Are you deciding on what type of lens you should buy? or which one to use in different situations? Pro Photographer and Educator, Abba Shapiro will take the mystery out of the differences between a zoom and prime lens.
Most of us are familiar zoom lenses. They are pretty standard on any pocket camera and are usually the bundled lens with most DSLR and Mirrorless cameras. The primary benefit of a Zoom lens - you can get a wide shot or closeup with the same lens - without physically moving closer or further from your subject.
This flexibility comes at a cost. Zoom lenses tend to be less sharp and not as fast (Light-Sensitive) as Prime lenses. Not to say that there aren’t some really sharp and really fast Zoom lenses out there. You can get Zoom lenses that are sharper and faster - but improvements come at a cost - both financial (a 100-400 f2.8 zoom lens can cost upwards of $2600) and physical (faster sharper zoom lenses usually use more glass elements) so they tend to get rather large and heavy.
For the same price as a moderately priced Zoom lens - you can get a pretty sweet Prime lens. Prime lenses — also referred to as a “fixed lenses” — have a single focal length. The only way of making your subject appear larger or smaller in the frame is to physically get closer or step back from your subject. This is not always an option when shooting sports, landscapes, and events. But because they only have one job to do - say be a 50mm lens - it usually does that job pretty well. It’s not unusual to find a good 50mm lens with an aperture of 1.8 or wider. Because fewer glass elements are required the lens can often be smaller and lighter.
Shot with a Prime Lens, 85mm © Abba Shapiro
So what is a new photographer to do? Well, I find that having a reasonably priced Zoom lens and a good 50mm Prime lens is a great start to your lens kit. As you develop your photographic style, you will discover what focal length lenses work best for your images - and how fast you need your lenses to be.
A good compromise would be to carry a 50mm or 35mm Prime and a 24-70mm or 24-105mm.
Here are some Pros and Cons of Primes vs. zooms.
• Zoom lenses offer more flexibility while shooting when you can’t get close
• Great for sports, events, and wildlife
• When you can't get far enough back
• Large groups, environmental portraiture, and tight spaces
• So you don’t have to change lenses in the field, (which increases the risk of getting dust and dirt on your sensor)
• When you’re traveling and don’t want to carry a lot of lenses with you
Shot with a 24-200mm Zoom Lens, Focal Length 24mm
Shot with a 24-200mm Zoom Lens, Focal Length 200mm
• When your image has to be tack sharp
• Great for Portraits, Landscapes, and Macro shooting
• Light-weight and low profile
• When you can control your shooting
• You’re not running onto the playing field or stepping back off a cliff to get your shot
Shot with a Prime Lens, 85mm © Abba Shapiro
• Images can be softer at the edges
• More prone to pincushioning and Chromatic aberrations on the edges. (Straight lines seem bowed or curved at the outer edges with purple and fringe fringing)
• On lower cost lenses, the maximum aperture can be as small as f6.3 when zoomed all the way in
• Lower contrast
• Can be bulky and heavy
• Can be slower to automatically focus
• Even when physically moving forward or backward, you sometimes can’t get close enough or wide enough to get the shot you want
• Often need to carry more lenses when traveling
• May need to change lenses in exposed environments
• Need to careful when shooting wide open (for example f1.4) that your depth of field is too shallow and not everything that needs to be in focus is in focus
Example of the sharpness of a 85mm Prime Lens © Abba Shapiro
Best advice - choose your lens or lenses based upon the needs of your shoot.
If your needs require a wide range of focal lengths, for instance when shooting action sports, events, travel photography — use a Zoom.
For controlled situations such as portraits, macro photography, and landscapes — a prime lens is best.
For the same about of money, you can usually get a fast, sharper Prime lens compared to a Zoom lens.
Common Focal lengths of Zoom Lenses
Common Focal lengths of Prime Lenses
• 135 mm
Where To Start — Versatility and Bang for the Buck
Again, it depends on what type of photography and situations you are in, but these are the two lenses that I would suggest you start out with. They will offer you the ability to get in closer to your subject and also get nice sharp images.
• Zoom 24-105mm 3.5-5.6
• Prime 50mm 1.8
Shot with a 50mm Prime Lens Image by © Abba Shapiro