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.
Photographic gear is a fascinating thing, and I understand the interest in its role in your photography and the importance of understanding it. I’m not one of those folks who will tell you that equipment doesn’t matter at all, and I agree that having the right gear for your photography is certainly important. However, it is all too easy to let the gear itself become the thing, and discover that making photographs is no longer your focus. Stop and think about where your photographic interests lis – are you as passionate about photographs, your own and those of others, as you are about cameras and lenses? Do you spend more time thinking about and creating photographs or thinking about and shopping for equipment?

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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11 comments to Photographic Myths and Platitudes – Primes Make You a Better Photographer

  • Kerry GrimNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent advice and brilliantly written. You have a gift for communication, not only through your photographs, but also with the written word. You really should consider a book.

  • While I agree with your basic premise, I think one of the points you bring up about zoom lenses is exactly why a beginning photographer should start with a prime. You mention that zooms introduce more variables. I would say a budding photographer, with a modern camera, with all it’s buttons and settings should eliminate as many variables as possible, and slowly introduce new ones as the current environment becomes comfortable.

    Fewer variables means being able to spend more time thinking about composition and what makes the subject interesting.

    • CM, I understand your point, but it is simple for the zoom-using shooter to eliminate that variable by choosing to shoot at a single focal length among those provided by the zoom, should he or she feel a need to do that. And, frankly, with automatic shooting modes, the modern cameras already allow shooters to eliminate many variables from consideration, certainly far more so than was the case with the manual cameras that I learned on.

      There are fine reasons to own and shoot with primes – which is why I have a number of them among my lenses – but I’m not a better photographer when I put primes on my camera than when I attach zooms. :-)

      Take care,

      Dan

  • Great article. I own both an equal amount of zooms and primes. I grew up mainly with primes and one zoom. Frankly the zoom didn’t get much action, because the quality of the image just wasn’t as good as what I got out of the prime – a empirical conclusion for me at the time. However, I’ve grown accustomed to the “Zoom” — in fact I brought a 18-200mm on my first trip to Europe this year and I would recommend the lens to anyone. I still think that zooms in general are a compromise of quality over convenience; However, a true story about “quality.” When my parents went to Europe in 1988, my dad brought all of the primes I got to play with as a kid — concerned that he needed the quality glass to get those photos. On the last leg of that trip, he lost all of that gear, as he had to “check it in” due to FAA regulations.

    I do feel sad about those who feel it’s mainly the gear that makes their “photography.” Two months ago, I was in Santa Monica, getting some fun shots in with my iPhone 4s. The bumped into this tourist. He looked uncomfortable, tired, and somewhat paranoid. I had a speculation. Hanging from his neck were 2 Canon 5ds. One had a 70-200L IS, the other a 24mm Tilt Shift. I didn’t see this guy shoot one photograph for the 10 mins I was walking behind him. While I with I had a DSLR with me that afternoon, I was glad I wasn’t the other guy.

    I think it’s important to know what equipment is appropriate for the situation. I’m thankful for sites such as photo.net and articles like this one to help us sort that out.

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  • Dan,
    I stumbled across this post today following a link on a dpreview forum. I really appreciate you putting this together and I think it’s a great reminder of what’s important. As a confessed gear-head and aspiring photographer this really hit home

    “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.”

    anyway thanks for maintaining this site, you have some amazing pictures and it’s full of interesting, insightful comments. I appreciate how you talk through the process of getting each shot- keep up the great work!

    Pat

    • Pat:

      Thanks so much for visiting and for your kind words – I appreciate it! I know that none of us is completely immune to the lure of gear, so it is always worth reminding ourselves that this ultimately isn’t about the stuff, but about the photographs.

      Take care,

      Dan

  • DidierNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks Dan for your reflections about this topic of Zoom vs Primes.
    I agree with you on most point. I use mainly primes, sometimes zoom (I completely agree with you about the use of zoom in landscape photography).

    May be the most important criteria for me for using primes is that it is more quickly… in certain situations.
    And I think too that with a prime you MUST move around your subject to find the right angle. With a zoom, may be not so compulsory and there are always the classic temptation of only “zooming”.

    All in all, various styles, various ways of photographing !

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Didier. I agree with your observation that using primes is quicker “in certain situations.” I use them for certain types of street photography and similar candid shooting when things happen so quickly that it can be an advantage to have one less compositional control to think about, namely focal length. In these situations it is sometimes absolutely true that having less control over composition via focal length variation can be an advantage.

      The “must move around” point doesn’t make as much sense for me. I’ve written that I actually often tend to move around more when shooting zooms since the variable of focal length gives me more options to think about in terms of the subject to foreground and background relationships. As you probably know, moving forward or backward with the prime lens does not have anything like the compositional power of changing focal length and changing distance to subject.

      Take care,

      Dan

  • Great article, I feel identified myself with it!

    When I’ve read:

    “…discussion began with a new photographer asking whether the acquisition of certain equipment would make him a better photographer…”

    I cannot avoid to bring another interesting topic to my mind, one I see everyday and I had to experience in my own skin. I mean about the tendency to think that “more expensive gear will make better pictures and it is not possible to make good pictures with cheap lenses/cameras”.

    I always have my view about this. It is true that an expensive lens will most deffinitely give better probabilities of acheving greater sharpness, better contrast, less aberrations, both geometric and chromatic, but the lens does not alter the essence of the photographm that comes from the photographer and not from the gear whatever it might be.

    Since i started in this trade over two decades ago i went from basic gear to top of the class to dirt cheap again, reasons were simple, i got robbed and by the time i could not afford to purchase top level gear again, even now in the country where i live it is beyond hard to get good gear (simply because the prices are so inflated than the job as photographer will never pay-off for the investment).

    But I think that all in all it has given me a great experience and a renewed point of view, now i often find people not believeing me when i tell them that “this picture was shot with a ‘kit lens'” (namely a simple 18-55mm non stsbilized lens) or with a mirror lens (which sometimes are considered to be a worse word thatn a curse!). Still the picture is there, it has impact, it shows a truthfull scene with truthfull colors, yes, it could have more sharpness, granted, but that wont change the essence of the picture.

    I’ve los count of how many times some folk sees me working and suddenly (s)he says “you CAN’T do that without a f/2.8 lens!” and my answer is always the same short and simple one: “Watch me!” :-)

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