Nikon and Canon Digital SLR Lenses: Best Large-Aperture Primes for DSLR Cameras

Members of the Wedding Photojournalist Association use a combination of zooms and prime lenses. Nebraska-based Eric Francis often avoids zooms entirely; using only 20mm, 50mm and 135mm primes.

Prime Lenses are Brighter

Prime lenses can be four to eight times brighter than zooms.

Consumer zooms typically start at f3.5 at the wide-angle end, which is practically an f4. Zooming-in will quickly decrease the aperture to f5.6. Even professional quality zooms are only f2.8 at best. In contrast, prime lenses can be as bright as f1.4

  • two stops (four times) brighter than f2.8
  • three stops (eight times) brighter than f4
  • four stops (sixteen times) brighter than f5.6

How to Use Prime Lenses

Primes can be used

  • For available-light photography: taking photographs without flash. This results in natural-looking photographs. Flash doesn’t work well beyond tens of yards or meters, so available-light can be the only choice for some situations.
  • To isolate the subject. Primes are used for portraits of people. The large aperture results in shallow depth of field. This causes only the subject to be in focus, with the background pleasantly blurred. Attention is naturally drawn to the subject, without distractions from details in the background.
  • To amplify bounce flash. Flash units are pointed at the ceiling in order to provide soft, even lighting. High ceilings (more than two floors high) can stretch the capabilities of powerful flashes. Primes allow the use of bounce flash even with high ceilings (churches, ballrooms).

Wide angle Primes (28mm to 35 mm equivalent)

20mm to 24mm on 1.5x or 1.6x cropped digital SLRs.

Camera and lens manufacturers have been ignoring this segment of the market, preferring to concentrate on zooms. Sigma is the exception, with f1.8 20mm, 24mm and 28mm primes.

In contrast, the fastest Nikon and Canon 20mm is f2.8, though Canon does have an f1.4 24mm. Nikon’s fastest autofocus 24mm is f2.8 (the 24mm f2 is manual focus only).

Wide angle primes need to be used with caution. With their wide field of view, some subjects can be disturbingly just slightly out of focus – neither in focus nor blurred out into insignificance. They are more difficult to use properly and should be avoided by beginners.

Normal Primes (50mm equivalent)

28mm to 35mm on 1.5x or 1.6x cropped digital SLRs.

Commonly said to approximate human vision, providing a natural perspective view. Some photographers disagree, preferring wide angles and portrait lenses and skipping this intermediate range entirely.

Sigma also supports this range best, with an affordable 30mm f1.4 autofocus designed for cropped digital SLRs.

Nikon has a 35mm f2 autofocus but the expensive 28mm f1.4 is no longer in production, and the 28mm f2 and 35mm f1.4 are manual focus lenses.

Canon does have a 28mm f1.8 and a 35mm f2.

Short Portrait (75mm to 85mm equivalent)

50mm on 1.5x or 1.6x cropped digital SLRs.

50mm (f1.8 and f1.4) SLR lenses have long been considered some of the best lenses available: cheap and producing sharp images.

On cropped digital SLRs, they become 75mm or 85mm equivalent portrait lenses, perfect for head-and-shoulders portraits.They make good first lenses for beginners. With a narrower field of view, their shallow depth of field is easier to use compared to wide angles.