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Buyers Guide – Prime Lenses vs Zoom Lenses

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Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens

Canon’s 8-15mm f4L fisheye is an unusual lens, the only fisheye zoom that I know of. Most fisheye lenses are primes.

Following on from my article A Concise Guide to Choosing a New Lens I thought it would be interesting to go a little deeper into the question of whether to buy a prime lens or a zoom.

First, the definitions:

Prime lenses have a fixed focal length. There is no zoom ring and no way to magnify the subject other than moving closer. There are two settings to adjust: aperture (often handled by the camera) and focusing distance.

Zoom lenses have a variable focal length. There are three settings to adjust: aperture, focusing distance and focal length.

Both primes and zooms have benefits. I’m not going to try and persuade you one way or the other. Rather, the goal is to explore the benefits of both to help you decide which is the best for you.

Benefits of prime lenses

Image quality

Generally speaking, prime lenses have better image quality. It is easier to make a lens with good optical performance at a single focal length than it is to make one that performs well through the entire range of a zoom lens. This is especially true with wide-angle lenses where zooms tend to suffer from barrel distortion at the shortest focal lengths. With longer focal lengths (ie. 50mm plus), there is less difference in the performance between zooms and primes.

Barrel distortion

This photo shows the barrel distortion of an 18-135mm zoom lens set to 18mm. The curved lines in the frame should be straight.

Size and weight

Prime lenses tend to be smaller and lighter than zooms covering the same focal length range. This isn’t true all the time, high end primes are bigger because they have wider maximum apertures, which need larger lens elements to let the light in. Anyone who has used Canon’s 85mm f/1.2L prime lens knows what I mean – it’s a monster.

Don’t forget that the size and weight advantage is quickly lost if you end up buying two or more primes to cover the same focal range as a zoom. But if your aim is to use your camera with a single, lightweight lens then primes are the way to go.

An advantage of smaller lenses is that they are less obtrusive for portrait and street photography. It’s interesting how lens size affects the dynamics of a portrait shoot. In my experience models, even experienced ones, are much more relaxed in front of the camera when I use a smaller lens.

The Canon 40mm f2.8 pancake is about as small and light as you can get. Pancake lenses are the ultimate in unobtrusive lenses.

The Canon 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens is about as small and light as you can get. Pancake lenses are the ultimate in unobtrusive lenses.

Wide maximum apertures

The wider maximum apertures of prime lenses are useful for taking photos in low light or for creating beautiful bokeh. They also let more light into the lens, giving you a brighter image on cameras with optical viewfinders. However, if you have a camera with good high ISO performance you may not be so bothered about the advantages of using primes in low light.

Portrait

You can only take portraits like this one that have very little depth of field with prime lenses. Shot at f/1.8 with an 85mm lens.

Value for money

Prime lenses often give really good value for money, especially at the lower end of the price range. Most manufacturers have inexpensive prime lenses in their range that give superb image quality, much better than you would get from a zoom lens costing the same.

Benefits of zoom lenses

There was a time when the quality of zoom lenses was so poor that most photographers didn’t use them. Thankfully, things have changed and they have become more popular as the quality has improved. These are the main benefits of zoom lenses:

Convenience

The main benefit of zooms is the convenience arising from covering a range of focal lengths in one lens. This can save you time (swapping lenses) and money (being cheaper to buy one zoom than two or more primes). Zooms are useful as walkabout lenses, or if you are working in dusty or damp conditions where you don’t really want to take the lens off the camera.

With so many benefits, are there any disadvantages? Unfortunately the answer is yes. Here are some things to bear in mind:

The trade-offs for convenience are image quality and size. Zooms tend to be bigger than primes, and if you want one that has good image quality throughout the entire focal length range then you will need to spend some money. One tip is to go for lenses that cover a shorter focal length range, such as a 24-70mm rather than 18-200mm.

Nikon kit lens

A kit lens with variable maximum aperture. Avoid these types of zooms if you can.

Another thing to watch out for on cheaper zoom lenses is variable aperture. An example: an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at the 18mm end but only f/5.6 at 55mm. This makes it harder to work in manual mode (what if you have the aperture set to f/4 at 18mm and then zoom in to 55mm?) and is a general hassle all-round. Pay a bit more and get a fixed aperture zoom.

Saves you having to move

While some people will tell you that a benefit of prime lenses is that they make you zoom with your feet (ie. move closer to or further from the subject to change the composition) there are times when this isn’t possible. You may be at a sporting event, and unable to get any closer to the athletes involved. Or you may be standing near the edge of a cliff taking a landscape photo, unable to move further forward because you would fall off. Zoom lenses are invaluable in situations such as these.

Landscape photo

I took this photo standing near the edge of a cliff. I couldn’t move any further forwards, but was able to frame the image precisely using a 17-40mm zoom lens.

Your view

Now it’s your turn. What lenses do you prefer to use – zooms or primes? Have you bought any lenses recently and why did you decide to buy them? I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say.


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • Tod Davis

    my ideal kit would be 2 zooms and 1 good prime. I like the zooms for their flexibility.

  • MeHighC

    Two or three (fast) primes. That’s it!

  • Convenience and quality, the two are usually oxymoronic when it comes to lenses.

  • The same old triangle: convenient, good quality, cheap. Pick any two.

  • I prefer to shoot with primes, but I do like to have a 24-70 with me at weddings. It is helpful when the day picks up and I don’t have time to change lenses back and forth. Great post!

  • Canon are not the only *not* the only manufacturer of a fisheye zoom, they aren’t even the first: Pentax introduced the smc PENTAX-DA FISH-EYE 1:3.5-4.5 10-17mm ED (IF) in 2006, four years before the Canon lens. Perhaps Canon recognised a good thing and copied the concept?

    Also, if it’s primes you want, Pentax are head-and-shoulders above Canikon, especially with the Limited series of primes.

  • DarCam7

    Primes all the way, with the exception at the wide angle which I prefer the Tokina 11-16. Other primes include a 35mm or 50mm and an 85mm. That’s all. Unless you’re a wedding, wildlife or sports photographer, zooms are too expensive for what they give you back.

  • I’ve been toying with buying a standard zoom to complement/replace my 35mm prime which is my only ‘standard’ focal length lens (my other two are a 10-18 wide angle and a 55-210 zoom – all Sony E-mount with a NEX-6).

    I’ve been looking for a ‘premium’ standard zoom to be my everyday carryaround but even the Sony Zeiss 16-70 is getting very mixed reviews. Will need to stick with my single prime for now I think.

  • Jose Fernando Rojas Martín del

    CANON Ladys & Gentlemen or is there other brand in dslr cameras??

  • Barry E Warren

    Great read and information, I still haven’t got a Prime Lens yet. Most of my work is landscape and wildlife, But as fare as a prime not sure between a 50mm or 70mm

  • David

    There is also the Tokina 10-17 f3.5-4.4, which is a nice piece of equipment to have in your bag.

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    my kit came with two zooms- 18-55mm and 75-300mm, i use the first one for landscapes and the second for portraits. i am saving up for a 55mm 1.4 prime lens and want a fisheye sometime in the future. i am a newbie and based my decision on the 50mm prime on what i usually end up shooting with

  • I prefer to use my prime but spend most of my time with the zoom on. When you’re just wandering, waiting for something to catch your eye it may be close or far and I don’t have to switch lenses as much. But I still love forcing myself to use the prime for a day no matter what.

  • idb

    I’m old school so my preference is for primes but I also appreciate the convenience of zooms, especially for travel photography. I will definitely replace my current short zoom with a higher quality, fixed aperture zoom as soon as I can afford to do so. Btw, my most recent addition was the Pentax 10-17 fisheye mentioned previously. It’s a lot of fun and there isn’t even too much variation in the aperture during zooming. It’s essentially an f/4 lens. Current primes are 30, 35, 50 and 90. I just need 200 and maybe a fast 24.

  • The Tokina has the same optical formula as the Pentax, but lacks refinements like the SMC coating (Pentax’s SMC system, which may or may not be the same as Zeiss’s T* system, is probably the best multicoating system around (although Pentax have recently introduced a new HD system which has even higher performance)). Pentax went through a period of co-developing or sharing certain lens designs with Tokina (the 12-24 mm f/4 is another example, with the Pentax version having superior flare resistance to the Tokina, it appears, probably due to SMC compared to Tokina’s multicoating system).

  • My lightweight rig is a Pentax K-5 with 15 mm f/4, 35 mm f/2.8 macro, and 70 mm f/2.4 Limited lenses (roughly equivalent to a 24 mm, 55 mm, 105 mm setup on 35 mm film, which is about what I had on my old Olympus OM-1n); I recently added a manual-focus smc Pentax-A 135 mm f/2.8 (200 mm equivalent) which despite negative comments on the web, performs very well. That lot, plus filters, L-bracket, etc. all fit in a Bellingham Alice (L2) bag with AVEA pouches (one of which holds a lightweight waterproof). This is coupled with a very lightweight Feisol tripod and Acratech ballhead. In my 35 mm days I would have been delighted with this rig.

    My big rig is still the K-5, but with 12-24 mm f/4 DA, 16-50 mm f/2.8 DA*, and 60-250 mm f/4 DA*, This goes into a Lowepro 300 AW, which can also hold a Fotodiox M42 manual bellows with a Minolta 75 mm f/4.5 enlarger lens plus an X-Y rack. This is accompanied by my Manfrotto magfiber tripod. All equipment uses Arca-Swiss compatible plates, so I can mix and match.

  • I love my primes but … I want to a 24-70mm f/2.8 and 12-24mm f/2.8 to my kit.

  • Sony, Olympus, Fuji, Nikon, Pentax or was the question rhetorical?

  • I remember sharing the responsibility for a local event shoot with another photographer. I decided to use my 85mm f/1.8 so I could get close ups shots of the attendees. Later there was a need for a group shot but the venue had limited space for me to get everyone in the frame. While I fumbled for my 35mm and swapped lenses the other photographer took the shot with his 24-70mm.

    Perhaps you meant to say “for my purposes zooms are too expensive for what they give back.”

  • DarCam7

    I agree with you. For my purposes, zooms don’t offer much, but like I stated at the end of that earlier post, if you’re a wedding photographer, zooms are invaluable.

    Certainly releaves a lot of the stress switching back and forth.

  • I’ve been shooting mostly with 2 zooms for the whole last year, a 12-35 and a 35-100 (24-70 and 70-200 in FF equivalents), and these 2 lenses have covered most of the needs I have had all along. In my last photowalk I visited Bangkok’s biggest fresh market and only used the 35-100, from general street to portraits. See it here! http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2014/02/khlong-toei-market-all-things-flesh.html

  • Edmund

    I completely agree with you on pancake lenses. Attached to a micro 4/3 body the 20mm f1.7 enables the camera to slip into my pocket and is very inconspicuous. But I wouldn’t ever give up my 7mm-14mm fixed f4 (14-28 in full frame) which is just amazing at all focal lengths and indispensable for interior shots.

  • MPF48

    I am an amateur nature photographer – wild flowers (macro), dragonflies, butterflies, wildlife & scenic. I have a couple of zoom 24-70, 70-300 and fixed 40, 55, 85. I use the zooms a lot as they give me greater range in framing the subject without moving or before the subject bolts. I did not realize that primes increase the Bokeh effect so thanks for that tip.

  • Victoria Barton

    i have my kit lens for my canon and a 70-300mm zoom for my canon. I bought myself the nifty 50 I also use some non canon lenses I have a 26mm pentax lens I picked up in a antique store for 10 dollars which takes the most awesome landscape photos. I also use my old 50mm lens from my pentax film camera on my canon I also have a pentax macro lens I use on my canon also.

  • Gaston Plourde

    Having an Fujifilm X-T1, I am very pleased with the Fujinon XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4.0.
    I am looking forward for a prime but don’t know yet if it will be a Zeiss Distagon T 2.8, 12 mm or perhaps the Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2
    And of course, there is another zomm that is very interesting and it is the XF 10-24mm also from Fujinon
    I don’t think I can go wrong with either of these, can’t I.

  • pouyan

    Very handy if your out and about and wanting to check a second hand item.
    ?? ?????? ???????? ?? ????

  • elin

    Great photo! It’s amazing how every day objects can be transformed with this technique.????? ?????????? ???? ????

  • Diane Bergander

    I use a zoom for travel and just making photos at a party or gathering, but prime lenses for photography when I am at home.

  • Sohi Videostill

    best portrait lens

  • Barbara

    When I bought my first 35mm camera, I needed something that I didn’t have to change lenses. I am a biologist and the zoom lenses I have purchased over the years has given me great benefits. You have to capture a moment without having to worry about taking the time to change lenses.

  • Jon

    Exactly! 24-70 n 70-200 attached to the bodies with 85 f1.2 as standby. I m using trolley to bring the gears to shooting location. To trim down weights; 24-70 DSLR with GR as prime

  • Marc Thibault

    i buy 1 zoom nikon af-s35mm 1.1.8g its agood one..for the day???do i have block my iso at 100 or automatic..thanks,,good job thanks..

  • Marc Thibault

    i have a nikon d5300..do i have setting..in 3d…..in zone af..or automatic..with this zoom a spoke before..??thanks..what do you thing about this picture..

  • Marc Thibault

    my exfix

  • Marc Thibault

    i have not filter ..incuded..

  • Carlos J Encarnacion

    Everyone knows that he who dies with the most toys wins. I started with a Pentax KX back in ’75. Always dreaming of more toys, zooms included. Never went pro, although I know I can kick a few so called pro’s butt. So, what I do is for my enjoyment and can sacrifice a little bit of quality to get the shot. Therefore, zooms can make the cut and now that we enjoy auto ISO and the sensor range is more forgiving than film, even more so. But, I still prefer primes over zooms. Even cheap primes like pre-set 400 and 500mm lenses will give you some fantastic results. For the most part, I can live sans all automation as long as I have integrated metering. Everything else is just icing on the cake. It would be soo nice if someone invented a camera back with a sensor to retro fit old film cameras.

  • Omar Spence

    I only use primes and that strategy works well once you get used to it. It really forces you to think and use your creativity (and your legs). If you must use zooms, you really should avoid using zooms with more than a 3x zoom factor (tele divided by wide), all the best zooms stick to this rule. Also, stick to zooms with a constant maximum aperture throughout the zoom range and anything slower than F/2.8 is a waste of money. Translation; if you cannot afford 2+ grand for a high end zoom, stick to primes, and even then, a high end prime will still outperform the best zoom out there, let in a lot more light and still cost less for a given focal length.

  • Boris Genov

    “Pay a bit more and get a fixed aperture zoom” – “A BIT more”? In reality it is “Pay a GREAT MANY more and get a fixed aperture zoom”!

  • Trupti Das

    Its all depend on ur requirement
    ..

  • W8post

    Old school all primes. Now [sic] we have digital and ‘everybody’ suddenly loves zooms!? How come? (I had a Hasselblad 1600F + an 800mm Schneider; there was nothing else. People asking me I go on elephant hunt…)

  • Stephen Phillips

    great topic-why have all the hustle of carrying lots of lenses on holiday etc risk of dust etc-? i find my canon 18-200 s does a great job

  • It’s a hard one isn’t it. After all these years as an amateur photographer, primarily of landscapes, travel and astrophotography I’ve gone from zooms to primes to a mix of both. Currently using 24-70mm F2.8 along with 14mm & 12mm F2.8’s + the 85 & 135. Works for me. The standard lens is a decent walkaround and the others are good for specific shots.

    Got rid of the long zooms because of the weight, but I must say I do miss them. My back doesn’t agree though. That said, I would dearly love to replace my 12mm, 14mm and 24mm ( all three are Samyang/Rokinon ) with the Tamron 15-30.

    If only the laws of physics didn’t get in the way of someone building a semi portable 24-200mm F2.8 zoom, but the 70-200 alone is too much of a beast I find 😀

  • jdizzl

    “You can only take portraits like this one that have very little depth of field with prime lenses. Shot at f/1.8 with an 85mm lens.” — This is completely false and bad information. In fact, any of the 70-200 or 80-200mm zooms can achieve better DOF than an 85 1.8 past ~105mm focal length at 2.8 and a 10 foot subject distance. Narrow depth of field is a combination of distance to subject, focal length and aperture.

  • Rolands Mileika

    Victoria, it must be very nice to own all that equipment that you stressed 7! times that its yours rather than anybody else’s 🙂

  • Victoria Barton

    I do not understand what your problem is.

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