Prime lenses are a total inconvenience. Not being able to zoom is a complete pain in the ass, and having to switch lenses to change the focal length is even worse. I have to carry around multiple lenses to cover a variety of settings, instead of just throwing one zoom on and going for it. They are a real hassle.
If so, then why do I love them so much? It is so much nicer taking photos with my 300 dollar 85mm f/1.8 prime than it is with my 1100 dollar 24-105 f/4 zoom that I almost never even reach for the zoom anymore. The only instance when I throw the zoom on is when I know I’m not going to have time to switch lenses, which itself doesn’t take all that long and can be accomplished with light weight primes one-handed with a little practice. The rest of the time I just leave my two primes, a 28mm and a 85mm, on the body and go from there. I also have the 50mm f/1.8 in my drawer, but I never use it not because it’s inconvenient, but because it feels cheap. I just don’t like it. I’m going to purchase the 50mm f/1.4 in the next few weeks and then retire the f/1.8 version.
I think that what I like most about the primes is that they are solid, sharp as hell, and wonderfully bright through the viewfinder. If you’ve never seen the difference between a lens with an f/4 maximum and a lens with an f/1.8 maximum through a viewfinder, trust me the difference is remarkable. It goes from a dingy, dull image at f/4 to a bright, clean image at f/1.8 which unconsciously gives me a better feeling for the moment happening in front of my lens. It’s just a lot nicer. I feel more connected to my subjects, better equipped to capture the moment as it happens.
The ability not to change focal lengths is freeing from the endless possibilities of a zoom lens. Too much choice is no choice at all. For all the time spent while I’m dicking around zooming in and out trying to get a good composition, the moment has passed. Remove the option to zoom altogether and you find yourself unfettered by choice, able to take the photos presenting themselves to you. Besides, if you really want to get closer, just move your ass. It’s not hard.
Of course, there are times when you need to be run & gun with your photography or for whatever reason you can’t move forward or backward to get the right shot, but for the majority of the time I feel like shooting with primes is just better. That is really true for all the shooting-in-the-dark I do. Every little bit of aperture counts.
As a side note, I took my first daylight photos with the 5d Mk II today, after more than 800 photos in the dark. It does just as nice a job outside in daylight as inside in artificial light.