Which is better, a prime lens or a zoom lens? Forget about edge sharpness, chromatic aberration, distortion and all the other silly things that don’t really matter. Leave that to the gear nerds. What I’m asking is, if you had to use only one lens, what would it be, a prime or a zoom?
Well, a zoom has to be better, right? More options. More choice. A prime lens, on the other hand, is limiting. Nobody can deny that a zoom’s range of focal lengths allows you to take images that you might not be able to take with a prime. But here’s the surprising truth: limiting yourself can make you a better photographer.
It seems counterintuitive, I know, but having fewer options rather than more often leads to a boost in creativity. This is what’s known as a “creative constraint.” It turns out there’s nothing like a problem, or an obstacle, to inspire creativity.
In this case, the obstacle is the limitation of a prime lens. So why do that to yourself? Well, if you’ve ever taken a photography course or lesson or workshop, you’ll know why. Because imposing limitations is the classic way of teaching and nurturing creativity. The typical method is giving students an assignment. It could be anything. “This week’s assignment is wildflowers.” Or ‘classic cars’ or ‘moving water’ or ‘parking lots,’ it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is a point of departure, a framework to work within–a constraint–that allows you to focus your creativity into a defined area.
The biggest form of freedom is not having a choice. –Alex Majoli
The YouTube presenter Kai Man Wong has continued in this tradition with his amusing, but also revealing and instructional segment called Cheap Camera Challenge. He pits celebrity photographers against cameras that are, well, not quite up to pro standards. As in the kind of camera that you might get for free when you buy a family-size jar of peanut butter–and still be disappointed. A number of pro photographers popular on the internet have accepted the challenge, including Chase Jarvis, Zach Arias, David Hobby and Phillip Bloom (links point to Cheap Camera Challenge videos). I recently came across this episode, which I hadn’t seen before. It features Lara Jade, an accomplished fashion photographer. The video is a bit long, but it’s worth seeing what she comes up with, and what she had to face to get there.
Okay, that’s taking it to the extreme, but you get the point. Limitations are not always what they seem. They don’t always close doors. Sometimes they open them. This is just one reason I usually use prime lenses–there are lots of other things to recommend them–but it’s a good reason. And aside from jumpstarting your creativity, they also relieve you from making a choice of focal length, which is a good thing. Too many choices make it difficult to choose anything at all. There’s no hedging over this focal length or that one. It goes against what many people think, but limiting your options is liberating and inspiring. So think outside the box by thinking inside it. Grab a prime lens, leave all the rest of them at home, and get out there and be creative. You might just surprise yourself.