Zoom or prime lenses – but which are best?

Portrait 75mm lens at f/1.4
Portrait taken with a 50mm lens on an APS-C camera (equivalent to 75mm) at f/1.4

There are no shortage of zoom or prime lenses to be found to fit most camera bodies. So the question is ‘Zoom or prime – which is better for me?’

When I started photography in earnest I had listened to all the talk about zoom lens ‘versatility’. It seemed to make sense. I’d be able to get all sorts of shot, right? Not only that, but whenever I was out and about in foreign parts, there were any amount of tourists waving around Pentacanikons sporting kit zoom lenses. So right there was the received wisdom – zoom is good!

Based on this overwhelming wisdom of the crowd, I equipped myself with a couple of satisfyingly chunky zoom lenses and headed out into the great wide-open. Additionally I bought a single, rather boring, 50mm f/1.4 prime lens. It was small so it was easy to shove into the corner of my kit as a backup.

A change of perspective

I had expected those lenses to enabled me to achieve all sorts of brilliant, if somewhat vaguely conceived compositions. The reality was that I was quietly disappointed with the results of my work. After all the money I’d spent on my camera I was generating some pretty mediocre results.

While on a trip travelling through Tanzania, the wider zoom lens was dropped on the ground and broke, so I had to fall back onto my only prime lens. That fast 50mm prime was a revelation. I was able to get control of my camera and take the sort of photographs that I had only imagined before – clean sharp shots with good separation of the subject. When I took portraits of people I finally understood how it was possible to run the aperture ring wide and make the background melt away. 

The prime had also fallen on the floor in the same mishap, but you wouldn’t know it. Its simpler, sturdier construction ensured that it survived intact. The zoom I had been using up until then had a truly pathetic widest aperture that is typical of non-professional lenses. It was a triumph of will over the laws of physics to achieve any sort of bokeh.

You could argue that a modern lens with image stabilisation would help resolve that, but the difference in maximum aperture between the zoom and prime was about 3 stops, which is fairly typical. That’s a lot of stabilisation and it doesn’t resolve the issues of pincushioning and poor rendition at the edges a fully open zoom lens will have, unless it is a really big beast.

Zoom vs. Zoom

It is worth taking a few moments to think about what we mean by a zoom lens. Of course, all zooms cover a range of focal lengths, but they can be broadly separated into two categories. One group is aimed at high-end users. These are robustly built (the lenses that is) with a fixed maximum aperture across their focal range. The design attempts to ensure useably high quality optics all the way to the extremes of that range. The physics of this necessitates that they are large, heavy and expensive, and the people who use them tend to have specific requirements in mind.
The other category of zoom, aimed at the consumer market, are more compact and have a smaller maximum aperture that varies as the focal length changes. These are generally more lightly built and the optics are likely to be compromised at their extremes. When you zoom all the way, the lens is liable to various types of aberration and may have a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or worse. Because they are built for mass market appeal on size, weight and cost, they are inevitably of a less substantial build quality and are therefore less likely to forgive any accidental rough handling. This is when the owner discovers that the cost of repairing their lens is prohibitive and now has to fork out for a new one.
These cheaper lenses are brilliant for what they were intended – fun photography. Compact zoom lenses should exist and casual photographers are absolutely entitled to enjoy capturing a personal view of the world without messing around changing lenses or, for that matter, being ridiculed by sanctimonious would-be auteurs. And that is not my intention. But nobody who aspires to more serious photography (and if you are reading this, then I’m guessing that includes you) should actually want to work with these lenses, and the bigger, heavier, pricier pro-level lenses really need to be justified by a clear user requirement. You just don’t want to be spending upwards of two grand to drag around a lens that gives you arm ache, frightens people when you pull it out and you simply don’t really need.

When is a zoom lens the right lens?

A zoom lens comes into its own when you cannot move conveniently to the best position for your subject. For anybody doing sport, reportage or event photography, a zoom lens makes perfect sense. And I can only admire the skill and patience of the true wildlife photographer. A zoom lens is their required equipment.

The big advantage of a zoom lens over a prime is that it can, in a  virtual sense, position you at a previously undefined distance away from where you are standing so that you may tell somebody else’s story. That is the point of a zoom lens – to tell somebody else’s story. It is why they are ideal for working photographers who are being paid to do just that.

A snap is when the environment dictates the terms of your image rather than the other way round

But for the rest of us, those whom are waving  around a great big zoom lens hoping not to miss a photo opportunity in the distance are simply taking snaps. Putting a prime on your camera body is the first step to curing this indisposition.

A snap is when the environment dictates the terms of your image rather than the other way round. You will never get decent shots that way except by accident. Further more, you are looking for things in the distance when all around you the world is in flux.

A good zoom lens is a very useful tool in the right circumstance. If it is not evident to you what the right circumstances are, then select against them.

zoom and prime lenses compared
A 28-70mm F/2.8 zoom weighing 1,070gms versus a 35mm f/2.0 prime weighing in at just 205gms. No comparison?

Hot tip alert!

If something interesting is happening in the distance, here’s a hot tip: walk nearer to it. When the sudden urge takes you to wield a kilo of zoom lens to your eye, you have more chance of causing yourself a nasty injury than you have of freezing the living, breathing, moving world into crisp detail. Just as likely, you will end up with disappointing  images. No amount of image stabilization can compensate for a poor choice of equipment.

If you haven’t got a fast lens you cannot get that fast shot. Poor light? same problem. There is no replacement for a fast lens. A fast prime gives you genuine versatility. You can carry it anywhere and you can use it in most light. Image stabilization will help compensate for camera shake. It will do nothing to freeze moving, living objects, especially in low light.

A prime lens puts you within grasp of beautiful rich shots, full of crystal sharp detail and lush bokeh. Better still, a good prime lens is relatively affordable. A high-end zoom is unlikely to be faster than f/2.8, and yet you can buy an f/1.8 prime that is a fraction of the weight and still have enough change left over to take a plane ride somewhere interesting to do photography.

Fixing the composition boundary

There is another aspect to prime lenses that is harder to define. A prime lens literally limits your perspective to a single angle of view. Logic tells you that this is where a zoom lens can prevail – a broad range of angle of view must surely be better. But it rarely works out like that.

a fixed focal length lens… creates a desirable containment boundary for your composition.

Putting aside the obvious – that you can adjust the field of view by stepping forwards or backwards – the apparent limitation of a fixed focal length lens actually turns out to work in your favour. It creates a desirable containment boundary for your composition. As you gain experience picking the right lens, your images will quickly improve both in composition and technical mastery.

Fixing your perspective acts as a catalyst to be more creative, to see things so much more clearly on an emotive level, to feel more connected to your subject. As is so often the case with the arts, the more the parameters of subject, material, view, colour and all the rest are restricted, the stronger the result becomes.

When you put a prime lens to your eye you will quickly know what to expect. Picking the right place to stand becomes part of the process. You see what you expect you would see. It is so elegantly simple.

Primed for versatility

Prime lenses are lighter, quicker to use and give you more scope in difficult circumstances. Zoom lenses are slower to bring to bear in almost every way. Once you have started using primes lenses, your most cherished shots will almost always come from them.

Unless you have a specific scenario in mind, zoom lenses should be left to those slightly paranoid people who feel that if they don’t have an all-singing-and-dancing lens they’re going to miss out on any number of photo opportunities.

Zoom lenses have their place, but don’t be taken in by the myth about ‘convenience and versatility’. Stick a little 35 or 50mm on the front of your camera and you’ll have all the convenience and versatility you could hope for. If the grass seems greener away in the distance, then you are trying to tell somebody else’s story. Tell your story, the one right where you are standing, the one that you know about.

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