Why Fixed Lenses Take Better Pictures

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Ruin, 1996

Ruin, San Diego, 28 July 1996. enlarge. Shot with a fixed 65mm f/8 Super-Angulon lens. details.

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Introduction         top

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Just to keep things straight, lenses don't take pictures. Cameras don't take pictures either — people do. It just makes for a cleaner title.

This said, after shooting fixed lenses instead of zooms for a while, it dawned on me that fixed-focal-length (prime) lenses lead me to see more clearly, and thus create better pictures more easily than if I had brought zooms. They weigh a lot less, too, making them more fun to carry all day.



Good pictures happen when you see something worth shooting, then refine it into a strong and simple composition.

Simply feeling that there is a picture to be made, and just snapping away from wherever we're standing, is the best way to take bad pictures. When you take a picture without thinking first, you'll look at the picture later and ask "What was I thinking?," because you weren't.

FARTing teaches us to think and refine what we're seeing in order to make a good picture.

With a fixed lens, or a few fixed lenses, you already know the camera's field-of-view as you wander around. With just one fixed lens or or two, you're already seeing what makes good compositions before you even stop to take a picture. You know what fits in your field-of-view, and you're in compositional seeing mode as you walk about.

With a zoom, you're not thinking as you walk around. With a zoom, you aren't thinking about how to arrange elements inside a rectangle until after you've already stopped for something. Maybe that something will make a good picture, maybe not. You're not even thinking; you're just wandering.

After using a fixed lens for a while, you become intimately familiar with its field of view without having to look through the camera. Since you already know what fits as you walk around, so you can start seeing your compositions in your head as you move about. You can see from different angles and different heights just by moving around, without needing your camera.

With the fixed-size of fixed lenses' fields-of-view, great pictures just start popping into your head as you wander about, because the sizes of their compositional rectangles become intuitive. You don't have to sight through the camera until the visualization of the picture is almost complete.



Zooms are usually thought of as more fun, but that was back when they were a lot smaller and lighter than they are today.

Today, zooms have grown completely out of control. Every f/2.8 zoom now weighs more than a set of a couple of fixed lenses.

I've never seen anyone enjoy hauling two or three f/2.8 zooms around all day. By the end of the day, the cameras, and usually the photographers, have packed it in back at the hotel. If it's not fun, why do it?

With small, fixed lenses, you're light and mobile. You're having a good time running around all day, and it's no problem taking it all with you as you go to dinner, or in and out running errands. In fact, since they are so light, I find it more of a bother to take off a small bag like the Think Tank Speed Demon than to keep it on as I go about my day.

If you want to have a good time shooting with a zoom, try a sane zoom like the Nikon 28-70 f/3.5-4.5, not today's gargantuan 24-70mm f/2.8. It's one thing to have a nice, meaty lens that feels good when a salesman hands it to you in a store, and another thing entirely when you have to haul it around all day taking pictures on your own.

Worse, as people have grown to think that zooms are the only kind of lenses, people who shoot these big zooms usually bring several of them! Reasonable people are carrying not one zoom, but often three zooms at the same time.

Filters also become more manageable. f/2.8 zooms usually take 77mm filters (or now 82mm filters for Canon's 16-35mm f/2.8 L II), while it's easy to get a set of fast, fixed lenses that all take the same 39mm (Leica), 52mm (Nikon) or 58mm (Canon) filters.



With zooms, it's easy to take thoughtless pictures, since you just turn the ring until something fits from wherever you're standing.

With fixed lenses, we have to move around. Having to move around gets us mobile and looking for the best point-of-view, not simply the best angle-of-view from where we're already standing.

We have to move around to find the best angle; the best angle is rarely the point from which we just happen to see something interesting the first time.

Anything that gets us moving around and seeing things from different angles leads to better pictures.

Oddly, once you get good at this, fixed lenses are even faster to shoot. Since you've already got the image framed in your mind before you draw your camera to your eye, you're ready to shoot that instant. You don't have to stop and zoom your lens to where you want it after it inevitably creeped. With a fixed lens, you're already at the focal length you need instead of having to zoom back and forth.


Are three fixed lenses enough?

Actually, three fixed lenses are more than enough. As you learn to see, even one fixed lens is plenty, and more lenses are just distractions you have to carry around with you.

I'm serious: I used to think like most people, and worry that I'd miss all kinds of pictures by not carrying everything from 14mm through 400mm every time I left the house. Today, I'll travel for a week and bring nothing more than a 28mm, 50mm and 100mm, and as the week goes on, wish I'd left the 100mm at home.

As we learn to make more pictures by taking fewer lenses, we see and think about making pictures intuitively with what we have, instead of wasting time worrying about changing lenses each time. Instead of distracting our limited powers of observation, attention and concentration worrying "what if," like "should I try my 14mm lens," we instead just see the brilliant picture right in front of our face that can be made with the ordinary 28mm lens that's already on our camera.

Carrying one wide, one fast normal, and one fixed tele is more than enough for anything. Instead of buying longer and shorter lenses, a smaller choice of lenses lets us spend our mental efforts on seeing better pictures, instead of wondering what lens to take out of our bag. It's much easier to take a step or two to frame a better image than it is to change a lens and miss the shot.




Zooms have come a long way since their invention in France in the 1950s and since they first became popular in the late 1970s, but fixed lenses are still much faster than zooms. The fastest professional zooms from Canon and Nikon are only f/2.8, while fixed lenses are usually several stops faster. A slow fixed lens, like an f/2, lets in twice as much light as an f/2.8 zoom, letting us shoot at half the ISO at the same shutter speed in low light — and it's easy to get fixed f/1.8 and f/1.4 lenses from 20mm through 85mm that are even faster.

With digital, people are settling for even slower f/4 pro zooms. I prefer good, slow zooms like Nikon's 16-35mm VR and Canon's 16-35mm IS over the f/2.8 beasts, but these are then three stops (eight times) less sensitive to light than an f/1.4 lens. This means you have to use eight times the ISO to do the same thing in low light! IS and VR help for still subjects, but not for moving targets. For people pictures, you need lens speed, not VR or IS.

I love my Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 II IS, but again it's at least two stops (four times) slower than my 100mm f/2 USM, 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8.


Sharper - Sometimes

Today's very best wide and ultrawide zooms are often sharper in the corners wide-open than fixed ultrawide lenses, but no zoom beats the cheapest 50mm fixed lenses for sharpness.

You can get superb fixed 50mm f/1.8 lenses from Nikon or from Canon for about $125 each. Either of these lenses offers superior sharpness, less distortion and far more speed than any $2,400 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom.


Less Distortion - Sometimes

Zooms always have some distortion, which changes with focal length.

Fixed normal lenses usually have little to no distortion. Fixed ultrawides usually have less distortion than ultrawide zooms at their widest settings, and fixed telephotos usually have little to no distortion while most tele zooms usually have plenty of distortion at both ends of their ranges.


Suggestions         top

For Nikon FX, try a set of the 20mm f/1.8G, 35mm f/1.8G, 50mm f/1.8G and 85mm f/1.8G. Each is exquisitely sharp, compact and fast. Feel free to use the 35/1.4G, 50/1.4G and 85/1.4G, but the pictures are about the same even though they cost and weigh far more.

For Nikon DX, I shoot all day with nothing but the 35mm f/1.8, and never miss not having any other lenses. In fact, I love not having to carry all the other lenses with me!

For manual-focus Nikon, you have a zillion choices. For instance, I love a set of the 20/4, 35/1.4, 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/2, all of which take 52mm filters and are tiny.

For Canon full-frame digital or EOS 35mm, try a set of the 20/2.8, 35mm f/2 IS, 50/1.8 STM and 85/1.8.

On LEICA, you also have a load of choices. Try the 28mm f/2.8 ASPH, 50mm f/2 SUMMICRON-M and the 90mm f/4 MACRO-ELMAR-M (new) or 90mm f/2.8 TELE-ELMARIT-M (used), all of which take 39mm filters.


Summary         top

Zooms are easy and fun. That's why they've outsold fixed lenses ever since the 1980s.

Zooms also lead us into the easy trap of making thoughtless snapshots, instead of paying attention and creating deliberately good pictures. Zooms make us weak because they excuse us from having to think as we walk around, or to have to walk around at all.

With fixed lenses, you learn what fits in your picture without having to look through the camera. You can start composing deliberately as you're walking around.

Fixed lenses get us moving around, and let us see better because we already know what will fit in our frame.

The technical supremacy and faster speed of fixed lenses are merely side benefits. The real benefit of fixed lenses is that they make us see better, which leads to taking better pictures.

Good pictures are rarely accidents. Good pictures come from deliberate effort.


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22 May 2017, July 2013, May 2010