I’ve long been an advocate of using fixed focal length (prime) lenses. Extreme telephotos aside, they are smaller, lighter and generally have wider maximum apertures than zooms. As I stroll around my local wood with either a 50mm or 105mm Micro lens I find there are far fewer choices to make whereas with a zoom or with a bag full of equipment (plus tripod) you have an infinite amount, not to mention the sheer weight of all the gear! If I had my way, I would hark back to the ‘good old days’ whereupon a beginner photographer, having acquired their new camera, would receive a fixed 50mm (or 30mm for DX cameras) lens rather than the standard ‘kit’ zoom lens. Primes train your eye to seek out compositions that work with such a lens and you’ll soon see the world through the eye of a 50mm. Then, and only then, through spending several months with this optic should you purchase another – perhaps a 24mm, and repeat the same process, leaving that lens permanently on the camera until you have retrained your eye to work with the wide-angle. Indeed, this is how many of us started, way back when, and I believe it stood us in good stead giving us a thorough understanding of each lens’ characteristics.
I own several zooms which include a 28-105, 70-200 and a 200-400 with the first two used for landscape work (though I occasionally use the 70-200 also for wildlife as it is a f/2.8 lens) and the 200-400 for wildlife. The shorter zooms are extremely versatile and enable me to cover most focal lengths. There are, however, drawbacks. They are heavy and lack hyperfocal distance markings on the lens barrel which enable me, at a glace, to accurately determine depth of field. I would take these (along with a 20mm) whenever I travelled overseas or work some distance away from home. But, with the conclusion of a recent ‘fixed focal length’ project that I had set myself and with me heading out more and more often with just a 50 or 105, I found that my love for primes was firmly reignited.
I was due to set off for the Peak District to hold a workshop and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to cement my relationship with such lenses. In the past, I would take a 20, 28-105, 70-200 plus 1.4x tele-converter and a 105mm Micro. Total weight (including the Nikon D810): 3.6kg. On this trip, I took the 20, 28, 50 and 105. Total weight: 2.46kg. A saving of 1.14kg. All are rather aging manual focus lenses that I have owned since the 90s and which were used on my film cameras. This is where Nikon really score as I can use old lenses on new camera bodies. They are manual focus, tack sharp and built to last. They are beautiful pieces of precision engineering and I’m pleased I hung onto them, not replacing them for their modern AF, VR, low dispersion glass all singing substitutes. A minor drawback with older Nikkor lenses is that they lack CPU so the lens data (focal length and aperture) isn’t recorded which can be useful. The lens used, therefore, needs to be added and then selected within the camera’s menu. But, once it’s added it only takes a few seconds to activate and it’s not terribly important if you don’t.
In the end I hardly used the 20mm, much preferring the subject/foreground/background relationship obtained from the 28. I found myself making conscious decisions before committing to a lens realising that precious time can be lost switching form one to the next. Primes demand a more contemplative approach and there is something inherently tactile and organic about using old lenses such as these. I would manually focus (often referring to the hyperfocal markings) and select the aperture, not through a wheel on the camera body, but by rotating the aperture ring on the lens itself. I had fewer decisions to make as I ‘only’ had a set amount of focal lengths to play with. I couldn’t go in really close on a distant scene, for example, but that didn’t matter since knowing the lenses I had with me I wasn’t seeking such images anyway.
I’m not saying I will, from now on, only use primes. There’s a time and place and each subject requires a different way of working but, when shooting landscapes, for me at least, fixed focal length lenses not only suit my way of working but provide a much lighter alternative to carrying zooms.Leave a Comment