Today's Guest Blogger: David H. Wells

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I would like to thank Rick for giving me this opportunity to reach out to new audiences. I met Rick at the California Photo Festival, which is an awesome learning experience. We hope to see you there in October.

When photographers of a certain age, like me, started out, we only used prime lenses, which are lenses with a fixed focal length.  Most of us started out with a normal lens, which has 50mm focal length.  A normal lens results in images with a field of view that generally looks "natural" to a human observer, as compared with wide angle or telephoto lenses which have an expanded or contracted field of view. 

While almost all photographers understand the designation of wide-angle vs. telephoto, most younger photographers only know those settings in the context of a zoom lens, the kind that typically comes with the vast majority of digital cameras (regardless of whether they change lenses or not.) While I have been happily using zoom lenses for many years, I have long wanted to harness the power of prime lenses.

Opening image: Wine tasting in Portico de Romagna, Italy.

What are the powers of prime lenses?  Because they are fixed focal length, they usually are a bit sharper than comparable zooms set at the same focal length, especially at the maximum aperture opening. They almost always have a larger maximum aperture, which enables you to both photograph in lower light and have less depth of field, where one point of the image is in focus and the rest of the image is out of focus.  I love having that kind of control over my depth of field since that mimics the way we see.  If you think about it, when was the last time you saw something, with your own eyes, where everything was in focus? We see only one thing in focus when we are looking. That single point of focus is doubly prominent when we try to remember something we have seen.


Above: Revelers at twilight at a ‘volcano,’ a flame caused by gas venting from the ground, in Portico de Romagna, Italy.

Whether I was shooting video in low light, time lapse animations (where I take hundreds of images in a row and then playing them back rapidly to look like video) or shooting conventional stills, I noted a few things over and over as I was working on the project.

1)   The vast majority of work I was doing was made at the maximum aperture in order to control the depth of field. This was true even when I was working in bright sun.

2)   Because prime lenses do not zoom (duh) I had to move in or out physically to get the framing and composition I wanted. After a very short time I was used to that and so I did not “miss” my zooms.

3)   I was able to photograph much later into the evening and do much more work indoors without pushing the ISO up so high that I would get the inevitable noise issues that all cameras have when you go too far up the ISO scale.


Above:  (for both) Here are still frames from video clips in that movie. In each pair there is one frame from the start and one frame from the end of the video clip highlighting the change in focus as I moved through from one focus point to another. Made in Portico de Romagna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy.

So how can the average photographer harness the power of prime lenses? The first step would be to buy a normal lens for your DSLR.  The most basic 50mm lenses, usually with f/2 or f/1.8 maximum aperture, are relatively inexpensive (and often available as real bargains as used gear.) With cameras that have the so called “crop factor” or “conversion factor” of 1.5 or 1.6. that kind of lens will typically be about an 80mm plus or minus.  To me, an 80mm lens with a large maximum aperture is a great portrait lens


Above: Close-up of a sunflower, made in Portico de Romagna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy.

So, are prime lenses perfect? Hardly.  You have no zoom capability so you have to move around and you have to carry more lenses. For me that is less of a problem because the Micro Four Thirds mount lenses are so small. Still, nothing in photography is perfect and all gear choices are a compromise.

Despite all that, I was very happy to be using prime or fixed focal length lenses for this project and I look forward to harvesting the power of prime lenses in future projects.

Please stop by my web site. I'd love to see you there.  


David H. Wells is a freelance documentary photographer and photo-educator, based in Providence, Rhode Island. He specializes in intercultural communications and the use of light and shadow to enhance visual narratives. He has received two Fulbright fellowships, a grant from Nikon/N.P.P.A. and a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His work has been in over fifty exhibitions and he has taught workshops at the International Center for Photography in NYC and at the Maine Photographic Workshops. In 2011 he was featured in Photo District News as one of “The Best Workshop Instructors.” As an Olympus Visionary, Wells has been contracted by the camera company to produce images and provide feedback on new product lines.

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Thank you, David.

Readers of my blog know that I am big-time zoom lens users. Well, I do use prime lenses from time to time. Actually, I took my favorite portrait with my Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. I took one of my favorite butterfly images with the same lens. So, I agree with David: prime lenses rock!

Explore the light,