Prime vs Zoom Lenses – Which are Best?

Continuing yesterday’s coverage of prime lenses, we compare prime and zoom lenses today.

Below is reprinted from dPS.

“Darren I’m doing some research into lenses for my Canon 30D DSLR and have come across lenses being referred to as Prime lenses. What are they and why would I consider them instead of a Zoom lens?”

Thanks for the question, you’re not alone in asking it. As DSLRs come down in price I’m finding more and more readers are doing the upgrade and are asking questions about what type of lenses are best. Let me start by pointing you to introduction to DSLR Lenses post which will give you some definitions of different types of lenses. To recap from that post:

A prime lens is a lens that has one focal length only. They come in all focal lengths ranging from wide angle ones through to the longer telephoto ones.

A zoom lens is a lens that has a range of focal lengths available to the photographer in the one lens. These have become increasingly popular over the past few years as they are obviously a very convenient lens to have on your camera as they mean you can shoot at both wide and longer focal lengths without having to switch lenses mid shoot.

As you surf around different camera forums you’ll find people who argue strongly for both prime and zoom lenses. Each have their own fans and each will pull different arguments out about them. Let’s look at some of the pros and cons Zoom and Prime lenses:

Arguments for Prime Lenses
Let’s explore some of the common arguments for Prime lenses. Keep in mind that there are many prime lenses out there and that what follows are unashamedly generalizations.

1. Quality – while zoom lenses are improving considerably in the quality that they offer their users, prime lenses are known for being high quality and having the ability to produce clean, crisp and precise shots. This is an argument that often comes out in the prime vs zoom lens debate but it’s worth remembering that in every manufacturers range that there are some lenses (both zoom and prime) that are known for being exceptionally sharp and there are some that are known as being a little muddy. While it might be true that in general prime lenses are pretty high quality it shouldn’t be an assumption you make of every prime lens.

2. Price – prime lenses are generally simpler lenses in terms of construction. By the fact that they don’t need to zoom they generally have less moving parts and as a result they are generally cheaper to buy. Once again – there are many factors that determine the price of a lens (including quality) so not all prime lenses are ‘cheap’ but do some searching around and you’ll find some that are definitely value for money.

3. Weight – because of their simple construction you often find that prime lenses are smaller and particularly lighter lenses than zoom lenses in similar focal lengths. My two lightest lenses are my two 50mm lenses (I have the f1.8
and the f1.4 – I’m still trying to work out which one to keep). They are great for heading out to locations where it is just not practical to haul lots of gear around with me.

4. Speed – in general prime lenses are faster (in terms of aperture) than zoom lenses. This is slowly changing as zoom lens improvements continue to be made by manufacturers but in the Canon range if you want extra fast lenses you’ll start with prime lenses (for example the 85mm and 50mm lenses for example). This allows you to shoot in lower light without the need for a flash.

5. Technique – one argument that gets pulled out against zoom lenses is that they make the photographer lazy. Instead of having to move around to find the best angle for the focal length they allow the photographer to stay in the one place and just zoom in and out. Some believe this sucks the creativity out of the process. I’m not sure about this one – while I do enjoy the challenge of using a prime lens (it definitely does mean you have to work harder and think about your shots a little more) you can still be a creative and hard working photographer with a zoom lens on your camera if you are aware of the temptation just to shoot from the one position all the time.

Arguments for Zoom Lenses
1. Portability (another perspective) – when prime lens proponents pull out the ‘weight/portability’ argument zoom lens lovers often argue that a point in favor of the zoom is that you only need to cary one lens instead of a range of lenses to have the same focal length range. Instead of carrying around a 14mm, 50mm and 85mm lens you could carry one lens that covers the full (or close to) range of focal lengths. You’ll also never have to change your lens and risk getting dust on your image sensor.

2. Price (another perspective) – similarly – while zoom lenses might be more expensive than prime lenses the cost of one lens in comparison to multiple lenses can often be comparable.

3. Flexibility – perhaps the biggest argument for Zoom lenses is the flexibility that the offer a photographer. They allow someone wanting to shoot at a variety of focal lengths the ability to quickly change perspective and add variety into their shots within a second (or a fraction of one if you’re a quick zoomer). This is ideal for many types of photography including weddings or sports where you have to constantly be looking for random shots and may not have the time (or ability) to physically move closer or further away from you subject.

So are Prime or Zoom lenses best?
Obviously there is a range of factors to consider and ultimately the decision will come down to a number of factors including the type and style of photography that you do, your budget, the need for portability, how often you’re willing to change lenses, the quality you’re after and the shooting conditions you’ll be shooting in.

My own approach with lenses is to go with both. I’m lucky enough to have a budget that allows me this opportunity. I have a couple of 50mm lenses (see above) which are great for low light situations and those times when weight is a consideration as well as a 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens which is obviously for macro shooting but is also quite good for portraits (an added bonus).

I also have a few zoom lenses a 17-40mm, a 24-105mm and a 70-200mm which cover the full range of focal lengths that I generally shoot in.

As I mention above – there is generally a lot of variation between lenses (both prime and zoom). I find that there is especially a lot of variation in the zoom range of Canon (and I presume for other manufacturers too). Most DSLRs come with the option for a kit zoom lens which are generally of a much lower quality than a professional grade lens (in Canon Pro lenses are designated as being ‘L’ series lenses).

My advice to those shopping for a lens is that it’s well worth investing in quality lenses. The camera body definitely has an impact on the quality of your shots but lens quality is where you can really take your photography to the next level. Do some careful research before buying a lens and buy the best one you can afford (without re-mortgaging the house).

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