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Choosing Between Prime and Zoom Lenses

Monday, November 15th, 2010 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography, Multimedia, Uncategorized


DSLRs are coming down in price and more people are finding they can afford to upgrade. But should you get a Prime lens or a Zoom? It’s an important decision to get right, as lenses don’t come cheap and you don’t want to end up regretting your decision. So what’s the difference?

A prime lens has a fixed focal length- you can’t zoom. Prime lenses come in all focal lengths, from wide angle lenses for good quality portraits through to the longer telephoto lenses for close up shots at a distance. Prime lenses are the originals, with zoom lenses coming to the market later on.


A zoom lens can be adjusted to a variety of different focal lengths. They are becoming popular because they are so convenient. You only have to buy one, and you can shoot wide angle pictures or zoom in without having to waste time changing the lenses over. Makes the whole thing cheap, too. You don’t have to buy multiple lenses for close-ups, telephoto and so on.

There are good arguments for both types of lenses, and ultimately you will have to work out which type is better for your photographic needs. The advantages and disadvantages of both are listed below to help you decide.

Prime lenses

There are many types of Prime lenses, of varying price and quality. The points made below are generalisations about Prime lenses on the whole. The best way to test the quality and performance is to ask your local camera retailer to let you try a few in the shop and see which one you prefer.

1. Better Optical Quality – Prime lenses are famous for producing precise, clean, crisp shots, because they let a lot of light in. Zoom lenses are improving in quality all the time, but Prime lenses still rule the roost. And this is the argument most commonly used in their favour. However, it is worth remembering that while both zoom and prime are known for being exceptionally sharp, there are lenses made by several manufacturers that will be muddy. A prime lens is not a guarantee of quality. Do your research or better still, try them for yourself, before you buy.


2. Faster – Prime lenses generally let in more light. The simpler construction means they usually have a wider maximum aperture. This means you will use a faster shutter speed and take crisper pictures. It also means you can shoot in lower light without using a flash. Improvements continue to be made in zoom lenses and the way they are constructed. But if you want a really fast lens, it’s still better to start with a prime lens, for example 50 or 85mm.


3. Lightweight – Prime lenses have a fixed focal length. So they have less moving parts than zoom lenses. This means, they are much lighter, a definite advantage if you are carrying your gear with you. It also makes the camera easier to hold, so you will get better pictures. Obviously, a long telephoto lens will always be fairly heavy, but prime lens will be far lighter than a zoom lens that has the same maximum length.


4. Lower Cost – Prime lenses are much simpler in their construction than zoom lenses, so they are generally cheaper to buy. That doesn’t mean all prime lenses are cheap, some of the professional lenses are incredibly expensive. But unless you are a professional, you probably don’t need one of these. By searching around, you’ll be able to find some prime lenses that are of great quality and a great value. 50mm lenses (known as “nifty 50’s”) are usually inexpensive, and still take excellent pictures. The leading manufacturers for this type of lenses are Nikon and Canon. Lower cost means you can buy a variety of lenses with different focal lengths. But with a zoom lens, you buy only one lens that allows you to change the focal length.


5. Better Technique – This is an argument usually made by people who are used to using prime lenses, and prefer using them. The theory is that zoom lenses make you lazy, because you can zoom in and out from one place. With a prime lens, you have to move around. This is to find the best position for the focal length you are using and to get more creative with your shots. It’s an odd argument, because obviously zoom lenses allow you more freedom, but with a prime lens, you do have to use your head (and your legs) a bit more. And you will find that many professional photographers still prefer to use prime lenses.

Arguments for Zoom Lenses

Zoom lenses are getting better all the time, with manufacturers trying to improve the optical quality, speed and weight, so maybe one day, there will be no disadvantages as opposed to prime lenses. The advantages of using a zoom lens are:


1. Increased Portability – Prime lenses are lighter than zoom lenses, but if you want a variety of focal lengths, you will need to take more than one. So zoom lens fans argue that taking one heavier lens is easier. Rather than carrying an 85mm, 50mm and 14mm lens, you could carry one zoom lens that encompasses nearly the full range of focal lengths. This means, you don’t have to change lenses, saving you time and also preventing dust or grit getting onto the image sensor.

2. Lower Overall Cost – The counter argument for cost against prime lenses is similar to the weight/portability argument. Zoom lenses are much more expensive that prime lenses, but by the time you have bought three or four lenses, the cost is comparable. Obviously, the cost also depends on the manufacturer and the quality. So, you have to judge this one on an individual basis.

3. More Flexibility – Probably the biggest argument for zoom lenses is that they offer the photographer more freedom and flexibility. And allow you to take pictures you may miss using prime lenses. If you want to shoot at a variety of focal lengths, you can quickly change perspective and add variety to your shots quite quickly. This is crucial if you are photographing events, such as weddings or sports. Why? Because these are occasions that you cannot recreate and you may not be able to move closer or further away from your subject easily, or have time to change the lens.


So, are Prime or Zoom lenses best?

Your decision will come down to a number of factors. If you are going to be out at a shoot all day, you need to consider whether you would rather use one heavy lens or several lighter ones. Your budget also comes into it. The lightest, fastest and best quality zoom lenses are going to be more expensive than the basic ones, and prime lenses can also vary greatly in price.

The most important factor in making your decision is the type of photography you do. For instance, with a prime lens, you can get great quality macro and portrait shots much more easily than you would be able to with a zoom lens. But zoom lenses are great for fast-paced, varied photography. Many professional photographers will use both prime and zoom lenses in different situations. You could, too!

~ Zahid H Javali

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