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. Sony, Nikon, and Canon have been rapidly updating and expanding their lens arsenal with new and better choices. Third-party manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron 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 versus zoom lenses in detail, explaining their differences, along with some image samples.
Table of Contents
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 that can not be changed. 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. Here are some of the most popular prime lenses for different camera mounts:
|Nikon Z||Nikon 50mm f/1.8S||$2697|
|Canon RF||Canon RF 85mm f/2 Macro||$500|
|Sony E||Sony 35mm f/1.8||$750|
|L-Mount||Panasonic Lumix S 85mm f/1.8||$500|
|Micro Four Thirds||Panasonic Lumux 42.5mm f/1.7||$400|
|Fuji X||Fuji XF 50mm f/2||$450|
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 that represent the two extremes of the zoom range, like 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. Here are some very popular zoom lenses for different camera mounts:
|Nikon Z||Nikon 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3||$1700|
|Canon RF||Canon RF 70-200mm f/2.8 L||$2500|
|Sony E||Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM II||$2300|
|L-Mount||Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG DN Art||$1100|
|Micro Four Thirds||Olympus 12-100mm f/4 PRO||$1300|
|Fuji X||Fuji XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R||$1200|
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.
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.
Thus, with prime lenses, 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.
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.
Prime lenses offer something of a compromise – they trade versatility in favor of size and weight. A while ago, I decided to go with a 85mm f/1.4 lens instead of a 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.
Many photographers believe that being forced to “zoom” in or 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.
Creative Control with Faster Apertures
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/0.95. 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“.
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.
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.
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.
These days, both zoom and prime lenses are fairly sharp. But for longer focal lengths, zoom lenses tend to lose sharpness near their maximum focal length. This is especially true with lenses that go up to 500mm or 600mm, where prime lenses in this category always outdo zoom lenses.
This is sometimes also true with cheaper zoom lenses that go very wide, which sometimes are weaker at their widest focal length.
Thus before buying a lens, it might be worth checking out our lens reviews, although most modern lenses are indeed sufficiently sharp.
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.
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.
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. Most mirrorless cameras and Pentax DSLRs have in-body image stabilization (IBIS), although for longer focal lengths, lens stabilization is still superior.
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.
Prime Lens vs Zoom Lens: Which Should You Get?
Now that you’ve seen the advantages of each type of lens, which kind should you get? It all depends! If you’re going after very shallow depth of field, a prime lens would be ideal. That’s especially true on smaller sensor cameras such as micro four thirds cameras, where depth of field is not as shallow as with full-frame cameras at the same apertures, assuming that the focal length and field of view are the same.
But, if you need a single lens for a variety of applications, a zoom lens would likely be better. That’s why most wedding shooters simply love 24-70mm f/2.8 zooms, since this range on a full-frame camera can do almost everything from group shots to portraits.
Generalist wildlife shooters also love zooms such as the new Nikon 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3, since it can capture a wide variety of subjects from large mammals to birds. Specialist wildlife photographers love primes like the 600mm f/4 because its speed, image quality, and fast aperture help a lot with smaller subjects like birds.
And some lenses like true macro lenses are only available as primes! So, whether you get a prime or a zoom depends on your application. Although zooms produce amazing images and are versatile, there’s simply no substitute for owning a high-quality fast prime!
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.
Do you prefer primes or zooms? Let me know in the comments!