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Prime vs Zoom Lens for Photography

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We keep on hearing that a camera doesn’t make a photographer. That’s especially true given that, arguably, lens choice can be even more important than the camera body it’s used on. For one, there’s the choice of focal length that’s crucial. But then there’s also a choice between a prime lens or a zoom lens that can have an impact on your photography.

My hope is that this post will come in handy if you’re looking at buying a new lens and not sure if you should go the prime route or the zoom route.

Some definitions:

  • Prime lens: Also known as a fixed lens, prime lenses only have one fixed focal length. For example a 35mm lens, a 50mm lens, 85mm, 105mm,…
  • Zoom lens: Zoom lenses can zoom in and out of a range of focal lengths, controlled by a dial on the lens. For example a 24-70mm lens, a 18-80mm lens,…

Why Choose a Prime Lens?

You might be wondering why in the hell you’d choose a prime lens when with a zoom lens you get to use a whole range of focal lengths instead of just one.

Well, there are a few reasons that make prime lenses very attractive for many scenarios:

Cheaper

Prime lenses are generally cheaper compared to a zoom lens of similar build quality. It can, therefore, be easier to purchase prime lenses here and there and end up with a sizable array to chose from over time.

Sharper

Prime lenses tend to produce sharper images. That’s because zoom lenses need to contain so many more glass elements, so they end up losing a little bit in terms of sharpness. In practice, however, you may not really see a noticeable difference, unless you’re pixel peeping. Still though, it’s good to keep in mind that for maximum image quality and sharpness, prime lenses are king.

Wider Aperture

Prime lenses offer a wider maximum aperture. That’s what’s referred to when you hear other photographers talk about fast glass. That means that you can open up your aperture quite a bit more on prime lens compared to a zoom lens of equivalent quality. That in terms translates to the possibility for a shallower depth of field. That also means that you’ll have better low light performance using prime lenses.

Focal Length Limitation Can Foster Creativity

The focal length limitation can sometimes help in terms of pushing you to be creative with your photography. It’s easy to fall into a laziness rut when we can stay in place and zoom in or out, but prime lenses really force us to think of interesting shots with the focal length restriction. It’ll also force you to physically move closer or further from your subject, which can help in creating dynamic shots with more interesting compositions. It’s a good exercise, for example, to limit your photography to a certain focal length for a period of time, to force you to think creatively with that specific focal length.


And here are some potential downsides with prime lenses:

  • The obvious downside is that you won’t be able to zoom in or out and some compositions just won’t be possible using prime lenses. You won’t be able to get real close to a bird that’s perched in a tall tree for example. One way to go around that issue would just be to get a wider shot and crop it in post to get the composition that you were really after. With today’s cameras that pack a whole lot of megapixels, it’s often really Ok to crop the images quite a bit in post-production.
  • You can miss critical moments and miss fleeting shots if you’re racing to change lens because you need/want to use a different focal length.

Why Choose a Zoom Lens?

And now that we’ve covered what’s potentially better about prime lenses, let’s go over some reasons why zoom lenses can be better:

Flexibility/Versatility

The obvious benefit to a zoom lens is that it allows you to cover a range of different focal lengths in a single lens and with a simple turn of a dial on the lens. This can be really handy especially when running and gunning, wedding photography and wildlife photography. You’ll be able to quickly compose shots and not depend so much on being able to quickly move back and forth.

Less time spend changing lenses

With a good zoom lens, you’ll be able to go on a project and stick with the same lens for a variety of different shots, without having to keep changing to a different lens and lose some momentum there.

Save on space and weight

If you’re shooting on location or traveling, you’ll love that with a zoom lens that covers what you need, you’ll only need to bring one lens with you. That means less space taken, less weight on your back and fewer items that can potentially be damaged or stolen.


And some potential downsides to zoom lenses:

  • They are generally more expensive. Often though 1 or 2 good zoom lenses to cover most of the range of focal lengths that you would need is all you’ll ever need, so they can be a really good investment.
  • They tend to be much bigger/heavier to carry around per lens. Of course, often that’ll mean that you only need to bring one zoom lens with you instead of 2 prime lenses, so the point often becomes moot. Still though, they’ll be more weight for you to hold while shooting, and the bulkier lens can also be intimidating to your subject with things like street photography.
  • Zoom lenses don’t usually have apertures that open as wide, so you won’t be able to take shots with as narrow of a depth of field. Many zoom lens are also variable aperture lenses and won’t offer the same maximum aperture for the whole focal length range. For example, as you zoom in the widest aperture will often be less and less.

Wrapping Up

As you saw, there’s no such thing as one being better than the other. Both types of lenses have their pros and cons. Most photographers over time end up with a mixture of both some good prime and zoom lenses, to cover all their photographic needs. Some will tend to prefer primes, and still use zooms here and there when needed, yet others will gravitate towards mostly zooms, and use primes from time to time.

I myself have just recently started to grow a good appreciation for having some great prime lenses in my arsenal, and I’m loving the results.

And then finally, just to illustrate that it’s not just about prime vs zoom lenses, here’s a list of some of the other factors you’ll want to take into consideration when it comes to choosing a lens:

  • Build quality/resell value
  • Features like image stabilization
  • Minimum focusing distance
  • Autofocus performance and speed

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