Prime versus Zoom

June 21, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

An old but often repeated question in photography - which kind of lenses are better, zoom or prime lenses? In my blog I share my experience by using both kind of lenses and where one is better than the other type. 

When I first started many years ago in film photography, I herited two simple M42 thread based simple prime lenses with 28 and 50 mm focal lengths. I am still convinced today that starting out with a simple 50 mm prime lens (no need for a super fast lens copy at this point!) is the best way to learn about composition and photography. It still amazes me today what you can do with this focal length on full frame (this is the 35 mm film format). Just go a few steps forward or backward and voilà, you get the perfect composition even mostly distortion-free. It is a decent portrait lens to do either head shots at closer distance or family portraits from bit further away. And with a simple close-up lens or extension tube between lens and camera, the 50 mm lens can be converted into a decent macro lens, too - only to name a few examples. Recently I took this infrared photo below with my 50/1.2 prime lens - I had to walk to the right spot to frame it the way it is seen here, but no further processing was necessary in the composition!

Lonely Tree

Later in life I switched mostly to zoom lenses for several reasons: (a) Price: Decent zoom lenses are still quite a bit cheaper than faster prime lenses in a similar focal length. 

(b) Convenience: the zoom lens covers a broader range of focal lengths which avoids changing lenses too often and having the risk of dust getting inside the camera and on the sensor. This can speed up the "snapshot" effort to capture something quickly - in case a prime lens needs to be changed first, the critical moment will have vanished for sure. 

(c) Weight: Instead of carrying a bunch of prime lenses, one single zoom lens is easier portable which is a big advantage for travel or on hikes for example.

Seeing this, why would anybody bother with much more expensive prime lenses? Well, there are a couple of good reasons: (a) People often claim quality of primes having the edge over zoom lenses. This was definitely true in the past, but needs to be a bit more elaborated for more recent times. When comparing excellent prime lenses with newer zoom lenses at the same applied aperture, you will not see a difference easily. All big photo gear brands have now new top quality level zoom lenses which compete easily in photo quality with prime lenses in the same focal length. There is a different story for cheaper and slower zoom lenses, especially so called super-zooms which extend over a broad range of focal lengths (e. g. 28-300 mm) plus having some macro capabilities. I recommend to avoid super zoom lenses - their performance is very weak towards the long end (loss of sharpness and especially in contrast), and they tend to show more distortions at the wide end. A super zoom lens is an optical compromise to make the best of covering a broad focal length range. By knowing its limitations it can be still used sometimes in a decent fashion under good light conditions - I also own one of those fairly cheap super zoom lenses, and I used it a few times for short travels where I couldn't take a lot of gear with me. I was lucky enough to get this close up photo of a sea lily done with my 28-300 macro zoom lens from a distance!

(b) Speed: In my opinion the biggest unbeatable advantage for a prime lens - the main reason why I went back using mostly fast primes. Prime lenses in general have the same speed or are faster than zoom lenses. My prime lens setup consists of the 35/1.4, the 50/1.2 (and 50/1.4 which is also very good), the 85/1.8, and the 135/2.0. Together with a 1.4x teleconverter I can convert the 135/2 lens into a 189/2.8 lens which covers the medium tele range. Speed is important for taking photos under low light conditions, for night photography, for portrait shots, and for better auto focus (AF) accuracy. More light can get into a fast lens at its widest open aperture still providing a focused image with a shallow depth of field (DoF). A good example is the night shot in Holmdel Park below which was taken without tripod support under very dim light conditions with my 35/1.4 lens at f/1.4.

(c) Weight: This claim really depends. The faster the lens, the more and also bigger glass is built into the lens body which increases the weight. My 24-70/2.8 lens is heavy, but adding the weight of my 35/1.4, 50/1.2, and 85/1.8 lenses, I am nearly at the double of the weight of the zoom lens (950 g for the zoom, 1600 g for the set of primes). So the weight argument is a bit vague here in case somebody wants to cover the range of a zoom lens with several very fast prime lenses. It makes sense on the other hand when comparing two sort of prime lenses with each other - the 50/1.2 weighs 590 g, while the 50/1.4 (one third stop slower) weighs only 290 g. That's why I am keeping the 50/1.4 - ideal to reduce weight if needed and still having a fast lens!

Personally I often mix up both of the worlds - depending on the situation, I sometimes choose my 50/1.2 in combination with my 70-200/4 IS lens. For landscape shots I always take my 17-40/4 and my 24/3.5 T/S lenses accompanied again by my 70-200/4 IS. For far tele ranges I only have a slower zoom lens, the 100-400/4.5-5.6 which was so far always sufficient to me. For close-up and macro studies, I often only take primes like my 100/2.8, 105/2.8, or 65/2.8 macro lenses. I also managed to take fantastic close-ups with my 24-70/2.8 and with my other tele zoom lenses by using extension tubes or a reversed lens setup (this setup will be described in my future macro photography blog). The dragonfly photo below was taken with my 70-200/4 IS lens, 1.4x teleconverter, and 12 mm extension tube.

Overall, there is nothing wrong using a good zoom lens! It provides more flexibility and often reduces weight. For more creative photography, I recommend using prime lenses. Just because the depth of field effects are so much better with fast primes. My photos are taken with a broad mix of different kind of lenses - in the end the final photo and the composition counts, it is the photographer's job to ensure the most is made out of the wanted effect no matter how this task is accomplished. Tools (related to lenses) are not just tools, some can be applied better for one kind of job than others. This makes photography exciting!


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