Prime or Zoom?


Isn’t the prime lens the one that comes with the camera? No, not usually. Many photographers invest in a prime lens because they want a very high-quality lens and are not all that worried about a range of focal lengths. For instance, a prime lens might only offer a 50mm focal length, but it will be manufactured in such a way as to deliver flawless, crisp, and clear images without fail.

So, a zoom lens is not going to be as well made? Not necessarily. A zoom lens is one with a range of focal lengths, such as 14 to 85mm, and there are many versions that are made just as well  (if not more so) than prime lenses.

Why is there even a discussion about them? Firstly, many photographers like to have a lot of manual control over their photographic pursuits. Usually a prime lens is going to give them more options as far as the speed of the lens – which is not related to shutter speed but to the ability to work in lower light conditions due to aperture controls – and the weight of the camera too. Some photographers will go so far as to argue that zoom lenses make photographers lazy because they don’t have to find a way to make low light and difficult angles “work” for their cameras.

While it is true that the ability to zoom in clearly on a subject from a distance can allow the photographer to enjoy some freedom and effortlessness, the zoom lenses have more to offer than that alone. For example, as stated a bit earlier, the zooms will allow the photographer a handful of focal lengths. This means that they can use the camera in the same way that they might have used a 50mm prime lens, but they could also use it as an 85mm or even a 14mm lens too. This translates to convenience and efficiency, and it also means that the photographer could be saving a ton of money on additional equipment. Instead of purchasing two or three different lenses, the savvy photographer could research the most appropriate lenses for the work they hope to do and then find most of them in a single zoom.

This brings us to the last point in the debate over a prime or zoom lens – the type of photography. Clearly, most photographers don’t do just one variety of work. They might be a portrait photographer who also enjoys some landscape work. This would mean that the zoom could be handy in the studio, but would not give them the range they require in the field. This is the reason that it is so essential to understand the needs of the photographic endeavors in order to select the right equipment and lenses.


10 comments on “Prime or Zoom?

  1. I made the transition from zoom to prime lenses a long time ago, after I have seen the results you can achieve with a fast prime lens.
    You actually learn to compose the picture before you shoot right away.
    My legs are my zoom… 😉

    Being able to choose a larger aperture gives you more possibilities to play with depth of field and for available light photography.
    I only use zoom lenses when I go somewhere and have no idea what photographic situations to expect.
    However, most times I know exactly what I want to shoot in advance and therefore I know what prime lens to use.

    I’d say that I shoot about 70% of my pictures with a fast 50mm (macro) prime lens.

    But finally it really depends on what you want to shoot, on your demands with regards to image quality, flexibility, etc.

  2. I’ve switched from 2 zoom lens (covering from 18-200mm) to 3 prime lens(24mm, 50mm, 105mm) for quite some time too. With the 3 primes’ angle of view (about 90, 45, 23 degree) in mind, I’ve trained myself to frame with my mind without even have a camera with me. In many situation, it’s not a matter of zooming in and out (with zoom len or your feet), but also moving left and right, up and down to find the best shooting angle.

  3. I shoot with only prime lenses – 20, 28, 50 and 85 on 35mm and 90, 150 and 210mm on large format – and I would disagree with the claim that you can either zoom with your legs or shooting with a zoom lens makes you lazy. Shooting with a zoom lens gives you a different perspective of the scene than shooting with a prime and stepping forward a couple of metres.

    When you zoom in or out on a scene with a zoom lens, you are getting a wider or narrow field of view. When you step forwards or backwards with a prime lens, you get the same field of view but simply further forwards or backwards. You won’t get the same composition when you step forward a couple of metres with a prime lens that you would do with a zoom lens zoomed in 10-20mm. I wish people wouldn’t continue to repeat this fallacy.

    If I was in a better financial position, I would pick zoom lenses over prime lenses for my 35mm camera every time. Firstly, it’s more cost effective and modern zoom lenses, certainly pro spec zoom lenses are as sharp, or in some cases sharper, than their prime equivalent. For instance, the Nikon 14-24mm lens is one of Nikon’s sharpest lenses throughout the entire focal range.

    With large format, zoom lenses aren’t a realistic option (I believe less than a handful of zoom lenses have been built for 4×5 cameras) and I’m quite happy with that.

    But really, shooting with zoom lenses is a different ball game to shooting with prime lenses but “zooming with your feet” because you’re *not* zooming at all.

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  6. I have a range of zoom lenses for my Nikon but I love the challenge of shooting on my prime 50mm. Yes, it is harder work and less versatile, but I just love the quality of the images it produces. I recently shot a wedding on my 50mm and was so happy with the results.

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