Primes Versus Zoom Lenses: Which Lens to Use and Why?

Primes Versus Zoom Lenses: Which Lens to Use and Why?


Which type of lens is better, a prime lens or a zoom lens? This is one of the most debatable topics in photography. Some of you might choose a zoom lens and others may choose a prime lens, it all depends on what and where you are going to shoot.

It is really important to know what each of the two types of lenses are, and which type should be used during a given situation. This article will help you in this area.

Primes versus zoom lenses

What is a Prime Lens?

A lens that has a fixed focal length is known as a prime lens. So if you want to change your view of the frame, you will have to go closer to, or farther away from the spot where you are standing. As the focal length is fixed, there is no zoom ring on the lens.

There is a wide range of prime lenses available on the market, ranging from wide-angle prime lenses (such as 14mm and 24mm lenses) to medium and long range telephoto prime lenses (such as 135mm and 400mm lenses).

Primes versus zooms Sigma 20mm

A Sigma 20mm prime lens.

What is a Zoom Lens?

A lens which has a variable range of focal lengths is known as a zoom. Using such a lens, you do not need to move from your spot, and adjusting the zoom ring allows you to get a wider or narrower angle of view. So by using a zoom lens, you can change the focal length in order to adjust the angle of view.

There is a broad range of zoom lenses available, be it a wide zoom lens (such as the 12-24mm or 16-35mm lenses), the telephoto zoom lens (such as a 70-200mm, 100-400mm, and 150-600mm lenses), or the multi-purpose zoom lens (such as the 18-300mm and 24-105mm lenses).

Primes versus zooms tamron 18 200mm

Tamron 18-200mm zoom lens.

Benefits of Using a Prime Lens

Wide Aperture at a Lower Cost

One of the biggest advantages of using a prime lens is that you get to use a wide aperture (small f-number) such as f/1.8 and f/1.4 at a reasonable cost. For example, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens (only $125) and the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens ($1199 compared to the Nikon version at $1599 or the Canon one at $1899). Whereas, a zoom lens such as the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L does not allow you to shoot wider than f/2.8, and that will burn a hole in your pocket (close to $2000).

Prime lens 1

Shallow Depth of Field

A prime lens allows you to use an aperture value as low as f/1.2 or f/1.4, thus providing a really shallow depth of field. Using such wide aperture opening, you can get more of a bokeh effect which means that your subject would be in focus and the background/foreground is blurry. Comparatively a zoom lens may only allow you to go a wide as f/5.6, f/4 or f/2.8, resulting in a wider depth of field as compared to a prime lens.

Therefore, if you are planning to get shallow depth of field (more bokeh effect) then using a prime lens would fulfill your requirements.

Primes Versus Zoom Lenses

Shot at f/1.4 using the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens.

Better Low Light Photography

As mentioned above, a prime lens can let you use an aperture value as low as f/1.2-1.8 which lets more light into the camera. While shooting in low light conditions using a prime lens you can use a faster shutter speed as it lets in 3-4 more stops of light (f/1.4 > f/2 > f/2.8 > f/4 > f/5.6 – a 50mm f/1.4 lets in 4-stops more than a standard f/5.6 kit lens) compared to a zoom lens.

So if your zoom lens at f/4 is giving you a shutter speed of 1/20th, using a prime lens at f/1.4 would allow you to use a shutter speed of 1/160th. If you are in a situation where the lighting is low and you do not have a tripod, using a prime lens would have an added benefit as it allows more light into the camera.

Primes Versus Zoom Lenses

Better Sharpness and Image Quality

There are fewer lens elements inside prime lenses, each placed to perform a specific role. This is the reason why a prime lens produces less optical flaws such as chromatic aberration and lens distortion, thus resulting in better image quality.

The number of lens elements in a zoom lens is more because it has to provide variable focal lengths, resulting in decent sharpness. However, even zoom lenses are getting better day by day in terms of image quality and sharpness to closer match the results captured by prime lenses.

Primes Versus Zoom Lenses:

Benefits of Using a Zoom Lens


One of the biggest advantages of using a zoom lens is that it allows you to change focal lengths without changing your lens. A zoom lens provides a range of variable focal lengths which can be adjusted using the zoom ring on the lens, the range depends on the lens model. To name a few zoom lenses, you can get 18-55mm, 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 100-400mm, and 18-300mm lenses. While using a zoom lens you can even go from a wide angle view to a telephoto view without even changing the lens.

So if your shoot requires you to switch between various focal lengths then it is better to use a zoom lens to save time and to avoid missing any important moments. In wedding photography, sports, and while traveling you should be using a zoom lens the most, because if you switch between multiple prime lenses then you might end up missing the moment.

Primes versus zooms - lens Range

This image shows the range of focal lengths the Tamron 18-200mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC lens provides.


A zoom lens such as the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 is basically five prime lenses in one as it covers some of the most commonly used focal lengths such as; 85mm, 100mm, 135mm, 200mm, and 300mm. Imagine how easy and light it would be to carry a single lens in comparison to carrying five in your camera bag. Though the zoom lens would not allow you to use a wide aperture or give amazingly sharp images as a prime lens would, but it would surely help you pack light. Now it is all up to you, either choose the advantage of the portability of a zoom lens – or carry the extra weight if you are not willing to compromise on image quality.

If you are a frequent traveler who likes to pack light and can compromise a bit on the image quality and the ability to shoot a wide aperture, then a zoom lens is an ideal choice for you.

Primes versus zooms 2

All in all, a less expensive deal

As stated in an example above, the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens is basically five in one (or even more). So now if you do the math, a $449 zoom lens can allow you to use any focal length ranging between 70mm and 300mm. Whereas, if you buy five or more prime lenses then you might end up spending over $4000.

A zoom lens would be ideal for you if you have just started in photography and want to explore different genres of photography. First invest in a decent zoom lens such as the 18-55mm, 18-300mm, 55-250mm lens or the 70-300mm lens. Then once you are sure about what genre of photography you want to go ahead with then you can buy your next lens accordingly.

Primes versus zoom lenses

Conclusion: A Prime Lens or a Zoom Lens?

There is no doubt that prime lenses are superior when it comes to sharpness and image quality. However, zoom lenses are improving constantly, but still not close enough perhaps. Though some premium zoom lenses such as the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L and Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM produce images with brilliant sharpness and less optical aberration.

If you are looking for that beautiful bokeh effect which can only be achieved at wide aperture then you will have to go for a prime lens. It will allow you to choose aperture values such as f/1.2, f/1.4, or f/1.8. Similarly, to shooting in low light conditions a prime lens will give you the added advantage of using a faster shutter speed, thus resulting in sharp pictures.

Primes versus zooms 3

But if you are a frequent traveler or are not familiar with the location, then using a zoom lens will be a safer option as it is a versatile as well as a portable option. Even at weddings or while covering events you cannot rely on a prime lens as there are limitations of moving around the area, therefore using a zoom lens is a wiser choice.

Please share your thoughts on the prime versus zoom lens discussion below. Which lenses have you opted to use?

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Kunal Malhotra is a photography enthusiast whose passion for photography started 6 years back during his college days. Kunal is also a photography blogger, based out of Delhi, India. He loves sharing his knowledge about photography with fellow aspiring photographers by writing regular posts on his blog. Some of his favorite genres of photography are product, street, fitness, and architecture.

  • Mahmud Ahsan

    i prefer prime.

  • walwit

    Kunal Malhotra: Thank you for taking the time to post this well written article.

    I have the Fuji X-T1 camera with the XF 18-135mm lens. I’m very pleased with this lens but I always wonder if I can get any significant improvement if I used the Fuji XF 35mm f/2 lens in some pictures.

    My answer is that It’s not worth the effort buying and changing lenses.

    ¿Can you comment on this question?

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  • Larry Gall

    Prime lenses are usually pretty light since they have less glass. If you can afford to, I’d look into a 35mm prime for low-light, extra sharp and lightweight-camera situations. You likely won’t notice the weight in your bag, and you could always leave it at home if you want to travel light. Choice is yours. I think the 18-135 is a f/3.5-5.6? There is a good bit of difference between the lower stops (1.4/1.8 with 35mm vs 3.5 w/18-135) as you really close off the depth and open the door to the light.

  • And which is your all-time-favourite prime lens?

  • Totally agree with your points. The ability to shoot at wide aperture such as f/1.8 or f/1.4 is one of the biggest benefit of using a prime lens. But if you are travelling, that is one of the situations when carrying multiple prime lenses could be an issue.

  • Mahmud Ahsan

    My main camera is Fujifilm X-T2 and my main prime lens is XF16mm f/1.4. Besides this I have XF35mm f/2 and XF56mm f/1.2. But if I carry only one lens for all purpose I carry only XF16mm. I use it to take landscape, environmental portrait (crop in post process), night shot everywhere. If I carry second prime lens then it is XF56mm.

  • walwit

    Thank you Larry, Kunal, I appreciate you answer my question.

  • Russell Rusty Smith

    I agree with the sharpness of prime lenses. If your manually focusing, a prime lens work for me. Primes only have one ring, the focus ring so I’m not switching between focus and zoom rings. My long lenses above 300mm are all prime lenses. It makes no sense to me that if you need a longer focal length of say 210 mm. I get a sharp image of a subject far away.

  • Exactly, a prime lens allows you to get better sharpness as compared to a zoom lens. But it all depends upon your use and the kind of photography you are doing. If you are a travel photographer and want to avoid carrying multiple lenses in your backpack, then a zoom lens is an ideal choice.

  • Apostolis Tsi

    I wouldn’t change my Tokina 11-16 for anything in the world. It’s like a like a prime and zoom lens all in one.

  • Benny

    I have an X-T10 ( Same light sensor as yours.) It came with a XF 18-55 Lens. The quality of the pictures are great, but I have since bought a prime 35 and Prime 28, and there is definitely a higher quality picture again. I prefer the 35 out of the two. I now want to buy a 60mm prime for its macro ability. As a beekeeper, I want to be able to focus right down to the hairs on thier bums.

  • Peter Lebengood

    I certainly can’t dispute the fact that prime lenses are still sharper and offer lower fstops. I have switched to zoom lenses as I do mostly wildlife photography and find myself in situations that prevent me from being able to use my feet to adjust framing of the shot. Zooms have come a long way for sure. I’m out on foot (shooting handheld) very often which can take me a long distance from my car. My preferred lenses are Pentax’s 60-250 f4 and 150-450 f4.5-5.6. My style of wildlife photography changes rapidly so the flexibility wins for me. However, if shooting long distances from a fixed location then I would definitely opt for a high powered prime lens.

  • Higbe33

    I find the lens I use the most is a Sigma 24-105 on a full frame camera.

  • Wheely Wong

    I have lost quite a few zooms through fungus, but yet to lose a prime. Within a month of use my zooms will have collected dust, rarely do my primes. Every time you zoom you suck in air through your lens, and often that air contains crap.
    I love the versatility of the zooms, but here in the tropics they don’t last long. I always keep them in a sealed tub with good kitty litter in it. But sometimes I’m in the field for three days to a week, and that’s all it takes to have one infected and contaminated.
    Don’t ever put a good lens in a contaminated bag or container, or you wont have it for long

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