.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  17. Darren Williams

    This as well as all the other articles I’ve read so far is very informative. Nikon next please!!

    I’ve been toying with the idea of travelling light myself. I have the 85 f1.4, 50 f1.4 and the 35 f2. I use the 85 alot but the 50 is so slow in autofocus so I tend to stick with the 24 – 70 zoom, meaning that for some reason (I’ve not thought through) I tend to forget the 35 and leave it at home (even though I’m quite pleased with the results).

    I’m shooting full frame by the way.

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Darren,

      Thank you for your kind words. I see no reason to swap my excellent Nikon zooms for primes at the moment. Maybe I’ll add the 105mm VR f/2.8 macro at some point but the wide zoom optics are stunning.

      Kind regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  18. Suffolk photographer

    You say that you wouldnt shoot portraits at 1.2 because of the DOF. But surely in some conditions you wouldnt have a choice?

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Suffolk Photographer,

      There is always choice. Choice to use light or choice to use a longer exposure. I’ve been a photographer now for 30 years and I’ve never shot a portrait at an aperture wider than f/1.4 other than to see what the effect would look like. As a portrait photographer I take control of light, adding my own as required. I hope this helps.

      Damien.

      Reply
  19. Emma

    I’m having trouble deciding between the 135L and the 100macroL with IS. I love the outdoors and taking pictures of children and nature. My only concern with going to the 100L is how it will compare to the 135L with portraits and bokeh. After looking at the pictures 100L produces, I’m really leaning toward it because of the macro fun I can have, but I really want to make sure I won’t sacrifice portraits by choosing that one. Will the 100L have that magical look the 135L fans talk about?

    Should I also buy the 85mm 1.8?

    What do you recommend for outstanding wide angle shots?

    If I can only afford one L lens right now and have a 5D full frame camera, what would you choose? I’m also wondering if I should go with a zoom lens instead of primes to have more versatility….

    Thank you for any feedback you can give.
    Choosing lenses is a bit overwhelming! :D

    Reply
  20. Martyn

    I have to say reading these comments makes me wonder if any one realizes that owning the f1.2 L primes is not about how sharp a picture is or how fast the focus is or even how much they cost, it is THE look they give, it is something special that no other lens that canon makes can give,
    I have owned or used the 50mm f1.4 and the 85mm f1.8 and very good lenses they are, if I was not using my kit to make money then sure they would be fine but if you want that creamy dreamy look to a image then I dont think anything compaires to the L primes.
    I also have the 135mm f2.0 and I have never seen a sharper lens to date, but for me it is the smooth look that it gives is what I bought it for, But I do agree you do need a steady hand.
    This inst about being “Rock n Roll” as one comment mentioned, I have IS L zooms from 24mm to 200 mm and they get used but for the times at a wedding when I’m able to use the primes i do because they blow the L zooms away in terms of “look”.
    Its about using all your tools to fit the job, not fit the job to the tool.

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks for your comments Martyn,

      I’m 40,000 frames in on my primes now and I love them. So, so light in the hand and I’m loving the pictures they produce too. Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  21. gary

    Guys, i have used most of the lenses mentioned above, but for me (and the customer) its all about capturing the moment, thats what makes a great photographer….

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Gary,

      I agree although, sometimes the kit you have helps you capture the moment.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  22. Mei Lewis

    As well as my standard zooms of 16-35L mk2, 24-70L and 70-200f2.8ISL mk1 I’ve got:

    Canon 50f1.4
    – happy with it so far but not used it much. The 1.2 was too expensive and doesn’t seem to be any better.

    Canon 15mm fisheye
    – awesome for what it does but have to be careful to not overuse it. The new zoom fisheye looks to me much _worse_ than this model!

    Canon 100mm macro (not the new IS)
    – this lens is amazing, a combination of the focal length, being forced to shoot at it and the superb image quality. It let’s me do stuff I never did before. The mk2 version seems to be even better but I couldn’t justify the cost and it’s features aren’t all that useful to me. IS – I’d usually use tripod or flash. Better IQ: I compared shots from the two and the difference seems minimal. Mostly sharpness is limited by factors other than my 100mm prime eg focus, shake, noise to down-sampling to deliver to clients!

    I’d like to get a wide prime, probably a 24mm or 28mm, to have something small and light I can use for street photography.

    Overall while I like primes I still generally prefer zooms because I want to have control of the perspective in my compositions more than I want to zoom

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Mei,

      Thank you for your lens review and sharing your experiences. It all makes sense to me.

      Kindest regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  23. Diego

    Great article!

    Convinced me for the primes…

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Diego,

      Gulp! I hope you enjoy your new far more active life composing with primes :)

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  24. ari

    Hi Damien. It has been both fun and educating to read your blog! Keep on the great work!

    I too have gone through quite a lot of lenses. My “art, portraiture and landscape” -kit for now is a EF 24-70 2.8L, EF 35 1.4L and a TS-E 90 2.8. Great lenses all of them.

    I have owned both the 1.8 and 1.4 -versions of Canon´s 50mm, but in the end they weren´t for me. I did not like either of them. The Ef 35L is in a totally different league, but the 50 1.2L? Don´t know … but quite probably, if not much better, then at least a bit better rendering lens and smoother look than the 1.4. would be my guess. If that pricewise is enough is for everyone to analyse independently. Very similar to the 85mm 1.8 vs. 1.2L discussion in many ways.

    What interest´s me is WHY did you lose the 24-70L?

    Reasion I´m asking is that I am pondering whether to sell it and buy the Zeiss 21 ZE for the money, or keep things as they are, but on the other hand I do have the 35L and the TS-E 90, so …but, I would have real use for the slight increase in the WIDE department , but on the other hand the 24-70L has, though a monster in size, produced great results …. (arrgh!..)

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Ari,

      Don’t replace the 24-70 with a 21mm. You will hate it. The 21 is a definite wide angle pulling in loads of background and the 24-70 is a fairly neutral perspective lens. I replaced a 16-35mm f/2.8L mk2 with the 21mm Zeiss. That was a good decision.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  25. martin

    @plevyadophy sorry that’s just not right. It’s true that many DSLRs have AF points that only work as cross sensor types at f/2.8 or faster.

    But let’s say an f/2.8 lens is mounted and the camera has finally reached the limit of darkness in which it can focus Switch to an f/1.4 and the camera will focus with a quarter as much light.

    In less extreme circumstances and all other things being equal, a faster lens will focus more quickly and more accurately than a slower one. Of course all things are not always equal and some of Canon’s fast lenses are rubbish when it comes to focus speed.

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Martin for clearing this up.

      Reply
  26. plevyadophy

    @ George (comment No. 27)

    Hi,

    Just wanna pick up on the comments you made.

    You said “A fast lens like a F1.4 will use all the light available at F1.4 to focus even if you have the aperture set to F8.”

    That isn’t quite true.

    An f2.8 lens on a SLR will focus just as fast/efficiently as an f1.4 lens on the advanced cameras. Once an SLR has an f2.8 AF sensor, the AF module is working as efficiently as possible with ANY lens of f2.8 or faster i.e. getting a lens with an aperture faster than what the AF module is rated for doesn’t get you any more focus efficiency/speed.[well, that’s my understanding of how an AF module in a DSLR works]

    Your advice re cropping on a high pixel count camera can be very helpful.

    Regards,

    plevyadophy

    Reply
  27. George

    As damien alluded to in his article, the important point is to microadjust your lenses to get the best from them if your camera supports this.

    The other reason fast primes are better than zooms is becuase they focus better in low light. A fast lens like a F1.4 will use all the light available at F1.4 to focus even if you have the aperture set to F8. So for low light use a prime is more certain shot-to-shot.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that with a camera with high resolution like a 5D2, you can use a prime and crop in post to zoom. You don’t need to be restricted to using a zoom if you are unable to move.

    I own the following lenses.
    16-35 F2.8L Mark2
    24-70 F2.8L
    70-200 F2.8L Mark 2
    35 F1.4L
    85 F1.2L
    100 F2.8L IS Macro

    I aim to purchase the 14mm L F2.8 Mk2 next to replace the 16-35L. The cost makes this lens less attractive but if you want a natural looking very wide shot – this is the lens to get as a Canon user.

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks George for input.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  28. jean Dawkins

    great artical very interesting reading it,s not the first time i have heard about bad over priced repairs and returned with the same fault from the H1.
    my own prime lens is a 35 f2 light cheap fit in the corner of the gadget bag and the very best lens i have ever used is eos 70-200 f2.8 IS fitted to a 7D top class focus pin sharp images . we are always inspired by your work shop selections

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Jean, Damien :)

      Reply
  29. plevyadophy

    Medium format and primes at weddings
    ===============================

    Sorry, but can I digress a wee bit.

    I note your comments on using, for a number years, a Hassy with Phase One back coupled with a number of primes.

    What aroused my curiousity was whether or not you were shooting weddings with that combo? And if so how did that work? Was it like Julie doing the main shooting and you doing the posed and detail shots?

    But, on the other hand, if you were covering the entire wedding with that Hassy gear, what was your methodology? I mean, what was your approach to covering an entire wedding with a pretty slow (in responsivenes terms) camera?

    The reason I ask that I recently attended a wedding as a guest-cum-photog and was using a pretty slow kit (manual focus, and no focus confirmation) but even though I wasn’t the official photog I still wanted to come away with a few nice shots.

    My mental approach was to say to myself “SLOW DOWN, this is no Nikon D3; don’t worry about those shots you miss, just concentrate on those shots you can get; and most importantly, no-one is constantly moving so look for shots where people are momentarily stationary (or if moving, moving whilst standing or seated in one spot)”

    So that then was my approach. Hard work, and stressful but it kinda worked (I need lots more practise though).

    Now I guess, if one decided to shoot all primes for a wedding on a more responsive camera like the Canon 5D series, one would still have a similar problem in that one can’t be as quick because one would either be to close or too far from the subject or in the process of changing a lens.

    That’s just my thinking on the matter, and I would be grateful for your thoughts, words of wisdom, on the subject.

    Thanks in advance.

    Warm regards,

    plevyadophy

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Plevyadophy,

      Yes I shot 3 years of weddings on my Hassy / Phase One kit. Yes it was just 3 primes at a time and I shot the guys, Julie shot the girls. Then we came together to shoot the rest of the day. I really don’t mind what kit I use to shoot with as long as I’m familiar with it.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  30. Andy Baines

    H Damien,
    TBH , its nothing that lots of us and others have bounced between and at one point I shot a couple of weddings soley with a 50mm prime, bloody hard work but all pin sharp BUT I wouldn’t go back to using just primes certainly with weddings , for the versatility its got to be zooms all be it a decent one and to re iterate, sharp is sharp and client sharp and out sharp can be vastly different too.
    I do use my prines in the studio lots more and at gigs but even so, the 2.8 70-200 on the D700 is a tough combi to match.
    Its of coure all personal preferences and there’s no wrong or right answer here , just whatever works best for us as individuals. Its the results that count not how you get them :)

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Andy,

      Well said. It’s the results that count. Use the kit that inspires and enables you to get those results.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  31. Richard Barley

    I used a 24mm and a 50mm lens for about severn years and loved them. I only bought zoom lenses / canon 24-105 and 70-200 f4 when I started photographing weddings as you sometimes have no control over how close you can stand to the subject. I am a convert to zoom lenses from prime lenses. The 100mm macro IS sounds great though and I think I might get one for next year. As you say the L series prime lenses are great but you need to stop down to F2 / F2.8 before they show their quality and value. I use the 70-200 at F4 all the time and am very happy with the quality.

    The 50mm 1.8 is plastic and fragile but I highly recommend it (just buy a spare one)

    Richard Barley

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Richard,

      My primes at f/2.8 are like my zooms at f/5.6 for sharpness and clarity but with that lovely shallow DOF. I use shorter focal lengths now that I’m shooting art portraits. This allows me closer to my subject and gives me more intimate portraits.

      Damien.

      Reply
  32. Jez Sullivan

    Great article. Im upgrading to an EOS 5Dmk 2 in the autumn from my warhorse 40D and although Im keeping my 70-200L. I can’t use my trusty EF-S 17-55 F2.8 IS on a full frame body, so I was thinking about the 50mm 1.4, either a Zeiss or Canon. I tried an 85mm 1.2L and I agree, the bokeh effect does look somewhat artificial and that was a pretty heavy lens too.

    Reply
  33. Steve Ashton

    WE changed from Canon to Nikon when the D3 was released mainly because of the 14-24 and 24-70 Nikkors.

    I loved my Canon fast primes but most of all the 50mm F1.2 and 35mm F1.4

    Nikon had no fast primes worth considering at the time but I have grown to love the 14-24 so much. The new 70-200 is great and as a wedding shooter I do need zooms. The 105 mIcro is my perfect portrait lens for more considered shots.

    But the best lens I have EVER had is the Nikkor 200mm F2.0 simply amazing, The new 85 is on order and the 24mm F1.4 purchased and now sold. So the winner must be the 200mm F2.0 by a easy mile.

    Reply
  34. Heinz Schmidt

    Hi Damien,

    I personally think the 50mm F1.2 and the 85mm F1.2 are like a pair of Bugatti Veyrons… beautiful, great performance, everyone wants one but does the 1.2 warrant the cost?

    I’ve been using the 50mm F1.4 and 85mm F1.8 for a while now and I rarely shoot either of them below F2.8.

    The depth of field is just not adequate at F1.2 and no fashion designer wants to see only 10% of their handmade garment in focus.

    The 50mm F1.4 is tack sharp, fast focussing and great at focussing in low light. That’s all I need.

    I even find that I don’t use the 85mm F1.8 wide open because, once again, I need the depth of field to keep my subject in focus from front to back.

    I’ve even bought a Depth of Field software application for my Blackberry that can calculate field depth when I set up my fashion shots.

    I say save the money, get the F1.4, F1.8 and even the 35mm F2.0 and spnd the thousands of pounds you save on hiring great makeup artists, stylists and models. Money well spent.

    My two pence… done.

    Chers
    Heinz

    Reply
  35. Richie Carter

    P.S.
    I have a 5D Mark I and and 5D Mark II. I usually put the 85mm f/1.2L on the Mark I and the 35mm f/1.4L on the Mark II.

    The 16-35mm f/2.8L is usually in my pocket and comes out when needed!

    Richie

    Reply
  36. Richie Carter

    Damien –

    I first started out with the the 24-70mm f/2.8L and the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS. Then I added the 16-35mm f/2.8L mk11 to my kit. I loved the range that was covered here for weddings.

    Then I needed to do some 50+ head shots for a group of high school kids and knew that a prime could save me some editing time in LR and give consistent sizes. Rented a 85mm f/1.2L mk II and realized the POWER of primes!

    I know own the 85mm f/1.2L and 35mm f/1.4L primes.

    Don’t think the 50mm is necessary with these two primes.

    Richie

    Reply
  37. Tibor

    Hi Damien,

    Here’s my experience with primes and please note that I am now in transition from a crop body (40D) to a full-frame one (5D Mk II).

    I had the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM for about a year and sold it, because I realized my EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM was sharper @50mm and the 50 f/1.4 also had some problems with AF so half my shots were focused differently that intended. The 50 f/1.4 was very very soft wide open and became sharper @ f/2.8 than but not as sharp as the 17-55 @ f/2.8. Also, it showed lots of CA when shooting metal objects with flash (i.e. hair pins). So, the 50mm f/1.4 was a real disappointment for me.

    A totally different story with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, I love this lens. Sharp even wide open and razor sharp @ f/2.2. The only problem this lens exhibits is strong CA in contrast scenes. Also, the hood for this lens is of a snap-on type, so a bit fiddly I would say.

    Owning a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM UWA zoom lens and a Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM standard zoom lens with my 40D crop body for about 3 years I realized I was mostly using the 17-55 at certain focal lengths (mostly 20mm, 28mm and 55mm) and hardly ever used the 10-22, so moving now to a FF body I have decided to go mainly with primes. The reason being I love shooting with the EF 85 f/1.8 @f/2 – f/2.2 so much I would like that also on a wide angle and a standard focal length lens.

    So, about two weeks ago I sold both EF-S zooms (the 10-22 and the 17-55) and bought the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II USM lens. I love this lens on a crop body and hope to love it even more on a FF one. It is sharper wide open that my 17-55 was @24mm @f/2.8. Heavy vignetting up to about f/2, though.

    My plan for the near future: a 5D Mk II body and probably an EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM lens. I’ll keep my EF 70-200 f/4 L IS USM zoom (very light and small, sharp @f/4, great IS) and I’ll probably wait for Mark II version of the EF 35 f/1.4 L USM until next spring, hoping that Canon will add the full rounded aperture blades and the SWC coatings to it (like it did with the Mk II version of a 24mm).

    My lens line-up now: 24mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8 and 70-200 for the 135mm and 200mm focal lengths.

    Will add in the future: 50mm f/1.2 and 35mm f/1.4.

    Best, Tibor

    Reply
  38. martin

    I never really got on with the Canon 50mm f/1.4 there was just something about the way it rendered an image that I didn’t like. I wish I still had my Leica 50mm Summicron R and would use it with an adapter. That was a great lens. When the Canon 50 was stolen I didn’t replace it.

    Your fisheye is getting some good use. I guess I might use it every fourth or fifth location shoot. I don’t like the cliche ‘fisheye look’ but it’s fun to hoist it on a pole over a full dance floor, or for a figure in the landscape portrait if the situation is right. First image on my latest blog post was shot with it. http://bit.ly/chfUJo Client loved it :)

    Martin

    Reply
  39. Andy H

    I don’t own primes and to be honest I won’t. Why? Because unless you have 3-4 camera bodies your forever changing lenses plus i think the prices are a joke for what is a lens that give less flexibility.

    I’ll stick to my zooms for wedding, portrait and events work, more flexible and less lens changing :-)

    Every one seems to be jumping on the prime bandwagon these days I think it’s trend alot of the “rock star” (read very famous) photographers are starting could be that there maybe sponsorship deals from the main manufacturers behind half of it ?(this is in no way aimed at you Damien BTW i find your site and articles interesting and educational :-) )

    Another thing maybe every one here has more sophisticated clients than myself but to be honest if I cannot tell the difference I will not be worrying about my clients, a sharp image is a sharp image from a zoom or whatever else.

    Just my personal thoughts of course .

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Andy,

      Well said, your thoughts are very welcome and refreshingly honest. I have to say, if I was still shooting weddings or events it would be zooms all the way. You are spot on about a sharp shot is a sharp shot too. I think my main advantage with primes is the ability to get sharp shots at f/2.8 rather than having to go to f/4 as I did with my zooms.

      Kind regards, Damien

      Reply
  40. Sean McCormack

    Hi Damien,
    I have a mix of prime and zooms, with the usual suspect zooms 24-70, 70-200, and a Tokina 11-16 f2.6 for when I use crop bodies (occasionally).

    Primes are only okay, but still usable for most things:
    24mm TS-E f3.5 While not optically perfect, I really like this lens..
    50mm 1.4 Can’t justify the jump to f1.2 because this lens is a good performer.
    85mm 1.8, again much as I’d love the L, the weight and slow focus make me reluctant to change.
    105mm Sigma Macro. I just love this lens..

    You’d think I’d be able to go Prime with these, but I love the freedom with the zooms!

    Reply
  41. Steven Brooks

    Great article Damien, thank you. Proud owner of the 50mm 1.2, 85mm 1.2, 100 2.8 macro plus the 135 2 and love the results so far! Only concern is for group shots and not really knowing what the best wide would be for such! Any thoughts?

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Steve,

      I shoot my groups on tight lenses. I love the 100mm for groups :) I have to go way back but the shots are fabulous. For interior groups I suggest nothing wider than 24mm or you will be stretching the people on the edges. I’ll be shooting my last wedding big group inside on my 21mm if it rains in Cambridge on Saturday. But I’ll be really careful to leave the edges clear of people.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  42. Sean

    Hi Damien

    Interesting choice of lenses, personally I prefer the Canon 24mm F1.4 L for a wide angle, and I use the 50 1.4 which is optically excellent and light and compact. I would agree about the 135mm, it needs careful holding and I usually use a monopod with this lens.

    The Canon 16-35 is a poor lens, terrible distortions at the edges on full frame, but sharp in the centre.

    The 100mm f2.8 IS macro looks at excellent option for the longer length prime, I am tempting myself with this lens.

    My favourite Canon primes ;

    15mm Fisheye, very sharp, great perspective for venue shots
    24mm f1.4 L, sharp, lovely image quality
    50mm f1.4 good prime, not sure the 1.2 L is worth the extra
    85 f1.8 again excellent image quality at f.2, f2.8 easy to handle
    135mm f2.0 L lovely lens but tricky to hand hold

    Also 17mm TS/E L, but not for portraits!

    I used to own the 50mm f2.5 macro which was superbly sharp, great if you don’t need a very wide aperture lens.

    Sean

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Sean,

      I thought about 24mm and I opted for 35mm for now. I’ll probably end up with the 50mm f/1.4 instead of the bulky 50mm f/1.2 if the f/1.4 is as good at f/2 as I keep reading about. I had the 15mm f/2.8 fisheye but gave it to a friend as I wasn’t using it. I hate wasting a resource. I like your list.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  43. Leo Bojesen

    I use the 50mm 1.2 quite a lot. I don’t use it wide open. I mostly use it between f2-f2.8. Mine gets great image quality and no vignetting. I am planning to get the 35 for lifestyle use and 100 prime as well due to IS to use for portrait and macro use. All in due time.

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Leo,

      My 50mm f/1.2 is free from vignetting at f/2 and f/2.8 too plus it’s very sharp indeed at those apertures. You will end up with the same lenses as me :)

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  44. Fizmoo

    I aslo own a 5D Mk II and I mainly use prime lenses. The only zoom I own is the 17-40 F4L. Why ?
    I feel that I I take better pictures with primes than with zooms.
    My other lenses are :
    – 50 mm F1.4
    – Lensbaby Muse with several lenses
    – 85 mm F1.8
    – 105 mm F2.8 (Sigma)
    – 135 mm F2 L (my favorite lense for portraits)

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Fizmoo,

      What is obvious here is we all have different needs and wants. I wanted to love the 135 but in the end settled with the 100.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  45. Jon

    The 35mm is a beauty, I’ve never been convinced about at 50 f1.2 the 1.4 is almost the same lens for a lot less money. Same with the 85 1.8 / 1.2. For weddings the 1.8 is so much faster to focus

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Jon,

      I’ll eventually find out what 50mm is right for me. If I wanted an 85mm I’d definitely get an f/1.8 too. A great lens at a fraction of the weight and bulk of the f/1.2 and as you say faster to focus too. But I love my 100mm and with that lens I have no need for an 85mm.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  46. Thorsten

    Great article Damien. Over the past year or so I’ve been shooting more and more with primes myself. I can’t quite put my finger on why though, I’ve just felt myself being drawn more to that way of working. Maybe it’s because using primes means there’s one less thing to think about compared to using a zoom or maybe it’s because of the extra speed inherent in wide aperture lens or maybe I just wanted a change from zooms.

    Whatever the reason, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Must get my hands on one of those new 100mm macro lenses! It sounds (and looks) the business. I still like my 135mm but have often wondered if I should sell it and use the proceeds for the 100mm macro.

    Anyway, I look forward to your future “prime” updates with images! :)

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Thorsten,

      Sell the 135 and get the 100 :)) I did!

      It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why we like primes. Perhaps its like a manual car over an auto? Seems like harder work but more satisfying at the same time.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply

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