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I have been taking pictures for several years now and slowly improving at that. My camera is Olympus Stylus 1 with the 28-300mm f/2.8 super zoom lens. I like travelling and feel the camera is a great companion as it is very compact and flexible. I was considering stepping up for an interchangeable lens camera while still keeping the travel-friendly size and weight of both a camera and a lens and found how beautiful pictures with a fast prime lens could be (such is f/1.8 or even f/1.4), being compact and light at the same time.

My problem is that I have always relied on the zoom power of my lens to choose the right composition and to avoid the unwanted elements or people in the frame by zooming in as needed.

I wondered if it is a common knowledge how to "jump off" the zoom lens hook and improve one's skills with the fixed focal length or a smaller zoom range lens (like the typical 18-55mm kit lenses have)?

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I think this is a great exercise and can really help you with your photography — even if you end up using zoom lenses in the future. And, there is a commonly-used "trick" here — it's called One Lens, One Camera, One Year, suggested by longtime prime-lens enthusiast Michael Johnston (also see his The Case Against Zooms).

A Method

The original suggestion was specifically to use a Leica for one year, with one type of black-and-white film:

I argued that it would improve one's photographic chops in many ways. It would make you stop thinking about camera and lens options; the use of the one camera you were using would become second nature; the "transparent" nature of the RF viewfinder makes the finder image less seductive, less easy to get lost in (view camera photographers know how easy it is to get enthralled by that gorgeous image on the groundglass); the minimal shutter lag and mechanical responsiveness of the Leica encourages you to learn the benefit of timing the moment of exposure exactly; the necessity of developing film tends to make you more conservative and thoughtful and avoid shooting too much; and learning to see in B&W is a good foundation even for color photographers because color can't substitute for meaning, and value (tones) comprises the structure of many good photographs, even ones in color.

The One Lens, One Camera, One Year concept is a broadening of that; Johnston suggests a 50mm-equivalent prime lens, and has a specific methodology and rules to follow. And, covering the "commonly used" aspect of your question — yes, people have picked up on this. See this post on Petapixel, or just search for the phrase to find many examples.

Scaling it Down

I think you can get plenty of benefit from even a scaled down version — start with one month or one week or one weekend photo-excursion. Instead of shooting with one black-and-white film, try to shoot in one style or with one particular goal for that period. This is like practicing working with sonnets or rondeaus or villanelles instead of free verse — sure, it's restrictive, but that kind of constraint can be a useful tool for creativity.

The key is: when you're "jumping off" the hook, dive in the deep end — just start doing it, and don't leave yourself an easy out.

Personal Note, and, On Travel

As a personal anecdote, I've shot exclusively* with prime lenses for the last ten years, and haven't missed zoom in the least. Of course, I don't do wedding photography or sports. But, you know, none of us really does everything. And I find my primes — or my phone, for that matter — perfectly adequate for travel photography... sure, my results aren't postcards, but the best results in those locations are going to be taken by someone who has taken months to scout and prepare and wait for the right moment.

That doesn't mean that I don't take photographs while traveling — and I have some that I think are real keepers — but it frees me to remember that I don't have to get That Shot of the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower or whatever. That's already been done; I can buy a postcard, and can focus on the kind of photography that suits what I have with me.

Focal Length "Coverage"

A common worry is making sure you have the range of your zoom lenses covered in primes, with lots of steps in the middle. People often do a lot of things like analyze the metadata of all their photos to find most common focal lengths, and etc. My advice is to not bother with this. You only need two or three primes, and you will be surprised how quickly you adjust.

More Personal Anecdata

Currently, I have a 23mm and 56mm for my Fujifilm, which give a field of view about the same as the "traditional" 35mm and 85mm focal lengths on 35mm film — so, basically I have a wide-normal and a portrait lens. Previously, I had a 15mm, 40mm, and 70mm for Pentax (wide, longish-normal, and longish portrait), and when I switched systems I thought I'd have to build up the same in order to keep doing what I was used to, but it turned out to be relatively easy to switch mindsets.

More

Oh, and finally... you may also find How do I compose photos with prime lenses? to be helpful, or at least interesting.


* except when borrowing a camera or using a point & shoot for a bit or something.

  • I bought a Canon T5, since my (used) Nikon D100 wasn't cutting it at higher ISOs and I was thinking of making the switch anyway. It came with a 28-55mm and 70-300mm lens. Before my son was born I bought a 40mm f/2.8 because I knew the low-light performance would be way better for the hospital. And now I very rarely put anything on besides the 40mm. It's so sharp that typically I can get nicer pictures than the 70-300 just by cropping. Also it's light light light! – Wayne Werner Aug 25 '16 at 12:31
  • Just noting, you've mostly kept to the traditional advice with primes, which is to buy them in sets of doubles (i.e., doubling the length between lenses). I think the Leica M common triple was 35/50/90, but probably because a 24 was super expensive/bigger. :) – inkista Aug 25 '16 at 19:27
  • If you are going prime I would highly recommend two lenses 35mm and 85mm. When I just had the 35mm it was good but at times I needed that extra reach – Tim Mottram Aug 26 '16 at 9:47
  • @TimMottram — yes, that's the (35mm-equivalent) focal length set I have right now. Something like 24mm, 50mm, 105mm would also make a common set (as inkista notes, following a rough pattern of doubling). – mattdm Aug 26 '16 at 12:25
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I wondered if it is a common knowledge how to "jump off" the zoom lens hook

I don't think this is necessarily a good idea.

The problem is basically sensor size. With a 1/1.7" sensor, it is easy to build compact and light lenses. Even super zoom telephoto lenses are rather compact.

The downside is that getting "beautiful pictures with a fast prime lens" with wide open apertures requires a big sensor. What you are actually admiring is the shallow depth of field. Sure, you could get a similar effect by using your zoom lens at the long end (200mm) and increasing the subject-to-background distance, but that's not always applicable.

Telephoto zoom lenses for large sensors are cheap, good and light weight - with the caveat that you can only pick 2 of those 3 properties while the third one likely has some undesirable value.

I'd recommend keeping the stylus 1 as it suits your special needs for travel photography and is a tool you have a lot of experience with - you don't want to throw that away. No interchangeable lens camera (which usually have a bigger sensor) will be able to deliver the same experience.

considering stepping up for an interchangeable lens camera while still keeping the travel-friendly size and weight of both a camera and a lens

Is interchangeability really the requirement you have? To me it looks more like you basically want to add the prime lens look to your equipment. I'd definitely look into fixed lens compact cameras with bigger sensors. There are some with full frame sensors like the Leica Q and the Sony RX1 series, but also some with APS-C sensors from Fujifilm.

Some of the above and other manufacturers also offer interchangeable compact / mirrorless camerasystems. You can certainly buy a camera with interchangeable lens and simply just use one lens on it. But then why bother buying an interchangeable lens camera in the first place? As mentioned above, I doubt that you will find an equivalent lens (in terms of price, size, weight, zoom) to your current setup for the interchangeable camera easily.

Even if there was one, you now have the possibility, but also the burden of having to interchange lenses. Carrying a second compact camera might sound counter intuitive for travel, but given that you don't really need more lenses, it might make sense to have a camera permanently attached to each of the two of your lenses. They'd be ready to use all the time. And if you are travelling with somebody else, they could be used in parallel.

update after comments

My wife is a photographer and she wants an interchangeable lens camera, so I imagine we would have to eventually settle down with one, be it a mirror- or mirrorless.

You'll always bring the Stylus 1 along the ILC (interchangeable lens camera) on travel, for the reasons mentioned above. You don't want to miss the picture opportunities where such a zoom is required. If it's your wife who wants to have an ILC, she's likely the one going to use it the most. Guess who's sticking to operating the stylus 1 then? You. You will not get out of any habits by having the option to use another camera that you have to share with somebody else.

Bearing that in mind, I would also like to use the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone [of a zoom lens], therefore I was wondering if there are the known guidelines on how to switch from the super zooms.

It's great to share a hobby with one another, but sharing a camera is no fun. You are going to need your own camera in order to get out of your comfort zone. I'm not sure what your budget is. You could still go for a fixed lens big sensor compact for you in addition to the ILC for your wife.

However, given that your desire to get the "prime look" is not the only driving factor to buy the new camera, chances are your wife wants and needs additional lenses for the ILC. It can make sense to buy another camera body for the same system for you with a prime of your choice. This way you get the prime look that you want, do not have to share the camera with your wife, but can share lenses with her. An older used body might be sufficient for your needs and is cheaper.

The only downside is that all of that is quite a bit of gear and you then have 3 cameras. This likely means you will leave the super zoom at home, which could mean that you miss out on those picture opportunities that ask for such a camera. Of course, this is the best way to get out of your comfort zone. It's a compromise in the end.

  • Great input with lots of information, thank you! My wife is a photographer and she wants an interchangeable lens camera, so I imagine we would have to eventually settle down with one, be it a mirror- or mirrorless. Bearing that in mind, I would also like to use the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone [of a zoom lens], therefore I was wondering if there are the known guidelines on how to switch from the super zooms. – Eugene A Aug 24 '16 at 13:25
  • @EugeneA I updated my answer – null Aug 24 '16 at 14:13
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    While it's all kind of a tangent to the main question , I emphatically second your comments on sharing a camera! – mattdm Aug 24 '16 at 14:20
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    I think that "cheap, good, light -- pick any two" is a very poor characterization of the DSLR zoom lens market. Good zoom lenses are usually both expensive and somewhat heavy. Unlike, say, laptops, lenses don't get lighter when you pay more money. The weight of a lens is usually mostly glass and better, more expensive lenses tend to have more, not less, glass. – David Richerby Aug 24 '16 at 20:50
  • @David Richerby this sounds more like you gave up on the ideal requirement to have a lightweight lens and accepted a heavier lens as it usually means better optics. That's true. But still, ideally, a lighter lens would be better. Maybe physics does not allow that or at least not today. But manufacturers do try to make lighter lenses. Canon's DO lenses come to mind. Maybe good glass does not have to be heavy. – null Aug 25 '16 at 2:35
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I used to use zoom lenses but now only use primes, which taught me how to frame better and to move to get the right shot.

If you are using a full frame camera you can always use the crop feature to extend the length of the lens.

I use 35mm and 85mm primes. I'd recommend a 50mm as well if you are doing gig photography. I am a big fan of the Sigma Art Lenses, though Samyang 85mm is very good (and very cheap).

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    (and manual focus), a property one can certainly work with, but which will introduce a bit of a learning curve for somebody used to super zoom cameras. – null Aug 24 '16 at 10:17
  • So, how did you get from using zooms to using primes? – mattdm Aug 24 '16 at 17:11
  • I bought a D90 and 35mm 1.8 lens at first. The D90 is a good camera. In the UK you can pick up a D90 for about £100 and a 1.8 Dx for about £80 if you shop around Remember that if you have a DX camera and not a full frame then any lens you bugs will have a 1.8 times (Dependent on size of the sensor) magnification. So a 35mm is more like a 500mm on a dx camera. – Tim Mottram Aug 25 '16 at 9:49
  • @TimMottram I think you meant 50mm. 500mm is a huge lens. – Wayne Werner Aug 25 '16 at 12:51
  • @WayneWerner sorry yes 50mm! – Tim Mottram Aug 26 '16 at 9:45
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Earlier this year I was thinking about what focal length I might want for a prime lens. I dialed in a length on my zoom and then spent some time composing images without touching the zoom. Then dialed in another focal length and tried that.

One outcome of the exercise was that I got a sense of how close I would have to be to subjects at each length and there were particular focal lengths where I would not be comfortable taking pictures of some subjects...for example portraits of people who I do not know well at the 50mm equivalent of 35mm format.

Another outcome was that a fixed focal length tended to limit the range of possible subjects when I was out and about shooting serendipitously. My experiences tended to feel a bit more photojournalistic and a bit less artistic...perhaps because I missed the additional flexibility in composition that a fixed focal length affords [and I'll chalk that up to a deficit in my ability not the equipment]. On the flip side, for a planned shoot of a known subject, the fixed focal length wound up in the plan and just another constraint rather than a limitation.

Anyway, there's no rule that if a camera has zoom [or autofocus or aperture priority etc.] that the photographer must use it. And with digital cameras the cost of a failed experiment is approximately zero. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with using technology to capture a particular image. The image is the measure of technique so to speak.

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    One should also remember that cropping the image in post to get the artistic look is 100% acceptable. I'd even go so far as to encourage it, if you want the artistic look :) – Wayne Werner Aug 25 '16 at 12:52
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User your feet! Walk to a location where your composition looks good in a prime lens. "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

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    That's definitely not always an option. There might be a river, cliff, fence, wall, height, highway, or other barrier in the way that is not safe and/or practical to cross. If you're photographing an event, it may be quite inappropriate to insert yourself into that close physical position. – WBT Aug 24 '16 at 20:39

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