6 Prime Lenses Every Photographer Should Own


David Taylor
20th September 2013

Canon Prime Lenses Set  B

If you own a system camera you really owe it to yourself to own at least one prime lens. Primes lenses have a fixed focal length and so would seem less useful than a zoom (you have to physically move around to compose a shot rather than merely turning a zoom ring). However, this is more than made up by the fact that typically prime lenses are better optically than zooms and have larger apertures. The latter is particularly useful for low-light photography and for isolating a subject by restricting depth of field. Below are six prime lenses for full-frame cameras you should seriously consider and the reasons why (with the nearest equivalents for APS-C and Micro 4/3s cameras).


Nikon f/1.4 24mm, Canon f/1.4 24mm, Sony 24mm, Sigma 24mm

24mm (16mm APS-C; 12mm M4/3)

Ultra wide-angle lenses are tricky to use, though when used right they create undeniably striking images. Personally, I’m not so keen on lenses wider than 24mm. A 24mm lens is a wide-angle lens, but not so wide that distortion becomes a problem or that the results start to look decidedly unnatural. They’re ideal for landscape and architectural photography.


Nikon f/1.4G 35mm, Canon f/1.4  35mm, Sony 35mm, Sigma 35mm

35mm (24mm APS-C; 17mm M4/3)

The 35mm lens is a great lens if you’re interested in street photography (and was commonly used by photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson in conjunction with a 50mm lens). It’s a small lens that’s unobtrusive and therefore somehow less threatening and intimidating. As it’s bordering on being a wide-angle lens it does mean that you have to get close to your subject. However, this is no bad thing as it means you’ll be forced to engage with your subject rather than observe them coldly from a distance.


Nikon f/1.8 50mm, Canon f/1.4  50mm, Sony 50mm, Sigma 50mm

50mm (35mm APS-C; 25mm M4/3)

The 50mm lens is regarded as the ‘standard’ (or normal) lens. The technical definition of a standard lens is one that has a focal length the same as the diagonal size of the film medium or sensor in the camera to which it is attached. The joy of the standard lens is that creates a natural perspective similar to how we see the world. Think of it as the Goldilocks lens. Not too hot, not too cold.


Nikon f/1.4 85mm, Canon f/1.4  85mm, Sony 85mm, Sigma 85mm

85mm (50mm APS-C; 45mm M4/3)

If you’re interested in portraiture, the 85mm lens is the one to save up for. Because you need to step back from your subject, the perspective when using an 85mm lens is far more flattering to facial features than a wide-angle lens. Restricted depth of field can also be used to good effect to blur out backgrounds by focusing on the important areas of your subject’s face (typically the eyes).


Nikon 105mm, Canon 100mm, Sony 100mm, Sigma 150mm

100mm (70mm APS-C; 60mm M4/3)

Macro lenses are often available in this focal length. The longer the focal length of a macro lens, the greater the working distance this allows. The working distance of a macro lens is the distance between the camera and the subject when the subject is in focus. The further back you are from your subject, the less likely you are to disturb the subject. 100mm macro lenses are a good compromise between shorter focal length macro lens that are lighter in weight but have poor working distances and longer focal length macros that have exactly the opposite problem.


Nikon  200mm, Canon  200mm,

200mm (135mm APS-C; 100mm M4/3)

A 200mm lens is in semi-telephoto territory. The main advantage of a 200mm prime lens over a zoom with a similar focal length is aperture. The faster aperture of the prime will make the camera’s AF system more efficient (the more light there is, the better AF systems perform). There are telephoto zooms available that do have large apertures but these tend to be big, heavy brutes that are a pain to carry around all day.


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I think all this depends on each individual and how they see and interpret a scene.
For me I use a 20mm f1.8,24-70 f2.8,90mm f2.8 Macro,180mm f2.8,300mm f2.8 and two Teleconverters which covers most things I want to do.
For me personally I really love the focal length of 70 and 90mm for Portraiture, if I had more money I would definitely get an 85mm f1.4
I love learning from others experiences, always learning.
I have tried to keep my equipment to a minimum yet try and cover most things.
Thank you for your time.
Terence Howland.

Terence Howland on 25th October 2014

Many thanks for the comments, and sorry for any confusion. I love my Sigma 50mm, sadly it is the older one – maybe one day I will get the new one, which I wrote about on here last week. I also like using my Nikkor 70-300mm for street and travel portraits as it is great for picking out details. The VR works really well!

Geoff Harris on 22nd July 2014

Oh, I forgot to mention one thing.

For the 200mm lens, do buy the expensive f/2 kind. The 200m/2 lens, although bulky, heavy, clumsy and very expensive, is my staple work lens. It is a very flattening lens, and the perfect portrait lens, due to its compressing characteristics due to the distance to the subject, and especially due to its very shallow depth of field. A 70-200/2.8 zoom lens doesn’t even come close. This is the lens I always regret not bringing (due to its size, weight etc). whenever I decide not to. I just wish it came in smaller physical sizes, but I realise that would probably be against the laws of physics.

Robert on 19th July 2014

    Robert again some great advice. I love my 70-200mm zoom, but completely agree that the 200mm f/2 prime lens is hard to beat on image quality and for building those biceps 😉

    Duncan Heather (MyPhotoSchool Admin) on 22nd July 2014

I bought my first SLR back in 1982 (a Canon AT-1) and have been using prime lenses only since then, with one faint attempt at making good use of a decent Canon tele zoom (it just wasn’t up to the standards I expected, as is almost no zoom lens). I nowadays use Nikon for the smaller (e.g. 35mm) format and a digital Hasselblad when I need the best possible quality. Although the Hasselblad cameras (especially the digital back) is quite expensive, the lenses are not much more expensive than the quality lenses from Nikon, Canon, Sony etc.

Now, the classic trio of prime lenses on a budget is 24, 50 and 100mm, or 35, 50 and 85mm if you’re more into street photography and half-length portraits than an all-rounders.

On a slightly bigger budget, the classic combination is 24, 35, 50, 85, 135 and 200mm.

I personally also like a very short wide angle such as 14 or 17mm to supplement a 24mm, but it requires a lot more from the photographer. A tripod and a level is very useful.

I also tuck a 105mm macro (mainly for being macro, but also because it is a nice focal length) in between the 85mm and the 135mm in the line up I mentioned above.

One thing to keep in mind is that you can generally have quite wide spreads between the shorter focal lengths, since you don’t have to move very far to cover anything in between, say, a 24mm and a 50mm.

However on the longer side, the difference between a 100mm and a 200mm may mean many, many steps to take, and there might simply not be that much space to move around on.

Therefore, for the generalist photographer, it is usually sufficient to have only a two or three choices on the shorter side, while it is quite useful to keep the focal lengths on the longer side closer to each other.

Due to that, I often bring the following combo when I don’t want to bring everything, yet be sufficiently covered:

24, 50, 85, 135, 200mm

… which by the way is another classic combo. And if I need a macro, I also bring the 105mm lens.

In these digital days, because camera bodies get upgraded so frequently and the high pixel density of, say, a Nikon D800 requires a lot from the lens, I tend to want to have the best lenses I can possibly afford. If I’d be on a budget, I’d buy just a few very good lenses to keep for a long time and treat the camera body itself as something transient that I will replace quite frequently.

A great photographer I knew shot all of his pictures for commercial work and exhibitions with a Hasselblad SWC, which was a camera with a great, non-replaceable wide-angle lens with a 90 degree of field (basically corresponding to a 24mm lens).

Get one or a few great lenses and learn how to use them really well. It’s also easier on your back.

** Disclaimer: For those who have read this far, I wasn’t entirely truthful above. I actually do have a zoom lens now, which I bought quite recently. My family got quite bothered with me changing lenses while on family trips, so for those occasions I’ve caved in and bought a Nikon 24-120mm/4 zoom lens. While it isn’t nearly as good as the prime lenses, it’s quite good and more than sufficient for the family kind of pictures that I bought it for.

Robert on 19th July 2014

    Super feedback Robert. Especially the advice regarding the higher pixel count cameras. You need top quality glass, to get the best out of your top quality camera.

    We at MyPhotoSchool really appreciate you taking the time to share your advice and experience.

    Duncan Heather (MyPhotoSchool Admin) on 22nd July 2014

I love this. Lots of websites say they like a lens for aperture or sharpness, but I love how you also include the information for what it can be used for. I am totally pinning this!

Emma on 01st May 2014

    Thank you Emma Its so nice to get positive feedback from readers. Please let us know if you would like us to blog about anything specific

    Duncan Heather (MyPhotoSchool Admin) on 10th June 2014

There is no current Sigma 24mm, I believe the f1.8 was discontinued. The Nikon 35mm f1.8 is a DX lens and gives a 52mm equivalent on FX. The lenses mentioned under the 85mm image are all 50mm. The pictured Sigma is the 150mm, while the text says 105mm.

Martin francis on 18th December 2013

    Martin we really appreciate your feedback. Not sure what happened with this post but obviously had a very off day. We believe the sigma lens is still available and is still for sale on Amazon and on the sigma site. No excuses for the other blunders and can only apologise. We go-ahead and correct were we can and resubmit

    Duncan Heather (MyPhotoSchool Admin) on 10th June 2014

Please feel free to ask any questions

Duncan Heather (MyPhotoSchool Admin) on 20th September 2013