Most photographers will tell you that the lenses are more important than the camera. Good glass, and the right glass, can make or break pictures. Lenses that are 40 years old can outperform brand new ones when used right because of the quality of the glass.
Lenses work by focusing a series of glass plates inside so that light (and the image) is reflected into the sensor a certain way. As camera sensors become more sensitive it’s become less about getting this 100% right.
Prime lenses have always produced sharper images which is why pros gravitated away from zoom lenses, the quality was always just shy enough that primes won for tack sharp images. This hasn’t changed, but with the improvement in technology more photographers are willing to consider zoom lenses for their convenience. Even third party companies like Tamron and Sigma are producing lenses that outperform the big names in zoom and are almost matching in prime quality for a fraction of the cost.
Despite this, there are significant differences between the two lenses and how they work which may be the deal-breaker when choosing new glass.
The Prime Lens
Prime lenses have a fixed focal length which means that the viewing angle cannot change unless the photographer moves. The focus can be adjusted but the frame of the image cannot. The only way to enlarge your focal point is by moving closer or further away from it.
A prime lens is designated by a specific focal length like 28mm or 50mm or 105mm. There are many different focal lengths and some of them also have extra features like fish eye or telephoto because of the type of glass inside.
Prime lenses sometimes have the option to set aperture e.g f/1.4-1,8, f/1.6-5.3 etc. You can shoot using any aperture setting with a prime lens as this won’t affect the focal length and you’ll still have the same framing. The issue here is that the f-stop number may also depend on the camera sensor size and are not necessarily an accurate description. For example, a 50mm prime lens on a crop sensor camera is actually the view of a 75mm prime lens on a full frame sensor. While the focal length and aperture may be the same, the sensor of the camera interprets this differently.
However, for clarity let’s just assume that the set number means that number.
Examples of Prime Lenses
Canon Prime Lenses
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 ~ $125
- Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM ~ $150
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM ~ $350
- Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L ~ $1,500
Nikon Prime Lenses
- Nikkor 20mm f/1.8G ~ $800
- Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G ~ $200
- Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D ~ $130
- Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G ~ $500
Sony Prime Lenses
- Sony SEL-20F28 E-Mount 20mm f/2.8 ~ $350
- Sony SEL35F18 f/1.8 ~ $450
- Sony SEL50F18 f/1.8 ~ $300
- Sony SEL85F18 85mm F/1.8-22 ~ $600
Sigma Prime Lenses
Advantages of Prime Lenses
Each type of lens has it’s use which is why there are advantages to both. For prime lenses there are several reasons users may prefer them over a zoom lens.
Prime lenses are usually cheaper than zoom lenses, with the cheapest costing less than $100 for most brands. Even if you buy multiple primes to cover the focal range of a basic zoom lens you will still end up paying less overall. This means that compromising by buying cheap zoom lenses isn’t worth the money when you can buy several good quality primes and cover the exact same range, though the downside is the inconvenience of having multiple lenses.
You can get better prime glass than zoom lenses simply because there isn’t as many moving parts. Because of the fixed focal length the glass inside has to be extremely precise. While this precision means sharp images newer zoom lenses can match this, the problem is that they cost an awful lot more. Unless you’re buying top of the line zoom lenses you will never get the same tack-sharp images that a prime can achieve.
Primes are usually much smaller and lighter because they don’t need as many components. The motor design is much simpler so it can be made smaller, and even if there’s no motor in the prime lens there’s simply less “stuff” in there.
Size matters for many reasons, you only have to see how popular mirrorless systems are. The heavier the lens and the camera the harder it is to hold still for long periods and the less you want to have to carry it around. The only issue with this is that by the time you add several prime lenses you’re still carrying significant weight.
Ease of Use
Having only one focus ring, and often only one aperture, means that the learning curve for a prime lens is much easier. There are also many that believe having to physically move to adjust the focal point also teaches you better framing (see Rule of Thirds to learn how to properly frame your subjects), however, it can also be limiting since you cannot see how the image would look with a wider or narrower depth of focus. A zoom lens allows you to pick the perfect framing without moving or adjusting any setting other than the focal length.
The wider aperture also means that low light situations are much easier to capture without getting blur. Prime lenses can go below f/2.8 which even the fastest professional zoom lens struggles to reach. At f/1.4 you’re getting double the amount of light by using a prime lens.Most fixed prime lenses have a wide, fast aperture. This means that you’ll get better light and a shallower depth of field. This creates the bokeh or blurred background with only the subject in focus that many create artificially in post processing. It’s why the 50mm prime lens is often the next step for those who have bought kit lenses having smaller apertures and cheap optics.
Disadvantages of a Prime Lens
If prime lenses were perfect no one would carry anything else. There are situations when a prime lens simply can’t do the job of a zoom.
A prime lens having a fixed focus means that you have to move or swap lenses to get the right framing. It can also mean having to spend the time in post production to do that if you can’t make it in camera. By adding time you’re also limiting your ability to capture split second shots. You may miss a shot or damage your camera in haste trying to change lenses. There’s also a chance that dirt and dust can get in while you’re changing lenses.
Another inconvenience is that you’ll have to carry many lenses to make one zoom lens. This means carrying a bag, and more weight than necessary.
The Zoom Lens
Zoom lenses have variable focal lengths. Unlike a prime lens, by turning the focal ring you can make the subject bigger or smaller and change what is viewable within the frame without moving yourself. The object can be zoomed in bigger or zoomed out smaller just by spinning the ring inwards or outwards to refocus the internal glass within the zoom lens.
The term zoom lens and telephoto lens are semi-interchangeable. A telephoto lens means one that has a longer than normal focal length but it does not mean that it has a variable focal length. It’s common for people to refer to a long focal length zoom lens as a telephoto lens, and while this is true, it’s also possible to have a telephoto lens which is a prime.
A zoom lens has two focal lengths listed on it to show the maximum and minimum range e.g 70-300mm. This means the lens can have a focal length of any number between those. Most consumer grade zoom lenses also have an adjustable aperture, though it is limited at the maximum focal length. Most professional zoom lenses, however, have a limited maximum aperture for the whole focal range e.g 18-200mm f/3/5 compared to a professional 70-200mm f/2.8.
Examples of Zoom Lenses
Canon Zoom Lenses
- Canon 17-55mm ~ $800
- Canon 75-300mm ~ $75
- Canon 24-105mm ~ $800
- Canon 24-70mm ~ $1,750
- Canon 70-200mm ~ $2,000
Nikon Zoom Lenses
Sony Zoom Lenses
Sigma Zoom Lenses
Advantages of Zoom Lenses
Zoom lenses do have their merits. Despite being bulkier, heavier, and often more expensive there’s simply a convenience to not having to carry multiple lenses or swap them when you want to change focal length.
The simple fact is that a zoom lens is several prime lenses in one package. One zoom lens can do the job of several. This means you can go from a wide scene to a telephoto image in a fraction of a second, while changing lenses would take a minute or two and very likely cause you to miss the capture. For some types of photography you simply can’t afford to risk losing that minute.
All the large brands now have image stabilization, either in their lenses or in their bodies. Thanks to this you don’t have to worry about the minor shake from the elements focusing or camera shake from pressing the shutter. Image stabilization counters everything at the slower speeds so that you can still get sharp images. There are a few prime lenses that have stabilization technology, but the technology is moving into the sensors and bodies rather than lenses so this may soon be obsolete.
Zoom lenses are more portable because you only need one zoom lens. By not having to carry multiple lenses you don’t have to have a big bag and can even get away without one. Less weight is better on your back, and you’ll also be doing your camera a favor by not swapping lenses constantly. This means less opportunity for dirt and dust to get into the camera and less getting on to the sensor (and mirror if you have one).
Disadvantages of a Zoom Lens
A quality zoom lens can perform just as well as multiple primes, the issue is the cost. Unless you’re buying top quality zoom glass you’re not going to get images that are of the same quality as a prime lens can offer. The cost is simply prohibitive for the average photographer while buying several prime lenses over time is a lot easier on your wallet.
Prime vs. Zoom Lens – Subject Matter
If you’re questioning your next lens purchase, then it’s probably because you’re moving up from a kit lens or looking to expand what you’ve already got. The biggest thing is going to be your subject matter. For most portrait photographers a prime lens is a much more suitable investment, while a landscape photographer may also be best served by a wide angle prime.
Wide angle lenses are an essential part of shooting landscapes. While there are a few limited wide angle zooms they are not common. They also might not suit every situation but the wide angle allows more emphasis on the subject – a wide landscape which fills the view rather than a central figure. A standard prime lens is suited for more “true to life” images and focusing on foreground elements. A zoom lens on the other hand allows you to bring elements of the landscape closer without actually having to physically get closer, a real advantage if it would be impossible to do so.
Most portrait photographers will tell you the majority of their work uses prime lenses. Portraits are an art, posed, and not rushed which means there’s plenty of time to change lenses to get the right frame as long as the image is sharp. There are almost no instances of portraiture where a zoom lens wins. Even for things like wedding photography, where you may be looking at split second images the speed of a prime lens wins.
When it comes to traveling, you’re often taking once in a lifetime or split second images that you don’t have time to worry about swapping lenses or you don’t know the area well enough to get close for the right framing. A large zoom lens and a DSLR camera stick out though, and if you’re worried about theft a smaller prime lens is much less inconspicuous. Travel, like landscapes, depends a lot on your expected subject matter. A city experience will likely have less need for a wide angle prime lens but a small zoom lens will add versatility compared to taking multiple primes.
Which is better for Video?
Most cinematographers prefer prime lenses. This is partially because they’re cheaper, and while most videographers can only dream of a $100k zoom lens for cinematography, budget still rules on most film sets. Much of this comes down to the type of film being shot and the look that you’re going for.
Primes are used much on film today, while before they were the only choice. The advantages of shooting video with a prime are the same as for stills – cost, portability, sharpness, and fast apertures. Many high quality zoom lenses are just as good as primes these days, and when you take into account most film budgets then a quality zoom lens may be worth more, easier to shoot with, and more versatile than several primes.
Both Zoom and Prime lenses have their advantages, and most of it comes down to what you’re shooting, your preferences, and your budget. There isn’t a real answer to the question whether prime or zoom lenses are better because there are advantages to each. While zoom lenses used to be inferior, if you’ve got the money to spend on them a high quality zoom can easily outperform a cheap prime.
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