You’ve picked up your first DSLR or mirrorless kit and you’ve been experimenting with the kit lens that comes with it. While the kit lens has quite a bit of versatility, there’s only so much that you can do with it. Typically a standard kit lens will get you somewhere between 18-55mm, which is a great place to start.
As you improve your photography skills, you’ll also need to improve your photography equipment. A prime lens has a fixed focal length. Rather than using a lens with a range of focal lengths (for example, 70-200mm), a prime lens is a fixed focal length (for example, 50mm).
Not only will we show you our picks for the five best prime lenses, we’ll show you what to look for when choosing your next prime lens and how to decide which one is right for you.
What to Look for in a Prime Lens
The first thing you should look at when considering a prime lens is the overall focal length. As a general rule, the lower the focal length, the wider the shot you can get. For example, shooting at 24mm can capture a much wider shot than a 200mm focal length. Your subject will determine the right focal length for your needs.
If you’re a wildlife photographer, you’re going to need a longer focal length – 300mm and above is typically ideal for far-away shots. For portraits, look at lenses between 35mm and 85mm. Remember, these are general guidelines – prime lenses can be just as versatile as zoom lenses.
While most professional photographers will only use manual focus mode, it’s always nice to have autofocus as an option just in case. This isn’t a deal breaker in our opinion, but having an autofocus option makes it easier for newer photographers to transition to a prime lens from a kit lens or other zoom lens.
Autofocus can be a good option for general shooting environments, but for tough or complex shots with various depths of fields to focus on, autofocus can just get in the way.
One of the biggest benefits of using a prime lens over a zoom lens is the aperture abilities. Prime lenses can typically let in much more light than their zoom counterparts. You’ll see insane apertures on prime lenses that you can’t get on zoom lenses – apertures in the low f/1s.
These low apertures let in more light and can create a much more dramatic depth of field, which is ideal for portraits, product photography, macros, and street photography. For landscape or architecture shots, you’ll notice a crisp, clear shot that you might not get with a zoom lens. Zoom lenses have to handle multiple focal lengths and can create distortion, giving a prime lens the upper hand in overall quality.
Let’s take a look at our top five choices for prime lenses!
1. Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art (Overall Winner)
Portrait photographers and prime lens fans alike will agree that the Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens is one of the best that money can buy. Not only is the 24mm focal length ideal for a wide range of shoots, but the impressive f/1.4 lets you get photos that just aren’t possible with a kit lens.
The lens was designed for full-frame cameras but can be used with APS-C sensors just fine. The Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art is also available for both Nikon and Canon mounts. With an aperture as low as f/1.4, you can use this lens in low-light shoots with little issue.
You’ll also notice it’s significantly lighter than other similar prime lenses, creating a powerful lens without being overwhelming. The Sigma is also reasonably priced considering what you can do with it, which makes it ideal for both new and seasoned photographers alike.
Macro photography has become extremely popular in the last decade, and with a lens as powerful, affordable, and reliable as the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di MACRO, now is a great time to jump into macro photography if you haven’t done so already.
With an easy to use autofocus to manual focus feature, you’ll never miss out on the perfect shot. This lens was designed to maximize macro details at a farther working distance to allow for more light between the lens and subject and make it easier to get those tough shots.
Available across a wide range of mount types, the Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di MACRO is a great choice for someone looking to break into the prime lens field. The f/2.8 aperture creates a sensational depth of field as well, giving you professional-quality shots on a beginner’s budget.
If you need a high-quality prime lens for far-away wildlife shots, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm F/5.6E PF ED VR is just what you’re looking for. With one of the longest focal lengths on the market, you’ll be able to focus on all the details from a serious distance, allowing you to get those next-to-impossible wildlife shots.
The f/5.6 aperture still allows you to have a good depth of field to create interesting shots without causing distortion. It’s also weather sealed to protect against the elements. One of the most important features on this prime lens is the image stabilization – shooting at a 500mm focal length can create blurry images without the right image stabilization built in.
You won’t be weighed down by this lens like you would with other lenses of this size – the Nikon NIKKOR 500mm weighs just over three pounds.
We wanted to make sure we touched on a wide range of mounts and we couldn’t create a list of the best prime lenses without including the exceptional Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM. This wide-angle lens captures incredible photos with a maximum aperture of f/1.4 – not to mention a dreamy depth of field.
With Direct Drive SSM technology, you’ll notice a quieter, faster lens, making for an even better photography experience. Paired with an 11-blade aperture setup, this lens offers everything that a professional photographer would need at a surprisingly reasonable price.
5. Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM (Budget Winner)
Last, but certainly not least, on our list of best prime lenses is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM. By far the most budget-friendly option here, this lens is a powerhouse when compared to the standard kit lens that comes with a Canon.
This was my first venture into prime lenses and I couldn’t have been happier – the crisp imaging and an ideal f/1.8 maximum aperture makes this lens a great option for landscapes, architecture, and street photography. It’s only available on Canon, but if you do shoot Canon this is a must-have.
Upgrading to Prime Lenses
These are just a few of the many fantastic prime lenses available today. Whether you shoot Nikon or Canon, DSLR or mirrorless, there’s something out there for you. You don’t have to spend a fortune on a high-quality prime lens to truly elevate your photography game!