Return of the Prime Lens?

Monday, February 02, 2009 ·

Is the popularity of the all-conquering zoom lens on the wane? Are photographers starting to place quality before convenience when it comes to deciding which bit of glass to pop on the front of their digital SLR?

Zooms, for all their points both good and bad, have had things pretty much to themselves over the last couple of decades. For most people, most of the time, their sheer flexibility outweighs any perceived weaknesses, real or imagined. For the type of photography practised by most amateur snappers, the average zoom (note: average, not best!) provides enough image quality to compete with supposedly sharper primes up to enlargements of around 10x8 inches.

Beyond that size, the benefits of a good prime will shows themselves in sharper edge definition and crisper contrast. That’s not to say that all primes are good and all zooms inferior. Nikon’s 14-24mm, for example, is almost certainly the best wide angle zoom ever made and is a match for any current prime lens of equivalent focal length. Better than all but a few, in fact. Canon’s L zooms have also earned the range a fine reputation albeit a notch or two down from the Nikkor.

But digital photography, the internet in general and photography forums in particular have appeared to encourage a faddishness that was previously absent from photography–or at least no quite so prevalent. Now, a few recognised on-line experts can talk up a lens or technique to such an extent that everyone wants to buy it or try it. And with the average digital photographers’ attention span coming and going with the tides and the latest release from their chosen manufacturer, a sizeable movement can quickly build up. This effect has helped to create a strong niche market for a whole raft of hitherto unfashionable items such as rangefinder cameras from the 1970s, the Konica Hexar AF, and pancake lenses.

Now it seems to be working its magic on prime lenses. An in-depth look at Google search statistics over the last four years throws up two interesting developments: searches for zooms are declining and those for primes are increasing. This appears to be happening across the board. Do a search for “Canon prime”, “Nikon prime”, “Pentax prime” and they all reveal the same thing. A gradual but steady increase in searches. Substitute zoom for the word “prime” above and you get the opposite–a slow drop.

Credit should be given here to Pentax for bucking the zoom trend in 1999/2000 by introducing a range of “Limited” lenses, high quality primes hand-assembled for consistent results on 35mm cameras. They were followed in 2005-07 by another three-lens Limited prime range for cropped sensor cameras. These built up a strong following amongst “Pentaxians” and began attracting envious glances from owners of rival marques.

That’s not the only factor behind it, however. The recent release of full frame digital cameras like the D3 and D700 from Nikon, the Sony Alpha 900 and Canon’s Mk II replacement for their original 5D is understood to have caused a spike in interest in prime lenses. These would not previously have been considered for the smaller sensor cameras because of the consequent reduction in effective focal length but they’re back in favour now. Not only are they more useable on the full frame models, but the cost of these large sensor cameras often leaves less well-healed owners who’ve struggled to raise the cash for the body searching around for some cheaper glass and older primes­–even manual focus models–suddenly fit the bill.

Plenty of keen photographers have long used primes in preference to zoom lenses not just for their higher quality but because they tend to be faster, smaller and lighter as well. Perhaps word about these advantages has been leaking out from the forums to good effect…

It’s far too early, of course, to sound the death knell for zooms and legions of photographers who have rightly decided that these lenses meet their needs very nicely will continue to ensure a healthy market exists. Zooms outsell primes by a considerable margin and will always do so. But whilst it may not quite represent a sea change, the wind is certainly ruffling the puddle when it comes to the popularity battle between prime and zoom lenses.