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11-23-2009, 01:43 PM   #1
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careful composition: how limiting are primes?

I had decided not too long ago to keep a couple cheaper zooms (kit and a telephoto zoom) to cover a large range for convenience and to buy a couple primes for careful compositions, I realized they could limit my versatility in composition. Many suggest strapping one prime to a camera and go out and take pictures.

I noticed when using my current zooms, I often use both my feet and the ability to change focal length to get the framing and perspective I want. This seems crucially important when framing objects with different distances from me such as foreground objects framing another scene. Granted with one prime I would be forced to make it work and perhaps explore more, with a zoom I often spend a lot of time exploring the whole focal range provided with several pictures of the same general scene.

I could buy another prime and limit the amount this occurs, but unless I have quite a bag full of primes, there will be many cases I will have to lose resolution by cropping achieve the perspective and framing I want, or do some stitching. And it can be costly and still not allow the versatility (sans laziness) of a zoom.

In the end, perhaps sometimes I spend too much time exploring those things and the lovely lighting I once had is gone, limiting the variety compositions in the long run and having a card full of pictures of the same objects.

11-23-2009, 02:14 PM   #2
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I understand your concerns. I have gone to a primarily three prime outfit (I have other lenses, but they see limited use). I use the DA15, FA43, & DA70. The three are evenly spaced (close enough), so that I can pretty much cover 85-90% of what I shoot. I think that is key with primes - it has to fit your needs specifically, not someone elses. The DA15 may be my favorite prime, but someone else may love shooting in the 40-50mm range. As good as the DA15 may be, it's useless to that particular shooter.

I started off in Pentax with two fast, constant F2.8 zooms, covering 24-200mm. IQ was excellent, but I quickly decided the lightweight limiteds were very attractive to me. After careful scrutiny, I decided which focal lengths were important to me and bought my primes accordingly. As little as I shot at longer focal lengths, I couldn't justify a fast (expensive) zoom. I will add a consumer grade zoom to my bag, but it isn't a priority now. I think using zooms before diving into the world (or money pit) of primes is good practice. It really let's you see what fits your style.

Now that I am using a handful of primes, I feel that I am always ready to go. In my small bag I can carry three or four primes with excellent IQ, a body, and a flash. It is very easy for me to be prepared for whatever shot I may need.
11-23-2009, 02:40 PM   #3
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I don't have any specific needs, but the scene does. I can't control the relationship between objects in my pictures since I do not do studio shots. Even with portraits, the FL I want depends highly on the environment my subject is in, and how far they are from their background, how much of the background I want to be discernable. However, with candid portraits, perhaps a prime would limit the amount of shots I miss from fiddling with the perspective and with portraits the relationship between objects can be separated into completely blown into bokeh oblivion and a nice capture of the subject's environment more easily than other shots.

Although the following probably belongs in the Lens forum, here is where I plan to be going:

For telephoto, I have a 70-300mm consumer zoom and may change that to a 55-300mm. I have a 135/2.8 and 200/3.5 for M42 on the way, so we will see how that goes.

I have a Helios 44-3 on the way and plan to get a Vivitar 28mm, Jupiter-9 85mm to round out the budget M42 set.

Then maybe I will get zooms for K-mount and have a bit of both worlds.
11-23-2009, 02:47 PM   #4
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I think I'm going to keep the kit zoom and the cheap 70-300 zoom I have now, for those times when I need them, but I am leaning towards Takumars for my primes.
I have a 50, and I am planning for a 28 and maybe something in the range of 100-200 teleprime, too. I'm thinking of sticking with m42 to save the time of changing the adapter, and for the quality of the Takumar line. I have a Tamron adaptall 28mm that I love, but I think I'll switch to a Takumar instead.
I like the IQ of the primes, and I am willing to miss a shot now and then as I learn (re-learn) to manual focus quickly and accurately.

Oops... your question!
I think you will miss some shots by only using primes - those times when you really cannot get closer, or change your view enough to get the composition you want. However, I think the trade off is for IQ and ultimately improving your photography by forcing you to re-think and recompose your shots. Just my 2 cents!


Last edited by tdmsu; 11-23-2009 at 02:51 PM. Reason: getting to the point
11-23-2009, 03:51 PM   #5
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Understood.
Wanting to go prime for all possible shots means having most FLs covered.
Very expensive prospect, particularly in the telephoto and ultrawide ranges.
MF telephoto primes, a less expensive option, need very accurate focusing to get the results you want.
You may want to find where you want your ultimate quality most (in terms of FLs) and invest in primes that will cover those situations. But I wouldn't find getting good primes within 10mm of each other all that necessary...
11-23-2009, 04:56 PM   #6
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They aren't limiting at all. The only difference between primes and zooms is the time it takes to switch lenses to get the perspective you want for a scene. I find that zooming in or out to get the composition you want is a terrible idea (at least for me), because it changes the angle of view so much. Even if you use a zoom, it's better to think ahead about the focal length you want, set it, and then walk to where you can get the framing right with that focal length.
11-23-2009, 05:39 PM   #7
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Limiting? Yes, prime lenses can be extremely limiting from a composition standpoint in some situations. Sure, one can always "zoom with your feet", assuming that you are free to stand where you please. The Grand Canyon is one place that comes to mind where this might be a problem. There is at least one case on record where a tourist "gathered themselves to eternity" while zooming with their feet near the canyon rim.

Another place that is not quite so obvious would be the Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon. They are very sensitive to people and tripods being off the established path. So much so that they actually charge a tripod fee to offset the cost of moss replacement from the occasional spiked foot that goes astray. The last time I was there, I spent much of the time lamenting that I don't own a decent wide or moderate zoom. I could have used the 18-55 kit, except that it did not make it into the bag that day. As a result I spent much of the day swapping lenses and still was frustrated by not being able to get the composition that I wanted.

Beyond danger and rules, there is one other aspect of composition where zooms are really handy. Perspective is determined by camera position relative to the subject. If you desire a particular perspective and a particularly subject framing a zoom may be the only practical solution.

Steve

(Shoot mainly primes...the money shot from the day at the Japanese Gardens was done with the FA 35/2...see it here...no zoom needed, no moss disturbed...)
11-23-2009, 09:58 PM   #8
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This is a recurring topic; you might want to check for previous discussions, including one going on right now over in the Pentax SLR forum at dpreview.

My feeling is that while zooms do obviously give you complete freedom to control both perspective (position) and framng independently, it doesn't take *that* many primes for me to not feel limited - that with some an acceptable amount of cropping, I can usually get pretty much exactly the framing I wanted. It helps to know you own habits - I know with my zooms that there are some focal lengths I use a *lot* more than others, so I concentrate my primes there and don't worry so much focal lengths I don't tend to use.

Also, by being forced to use a focal length that might not have been *exactly* what I originally wanted, it encourages me to consider compositions that are *not* what I originally wanted - and as often as not, I end up finding very interesting compositions I wouldn't have thought of otherwise, and I end up choosing not to crop after all.

11-24-2009, 12:48 AM   #9
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Shooting with primes is a discipline

I remember when I first got serious about photography. I had a Rolliflex twin lens reflex with an 80mm fixed lens, which was a normal lens for the 120 format. I spent a couple of years with that camera taking as many photos as I could afford the film and developing for. One focal length was just what I got and that was fine. And, do I wish I'd kept it.

When I finally switched to 35mm and got a 28-70mm zoom it took me months before I didn't first zoom with my feet. I still used the normal 50mm that came with the camera and a 24mm wide angle for most of my work.

Now I find that I use a medium telephoto most, my 100mm macro. Though I'm using if for street photography, not closeups. Other days I use the 12-24mm zoom, though if I were to buy again I'd just get the 15mm pancake. Then I use the Sigma 300mm for bird photography. I use the 50mm prime for available light shots indoors, but seldom outside.

Other times I just don't want to bother and put on the 18-250 zoom. I find that I've used each of the lenses enough that my mind shifts gear and I look at things differently depending on which lens I have on my camera. I really don't change lenses in the field that much. What I have on that day (and I shoot every day) shapes my photography, which keeps things interesting. Obviously, this isn't just left to chance. I usually have an idea of my main subject and requirements. But I usually just use the lens I put on in the morning all day. The world may be wide angle or telephoto. Is that lazy or a discipline?

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11-24-2009, 07:28 AM   #10
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Anyone who thinks non zoom lenses are somehow limiting has Primus envy.
Zooms are bigger, heavier and generally slower through the most used (for me) focal length range.
This is far more limiting.
11-24-2009, 07:34 AM   #11
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speed and being able to put your feet in the right place are the main differences. It takes a while to swap a prime and you don't always have a spot open where you need to be (wall in the way, bush in the way, dropoff in the way, tree in the way, etc.). They do force a more methodical approach to composition though...
11-24-2009, 07:59 AM   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by Wheatfield Quote
Anyone who thinks non zoom lenses are somehow limiting has Primus envy.
Zooms are bigger, heavier and generally slower through the most used (for me) focal length range.
This is far more limiting.
You seem to contradict yourself by saying non-zooms are not somehow limited, then saying size, weight, and speed is more limiting than primes, implying that primes are infact limited for people with different priorities.

I'd agree that those are indeed limits of zooms, but the only one that applies to creativity is speed, which is indeed very limiting in creativity of certain applications. The application I was referring to in the inception of this thread uses smaller apertures to have the objects away from the focus point appear more in focus. I refer to the relative sizes of objects away from the focal plane, and the speed of primes that zooms cannot reach will blast those objects into bokeh oblivion in many cases (but not all, if the scene is truly a vista.

Last edited by Eruditass; 11-24-2009 at 08:06 AM.
11-24-2009, 08:01 AM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by Finn Quote
They aren't limiting at all. The only difference between primes and zooms is the time it takes to switch lenses to get the perspective you want for a scene. I find that zooming in or out to get the composition you want is a terrible idea (at least for me), because it changes the angle of view so much. Even if you use a zoom, it's better to think ahead about the focal length you want, set it, and then walk to where you can get the framing right with that focal length.
QuoteOriginally posted by kenyee Quote
speed and being able to put your feet in the right place are the main differences. It takes a while to swap a prime and you don't always have a spot open where you need to be (wall in the way, bush in the way, dropoff in the way, tree in the way, etc.). They do force a more methodical approach to composition though...
You can't change the perspective and get the same framing with one prime nearly as much as a zoom. You can change the framing and perspective with your feet, but they are linked together. With a zoom, you can de-couple the framing and the perspective (relationship of object sizes and their distances from the camera) for the same framing of an object (size of one object projected onto the sensor)

Another prime will allow you to get closer, but we're talking integers vs real numbers. Multiple primes within 10mm will get you to rational numbers, I suppose that is good enough albeit expensive. I certainly do not mind the time it takes to switch lenses or walk to a certain area, as I mention I explore most of the focal range of the zooms to get different perspectives and framings.

Last edited by Eruditass; 11-24-2009 at 08:07 AM.
11-24-2009, 08:34 AM   #14
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QuoteOriginally posted by Eruditass Quote
You seem to contradict yourself by saying non-zooms are not somehow limited, then saying size, weight, and speed is more limiting than primes, implying that primes are infact limited for people with different priorities.

I'm not seeing a contradiction. For me, size, weight and speed are more important than zoom.
I also find that prime lenses give me overall better image quality than the few zooms I have tried over the years, including the 16-45, 16-50, 50-135, 17-70 and 60-250.
This makes zooms more limiting than primes for my shooting style.
I did break down and buy a 60-250 simply because Pentax seems uninterested in completing their lens line and has no primes between 77mm and 200mm.I've had a 12-24 for a few years for the same reason on the wide end.
It's a compromise I'm not especially happy about having to make, though the lenses seem to work well enough.
I had a 14/2.8 but wanted the extra width of the 12mm FL for interiors. I've since sold the 14 in favour of the 15LTD for size considerations.
The 14, while excellent, is just too big.

What other people do doesn't matter to me. How you do your photography is your business, and I could care less about it. I'm just passing on what works for me.
11-24-2009, 08:37 AM   #15
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I think primes are much more limiting compared to zooms. If u really wanted u can just pop the zoom to a certain focal length and not touch it virtually making it the same as a prime in FL terms. Still i keep my DA40mm on my K-7 just cause i like it. Its nice to be able to visualize what im going to see thru the viewfinder as its the same FoV i see day after day. Not to mention the size and weight of the combo makes it so easy to just carry around all day and take with me everywhere. I do plan on getting a nice 24-70mm f2.8 zoom one day but it really isn't on my priority list.
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