Which is better, a prime or a zoom lens? Which kind of lens should you get? The prime vs zoom lens debate goes back decades, but here’s the truth: Neither lens type is fundamentally better than the other. Instead, different lenses are useful for different situations.
So if you’re struggling to choose between primes and zooms, you simply need to identify which lens type is right for you. And that’s where this article comes in handy.
Below, I explain everything you need to know about primes and zoom lenses, including what zooms and primes actually are, as well as their main benefits and drawbacks. By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll know which lens to buy.
Let’s dive right in!
What is a prime lens?
Note that, because prime lenses feature a fixed field of view, if you want to change the magnification of the frame – that is, if you want to capture photos that appear closer or farther from the subject – you need to physically move forward or back.
There are hundreds of prime lenses available on the camera market, designed for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, and these range from wide-angle and standard primes (e.g., the 24mm and 50mm primes I mentioned above) to telephoto and super-telephoto primes (e.g., a 400mm prime).
What is a zoom lens?
A zoom lens offers a variable range of focal lengths; in other words, you can use a series of focal lengths without switching lenses. Common zoom lenses include the 24-70mm zoom, the 16-35mm zoom, and the 70-200mm zoom.
When using a zoom, you can magnify your subject – that is, zoom in – without adjusting your position. Simply turn the zoom ring on your lens, and your subject will occupy more (or less, if you zoom out!) of the frame.
Like primes, zooms lenses are very popular. Every major manufacturer offers wide zooms (such as the 16-35mm zooms I mentioned above), as well as standard, telephoto, and super-telephoto zooms. Manufacturers also make multi-purpose zooms (sometimes referred to as superzooms), which cover a huge focal length range (such as 18-300mm options).
Prime vs zoom: Why choose a prime lens?
Many photographers – including both professionals and amateurs – favor prime lenses over zooms for a few key reasons:
1. You get more features for less money
Prime lenses tend to offer all kinds of useful features, such as wide maximum apertures, robust build quality, and compact designs.
And while I expand on some of those features below, it’s worth recognizing that, despite their impressive feature set, prime lenses tend to be cheap – incredibly cheap, in many cases. Most manufacturers offer a 50mm prime lens for less than $300 (and if you buy used, you can often get it for under $100).
Which makes primes ideal for beginners looking to get started without sacrificing on quality.
Zoom lenses, on the other hand, do offer similar features, but you’ll need to shell out thousands of dollars. You can get rock-solid build quality and an f/2.8 maximum aperture, for instance, but you’ll pay an arm and a leg, which is often unthinkable for beginners (and even for more serious photographers on a budget).
2. You can create shallow depth of field effects
As I mentioned in the previous section, prime lenses tend to offer fast maximum apertures, such as f/2.8, f/1.8, and even f/1.2.
Zooms can’t match many of these apertures, and while some zoom lenses do offer f/2.8 apertures, the resulting lenses are big, heavy, and pricey.
Why is a wide aperture such a big deal?
For one, it’ll create a beautiful shallow depth of field effect, where your subject is rendered in sharp focus but your background turns into a stunning blur:
This isn’t useful for all photographers, but if you do portrait photography, street photography, event photography, or wildlife photography, a heavily blurred background can make a huge difference. It’ll help your subject stand out, plus it just looks amazing.
3. You can shoot handheld in low light
You know how prime lenses tend to offer wider apertures compared to zoom lenses?
Well, wide apertures come with another key benefit:
They let you shoot in low-light conditions.
You see, the wider the aperture, the more light that hits the camera sensor, and the brighter the resulting exposures. So as the light gets dimmer, you’ll be able to achieve a sufficiently fast shutter speed simply by widening your aperture (rather than raising your ISO, which will create image-quality problems). And because prime lenses tend to offer wide maximum apertures, you can generally maintain a usable shutter speed with a prime – while you’ll struggle to get a good result with a zoom.
This is essential if you plan to shoot in the evening or indoors, and it can also be useful when shooting in the shade or on cloudy days.
(The exception is if you work with a tripod. A sturdy tripod will let you use a narrow aperture even in near darkness, though you will lose the ability to photograph moving subjects.)
4. Image quality is improved
In other words, prime lenses produce images that are far sharper and that look much better, at least compared to similarly priced zooms.
Are there sharp, error-free zooms on the market? Sure, but they’re very expensive, and they still may not match up to higher-quality prime lenses.
So if you like to capture stunning landscapes or close-up macro scenes, where sharpness and detail are key, you may wish to maximize image quality with a prime lens.
5. Primes are small and lightweight
Prime lenses, especially wide-angle prime lenses, tend to be tiny. In fact, some prime lenses are so small that you can fit them in your pocket.
They’re also incredibly lightweight; you can slap a prime lens onto the front of your camera and leave it on all day without even registering the extra heft.
These small, light lenses are great for travel photography, because you can head across the globe without burdensome equipment. They’re also perfect for walkaround photography and street photography – you won’t notice the extra weight, and your candid subjects won’t be intimidated by the size.
While there are plenty of heavy primes, many of the wider and standard primes really are insanely light. Zoom lenses tend to be much heavier (especially if they feature wide maximum apertures).
Prime vs zoom: Why choose a zoom lens?
Prime lenses are great, but there are a couple of major reasons to pick a zoom lens instead:
1. Zooms are highly versatile
The biggest advantage of a zoom lens is that it allows you to change focal lengths without changing your lens.
That way, you can use dozens of focal lengths without needing to swap lenses, which will save time and may ensure you get shots you’d have otherwise missed.
For instance, if you’re composing a wide-angle landscape shot at 24mm – on a 24-70mm zoom lens – if an elephant waltzes into the scene, you can zoom to 70mm and capture a beautiful tight shot. Whereas if you were shooting on a 24mm prime lens, then you’d have no chance of capturing a detailed close-up.
This is also hugely useful in event photography scenarios. You can capture wide-angle shots of the entire venue, then zoom in for detail shots, then zoom out for full-body shots, then zoom in for headshots. Make sense?
Of course, the level of flexibility depends on the zoom lens itself. A 12-24mm zoom won’t let you shoot anything but wide-angle images, whereas an 18-200mm zoom will let you go from wide angle to telephoto with a twist of your wrist:
Bottom line: If you frequently find yourself needing to switch between various focal lengths, then a zoom might be the better option!
2. Zooms are portable
I know what you’re thinking:
Didn’t I just say that primes are more compact and lightweight?
It’s true: Primes, on an individual basis, tend to be smaller and lighter. But consider a zoom lens like the Canon 70-300mm. It might not be the lightest of lenses, but it’s basically five primes in one; it covers a handful of commonly used focal lengths, such as 85mm, 100mm, 135mm, 200mm, and 300mm.
Imagine how heavy it would be to carry around five primes – and then imagine how easy and light it would be to carry a single 70-300mm lens. It’s especially helpful for travel photographers who need an array of focal lengths in their bag, as well as landscape shooters who spend long hours in the wilderness.
(This also helps balance out the cost of expensive zooms, by the way. You pay a lot for a single 24-70mm lens, but if it prevents you from buying a 24mm prime, a 35mm prime, a 50mm prime, and an 85mm prime, then you end up saving money, right?)
Prime vs zoom lens: Which should you get?
As you’re hopefully now aware, prime lenses and zoom lenses both offer plenty of benefits, and there are significant reasons to go in either direction.
But which lens type should you buy?
If you’re just starting out with photography but you’re looking to get the best-possible image quality, then I’d recommend grabbing a prime lens. A 35mm or 50mm prime is highly versatile, will cost very little, and will offer great results.
Additionally, go with a prime lens (or a set of primes) if you’re looking for the sharpest images, you want to produce beautiful bokeh, and/or you plan to shoot frequently in low light.
On the other hand, if you need top-notch flexibility, grab a zoom lens. For instance, if you shoot events and need to have a range of focal lengths at your disposal, a zoom lens or two will be a game-changer.
I’d also recommend a good zoom for travel photography, especially if you don’t know the area well. You’ll be able to capture a wide variety of images, and you won’t need to lug around a bag full of primes.
At the end of the day, however, both primes and zooms offer plenty to be impressed by. So if you’re still struggling to decide, don’t worry too much. You’ll get great photos either way!
Now over to you:
Which do you plan to purchase, a prime vs a zoom? Share your thoughts in the comments below!