Prime Lenses For Nikon And Their Uses

Three Superlative Nikons Frame an Old City

If you’ve ever wondered who uses prime lenses for Nikon and why, chances are you are in for a surprise. See the benefits of making images with 20 mm, 50 mm and 85 mm prime focal lengths with Photo Coach Jim Austin M.A. as he photographs America’s oldest city.


prime lenses for nikon
AT Left: the Nikon AF-S 50 mm 1:1.8 G.     CENTER: the AF-S 85 mm 1:1.8 G.                RIGHT: the AF-S 20 mm 1:1.8G ED.

Along with these 3 lenses, I took the following gear into the old city: tripod, camera body, waist level bag, and polarizing filter.

Photographing with each one of these lenses while biking, walking and rowing around the historic city of Saint Augustine Florida, the advantages of lightweight primes became apparent.

Let’s take a quick peek at these prime lenses for nikon. First, there’s the 20 mm focal length. Since Nikon began making this focal length in 1959, there have been many versions. I took along the Nikon 20mm f/1.8G AF‑S ED Nikkor lens. The term ED means extra-low dispersion glass.

This is a optical quality that Nikon includes to fix color changes like purple fringing. This lens also has Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coat, which cuts down on flare from reflections.  The 20 mm has consistent snappy autofocus (AF-S) and only needs a short turn to manually focus. Shooting both manually and with AF inspired me to try novel compositions.

Next up, the famous “nifty 50.” Nikon has made numerous versions since Nippon Kogaku was asked to make a 50 mm in 1937 for Canon, Inc. I took a Nikon AF‑S Nikkor Lens ‑ 50mm ‑ f/1.8G. This “nifty 50” has an angle of view that’s about equal to the diagonal of a 35 mm film camera’s 24mm by 36 mm image frame.

Therefore, the area of the scene that it covers is roughly equal to what a single human eye can view. For that reason it is called a “normal” lens. I call it lightweight, fun, and snappy.

Finally, I packed an AF‑S Nikkor Lens ‑ 85mm ‑ f/1.8G. It has excellent bokeh, and works well for street shots, portraits and scenery because it is crisp and focuses quickly, even in low light. 

So Why Prime Lenses For Nikon

I can tell you with authority that three convenient reasons exist for packing prime lenses. Their wide maximum apertures work beautifully for night photography. Also, master your prime and you never have to take TIME TO ZOOM. Zoom lenses box us in to a time-consuming habit of standing in one place and zoom hunting, while primes tend to get us to move around and change our point of view to create better compositions.

Finally, primes tend to be lighter in weight. Here are some examples, starting with the 20 mm . . .


The galeón class vessel was an ocean going ship type that evolved from the carrack in the second half of 16th century. Galeóns were constructed from oak, pine and various hardwoods for hull and decking. Hulls were usually carvel-built. Hundreds of expert tradesmen, including carpenters, blacksmiths, shipwrights and pitch-melters worked day and night for months to make a galeon seaworthy. To cover the expense, galeons were often funded by groups of wealthy businessmen who pooled resources for a new ship. Therefore, most galeons were originally consigned for trade, although those captured by rival states were usually put into military service. (More...

SPANISH SHIP  This modern teproduction of an historic Spanish ship was docked at the municipal marina. A brief history: the galeón class vessel was an ocean going ship type that evolved from the carrack in the second half of 16th century.

Galeóns were constructed from oak, pine and various hardwoods for hull and decking. Hundreds of expert tradesmen, including carpenters, blacksmiths and shipwrights worked day and night for months to make a galeón seaworthy.

The 20 mm prime is a good choice for “big scene” images like the ship and bridge, because of its expansive angle of view. As I shot from a small dinghy, the Matanzas river currents carried me past its starboard side, so I had to pick up the oars to keep from colliding with it.

Rowing and zooming simultaneously would have been more than I could handle in the strong current. Settings were f/8, exposed for 1/640th at ISO 500 at dawn. Mild distortion was corrected in Lightroom with the Lens Correction settings.


CLASSIC JAG As modern cars raced passed by this parked, classic Jaguar, I set a slow shutter speed of 2.5 seconds, manually focusing a Nikon D810 at f/13, at ISO 31. The 20 mm focal length let me cover the entire background from sidewalk to sidewalk. Vignetting and edge blur were added during post processing.


SCHOOL STAIRCASE When photographing architectural detail, the NIKKOR 20 mm f/1.8G AF‑S ED has little distortion and it’s coated optics let in lots of light. Pictured here is the staircase of Flagler College, a humanitarian institution of higher learning in northeast Florida.

Minor distortion and edge light fall-off were easily corrected by Lightroom’s Lens Correction profile, which brightened the edges of the image and straightened slight barrel distortion.


SEASONAL SHOP WINDOW The 20 mm was used again to photograph this Halloween display in a jewelry store window. For the Nikon D810 multiple exposure in camera, three frames were automatically combined at 1/100th sec;  f/4.5; ISO 2000.



BRIDGE OF LIONS On the west approach to the city’s bridge, there are two iconic landmark lion statues. A tripod-mounted exposure of 8.0 seconds, at f/7.1 with ISO 50 produced a printable file. The original capture was in color, but monochrome split-toning was done in post processing.

When auto-focusing in near darkness, this 50 mm is bright enough to let you see dim subjects, which makes focusing much easier than it is with many zoom lenses that may have slower maximum apertures.



GIRL SCOUTS AT WORK Sometimes we only have time to use the lens that’s on the camera with no time to change lenses. That was the case for this portrait of Girl Scouts, who were hard at work raising funds by washing cars and bikes. Their troop was rescuing pets from euthanasia for Project SAFE. 

With no editing in post, Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 50 mm f/1.8G at f/4.5 caught natural skin tones under bright sunshine, good quality bokeh, and rendered micro-contrast as well as more expensive lenses.



HISTORIC FORT AND GREAT BLUE HERON   This 16th century Spanish fort guards St. Augustine’s southern river approach, since coastal Florida was a battle ground when Europe fought to control the New World. Taking long exposure night shots of the fort walls, I looked at the LCD, and noticed a grey spot I hadn’t seen in the scene, toward the bottom of the LCD frame. A great blue heron was fishing in the shallows.

I placed a polarizing filter over the Nikkor AF-S 85 mm 1.8 G lens to reduce the brightness of the fort walls. The exposure was 1/8 sec, at  f/2.0 with an ISO of 1000. The 85 mm compressed the scene slightly and its angle of view let me simplify the composition. The other two primes, the 50 mm and 20 mm, would have rendered the bird imperceptible in the larger frame.

We call the 85 mm a portrait lens, but it has a variety of strengths.


NIGHT HARBOR At Saint Augustine’s Bridge of Lions, the 85 mm was ideal for this 6.0 second exposure of a sailboat at the city bridge. Aperture was f/4.5, at ISO 160. By closing down the lens to f/4.5, the light flare that can appear when lenses are used at wide open maximum apertures was less noticeable in the final print.

Nikon D810 camera built-in noise reduction was used in capture. Lightroom noise reduction was handy in post processing.

The strengths of prime lenses for Nikon makes them valuable tools for a variety of photography types. They even invite a frame of mind, a certain working method of moving around, and let us lighten the gear load. In closing, when I left my zoom lens behind, to work with lenses of one single focal length, I thought to myself about an old Zen saying I’d heard awhile ago:

When the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced?

Thanks for your comments. Find Jim Austin at



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