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by Bart Arondson

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I own a Sony NEX-5R, with two prime lenses: 19mm F2.8 Sigma, and 35mm F1.8 Sony. How do I best compose photos with prime lenses like these?

I can think of a few:

  • Walk towards or away from the subject.

  • Walk around the subject and try a shot from a different angle.

  • Try crouching or holding the camera above your head.

What are some other tips on how to compose a great photo with prime lenses?

Would it be a good idea to carry only one of the two prime lenses the next time I go on vacation, or will it be too limiting or an otherwise inappropriate step for a relative beginner?

If I carry both primes, is there a rough guideline for when to change lenses? I've been told, and it sounds obvious in retrospect, that if I try to use my prime lenses as a zoom, it will be inconvenient to swap lenses all the time, like for every few shots. How, then, do I decide when to swap lenses?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The key to using prime lenses effectively is to use them enough that their field of view becomes instinctive to you, so that you can stand somewhere and know what the resulting image will look like, without even looking at the viewfinder. Then, rather than watching your camera, you watch the world, and when you see a photograph, you take it.

With a zoom lens, there's a temptation to point your camera at your subject and then compose your photo. Of course with a prime lens you still will use the viewfinder for exact framing (along with shifting your position as needed), but it lends itself to a technique where you visualize the desired result first, which can help make you a better photographer.

The answer to when to switch lenses comes naturally from this approach. You switch when you know you want a different perspective. Generally, I choose a lens and try to stay in its "mindset", and switch when I feel that doesn't match the scene, or when I see a different creative possibility called to mind by my knowledge of the other lenses in my bag. And then I stay with that lens until the same occurs.

So the next part is: how do you get to the point where this comes naturally? The answer is basically measured in hours — there's no substitute for the familiarity which comes from use. For this reason, I think focusing on just one lens for a while is a very worthwhile exercise (for a beginner or for anyone). Don't worry about being too limited: working within constraints is a fundamental tool for making good art. And don't worry about missing shots: we're surrounded by missed photographs all the time, and it's impossible to take even a fraction of them no matter what equipment you have. Every real-world camera and lens restricts the infinite possibilities in some way. Focusing on what the gear you have with you can do actually frees you up to take real photographs from that vast infinity.

The two specific focal lengths you have correspond to very classic fields of view in photography: a standard wide angle and a "normal". This isn't necessarily universal, but I've noticed that many photographers tend to feel at home with one of these two and find the other a bit awkward. They're both very versatile focal lengths suitable for many different types of photography. I tend more towards the normal and switch out for a much wider ultrawide when I want that perspective or a much narrower portrait telephoto for details. Even though the two lenses you have don't really overlap, you might find them to be awfully close in the way you might use them.

So, I'll repeat again the usefulness of spending a good, long quality time so you get to know each one, and then you can decide if you can relate to what I'm saying here. If you do, you'll probably make one of these lenses your main squeeze — and you'll probably also know what perspective you feel like you're missing and what lens to look for next as a secondary. Or maybe you'll find that both of the lenses you have do suit you well in different situations — and you'll know what those are.

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2  
I love your line "when you see a photograph, you take it." This is what I've heard before too. The photographs are out there, it is a question of seeing them, and what you do with your camera is to record them ("take" them). –  Esa Paulasto Jan 4 at 20:41
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As an example of switching lenses: Yesterday my kids were out sledding and I brought my camera. I started with my normal prime, getting some shots of everyone playing in the snow and going down the hill. After a bit, I felt I had enough of that, so I switched to a telephoto to get the excitement and joy on faces as the kids went over bumps. Last, I switched to a wide angle for a couple of nice overview pictures of the whole hill and all of the families out in the snow. And then, with that lens on the camera and in my mind, I walked to the top of the hill and took a photo looking over the city. –  mattdm Jan 5 at 19:15
    
Wow, that sounds beautiful, @mattdm, like a photo essay. Mind sharing the photos? Feel absolutely free to refuse, since they may be of a personal nature. –  Kartick Vaddadi Jan 6 at 10:51
    
Regarding your comment about many photographers feeling at home with one of the two focal lengths we're discussing and not with the other, I realized that that holds for me, too -- I'm comfortable with the wide-angle, and wondered why I wasted $450 on the normal lens. Or maybe I will learn to use this lens as my skills improve and I understand what it does and when it's appropriate. Thanks again for your insightful answer. –  Kartick Vaddadi Feb 28 at 17:02

First of all, I agree with everything that mattdm says, and have already up-voted his answer. Great stuff. I can only aspire to his clarity and insight.

Aside from all of the technical yadda-yadda, the greatest strength of prime lenses is consistency. When photos are shown together – portfolios, slideshows, travelogues – working with fewer and distinct focal lengths provides consistent perspective and structure that lets everything hang together just that little bit easier.

Composing with a prime isn't really all that different from composing with a zoom except that the prime lens will require you to be more mindful of your backgrounds and the space that your subject takes up in the frame. (Zoom lenses benefit from this awareness as well, of course, but having the flexible focal length can be used to avoid problems that would be better solved.) But this will start to come naturally as you work with the lenses and can see what differences small changes in your position can make.

I typically use one or two prime lenses. My approach is usually to use one lens until I exhaust what I see with it, and then change to the other, rather than switching on a per-photo basis. But it's also universally true that the way to see a great shot for a particular lens is to switch to another one. That's actually part of the advantage of carrying just one single prime lens, in that it focuses the mind, but I do find that a bit too restrictive to do for longer outings.

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How do I compose photos with prime lenses?

Ultimately you compose photos with prime lenses the same way you compose any photo. You apply the same principles and techniques to composition regardless of whether you are using a prime lens or a zoom lens. Unless you are using a specialized technique know as zoom blur, a zoom lens only has a single focal length at the time you take a photograph with it. The point most photographers are trying to make who advise someone learning the art to use prime lenses is that using a prime lens, whether it be a very wide angle lens with a 180° Field of View (FoV) or a long telephoto lens with a 2° FoV, forces you to use what is at your disposal and move around to 'work the shot'. By doing so you learn how that particular focal length relates to subject size/shooting distance, separation of subject and background/foreground, and how perspective can change the appearance of your subject.

The most important rule to follow when composing any photo:

Follow the light. This is especially true when you are shooting only with the existing ambient light. Your question covered all three axes of movement very well, but didn't say a thing about the light illuminating the subject. Where is it coming from? What qualities does it demonstrate? You can have the best angle from the best distance at the best height in the world, but if the light isn't right for that shot at that time, it isn't going to work. Learn what angles of light give the look you like in your photos. What shooting position allows the light to best bring out the qualities you want in the subject you are photographing? Let the light lead you to the right spot from which to take the photo.

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It doesn't. But part of the question asked, "What are some other tips on how to compose a great photo with prime lenses?" How to compose a great photo always starts with the light. Period. Just because that includes any lens doesn't mean it is excluded when using a prime lens. –  Michael Clark Jan 6 at 9:23
    
I think any discussion regarding how to compose a photograph needs to include something about light. To exclude light as a factor in photographic composition because only a specific subset of lenses are being used makes the entire discussion far less useful. –  Michael Clark Jan 6 at 9:32
    
Matt, i think we've both explained our positions rather clearly. Feel free to flag it as "not an answer" if you feel that strongly and we'll see how the rest of the community views it. –  Michael Clark Jan 6 at 9:53
    
Not every question here is about composition. Composition is at the heart of this question. "How do I compose photos..." –  Michael Clark Jan 6 at 9:55
    
I can do that, but I was actually hoping you might expand your answer. –  mattdm Jan 6 at 9:55

That is what I usually do.

I try taking different angles, try to be "artsy" when shooting with a prime lens.

On recent vacations, I've been multiple times to Europe (mostly the capitals) and stopped shooting monuments and other more tourist-ish sceneries and concentrate on details and street views.

In the cities, shooting with a wide lens (19mm in your case) will be better; it will let you shoot in more narrow streets and offer different point of views.

Max.

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I find wide lens images to often be very uninspired. I walked around european cities with a 28mm and 50mm vintage. much more interesting to shoot that way. I'd often think , dammit, I could shoot what I see in front of me with the 17mm, but when I had the 17mm I often found that kind of photo, like. meh. doesnt quite capture the moment after all, just looks like a random phone shot. –  Michael Nielsen Jan 4 at 20:58
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@MichaelNielsen Wide angle is hard. But what's hard for you and me might be someone else's sweet spot. –  mattdm Jan 4 at 21:58

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