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Which Prime Lens Do You Really Need To Match Your Style?

Your Zoom Lens Will Give The Correct Answer.

In an effort to improve the sharpness and clarity of my travel photography, I have been considering swapping from Zoom lenses to Prime lenses. A prime lens is a photographic lens whose focal length is fixed. Though not as versatile as a zoom lens, the prime lens is often of superior optical quality, lighter weight, smaller bulk and lower cost. It has fewer moving parts, and better chromatic aberration performance too. Prime lenses usually have a larger maximum aperture (smaller f-number) which means better low-light photography and a shallower depth of field when you need it.

The popular camera manufacturers all provide a range of prime lenses that cover everything from the fisheye to the extreme telephoto. So which ones should I choose? Which lenses will best suit my photographic style and be a sensible purchase; and which lenses would just sit at the bottom of the camera bag gathering dust and wasting money? I want to get the best from my available resources, and only purchase a prime lens that will be really useful: one that really fits in with my personal photographic style. But what exactly is that style? Which focal lengths have I used the most in the past?

Luckily, there's a way to find the answer to this question. In my last Travel Photographer Tutorial, I explained How to Create List of EXIF and IPTC Tag Values from a folder of photographs using a readily-available automated tool. The prime purpose of that Tutorial was to create a list of all the EXIF data for each photograph, that could then be used to populate a database for an online photographer's portfolio, such as the one used for this website. But I also realised that I could utilise the data collected in other ways as well. The list contains the actual lens focal length used to take every photograph, so it is comparatively easy to isolate these values and plot them out on a graph, which is what I've done for this article.

It would have been no more trouble to extract the focal length values for every photo I've ever taken, but I decided that it might be more useful to limit the values to the images which I consider my best: the ones currently on this website. The HDR images have lost their EXIF values, so this leaves a total of 2287 other images to work with. I split the results according to which zoom lens was in use. The first graph shows the range of images taken with the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 12-24mm 1:4 G DX SWM ED IF lens: a total of 774 images.

The second graph shows the range of images taken with the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm 1:3.5-5.6 G DX SWM VR ED IF lens: a total of 1513 images. Note that the focal length values have all been multiplied by 1.6 as the cameras used, the Nikon D300, have a DX sensor. 'EXIFtool' does this job automatically.

What do the results show? Its obvious to see that the majority of my shots favor a wide angle, with the next peak being at the other end of each zoom lens' range. The middle values seem fairly level with no obvious gaps. The Nikkor 18-200mm has an extra peak at the 142-157 point, which I would guess was my typical portrait setting. This could be checked if the values were compared against the format of each image: Landscape or Portrait. The Nikkor 18-200mm has a peak at 27mm that isn't duplicated for the Nikkor 12-24mm lens, and likewise the latter has a peak at 36mm that isn't duplicated on the former lens. I would guess that this is most likely to do with having the wrong lens on at the wrong time and not having the opportunity or wish to stop photographing and change over, thus grabbing a shot with the lens that's available!

What can we learn from this? Its interesting to see just how pronounced are the counts for shots taken at the extreme of range for each lens. I am sure that none of these represent the 'sweet spot' for each lens, and that if a prime lens had been used, the image quality would have been better. Coming back to the original purpose of this exercise, can I now determine which prime lenses I should buy that suit my particular photographic style the best? I think 18mm, 35mm, 150mm, and 300mm would be best. What about you?

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