Lenses: Prime vs. Zoom

15 11 2007

One of the contentious features about the DP1 is its 16.6mm (28mm equivalent) prime lens. “Prime” means it is a fixed focal length lens. In other words, no zoom.

No zoom? Yes, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But keep in mind that the DP1 is all about technical image quality. That’s why, for example, there’s so much hype about the large Foveon sensor. Many people believe that a prime lens provides better image quality because it doesn’t require all the light-bending (and potentially image corrupting) lens elements that go into zoom lenses.

On the other hand, many people feel that today’s zoom lenses are just as sharp as any prime lens – or, if there is a difference, it is too slight to be noticeable. Plus, there is no doubt that a zoom lens give you more flexibility as a photographer; you can do portraits, streetscapes, and group shots without ever having to change a lens. So why would Sigma choose to lock us down with a 28mm equivalent wide-angle prime?

To find the answer, we need to look at who Sigma is targeting for this camera. Given the (likely) high retail price and the lack of a zoom, Sigma is clearly positioning it as a specialty camera, not a general-purpose point-and-shoot for the casual snapshooter. I believe they’re going after the professional and serious amateurs who want a high quality, compact pocket camera as an adjunct to their DSLRs. It’s for the photographer who wants a small compact for times when the DSLR isn’t available or is not practical. For example, when he or she wants to be inconspicuous while shooting street or candid photographs.

As you probably know, or can surmise, a big part of being a good street or candid photographer is the ability to shoot fast and unobtrusively. Skilled practitioners have developed the ability to compose and frame the image in their mind’s eye before they even raise the camera. Zooming, on the other hand, slows one down – especially with the clumsy motorized zooms that compact point-and-shoot cameras use.

Henri Cartier-Bresson using his Leica with a 50mm prime lens (photo by Jane Bown, 1957)

If you’ve ever seen a master street photographer at work, you’ll know what I mean. Raising the camera and shooting a photograph is as fast and discrete as lifting a finger to scratch an eyebrow. It’s the complete opposite of the loud-mouthed, in-your-face fashion or paparazzi style of photography.

By eliminating the zoom, Sigma seems to be targeting that kind of photographer. It’s no wonder that the DP1 has, even prior to its release, developed a fairly small but very enthusiastic fan base. Some complain that the lens is a bit too wide, at 28mm equivalent, for good street work (after all, most of the great street photography of the 1940s and 50s was shot with 50mm lenses). But if the image quality is as high as promised, there will be plenty of latitude for cropping.

(Click for larger view in new window)

Personally, I’m happy with Sigma’s decision to use a 28mm equivalent lens. Most of my work back in my film days was shot at 28mm. It’s how I see the world. The Sigma DP1 reminds me of the Nikon Coolpix 35mm camera I bought in 1995 when I wanted a pocket camera to complement my FE2 and N90 SLRs. That little guy had a 28mm lens – virtually unheard of at the time for a pocket camera. I took it with me to Italy in 1997 as my only camera, and I bagged some pretty nice shots, including a photograph of two nuns at the coliseum in Rome.

It’s not that I couldn’t have taken that coliseum shot with a zoom lens. But over the course of my two weeks in Italy with just that one fixed-length lens on a tiny pocket camera, I found myself previsualizing everything at 28mm. I wasn’t mentally zooming to compare how it looked at different focal lengths, and more importantly I wasn’t spending time physically zooming.

When the shot of the nuns came together in front of me, I saw it in my mind exactly as it came out – and I had to act fast, as the coliseum was flush with tourists at the time and I had to be ready when there was a break in the crowd.

World Cup Aftermath, Montreal 1994

World Cup Aftermath, Montreal 1994. (Larger version here.)

We don’t always have that luxury, as was the case in Montreal, in 1994 on the day of the final game of the World Cup. It was Brazil vs. Italy, and Brazil won. I just happened to be in Montreal’s Little Italy when I saw the riot cops arrive. Apparently they’d been tipped off that the local Brazilians were coming to taunt the Italians. In the end it was just a bunch of good-natured latin-blooded machismo and bravado, which I think I might have captured with this grab shot of a local Italian-Quebecer who was completely unfazed by the whole thing.

That was shot with a 28mm prime on my Nikon N90. There was no time to zoom or to re-compose. I saw the moment coming together and managed to get the shot just in time, thanks to my prime.



3 responses

10 02 2008

My problem with the lens was that I heard it was f4. Why put such a slow prime lens onto a camera with no anti shake? If they’d put a fast prime onto there (2.8 is I guess, “fast”) then I’d be there like shareware but f4 is just way too slow for my taste. I suppose the sensor will be able to bump up the ISO better than a small camera, but still. f4??

10 02 2008

Riazm, f4 is a problem for a lot of other people too. My understanding is that Sigma didn’t really have much choice. In order to keep the camera small, that was the only option. It has to do with optics and physics and things that I’m not very clear on, but the bottom line (apparently) is that to go to f2.8 on a large sensor camera would require the lens to be significantly bigger around, and possibly farther from the sensor. Bigger, in other words. So that’s the compromise they made in order to keep the camera small.

1 03 2009
DP1 Inspires LX3… Inspires DP2? « My DP1

[…] that a lot of people were talking about the DP1 as a good camera for street photography, slow performance was a deal breaker for a lot of other people too. Some argue that by using all […]

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