Macro lens vs. Standard Prime lens

Started Mar 5, 2010 | Discussions thread
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Larry Lynch Veteran Member • Posts: 8,106
Re: Macro lens vs. Standard Prime lens

apaflo wrote:

Larry Lynch wrote:

There are no stupid questions, only bad answers..

And while the question may not have been stupid, your answer is not correct.

The problem is terminology.. and the evolution of a term.

"Prime lens" started off as a photographers term meaning:

"The Primary Lens Used On A Camera" without any add-ons or adapters.


This was true, even later when "Variable Focal Length Lenses" were manufactured that maintained focus throughout their Variable Range.. meaning if you focused the lens at 35mm, then cranked it to 50mm, it was still in focus.

These were called "Variable Focal Length Primes"

A "variable focal length" lens does not maintain focus as it is zoomed. And yes it is also called a zoom lens. Also, since focusing in not as accurate or critical (due to DOF) at shorter focal lengths, the standard practice is to focus on an object at maximum focal length and then zoom to a shorter focal length. Hence your example should be that if focused at 50mm and then cranked to 35mm it will still be in focus, as going in the other direction does not necessarily maintain accurate focus in practice.

Later, Manufacturers made lenses that could ZOOM from focal length to focal length, but these did NOT maintain focus, so they were called ZOOM lenses, and were NOT ever called "Prime lenses".

Variable focal length zooms have never been commonly referred to as primes.

In todays world, if someone wants a "prime lens" it usually means they want a "fixed focal length lens"

After zoom lenses became ubiquitous the common use of the term "prime" came to mean a fixed focal length lens as opposed to zoom lenses.

A "Macro Lens" is usually a lens that can focus when VERY close to the subject hopefully giving a 1:1 representation on the sensor. Macro lenses can be fixed/variable Focal Length/or Zoom.

Initially the idea that "macro" meant approximately a 1:1 reproduction ratio was the significant point. That became less important as 35mm film became popular because that film size is too small to be directly air brushed or even edited with a pencil, and working with a larger intermediate negative was required.

(the Zoom "Macros" usually have a "Limit Switch" on them so they are not "Macro" for their full range and wont focus to infinity whn In "Macro" mode)

It is probably not correct to say "usually". That is commonly true, but many lenses do not have a macro mode switch. But use of a switched mode or not is insignificant trivia with no value to this discussion.

What is significant is that initially virtually all zooms labeled as macro would only manage approximately a 1:2 reproduction ratio, and later that was more likely to be a 1:4 ratio, especially for zooms in the very popular 70-210mm range.

Granted that the expansion of the term "macro" from a technical term related to 1:1 magnification to a marketing term that means greater than 1:4 is confusing (and perhaps annoying to wannabe techies masquerading as "purists") it is a fact that definition has changed in common use and will never return to the original meaning (which was just as arbitrary as the current meaning).

All things being equal, a Macro can be a prime, but not all primes can be a Macro...

A "fact" if you wish, but a totally useless one.

Even now, though some who consider themselves "Purist" of some sort will deny it, a Zoom that maintains focus from the wide end to the Tele end can be called a "Prime" lens, by the original definition of "Prime Lens".

Perhaps it can be, but generally if you want to use the terminology in that way nobody will understand what you are saying (and if they do catch on... they will immediately dismiss you as absurd).

In general, you got confused because of the miss-use of the term "Prime Lens" by those who feel the ONLY prime lenses are fixed focal length, non-macro lenses.

It is a rare day in the year 2010 when "prime lens" is not automatically understood to mean a fixed focal length lens. It would be even more unusual for anyone to assume that a prime lens cannot be a macro lens.

You must be very young...

I know a large group of photographers who would automatically know what I was talking about if I mentioned a variable Focal length prime... (used much more in television and cinema-photography than in still photography today).. and they would snicker at YOUR confusion... but then I know that all of us over 50 crowd dont matter or exist to you youngsters..
Larry In Mystic Connecticut, USA
Equine Event shooter
Sometimes Wildlife shooter
Sometimes 'Street' Shooter

A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory..

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