Photo Fixie

In the zone with a prime lens

Bill Hatcher took this photo of climber Ben Smith with a 24mm ƒ/1.4 prime lens. It’s fast, sharp and svelte for action photography.

Single-speed mountain bike riders, boulderers, prime lens users. What’s the connection? People trying to get to the essence of their pastime. On a recent rock-climbing outing near my home in Sydney, Australia, I brought along my Nikon D800 with a fast 24mm ƒ/1.4 prime lens and left the zoom at home. You might be asking, why would I give up the versatility of my wide zoom lenses for a fixed-focal-length prime? As it turns out, I haven’t given up my zooms, but on this particular day, my 24mm prime was the perfect lens to complete a light and compact camera kit, allowing for a great day of climbing and photography.

The truth is, I find that using a prime lens brings me back to one of the things I enjoy most about photography: the adventure of looking for that sweet spot for composing a photo. You might compare it to how some cyclists enjoy blasting along trails on a single-speed “fixie” rather than on a geared bike. Like that cyclist on a single-speed, when I’m out shooting with only a prime on the camera, I may work a little harder and I may need to consider the photography trail ahead of me more carefully, but what a fun ride. Maybe that’s why I find it so satisfying after I’m out shooting with a prime.

The first SLR camera I bought came with a 50mm prime lens, but these days SLR camera kits usually come with a zoom and not a prime lens. Most photographers figure they don’t need primes because a lens like the 28-300mm can do the job of a bag full of prime lenses. Even the drawbacks of zoom lenses like the variable aperture, slow aperture speeds, lack of sharpness and the revolving front lens element are only problems on the less expensive zooms and are corrected on pro-level zooms. But pro zooms are expensive and usually much bigger and heavier than the slower-aperture zooms. Arguments in favor of prime lenses are that they’re compact, sharp with fast apertures and often are a less expensive step as you consider upgrading to more expensive fast pro zooms. If you own only one zoom lens, maybe it’s time to consider including one or two primes in your photo kit.

The 50mm ƒ/1.8 prime is an obvious first choice because it’s inexpensive, as well as being a sharp and fast “wide” portrait lens (85mm or 105mm being the standard for portrait focal lengths). It’s true that with the latest digital cameras and their very capable high ISO you don’t really need the fast glass, but another advantage of the ƒ/1.8 aperture is that it produces a shallow depth of field, which effectively blurs out backgrounds when focusing on a foreground subject—important if you intend to shoot portraits. But the clincher to getting this lens is the cost: under $200. To me, that’s an incredible value for the price. Your second choice for a prime lens depends on what you like to shoot. Some primes can do what no zoom glass can; for example, a perspective-control prime lens corrects converging lines, which is great if you shoot architecture, the macro lens gives 1:1 focusing for close-ups, and the fisheye lens gives 180º coverage for those occasions when you want everything in your photo frame.

Among my current collection of primes, my 16mm fisheye and a fast prime like the 50mm and 24mm are almost always in my bag when I leave on shoots. But depending on the situation, I might also bring along a macro to shoot bugs or my 20mm ƒ/2.8 for my underwater housing. And on day outings, like this recent day at the crags, if my “fat” pro zooms are weighing down my camera bag, I even might consider substituting a compact prime for one of my bulky zooms.

My photo here is of climber Ben Smith climbing at Sydney’s Lost And Found Wall. This is my favorite frame from the photos I shot during my recent prime lens day at the crags. I brought along my 24mm because I knew I would be shooting rock climbing and I wanted to shoot with a wide-angle lens. The angle of view offered by the 24mm has long been my favorite—not too wide to distort people, like what often occurs with my wider lenses, but still wide enough to be perfect for shooting a sport like rock climbing. To position myself to shoot this photo, I had to shimmy up into a small cave about five meters off the deck and then wait for Ben to climb into view. Because the trees in the background were so distracting, I opened up my 24mm lens to ƒ/1.4, and that did the trick to blur the trees to buttery softness. Could I have shot this same picture with a zoom? Maybe I could have, but I bet my afternoon of climbing and running around to explore various photo positions with my fixie lens wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

Bill Hatcher travels the world in search of adventure and good stories. A regular contributor to National Geographic and Outside, his images have appeared on the cover of 40 magazines. Visit his website at

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.