There are two parts to most discussions about this lens: its fast aperture and the fact that it is a prime lens. Now, don’t get me wrong, I adore my prime lens kit of the 50mm f/1.8, the 85mm f/1.8 and the 100mm f/2.8 Macro. I’m not anti-prime lens in any way at all. That’s not the point. The point I want to explore is why people believe and assert that a prime lens will make you a ‘better’ photographer, for some value of ‘better’.
Firstly, lets define “better”. What does it mean to become a better photographer? I’ll develop a positive definition in a moment, but first think about what the difference between the good photographer and the great photographer is not: in the age of autofocus, TTL metering and the various common exposure modes, the difference is not found in a photographer’s deep understanding of which setting to use.
What sets great photography apart from good photography is not the technical at all, it is nothing more or less than the impact of the photograph on the viewer. Technical mastery of the camera merely separates the acceptable from the unacceptable, and could even be argued to be orthogonal to the impact of the photograph.
That said, why advocate prime lenses for beginning photographers?
Where I differ from some photographic commentators is the noble notion that whatever was good enough for Robert Capa or Cartier-Bresson should be good enough for you and I. I strongly disagree with any claim along the line that prime lenses are somehow a purer expression of photography than zoom lenses. Yes, we all love elegant equipment and, heaven knows, the Leica M8 is burning a hole in my heart right now. However, the existence of historically important photographs taken with prime lenses only serves to disprove the counter-claim that zoom lenses are a necessary precondition to good photographs. It doesn’t prove anything much about the virtues of prime lenses.
My own opinion is that learning to handle an ultra-wide-angle lens in the 10-25mm range is an even better photographic education than a prime lens, but that’s another post for another time.
I personally believe that prime lenses are still advocated because it used to be the quality difference was significant. Today’s modern zooms — not so.
But it’s traditional. You still see people who argue that UV filters degrade image quality, too, although I’ve yet to see evidence of someone who has been given a dozen photos taken half with and half without filters — and been able to flag the ones with degraded quality. But you still hear this old wive’s tale, also. (I have, of course, seen a number of attempts for people to do this fail miserably — and yes, you need to use quality filters. As always…)
I think the prime lens is even less interesting in a digital environment where your post-shoot workflow probably involves some kind of crop anyway. I think it’s important that photographers develop the eye that lets them see what makes a photograph interesting via the viewfinder, for the same reason photographers need to get technique down and stop trying to fix bad exposure, soft focus or bad contrast in post-processing; you can improve a photo and make it the best photo you can, but you can’t save a bad photo, even with photoshop — and that goes for framing as much as exposure.
I own one prime lens today — 300mm F4 IS, which I usually shoot with a tele on a tripod because I’m just not going to get that 800MM F5.6 any time soon (or the 500MM or 600MM lenses, either). My workhorse is still the 100-400 F5.6IS, and my wide angle is also a zoom, because I prefer to do my framing on camera. There are a couple of situations I’d consider another prime: a good, kick-ass, fast and clean macro lens, a similar super-wide (although I’ll probably think long and hard about a super-wide zoom, if I find one I like). Especially when you move into fish-eye, I tend to think you’ll want to stay with a prime.
the last place: certain specialty shooting. For instance, if I was shooting hockey seriously, I’d want to do it with two lenses: my 100-400 on one body, and a 200mm F2.8 class prime on a second.
I agree with Frasier, by the way — you want to force someone to become a better photographer? Give them a 15mm super-wide and send them off to take photos. It is so easy to back fricking bad photos with the thing, and it forces you to think your way through how to generate interest in a scene. I still find that I throw out too many of my wide angle shots on review as “freaking boring”; it’s something I need to work on…