Photographic Myths and Platitudes – Primes Make You a Better Photographer
Posted on 21 August 2012
(This is another in my series of occasional posts based on my replies to questions about photography that come up from time to time. This question was under discussion in an online photography forum, where the discussion began with a new photographer asking whether the acquisition of certain equipment would make him a better photographer. Those with experience in photography know the answer to this question, but it comes up, explicitly or implicitly, all the time, so I think it is worth another look here. The following text is a slightly edited and expanded version of my original answer. This is also part of my “Photographic Myths and Platitudes” series of posts. )
For the moment I’ll leave the full-frame question aside * – not that there isn’t a lot to say about it in the context of your desire to become a better photographer – and just respond to the following:
“My goal here is to become a better photographer. I feel zooms make me lazy, and that primes would make me think more about my photography.”
Sorry to say, but that is nonsense, plain and simple.
This notion that somehow primes are more “serious” than zooms comes up from time to time, and certain folks who post about photography (though not so often people who actually do a ton of photography) encourage this odd and unfounded line of thinking. I’ve speculated about where it comes from at times, and some of the following come to mind:
- There is a certain mindset among some folks who desire to be viewed as artists that holds that being “different” is the most important characteristic of artists. (It isn’t, by the way.) And by doing something different, like using only primes, they may feel that they have established their different-ness from a world in which most others use zooms most often.
- There is another notion that modern is not as good as “classic,” and therefore sticking to older equipment types is better. While there can be a risk of being too infatuated with new stuff just because it is new (perhaps the opposite form of gear obsession from the extreme of automatically dismissing the new) it just doesn’t make sense to automatically assume that, for example, because Henri Cartier-Bresson shot with primes that you should, too. (HCB, by the way, did not choose the gear he used because it was “classic” – he chose the newly developed and quite modern small 35mm film cameras for a variety of reasons relating to his specific needs.)
- There is also an odd notion that assigns an almost moral imperative to doing things the hard way, and that then presumes that those who do things in a more efficient or practical way must not be as serious as artists. Therefore, if shooting with zooms is “too easy,” shooting with primes must be better. This is often paired with the derisive advice to “zoom with your feet” or a claim that “zooms will make [you] lazy.” (Artists typically have no interest in making their work harder; they are generally far more concerned with making it better, and will use any tools or methods that accomplish the latter goal.)
- Finally, there is the unfortunate notion, not unique to photography, that being “better” is largely the result of having the best or the “right” equipment – e.g., if I use this sort of camera or this sort of lens I will be more of an artist than if I use that camera/lens. The seed of truth in this – photography does require equipment – is too often built up into a false notion that photography is largely or even primarily about what gear you use.
The “zooms will make you lazy” business completely baffles me. Yes, folks doing point and shoot photography often may use a zoom that way, just zooming to get the shoot of their kids or the waterfall that most fills the frame, without bothering to move from their current position. But that fact that casual amateurs can use a zoom lens on their point and shoot cameras that way does not mean that the use of a zoom always means that this is the way one shoots.
To the contrary, in most situations a photographer carefully working out a sophisticated composition will have more, not fewer, decisions to make when using a zoom. I happen to shoot both, and I actually own more primes than zooms. There are situations in which prime is the best choice for realizing the photograph I’m working on and there are situations in which the zoom is the best choice for the same reasons. One of the reasons that I may choose to shoot a prime – for example, when doing some types of street photography – is because I will be shooting more quickly and with less time to carefully consider all of the possibilities, not because “zooming with my feet” is more ethical or otherwise better or because it “makes me a better photographer.” (For the record, I’m the same photographer when I shoot primes that I am when I shoot zooms.)
If you were to watch me shooting with a prime or a zoom, you would often see me thinking and considering quite a bit before making an exposure – even in some cases when the shot needs to be made with some degree of speed before the opportunity disappears. However, you would almost always (admittedly, there are exceptions) see me thinking and considering more carefully and for a longer period when shooting with a zoom. The zoom provides one important additional variable to work with when composing, namely focal length. Contrary to the simplistic notions of some, the zoom does not merely let me “shoot from one spot without thinking.” Rather, it gives me a range of choices over the compositional relationships among subject, foreground, and background elements that would otherwise be fixed if I chose to use a prime. Select a longer focal length and I may include certain elements between my position and that of the subject, narrow the angle of view to restrict and better control the background behind the subject, more thoroughly blur that background, flatten the perspective of the subject, and so on. Or I might select a shorter focal length and move forward (“zoom with my lens and my feet!”) so the primary subject fills the frame the same way, but eliminate some of the previous foreground elements (that are now behind me), enlarge the area of background included in the frame, deepen the perspective effect, allow more elements to be in focus, and much more.
Basically the notion that shooting with a prime makes for better composition is nonsense.
So, where did this “primes only” idea come from?
It probably came from several sources. First, the availability of affordable and high quality zooms is a relatively recent thing in photography, measured in the range of a few decades. I started long enough ago that my first cameras were not 35mm film cameras, but rangefinder cameras using 120 or 220 film and then twin-lens reflex cameras. By definition, these cameras (virtually always) had only a single focal length – not because this made them “better,” but because there was no other option for most photographers.
When I got my first 35mm film SLR (decades ago, as a teenager) it came with a single 50mm “normal” prime, which was typical at the time. The advice was “shoot that 50mm prime a lot before you go out and buy more lenses.” By some strange set of circumstances, that advice – which actually meant “don’t go out and buy a bunch of lenses before you get some experience under your belt” – morphed or was perverted by some into, essentially, “you must start with a prime and learn composition before you think about zooms.” The only problem is that this was never the point of that advice – it had nothing whatsoever to do with the relative value of primes and zooms.
Today we have a circumstance that we did not have back then. In the same way that 50mm (or thereabouts) “starter” primes were widely available and built with decent quality “back in the day,” today we have fine, inexpensive “kit zooms” and similar. These work very well, provide valuable flexibility, are more fun to use (and what is wrong with fun in a new camera?), and can work at 50mm or 35mm or whatever if you want to try restricting yourself to a single focal length. Better yet, they allow us to learn the critical effects of focal length variation on composition.
And at the high end, the circumstances have also changed. “Back in the day,” the first zooms represented some serious compromises in image quality and functionality. But today, the best zooms produce outstanding image quality and much greater flexibility and control. (There can be downsides, too, but they are mostly practical and related to things like price, bulk, and maximum aperture size – and not the ability to produce excellent photographs.)
The best ways to become a better photographer have almost nothing at all to do with your equipment choices, though eventually as you become better and recognize your own needs more clearly you will begin to make more intelligent choices about gear that meets your needs. Things that can make a difference in the quality of your work early on (and even later on) may include some of the following:
- Look at and read about a lot of great photography and read about the people who made this work. Make sure to look at a wide range of photography, including work that you are immediately drawn to and also quite a bit that is different from what you think you want to shoot.
- Especially, visit museums and galleries to the greatest extent possible and look at beautiful photographic prints. Marvel at them, think about what makes them great, and try to understand even those that don’t immediately make sense to you.
- When you look at photographs, look at them deeply. Think about why and how they work, and what decisions the photographer might have made when creating them. It is a fine exercise to consider how you might have handled the subject differently.
- Make a lot of photographs – it is actually not necessarily a bad thing at all to become obsessive in some ways about photographing. Certainly shoot the things you are most passionate about, but also see what you can do with things that might not appeal so much.
- Embrace your bad work and your mistakes and learn from them. Do not fear making poor photographs even as you aspire to make good ones. Almost any photographer will tell you that he or she has made far more bad photographs than good. It is all part of the process.
- Avoid – like the plague! – the ever-tempting distraction of letting your interest in photography be corrupted into an obsession with gear rather than an obsession with photographs.
- Find a mentor or mentors if possible, people who will see your passion and be wiling to share with you, yet understand that you are not going to be them – this could be a variety of different sorts of people: a teacher, a parent, another photographer, etc.
Gear is not unimportant in photography, but cameras and lenses are merely tools – they are not photography and they only have value to the extent that they let you produce photographs. Today’s gear is, by and large, excellent – whether you use a good small-sensor rangefinder, an APS-C cropped sensor body, or something else. One of the fortunate things about this current time in photography is that gear choices, in many ways, become less critical and less difficult. And that leads me to all that I’ll say for now about the other question*, the full-frame versus cropped sensor question: There are types of photography in which either one could be the better choice, and there is no connection in a general or universal way between a choice to use crop or FF and how good you will be as a photographer. So, no.
* The person posing the original question also asked about the importance of switching to a full frame camera.
© Copyright 2012 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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