Prime vs Zoom Lenses

In recent years, zoom lenses have been taking over the hearts of many working professional photographers as the more obvious, versatile choice. With the latest image sensors producing amazing quality, even at extremely high ISOs, it makes sense why more people have been leaning towards the convenience of zoom lenses. Zoom lenses have also gotten impressively sharp – most, even some cheap kit lenses, are sharp enough for day-to-day needs and also boast effective image stabilization systems. Some of the modern pro-grade lenses offer image quality that matches or even surpasses primes lenses in the same focal range. Despite all this, prime lenses haven’t really lost their desirability. Lens manufacturers such as Nikon and Canon have been rapidly updating and expanding their lens arsenal with new and better choices. Third-party manufacturers like Sigma are stepping into the game with confidence. Thanks to this, choosing between a zoom and a prime lens is now harder than ever. In this beginner guide, I talk about prime vs zoom lenses in detail, explaining their differences, along with some image samples.

Beginner Guide - Prime vs Zoom Lenses

1) What is a Prime Lens?

A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length (also commonly referred to as a “fixed lens”). What this means is that such a lens has a set angle of view which can not be changed – unless you move, you can not make the image appear larger or smaller within the frame. The only way of enlarging your subject and making it fill more of the frame is by physically getting closer to it. In turn, the only way to fit more into the frame is to step back.

Prime lenses have a single specified focal length, like 50mm. They come in all kinds sizes and focal lengths, from fisheye to super telephoto. Examples of prime lenses: Nikon 50 f/1.8G, Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS, Sigma 35mm f/1.4.

2) What is a Zoom Lens?

A zoom lens, on the other hand, has a variable focal length. By turning the zoom ring, you move optical elements inside the lens to achieve a different angle of view. This means that you can make objects appear larger by turning the zoom ring in one direction, or fit more objects into the frame by turning it in the opposite direction.

Zoom lenses have two specifications which represent the two extremes of the zoom range, for example – 70-200mm. Such a lens may act as a 70mm focal length lens, a 200mm focal length lens and everything in-between. In addition, zoom lenses could also have variable aperture ranges. On many consumer zoom lenses, you will often see something like f/3.5-5.6, which represents the maximum aperture of the lens at different focal lengths. For example, a lens like Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 will have a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at the shortest focal length of 18mm, while at the longest range of 55mm, its aperture will be limited to f/5.6. On the other hand, most professional-level zoom lenses will have a single maximum aperture throughout the zoom range. Examples of zoom lenses: Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8.

3) Advantages of Prime Lenses

So why do we need fixed focal length lenses? Here is the list of main advantages primes offer over zoom lenses.

3.1) Cost

Many modern prime lenses are significantly cheaper than their zoom counterparts. A 24mm f/2.8 lens will set you back around $400, while a 24-70mm f/2.8 will cost $1900-2300. Even if you cover focal lengths between 24mm and 70mm with fast primes like 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8, you will still end up paying less. For this reason, photographers on a budget have the chance to experience world-class optics at a fraction of a cost of those expensive variable focal length lenses, and there is no need to make compromises with cheap, lower quality zoom lenses all the time.

3.2) Size and Weight

Surprisingly, many beginners often desire monstrous lenses like 70-200mm f/2.8 with image stabilization. True, these lenses are extremely sharp, have insanely fast autofocus motors and can survive plenty of abuse. However, they are also much more noticeable due to their sheer size, and their heavy weight can cause back and neck pain and even long-term injuries.

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

We can already see just how big this problem is by looking at the booming mirrorless market – even professionals jump at the chance to own lightweight, high quality gear. Prime lenses offer something of a compromise – they trade versatility in favor of size and weight. A while ago, I decided to go with the 85mm f/1.4 lens instead of the 70-200 f/2.8 and never really regretted this decision. Having only big lenses may sometimes mean you will leave your camera at home instead of taking it with you wherever you go.

3.3) Learning Factor

Many photographers believe that being forced to “zoom” in/out using the old-fashioned way, by walking, is a good way of learning composition and finding better angles. It also supposedly helps one get used to a lens better and use it to its full potential. I partially agree with this and I can say that my 50mm prime has helped me in some regards, but in all honesty, such a restraint can be equally damaging to your learning process. I believe it is important to have at least one zoom lens if you are a prime shooter, and vice versa.

3.4) Aesthetics

Most fast, professional zoom lenses, such as 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm, have a fixed maximum aperture of f/2.8. Fast, professional prime lenses on the other hand, can go as wide as f/1.2. For this reason, they offer not just better light gathering abilities, but also shallow depth of field, which can result in photographs with beautifully rendered background highlights known as “bokeh“.

Shallow Depth of Field

Many beginner photographers often wonder why they do not seem to be able to get beautifully separated subjects when using their kit zoom lenses. Due to the small maximum aperture and lower quality lens optics, it is often impossible to get good-looking, “creamy” backgrounds with consumer zoom lenses.

3.5) Low Light

A fast prime lens will allow you to shoot subjects in low light environments without introducing blur, thanks to a larger / wider aperture. Due to typically simpler optical designs, prime lenses can easily “open” up to f/2 or even f/1.2.

Low-Light Conditions

Such lenses will let in twice to three times as much light as a fast professional zoom lens with an aperture of f/2.8. While many zoom lenses feature optical image stabilization systems to help you in low-light conditions, such systems are useless if you have a moving subject.

4) Zoom Lens Advantages

If everything were in favor of prime lenses, no one would use zooms. Despite their extra weight and cost, they are extremely popular and can be very convenient to use. There are several areas where even the best fixed focal length lenses have no way to beat a good zoom. Below are the advantages offered by variable focal length lenses.

4.1) Versatility

The most obvious reason for buying zoom lenses is their versatility. Zoom lenses can be great when a photographer needs to be sure he can handle a variety of different situations – you can go from wide-angle to telephoto in a quick turn of the zoom ring without the need to physically move. Landscape and wildlife photographers, for example, are often limited to a particular spot or area, so being able to zoom to an area of interest can be invaluable for properly framing a shot.

4.2) Image Stabilization

Modern zoom lenses often offer 3-4 stop image stabilization systems, be it Canon’s Image Stabilization (IS), Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR), Sigma’s Optical Stabilization (OS) or Tamron’s Vibration Compensation (VC). Even if you have an f/4 lens you can still get sharp images when shooting non-moving subjects in dark environments. Thanks to the image stabilization technology, your lens will make some of its internal optical elements move and shift to counter camera shake, which lets you use extremely slow shutter speeds.

Image stabilization is not just limited to zoom lenses. Some of the newer fixed focal length lenses also boast image stabilizer technologies, such as the newly announced Canon 35mm f/2 IS. Lastly, do keep in mind that image stabilization can be present on lenses or camera bodies. Sony and Pentax DSLRs, for example, have sensor-based image stabilization, which will work with pretty much any mounted lens.

4.3) Portability

A single zoom lens can replace two or three prime lenses. This also means that you only need to worry about moving around with a single attached lens. A single zoom lens might save you from carrying a large backpack. In a way, certain zoom lenses allow you to reduce weight, because you don’t need to bring several primes to cover the whole range. Less lens swapping also means cleaner sensor and optical elements.

5) Final Words

Beginner photographers are often faced with a choice between buying a fixed focal length lens or a zoom lens. As you can see from this article, both have their advantages and disadvantages, so choosing between the two can be quite difficult indeed. It takes time to realize which gear suits your style of shooting better. Some people end up with a single “do it all” superzoom lens, while others swear by their prime lenses and refuse to ever touch a zoom lens. As you learn how to use your gear overtime and start ironing out your photography skills, it really does not matter what you pick, as long as it does not stop your creativity.


Support Photography Life!

We constantly work hard on adding unique content, gear reviews and up-to-date photography news, in addition to continuously expanding the site with new sections and useful content. However, we need your continuous support to deliver the best content and allow our website to expand its reach. If you would like to help us out, please consider purchasing gear from our links to our trusted partners like B&H Photo Video and Adorama. It won't cost you anything, but it will help us pay our contributors, hosting and other expenses to run this website. In addition, if you feel like we do a good job, you can pledge one-time or monthly. We do not run any advertising at Photography Life to keep it clean for your viewing pleasure, so your support is extremely important for us to keep it that way.

Please see the Support Us page for our partner links and a donation form. Also, don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Avatar of Romanas Naryškin About Romanas Naryškin

A student and a wedding photographer with a passion for cinematography and writing. You'll see me buying film even when there's no food in the fridge. Follow me on Google+, Facebook or visit my wedding photography website to see some of my work.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Kyle

    Why is it Nikon primes suffer from relatively slow autofocus performance? The ‘holy trinity’ seems to focus just fine, but the Nikon primes seem to lag their Canon counterparts, any idea why this is and if Nikon plans to update it’s lineup? As a new Nikon shooter I’ve been pretty disappointed in their prime lineup.

    • 3
      ) Brian

      The answer is simple then, invest in a Canon system.

  2. Hi Romana,
    Thank you for sharing this important piece of knowledge with us. I’m looking for a couple of new lenses and was stuck between Nikkor 50mm. f 1.8 and Nikkor 70-300mm . This article helped me alot to understand my needs and the requirement.

    • 10
      ) noah

      Hi, the Nifty fifty would be the best overall lens- i would recommend however the f/ 1.4would be better for the extra $100

  3. 4
    ) Max

    Hello Romanas,

    Yes you are right, choosing between primes and zooms is always hard.

    One thing makes the choice easier or at least different. Since I work with a Nikon D800 I find primes much more useful. With a 85mm prime I can still crop to the same field of view as if the photo was taken with a 200mm lens and I get still perfect A3 size prints. If I go out with my 24-70mm 2.8 lens I leave my 85mm or 105mm prime at home. As long as I am not wanting the ultimate bokeh I don’t see any difference between the cropped 70mm shots and the 85 and 105mm shots. I have now a fantastic digital zoom. Especially the 1.2 cropped mode I like a lot. It makes the 28mm lens a great 35 mm lens and still more resolution than any other profesional dslr and the worse corners are cut! With the D800 I need less lenses!

    • 5
      ) Weyman

      You are right. You make me to change my mind of buying a Nikkor 85 f1.4G instead of Nikkor 70-200 f4

      • 6
        ) Max

        I sold my 70-200mm 2.8 already because I wanted the lighter option of the 70-200mm F4. Because the 70-200 F4 was not yet shipped I used my 85mm instead. I found out that I don’t need the zoom at all!

        Instead I bought a used 180mm F2.8 prime (a stellar lightweight lens, only a few hundred euro’s !). I did some tests in a zoo to compare f4 and F2.8 and defenitely 2.8 (already very sharp with this prime) gave me nicer pictures than with a smaller opening. It is just that little extra!.

        With the 70-200mm (I expect) you have to stop down at least to 5.6 to get decent results, this means you will loose the professional looking bokeh in your pictures!

        I think it was the right decision to buy this prime instead of the new zoom. OK, no VR but I shoot mainly people and animals so VR is useless anyway and with the great high iso capacities of the D800 I had no problem handheld shooting at all.

        In fact I have more keepers without VR because I take care very good about shutterspeed and don’t become lazy just trusting on VR. The fantastic auto-iso possibilities of the D800 are very helpfull as well.

  4. 7
    ) Frank Jr.

    I am considering purchasing a Nikon AF DC-NIKKOR 135mm f/2 D which is a very good prime lens. My concern is that it has no weather seals. Will the lack of these seals pose problems for my camera in the future?

    • Hello, Frank. It all depends on the conditions you normally shoot in. I don’t own any weather sealed lenses, although I do work as a professional wedding photographer. So far, I’ve managed just fine, but there are times when I really regret not having well sealed lenses, shooting in the rain is an example. I’ve had my 85mm f/1.4D lens wet a couple of times and it works swell, but still, sometimes I wish it had sealing just as a precaution.

  5. 9
    ) Aniket Jadhav

    Hello,
    i am a beginner in photography and going to buy a Nikon D3200 for practicing. my concern is regarding lenses. should i buy its body only and go for a prime 35 mm or 50 mm and a nice zoom lens like 70-200 mm. i dont think the kit lens will be helpfull for me after going through all the tips on this lovely site.

Leave a Comment

*