An important discussion in photography circles revolves around which lenses you use. The answer to this question will certainly rest on the type of photographer you are. The needs of a landscape photographer are very different to those of a portrait photographer. In this article, we’ll look at prime lens vs zoom lens, and you’ll be able to decide which is the right setup for you.
It’s possible you’ll go for a mixture of both lens types, or you might keep to just prime or just zoom. Read on and find out the pros and cons of both of these lens types.
What type of lenses are there?
There are many lenses on the photography market, it’s not all about zoom lens vs primes lens. The focal length of your lens can also have a defining impact on your photo as well. So in addition to zoom vs prime, you also have 5 subcategories to consider.
The below focal lengths reflect a full-frame camera. For crop-sensor cameras, you’ll need to apply the crop factor to these focal lengths. This crop factor can be between 1.2 to 2, depending on your camera. For example, if your camera has a crop factor of 1.5, then a 17mm full-frame lens is the equivalent of 25mm on the crop sensor (17 x 1.5).
- Super wide-angle – 21mm or less.
- Wide-angle – 21 to 35mm.
- Standard – 35 to 70mm.
- Standard telephoto – 70 to 135mm.
- Telephoto – 135mm and above.
These categories are worth considering. If you choose to mix and match your zoom lens with your prime lens, then perhaps having zoom for the telephoto end of these focal lengths, and prime for the standard and a wide-angle lens is an option. As there is a limit to the number of lenses you’re going to carry if you’re on location, some tough decisions need to be made.
Ideally, you’ll carry two or three lenses with you, in addition to your camera body.
What’s a prime lens
A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length that you can’t change. The most well-known prime lens is the 50mm, it’s probably the first prime lens most photographers will use. So why would you use a lens like this, when you can’t quickly change the focal length? There are several advantages.
- Weight – These lenses are often a lot less heavy than zoom lenses.
- Maximum aperture – With apertures that go down to f1 in some cases, they beat zoom lenses by a long way.
- Composition – Having one focal length can be an advantage for composition, since it forces you to find compositions within the focal length you have available. This process will improve your photography skills.
When to use a prime lens
Prime lenses are considered best for portrait photography but don’t discount them for landscape photography as well. The 14mm prime lenses can be exceptional when it comes to landscapes. Plus, that large aperture means they’ll outperform their zoom lens counterparts when it comes to niche fields like astrophotography where you want to photograph the milkyway.
So here is a selection of situations you’d choose a prime lens.
- Portrait photography – This works well for both studio and environmental portrait work. You can control where your model stands, and therefore the fixed focal length is less of an issue. The large aperture then allows you to blur out the background for a pleasing photo.
- Street photography – The most well-known street photography lens is the 50mm. That’s because it combines a focal length that similar to what you see with your eye and a nice large aperture for low-light street photography. There are other nice focal lengths for street photography like the 35mm, or even the 135mm.
- Low light – Once it gets dark, you have the option of using a tripod, but what if you’re subject is moving and you want them to be sharp? This is where a fast prime lens will work the best. Think of a night time festival, and the best lens is going to be a prime lens.
- To produce bokeh – While zoom lens can still produce bokeh, especially at f2.8, the best bokeh will be produced with a prime lens using a large aperture.
What’s a zoom lens?
Okay, next up in the prime lens vs zoom lens debate is, of course, the zoom lens. These lenses have a variable focal length, which in the majority of cases can be manually adjusted.
The ability to quickly change focal lengths can be vital for certain situations that are constantly changing. Think of wedding, event or sports photography. In fact, many landscape and portrait photographers choose zoom lenses because they don’t want to keep changing lens in order to change focal length.
So what’s the drawback to this, and what are the advantages?
- Quick change – The ability to quickly change the focal length to suit the photo that’s suddenly before you can be make or break when it comes to getting the photo.
- Weight – The downside is that zoom lenses weigh more than prime lenses, though to some there is the other argument. You would need multiple primes lenses to cover the focal range a zoom lens offers, and the combined weight of these may well exceed the one zoom lens.
- Aperture – There is no disguising the fact zoom lenses don’t offer as large an aperture. The most expensive zoom lens will go to f2.8, but with that aperture comes even more weight to carry.
When would you use a zoom lens?
A zoom lens is a versatile lens that can be used in many situations, owing to its ability to change the focal length.
There are some situations where it’s particularly good though, and you’ll see those listed below. It should be noted that those zoom lenses with an aperture of f2.8, will also work very well for portrait photography – it’s just these lenses are heavy.
- Event photography – Functions or weddings often have photographers recording those events. Having a lens that allows you to change focal length is essential for these.
- Sports photography – Sports photography also needs a lens that can have its focal length changed. It also needs to be fast, so using an f2.8 zoom lens is important here.
- Travel photography – Travel photography is the definition of needing to be a jack of all trades. You need to capture landscapes, food, street, and event-style photos when there is a festival. As you’re traveling, you also have limited space in your bag. A zoom lens with differing focal lengths that’s not too heavy is ideal here, so think of a zoom lens with an aperture of f4.
- Zoom burst – This is a technique that specifically requires a zoom lens. In order to implement this technique, you need to change the focal length of your lens during an exposure.
Prime lens vs zoom lens
So you have a choice between the lighter primes lenses with their large apertures or the more versatile zoom lenses that allow you to change the focal length but are often much heavier to carry.
Which is the correct choice for you?
A lot of photographers will feel f2.8 is a large enough aperture for them and go for three zoom lenses that cover wide-angle, standard, and telephoto focal lengths. However, that’s going to be a very heavy bag to carry. And, add in a tripod, and you might need to make friends with a chiropractor before long.
Which lens goes in your bag?
Primes lens vs zoom lens have their pluses and minuses, but for some photographers, there will be clear winners. Take a look at this list of photographer types, and the lenses typically used by these photographers.
- Wedding photographer – The workhorse lens for you will be the 24-70mm zoom lens with an aperture of f2.8. Those focal lengths will cover almost everything you need to photograph. A wide-angle zoom is also worth carrying. Occasionally there is time for a portrait session during the wedding day, so packing one prime lens for this, perhaps the 85mm f1.4, is a good idea.
- Street photographer – The 50mm f1.8 is a great lens, however, if you have more money, get the f1.4 or f1.2. As an alternative, the 135mm f2 also works very well.
- Travel photographer – A wide-angle zoom for many situations, and because you’re traveling, use an f4 so it’s lighter weight. A decent prime lens like the 50mm, because, like the street photographer, you’ll want to capture those people scenes. Then a telephoto zoom for day’s you’re photographing a festival and you need the extra reach. Or perhaps there is a landscape that needs to be compressed.
- Landscape photographer – A wide-angle lens is a must, however, this could be a zoom or a prime. If you like photographing the Milkyway, you need an aperture of at least f2.8. However, if you get a wide-angle prime lens, you can get even larger apertures, and this will help your astrophotography. There are plenty of landscape photos that need extra reach though, and only work with compression, so getting a telephoto zoom is a great move.
What lens do you like the most?
The debate over prime lens vs zoom lens won’t be settled in this article. It’s too complex for that, and it really depends on what type of photography you do. We’d love to hear your opinions at digital photography school. What type of photographer are you, and what lens preference do you have? As always we’d love you to share your thoughts and photographs in the comments section of this article. Thanks for reading.