Prime lenses are lenses with a fixed focal length. For example EF 24mm f/1.4 L is a prime lens. On the other hand, Zoom lenses allow you to change the focal length. For example EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L is a zoom lens.
How can fixed focal length possibly give a landscape photographer an advantage in terms of composition?
Many people come on an Iceland photo tour with a full range of focal lengths. These are usually spread over 3 lenses; 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. They then ask me “What lenses do you have?” My response is invariably ’24mm prime’. After a few seconds of waiting for the rest of the list which never arrives, the conversation switches back to their lenses and the worthy justifications for them.
No doubt a range of focal lengths on a photo tour is a good idea. If you don’t know the terrain and subject matter, it is very wise to be able to cover all possibilities. After all people do get the shots they want with their full range of focal lengths.
But I get all the shots I want with my 24mm prime lens!
What possible advantage could a single 24mm prime lens have over a full range from 14mm-200mm? Zoom lenses have a high enough quality to almost match primes, so image quality is not the reason.
For me, the advantage is that the prime lens creates composition challenges. I like to shoot what I see and I feel that 24mm best represents my general field of vision. I like to arrange the elements in a scene to maximise its potential.
Ansel Adams says that being a great photographer is just knowing where to stand.
At any scene there are 3 dimensions to be considered during the compositional process. They are up-down, left-right and backwards-forwards. What I always see is the zoom photographer using their zooms to move backwards and forwards but not paying enough attention to the other dimensions. If they were using primes, they would be more likely to consider the up-down and left-right dimensions.
The image I like to convey is “This was what it looked like if you were there” as opposed to “This is what it looked like if you had a telescope”.
All the photographs on Iceland Aurora were taken with these 3 prime lenses. 90% were taken with the 24mm Prime.
Ok so I have to admit that some images are panoramas with several frames stitched together. This is an option that is easily available to the modern Digital photographer. I would also argue that this can still be regarded as prime composition and different to zooming wide. Some images are cropped from their original composition. This is still prime composition. Often the crop decisions are aesthetic as in a 16:9 aspect ratio. Sometimes the crop is decided before I take the shot. It is still prime composition as opposed to zoom composition.
I am really going to stick my neck out here and suggest that it is impossible to compose properly without a prime lens.