Prime vs Zoom Lens: Which is Best?
Buying a lens is neither an easy nor a superficial matter. Some may argue that it’s more important than the camera itself.
If you’re looking to upgrade your current lens or add a new one to your equipment, you can find yourself lost in a sea of possibilities.
One of the most common difficulties photographers face is deciding between a prime and a zoom lens (or choosing between a compact camera with a ‘fixed’ prime vs a zoom lens.
The thing is, there’s really no straight answer as to which one is best. It all depends on your needs and preferences.
I know that this alone isn’t a helpful answer, so let me explain what these two types of lenses are and, more importantly, the advantages of each.
Prime vs Zoom Lenses: Which is Better?
The main difference between a prime lens and a zoom lens is of focal length. While prime lenses have a fixed focal length, zoom lenses, on the other hand, have a wider and variable focal length. Prime lenses tend to be smaller, lighter and offer better low light performance than zoom lenses. Zoom lenses are generally heavier but thanks to their wider focal range, they are far more versatile.
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What is a Prime Lens?
A prime lens is one where you cannot change the focal length (i.e, the field of view is ‘fixed’). Unlike a zoom, getting your subject closer or further away is only possible by physically moving.
This has some other implications aside from the magnification of the subject. When the distance between the camera and subject changes, you have to consider more factors.
One of these is the compression effect. This refers to the apparent separation between the subject and the background.
The depth of field will also be different, because the closer you are to the subject, the narrower it will be. This is a general rule that doesn’t apply to telephoto lenses with macro capabilities, for example.
You should also consider the lens distortion – for example, a wide-angle lens tends to distort the subject to some degree. See: why do lenses distort?
If you use it to photograph a landscape, you may notice some curvature on the horizon because you’re further away from the subject.
If instead, you photograph a dog that’s next to you, you’ll see how its face will be very distorted giving it a huge snout. That might look cute, but it’s distorted none the less.
So, moving back and forward with a prime lens is not the same as using a zoom lens. This doesn’t mean it’s better or worse, it just means that it’s different.
Prime lenses have many points in their favour, but I’ll get to those later on. Let’s talk about zoom lenses now.
What is a Zoom Lens?
As you might have guessed already, zoom lenses have movable focal length. This means that by moving the optical elements inside the lens, you can change the angle of view.
Sometimes this means that you can have three types of lenses in one: a wide-angle lens, a normal lens, and a telephoto lens. For example, with a 35-105mm zoom lens would cover the whole range.
In other cases, it stays within the same lens type while still offering a range variation. For example, a 10-24mm is a wide-angle zoom lens. On the other side of the spectrum, you can get a telephoto zoom lens; one of the most common is the 70-200mm.
With zoom lenses, you can get your subject to appear closer or further away with the turn of a ring, and without changing the physical distance.
Advantages of Prime Lenses
Some people argue that prime lenses provide a higher image quality. However, there have been great improvements in zooms from most manufacturers.
I believe some zoom lenses can deliver the same level of quality. Not all of them though – which brings me to the first advantage of prime lenses.
Obviously, there’s a wide variety of prices in both prime and zoom lenses, but as a general rule of thumb, prime lenses are less expensive.
At least they are if you’re talking about the price-quality ratio. A good prime lens will be cheaper than a good zoom lens.
So, if the budget is tight, it’s usually better to get a great prime lens than an average zoom. It will give you better quality and sharper images.
Prime lenses are much lighter than zooms because they have fewer optical components inside. This might sound like a shallow consideration in choosing the right gear, but there are two arguments I could say in defence of it.
First, the quality will not suffer, and often it will be higher than with a zoom. Therefore you’re not compromising your work or your images by including the weight into the decision making process.
Second, a heavy lens is not a minor issue. If you’re going without a specific photographic target in mind, you might not want to carry heavy gear with you. As a result, you could end up missing some great shots.
Additionally, if you do decide to bring it along, at some point you’re going to get tired and you won’t be as focused. You’re probably just going to be thinking about going home to rest.
Lugging around a heavy camera can also have serious health complications in the long run.
You need only consider the growth of the mirrorless market to see that the issue of size and weight is real. Many photographers are now choosing mirrorless cameras over DSLRs because of their lighter weight.
3. Wider Aperture
Thanks to the amazing developments by manufacturers, nowadays you can find some fast zoom lenses that make this gap smaller. But still, they haven’t reached the wider apertures that you can get with prime lenses.
For example, some of the fastest zoom lenses can offer an aperture of f/2 at a very high price (see the Canon 28-70mm RF, for example).
In general, a fast professional zoom keeps a maximum aperture of f/2.8 throughout all its focal lengths. The most common will offer an aperture of f/3.5 on the shortest end and f/5.6 when zooming in – you may have one of these ‘kit’ zoom lenses, after purchasing your first DSLR.
There’s nothing wrong with a kit lens for beginner photographers, but it’s usually the first item you’ll want to upgrade when lens shopping.
However, while something like an f/2.8 zoom is desirable, it’s also expensive, and usually the realm of pros or hobbyists with deeper pockets.
On the other hand, a common and affordable prime lens can be f/1.4. Some extraordinarily fast lenses can even open up to f/0.95.
This is an important issue if you face low light conditions on a regular basis – with a ‘slower’ lens, you may need to compensate by shooting at higher ISOs or slower shutter speeds in order to capture the shot.
e.g. a 50mm f/1.4 prime let in 4-stops more than a f/5.6 zoom lens, meaning you can use a faster shutter speed, which can allow you to capture images in a wider variety of shooting conditions.
Or, if you want to have a shallow depth of field for better subject isolation in portrait photography or creating nice bokeh backgrounds (the ability to create background blur).
There’s definitely some special quality about a photo taken with a prime lens shot wide open – the creamy out-of-focus areas can give it an ethereal feel.
Some photographers will tell you that they simply prefer lenses with fixed focal lengths because it forces them to be more creative with their shots.
The constraint of not being able to zoom means they have to either physically change position, or find a creative way to frame their composition using the only focal length they have available.
Whether this is truly an advantage will depend on the genre of photography you’re shooting.
While creatively composing portraits with a 50mm prime lens can be a rewarding pursuit, trying to capture wildlife, for example, would be much more difficult.
Advantages of Zoom Lenses
All these advantages of prime lenses might have you wondering, why would you get a zoom then? Well, there are some times that they’ll work better.
For example, if you’re not sure what conditions you’re going to be facing, or when the action is going to be very fast and you have to adapt quickly to moving subjects.
Let’s see where zoom lenses have the edge.
Zoom range is by far the top advantage that zoom lenses offer and in itself could trample all the advantages of a prime lens depending on your needs.
The possibility of changing focal length without having to change the lens is amazing. You’ll never miss the image of a lifetime because you were distracted changing lens. They’re also incredibly versatile options for event photography.
So yes, this is a big plus, but having a selection of different focal lengths in a single product will mean making compromises in aperture, price, and weight.
Having multiple focal lengths in one zoom can be very practical. For example, you don’t have to plan, think, and carry multiple specific lenses that could cover all your possible needs.
You can just grab your camera with your zoom lens and you’re ready to go. This can be very useful when you’re traveling, for example, or if you just like to have your camera with you at all times in case the perfect picture opportunity presents itself.
Also, in some outdoor situations, it’s uncomfortable and impractical having to change lenses. Every time you do, you risk getting dust or water in or damaging the sensor. Having just one lens that serves multiple purposes spares you from that.
3. Ease of Learning
If you’re just starting in photography it’s very difficult to know what type of photos you’re going to be taking the most.
And even if you know, you might not know yet which focal length is ideal for that photographic genre. So having a zoom lens to start will let you try out different situations until you’re ready to specialize.
Many cameras sold in starter kits come with a zoom lens included. While this is a smart way of getting started, you shouldn’t stay too long with that lens.
Even if you decide that zoom lenses are better for you than prime lenses, then you should invest in a professional zoom that will give you better quality than kit lenses.
Prime vs Zoom Lens | Final Words
So in the battle of prime vs zoom lens, which is best? In truth, there’s no right answer to the question of lens selection in this instance. As with many other debates, it’s all about what’s better for you.
Most photographers end up having both zooms and prime lenses as part of their gear. Some situations might call for different needs that can be best approached with one lens or the other.
There’s a wide variety of lenses from each camera manufacturer and also from third parties – so you can take your pick. I do recommend that you try them out first.
If you have the possibility, rent the lens that you want for a few days and take it out for a photoshoot. This can give you a better idea of what you’re getting.
It’s definitely a contentious topic in the photography community, so let’s hear in the comments below what type of lens you prefer to keep in your camera bag.