Lessons Learned from 3 Fast Prime Lenses: 35mm, 50mm, 85mm f/1.4

How these primes have made me a better photographer

By mhsp1948 in Columns on Aug 19, 2020

I love photography; it is a wonderful hobby and lots of fun. I like shooting landscapes, cityscapes, street photography, portraits, walkarounds, travel photography and close-ups on flowers. On occasion I shoot sports and wildlife with my 200mm, 300mm primes and my 150-450mm zoom on my Pentax KP, but this article is about the three fast prime lenses that made a difference in my photography. They have made me a better photographer causing me to use even better composition skills when shooting with my zoom lenses. I will tell you which is my favorite prime focal length towards the end of this article.

Three fast prime lenses are as follows: the Samyang 35mm f/1.4, the HD Pentax-D FA* 50mm f/1.4 and the Rokinon/Samyang 85mm f/1.4 and these meet the needs I have in the above-mentioned areas of photography.  When using a Pentax K-1 or K-1 Mark II in manual mode and manually focusing (focus assist) with a prime lens tends to slow me down, and that’s a good thing! It causes me to think about, as well as evaluate, what I want to photograph and from where I want to take the photo. It makes me take the time to compose a good shot. It allows me to be and feel creative, and it  causes me to think about the scene. It keeps me from being bored or lazy as sometimes can happen with a point and shoot or zoom lenses. It makes me move instead of shooting a series of photos from one spot all with the same angle. That is what a prime lens can do for the photographer. It adds elements of composition that, without moving around, I might never have realized. Prime lenses cause the photographer to begin to compose the scene and take fantastic shots. Prime lenses tend to be very sharp from corner to corner, and they have excellent bokeh and clarity and can be very fast lenses. Sometimes f/2.8 on a premium zoom lens is not fast enough and I would like f/1.4,  and my prime lenses deliver.   This gives me a lot of latitude in how, when, and what I can photograph.

Let’s begin with the Samyang 35mm, which is very good for landscape, cityscape, street photography, certain events, environmental portraits, travel photography, weddings and general walkarounds. It is a very versatile focal length. I love this focal length when taking most of my landscape shots. On full frame, the 35mm lens is considered a wide-angle lens, although it sits at the very edge of that definition. A 35mm prime lens generally has a fairly large aperture. This will allow you the ability to get some nice depth of field, while simultaneously getting a relatively wide shot. When you use a 35mm lens, you almost become a part of the image you are trying to capture.  It seems to involve you more in your surroundings, because it is  slightly wider than the normal angle of view. This means that there are more opportunities for capturing part of the background along with your subject and telling a story, or should I say, adding a story to your photos. The 35mm, in my opinion, is a perfect focal length, not too wide and not too long when used on full-frame cameras.

Another great thing about the 35mm is that it is a perfect focal length for shooting a portrait from across a table or from inside a car as you take a photo of one of the other passengers. With a wider lens, your subject’s face will suffer from perspective distortion, an illusion of depth and distance that can exaggerate facial features. If you were using a narrower lens you would have to get out of your seat at the table and step back to get the shot.  The 35mm prime is truly a versatile lens.

The D FA* 50mm lens is good for landscape, full-body portraits, walkarounds, up close stills, weddings, and so many other things. It produces a little narrower view of what we see with our eyes than the 35mm. Like the 35mm, the 50mm does not have the distortion of wider lenses when taking landscapes. That is why I like to use my 35mm if I am up close to my landscape shot and the 50mm if the shot is further away. When the scene is far off, I like to use the 85mm. That said, all three lenses can be used up close or far off. All are good for landscape, depending on the distance involved and what you are trying to present in your photo. The 50mm excels at full body portraits or street photography. When used for the latter, you will find the area in the frame is right most of the time. You can also take stunning close up photos of flowers and small objects, and the details are very sharp.  It is hard to not take a good photo with a 50mm prime lens because it frames things so naturally with sharp details. 

The 85mm is an interesting focal length for a prime lens. It will create beautiful portraits with the ability to flatten one’s features, which is generally flattering and really separates the background. It is also a lens that allows you to capture candid photos at events, because you don’t have to be close to your subject. I have found it to be useful if you are on the sidelines, like at a parade. This is when the distance between you and a subject is not close, like taking photos at an outdoor party and getting good candid shots with a fast lens. Then there are those night cityscape shots, landscapes, and astro scenes where a fast 85mm can be a blessing.  The 85mm prime has a quality all its own as it really brings out the subject of the image.

My favorite of the three focal lengths is a very close tossup between the 35mm and the 50mm. At times, I find myself favoring one over the other. For me, it’s all about simplicity and knowing what to expect from the camera because you know what the lens will do. This is why I like primes. When I moved to digital photography, I started out with kit lenses, and I have lots of various types of premium zoom lenses, but I have fallen in love with prime lenses again. Yes, years ago, when I was shooting film cameras all I used were prime lenses. It is good to be back in the process and habit of using prime lenses. I still use zoom lenses, but more prime than zoom lenses today.  That said, one of my favorite and fun zoom lenses is the Pentax 28-105mm, especially if I am having to move fast and don’t have a lot of time on my hands to stop and take my photos. Prime lenses have made me appreciate my zoom lenses even more. It has caused me to use them differently. I control them; they don't determine where I  stand. I choose where I need to be, then I use the zoom lens. I am so glad and excited that I decided to try prime lenses again like I did when shooting film cameras.

After about a week of shooting with just your camera and one 35mm, 50mm, or 85mm lens, you will start to be able to visualize in your head what your image will look like even before you take the shot. When I go out and spot a scene I want to photograph, I instantly envision what the image will look like, thinking about how I should approach the shot and even visualizing what it will look like at f/1.4, f/2.8, f/8 or f/11. I end up knowing how I want it framed and what the final image will basically look like. Yes, all this comes to mind before I take the shot. You get so used to how the photo needs to be framed as you are moving into position while it is all being processed in your head. The feeling I had shooting with prime lenses all those years ago using film cameras has come back.

The 35mm has become my favorite focal length, followed by the 50mm, with the 85mm very close behind. The 35mm is my “go to” lens. With a 35mm lens, it all feels as though the camera and I are one. Now there are some scenes, because of my location, that I can’t get back far enough to encompass the entire scene I would like to capture. I would need a wider lens but this does not happen very often. Also, with the 35mm prime I am still able to create photos with shallow depth of field.

I struggled with my zoom lenses, always going back and forth to different focal lengths and not paying attention to framing my subject in the context of the scene. The 35mm and the 50mm prime have caused me to realize the importance of framing the image and having good composition. It is complex to calculate an angle of view for the human eye, but it’s generally recognized that the human central angle of view is that part of our view where we have the best vision somewhere between 40 and 60 degrees. The 50mm prime lens falls right within that range, and the 35mm sits close to the edge. I would have to say that the 50mm is closely aligned with my vision, but that is also why I like the 35mm, because it gives me a little different look. It actually lets me capture something special and unique while telling a story with the context of the setting. It does not have so wide an angle that certain aspects of the landscape scene are too small or out of context because they are hard to see and not so tight that it leaves out part of the story. 

Yes, these are three fast and very useful primes, and my favorite is the 35mm. But every once in awhile, my brain says 50mm or 85mm, and I listen to my thoughts because using these three fast lenses gives me a better perspective. I have a 35mm, 50mm, and an 85mm, each sitting on one of my Pentax full-frame cameras. I don’t go anywhere without them, but when hiking I take one camera and one lens, and most of the time it will be a 35mm prime sitting on that camera.  If there is the possibility of bad weather I will use my D FA* 50mm F1.4 (All Weather) instead.

Prime lenses are not for everyone, those in a hurry, those who only like to point and shoot, or those who use zoom lenses to avoid moving around. I decided to start using prime lenses to see if they would help me be a better photographer.  I wanted to improve my photography, I wanted to see if my outlook would change. Do I need to improve more? Yes! Do I need to continue to challenge myself to improve my photography? Yes! I believe prime lenses are giving me a much better perspective, causing me to create a story with my photos that are in essence composed better. 

For those who want to get better at photography, just try a fast prime lens using manual mode, and watch it change you. Yes, a prime lens using manual mode will do that for you. Prime lenses really cause you to get personal with your photography. They have the added benefit of lowering stress as you forget all of the rest of the things going on in your life. They cause you to focus on your photography. Try it! If you love photography and want to get better, you will end up liking those wonderful fast primes. You will be moved by the encouragement that comes from using prime lenses as they turn you into a better photographer.

You can view more of my work on my website: Mike Price Photography.

Sample Photos: 35mm f/1.4

Click on any image to enlarge.

Sample Photos: 50mm f/1.4

Sample Photos: 85mm f/1.4




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