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Primed for Action

February 1, 2013

The normal purchase of an entry or mid-level DSLR is generally accompanied by kit lenses. This can be either an 18-55 mm and/or a 55-200mm zoom. These lenses are remarkable and cheap for what they are. Generally image stabilised, and reasonably sharp. However, my contention is that the zoom lens contributes substantially to the generally poor standard of most new DSLR photographer‘s pictures.
Usually they stand in one spot, zoom in and snap. The problem with inexpensive kit lenses is that they feature variable apertures. This means, as you zoom, the aperture decreases and the exposure increases. This leaves the unaware photographer with a dilemma. For example, if prior to zooming, the shutter speed was borderline for hand holding, once zoomed, the photographer faces a reduction in shutter speed to a half or quarter of what was originally marginal anyway. This leads to blurred pictures. The other issue is that the small maximum aperture of ƒ3.5 – ƒ4.5 that reduces to ƒ6.3, doesn’t allow the softly blurred background, so attractive in portraits.

“What about image stabilisation,” I heard you ask? The promises made by manufacturers of three and four stop image stabilisers are optimistic at best. In my experience, less than half the shots taken that rely on long zoom, low speeds and small apertures, are satisfactorily sharp and contain no blur. An answer is increase the ISO, or grab the tripod.

I have another recommendation. Buy yourself a large aperture, prime (single focal length) lens. Most manufacturers offer bargain priced 28mm, 35mm, 50mm or 85mm ƒ1.8 primes. These range in price from $180 – $500. They are exceptionally sharp, can be used in low light and I believe, will improve your photography immeasurably.

As professor Julius Sumner Miller so aptly uttered “Why is this so?”
Firstly, because there is no zoom, you have to move in or out to fill the frame. This makes you study your subject, and leads to better angles and composition. Next, the large aperture enables you to shoot hand-held, in low light, at higher speeds. Result, no blur.

The larger apertures, allow you to blur the background and isolate your subject. This is one of the marks of a good photographer; a sharp subject coming crisply out of a smooth background. This is particularly attractive in portraits.

BlossomPrime lenses are generally sharper than zooms, because they don’t have complex the mechanisms that are required to change focal lengths, or the extra glass that zooms need.

Macro lenses are a particularly versatile type of prime lens. Macros allow close focusing of small subjects. This opens up the magical world of closeups; flowers, food, insects, products, portraits and nature. They are generally sharper than normal primes, with slightly smaller apertures, but can be used for general photography as well.

Recently, I had the privilege of purchasing and testing a Samyang 14mm wide-angle lens, on behalf of a client. He uses a full frame Canon and wanted an ultra wide-angle lens for occasional use. From test reports, the Samyang seemed to fit the brief. It was less than a quarter of the price of an equivalent Canon lens, but had no auto-focus, or auto aperture.
I thought that this may have presented problems, but instead, it fitted the camera perfectly and after a few moments testing, I developed a simple workflow and got spectacular results. This lens is not for everyone, but it is an exceptionally good prime lens and would buy one myself.

Bottom line. If you want to improve your photography, buy a prime. 50mm ƒ1.8 is a great choice. On a smaller frame DSLR, it becomes a 75mm – 85mm lens which is a great focal length for available light portraiture. Your family will thank you for the flattering memories.

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