From time to time, I'm asked about the equipment I use. Nikon and Canon are the two big names that everyone recognizes, and I shot Nikon gear the first eight years I was in business. Last year, however, I transitioned to mirrorless Panasonic and Olympus equipment, and people are less familiar with that gear (or why someone would prefer it over Nikon or Canon).
Similarly, most casual shooters typically buy and use inexpensive zoom lenses but fail to see the point of prime lenses. A "prime" lens is a single focal length lens (say, 28mm or 50mm) while a zoom offers a range of focal lengths. For consumer zooms, 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses are common and cheap. So why would anyone choose a prime over a zoom?
Light Stalking has a post this week that offers a good overview of the benefits of primes. While zoom lenses offer versatility, they're larger and heavier than primes, and high quality zooms are very expensive. By their nature, zooms are also compromise lenses--that is, they may do pretty well within a certain range of their available focal lengths but not so well at others.
Prime lenses, on the other hand, are smaller, lighter, and typically feature outstanding image rendering capabilities. They tend to be less expensive than zooms as well (with some exceptions for specialty or exotic primes). While a zoom can be a "jack of all trades" but not really great at any one of those trades, a prime lens is a "one trick pony" that's very good at its one trick.
Which do I use? It depends. For weddings and event work, I usually carry two camera bodies (Panasonic GH3s) outfitted with fast zooms: the Panasonic Lumix 12-35 and 35-100 f/2.8 lenses. These would be equivalent to Nikon/Canon 24-70 and 70-200 f/2.8 lenses. All of the images I shot for Zach and Betsy's wedding and the Hearts at Home conference, for example, were made with that setup.
In the studio, however, I use primes almost exclusively. Most of my studio work is business portraits (headshots), and I'm especially fond of the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 prime lens for single-subject portraits. When I was using Nikon gear, I used a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 or a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 lens for headshots. From small business portrait sessions to county fair queen sessions to musician sessions to senior portraits, nearly all of the studio portraits are made using the Oly 45mm prime.
When traveling, it may seem natural to reach for a zoom. You'll need the versatility, right? Believe it or not, primes can be the perfect travel companions. On my three trips to Las Vegas last fall, I took two lenses: the Oly 45mm and a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 (equivalent to 90mm and 40mm for Nikon and Canon full-frame cameras). Why? In part, I could pack both lenses and a camera body into a small bag--I couldn't do that with a couple of zooms. The primes are better in low light and, frankly, they're just more fun to shoot at times than zooms. Do I feel limited by having only two focal lengths available? Nope--just the opposite: constraints are a foundational key to creativity.
I brought these same two lenses on a church trip with two of my kids last weekend. We took 60-ish junior high kids and sponsors to Anderson, Indiana, for the CIY Believe conference, and I was the unofficial group photographer. Here are a few of those pictures.
If you have a camera and you don't own a prime yet, consider starting with a 35mm or 50mm. Embrace constraints and "zoom" with your feet. And be sure to check out the Light Stalking piece for more ideas.
One last thought: lenses tend to hold their value (and their usefulness) much longer than camera bodies. Even if you're just a casual shooter, you'll probably replace or upgrade your camera in a few years. Invest in good lenses that you'll be able to continue to use as you replace your camera body.