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Prime vs Zoom Lenses

by Catherine Ramsey (follow)
Blog (395)      Articles (166)     

One of the most common questions people ask me is whether they should buy a prime or a zoom lens.

My answer is never in favour of one or the other, because it simply depends on what you like to shoot most. In this post we’re going to take a look at the strengths and limitations of each, and hopefully narrow down which type is right for you.

What is a prime lens?

A prime lens is one that has a fixed focal length – you can’t zoom it to appear closer or farther away from your subject. Now I know what you’re thinking, what’s the point in that?

Well, probably the biggest advantage over a zoom lens is the quality. Prime lenses are generally known for producing sharper, cleaner images with little to no distortion. They are often quicker and more accurate to focus than bulkier zoom lenses as well. Which brings me to mention that their size and weight make them a good choice for anyone looking to carry lighter equipment.

Another great advantage to these lenses is that they generally have a smaller minimum aperture number (as little as f1.2), meaning they are capable of capturing more available light than a lens with a higher minimum aperture (f3.5 or f4 for example). What’s more, this minimum aperture is fixed, unlike some zoom lenses whose minimum aperture might change as they zoom (more on that later).
The advantages may not outweigh the disadvantages for some however, as the ability to zoom may be essential for some photographers.

What is a zoom lens?

Aptly named, a zoom lens allows you to change your focal distance to appear closer or further away from your subject.

The advantages to this one are obvious, if you need to capture a distant subject, you can simply zoom into it without moving from your position. Likewise, if you need to appear further away (taking pictures of a moving pet that is running towards you for example), you can zoom out to a wide angle to fit them in.

The disadvantages aren’t always quite so obvious for this one. Zoom lenses tend to be lesser quality and produce a higher amount of distortion, particularly at their nearest and furthest zoom points. Longer zoom and telephoto lenses are heavier and require stabilization to prevent shake. Luckily they include image stabilizers or shake reduction features to help combat this.

Because of their long focal range, zoom lenses may be slower and harder to focus. Many of them have a changing minimum aperture number, often f3.5-5.6, which means that at its shortest point, the lens will manage to collect as much light as f3.5, but once the lens is extended out to its furthest point, the most light it can collect becomes only f5.6.
This can be particularly disappointing if you plan on shooting in low light conditions. You will have to pay a lot more to get a zoom lens with a fixed minimum aperture and more again to get one with a very small number (less than f3.5)

So which lens should YOU choose?
Are you a prime lens purist or a zoom lens fanatic? It all boils down to what you like to shoot.

Prime lenses are superb pieces of equipment for portraiture, particularly for distances between 50mm-85mm.

Minimal distortion helps keep faces and bodies looking as natural as possible, while the sharpness and ability to isolate your subject with super soft background blur (with those smaller aperture numbers) makes taking flattering portraits easy. Prime lenses may also be used for street photography, particularly the 35mm lens, which were popular back in the early days of the genre. Their light and compact size makes them the ideal option for subtlety and obscurity.

From sport, wildlife, landscape or travel, and everything in between, there’s a zoom lens focal length range suitable for whatever genre takes your fancy.

If you’re particularly interested in travel and looking to pack minimally, consider investing in an all-rounder lens – one that gives you focal distances from wide angle all the way to telephoto.

Commonly used focal lengths

24mm – not ideal for portraits as this wide angle tends to warp human figures. But often used for documentary, landscape or architectural photography.

35mm – slightly wider than a natural viewing angle, the 35mm is perfect for street photography and journalism, and is occasionally used for portraiture.

50mm – probably the most popularly used prime lens, these babies are light and efficient and won’t break the bank (often nicknamed the ‘nifty fifty’). They create flattering portraits with a very natural viewing angle, close to how we see things with our own eyes.

85mm – a little more expensive but worth the extra dough if you plan on taking your portraits seriously. These lenses create the most flattering portraits with excellent background bokeh.

18-55mm or 24-70mm – this range covers your bases from wide angle to normal and a good option for street photography or documentary.

70 or 80-200mm – a nice option for sports and wildlife shooters, this lens can extend out to a modest telephoto to capture distant subjects.

24-105mm or 18-200mm – great focal range for everyday or “walk around” photography. These lenses are ideal for travel as you can essentially fit an entire kit into a single lens.

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