Why Prime Lenses are Better Than Zooms

Why Prime Lenses are Better Than Zooms

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35mm - SoHo Fire Escapes.

35mm – SoHo Fire Escapes, NYC

How heavy is your camera?

If you have an SLR with a zoom lens attached, the answer is pretty damn heavy. A large SLR body, such as a Canon or Nikon with a 24-105mm lens attached feels like a tank; forget the 70-200mm.

Of course there are many situations when using a zoom lens is ideal. However, I’m hoping to try and convince you to ditch the zoom lens for a prime.

But what if I need the zoom? What if I don’t have the perfect focal length? – I have heard those questions more times than I can count. A wise photographer once told me that you will get the same amount of good shots no matter what lens and camera you use; they will just be different. Zoom lenses can be just as limiting as prime lenses, and prime lenses can be much more freeing than zoom lenses.

By walking out the door with a single prime lens, you are limiting yourself. There are certain shots that you will not be able to capture, that is a fact. However, the benefits can far outweigh that single negative. Prime lenses cause you to take more time to compose your shot, since will you need to zoom with your feet. This can make you think more critically about your composition. A prime lens will free you up to focus on the subjects in the range that the prime lens works best at. You will become much better at finding things within that range and your work will be more consistent because of these limitations. A prime lens makes you think in a certain way, since it is tougher to use. The limitation ends up being an advantage in the long run.

35mm - Cast Iron Building, SoHo

35mm – Cast Iron Building, SoHo NYC

Think about how many famous photographers throughout history used prime lenses.

Prime lenses are lighter. They make your camera more fun to take out. You don’t need a heavy camera bag and you will be able to walk further, explore more, and capture more images. You will have a bounce in your step that you didn’t before. You will be able to bring your camera with you on a daily basis. That will more than make up for missing out on a few shots that a zoom lens could capture. Photography will become more fun! It will become more of an element of your everyday life, versus something that takes planning to do.

After awhile you will learn to see specifically in that focal length, and this is where things really click. It will almost feel like the camera isn’t there. You will be faster and more intuitive as a photographer. This is all because you ditched the zoom in favor of the more limited prime lens.

Oh, and did I mention that prime lenses are cheaper than zooms? Any money that you will spend purchasing a new prime lens will be saved in medical bills from your neck and back eventually giving out from the weight of that gigantic zoom lens that you use now.

35mm - Fire Hydrant, SoHo

35mm – Fire Hydrant, SoHo NYC

So what focal length should you choose? I prefer a 35mm lens (on a full frame). It is just wide enough to work well anywhere but not too wide. Other common focal lengths are 28mm, 50mm, and 85mm (which is a fantastic focal length for portraits). Rent a few lenses and try them to see what you like best.

After a few days of using a prime you may realize that the real limitation was with your zoom lens.

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James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the unique personalities and stories of the city. He is the author of the e-book, "The Essentials of Street Photography" and runs photo tours of New York. To view his work or connect, visit his website.

  • DV

    Personally, I really enjoy prime lenses for the fact that I can choose a project to shoot at one focal length and figure out how to make it work. I also like that when I shoot, when I move to a subject, I stay at the same aperture unlike a zoom that closes the aperture as you zoom in. This is just my preference. I agree with the previous arguments that with certain wildlife, it is too dangerous or to skittish to shoot with a prime. That is why I have some zooms on hand for that. Every piece of equipment has it’s place. We as photographers just have to discover our style and be smart with our equipment choices. Great shooting to you all!

  • Hi Sabra – thanks for the comment! Both prime and zooms are great and can be necessary. As I mentioned, zooms are necessary for many situations and bird or animal photography is one of them. Using a zoom does not mean you are lazy at all. I use my zooms a lot.

    This article is more about how primes do a better job for many photographers at training their eyes, getting used to a specific focal length, and allowing them to see in different ways. From experience, I find that using a prime lens focuses photographers more, particularly when they are learning.

    The weight issue is a big one though. Walking around for a day with a light prime is much easier than with a heavy zoom. Yes, some prime lenses are heavy, but those are the F1.4s that are very specialized.

  • Thanks for the comment Bob. Happy to hear you’ve had that experience with them!

  • I do love the 35, but 50 is amazing as well! The 50mm 1.4 or 1.8 are incredible lenses, for both quality and the price.

  • Hey Linda – I agree with you, they definitely both have a place and their advantages.

  • Hi Johan – yes for situations like that you need a zoom. The constraints of a prime wouldn’t work here.

  • Hi Mali – a 50mm 1.8 can go for $100.

  • Happy to hear you had that experience with it Mel and fantastic self portrait. Gorgeous!

  • Thanks Skinner – I definitely agree with you on this.

    I don’t see this so much of a debate as of thoughts of when to use each and how they can each be beneficial, since both zooms and primes can be great to use. But I still stand by the statement that primes can do a better job of teaching people to see in a different way, more consistently, and to improve their photography more, and that the constraints actually turn into an advantage. Except for bird photography. 🙂 And they’re lighter!

  • Hi Gaurav – I did not say that I thought a zoom lens makes someone a lazy photographer. I said that the constraints of a prime can actually turn into an advantage in many situations and to help photographers to think more consistently.

  • Sloppydog

    I’m relearning, getting a passion for photography again, mostly for travel, so I find these discussions interesting. I looked at getting an SLR, but opted for a FujiI x100s. I still have to learn how to use it properly in manual mode, but I’m still managing to get some great shots. (and some absolute duds as well) I just have to train my eye to notice details when framing shots. I love that it is so portable for travel and I don’t mind moving around to get a good shot. However I can see advantages of zoom lenses as well, but for now I am one happy chappy enjoying the experience of a fixed lens.

  • Remi Zagari

    Thats interesting

  • Michael White

    Hi James! I am preparing to enter the FF world myself, with my present camera being my trusty Nikon D90. Frankly, I find strengths and weaknesses with both prime and zooms, and look at it based on what I’m doing and can afford. Yes, you can zoom with your feet. But believe me, when I photographed that Western Diamondback Rattlesnake last year, I really appreciated the long end of my 70-300mm zoom! I love to shoot wildlife, but sometimes you have to remember that it is WILD life. No matter how I try to sweet talk it, it won’t pose the way I want! 😉 For now I hope to start in the FFworld with some primes, and add some zoooms later. Best Regards…

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  • Mark

    The whole point is you don’t replace the zoom with every focal length of prime, you simply don’t need to. The 24-70 could be replaced with a 24mm, 50mm, and 85mm just like Darlene states. The article wasn’t about that though, it was about shooting with 1 lens and how it makes you approach things differently when that one lens is a prime. It is about seeing things differently, moving outside your comfort zone and trying something different. It is not about the prime v zoom flame wars. To each their own.
    Zooms have improved greatly but primes will still give you wider apertures and better image quality. My 85mm f1.8 stills beats my vastly more expensive 24-105mm f4 L. If I’m taking portraits of the kids then the 85mm or 50mm prime gets used. Were I taking a once in a lifetime trip somewhere then it’d be a high quality zoom.

  • Mark

    Er, aren’t Canon’s main wildlife lenses the 300, 400, and 600mm very expensive primes? It certainly isn’t the 100-400 f4-5.6.

  • Mali John

    My camera is Olympus PEN E-PL3. Cheapest I’ve seen is 60mm Sigma for $209. 19mm for $199.

  • Marcos Loyola Rivera

    True story. They are sharp as hell!

  • 5L1D3R

    To me, the article simply comes down to “how to lighten your load”… I am by no means a professional, and only bought my first serious DSLR this spring, (my first real camera was a Minolta T101 my dad found snagged on a bush in the mountains, 35 years ago) however, I’ve always been technically minded and quickly dove into the guts of digital photography. In my opinion “prime vs. zoom” is a non-issue, and is like saying the mountains are better than the beach. As lenses go, I have a 50mm prime, an 18-55 kit lens, and a 70-300mm zoom. Basically, I got the three lenses that best fit in my budget, yet still give me the most shooting options. I have had to use “two-step shuffle” zoom in some cases, and in others, I had to play with shutter speed or ISO to compensate for a large aperture. What it comes down to for me, is the situation. When I’m going for artistic: close-ups, bokeh, DOF, flowers and kittens, I use the prime. …when I’m taking pics of my kids recitals and can’t walk all over the auditorium, standing in front of other parents, I find the one prime spot (no pun intended), whip out the tripod and zoom, and giggle (quietly) at all the parents with toy cameras, jockeying for front row.

  • Timesshadow

    My perspective on this is that people tend to “skim” what they read unintentionally and don’t realize it. This then leads to a misunderstanding of what was read but still elicits a reaction. Slightly analogous to the point of this article! Which was to affect the way people think and visualize. It has absolutely nothing to do with which is better, only that our author who is also an experienced instructor, has discovered through experience that if one follows the suggestion of using a prime only and daily, it will become much easier to train the brain to see things in terms of photography. That’s all. I have done this myself and agree.

  • Thank you for this perspective Time. I’m happy you saw the article this way. I couldn’t have summed up what I was trying to say more perfectly than this.

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  • bigdeli hajar

    Lenses? I do not have money to buy them all so it necessary do a compromise and choose something.
    ????? ??????? ??????????? ?? ????????? ????????????????? ???

  • dargahi

    The focal length of the lens in place on what basis?
    Otomatik kap?otomatik kepenk

  • Amanda

    I agree. The best decision I ever made was limiting myself to only my 35 1.8 for a month! Learned a lot! But now looking at another zoom (24-75) to add to my lens collection. 🙂

  • Prashant Suhano

    Definately.. Primes are better….
    I used to shoot with zooms earlier, but recently I got a 50mm… And that’s fantastic.. compared to zooms, it it sharper, rich colors….
    Thanks for this fantastic article….
    http://www.suhanodrishti.com/

  • Great linkbait article, by the amount of comments it clearly has served his purpose.

  • smat

    Its amazing the shots I was able to capture once I learned how to use my 50 MM prime…..thanks for the article.

  • JohnChapin

    I’ve found that with a long zoom lens, I tend to zoom in too close. Then it’s difficult to crop with good composition. I’d be better off with a shorter prime.

  • DieMusik

    Agreed totally.

  • Many moons ago, I stopped using zoom lenses. These days I carry two full frame camera bodies with their primes: Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 and Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II. One strap for two bodies (Blackrapid Yeti) helped distribute the weight while walking, even with my osteoarthritis.

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