The prime vs zoom lens debate can be a tricky subject for beginners. With so many options, deciding which is right for you can be tough. So, what’s the difference between prime lenses and zoom lenses? Which one is best for your needs? Read on to find out.
Prime vs Zoom Lenses
The primary distinction when looking at prime vs zoom lenses is their focal lengths. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length, whereas zoom lenses possess a broader, adjustable focal length.
Prime lenses are also typically more compact and lighter. They generally deliver superior low-light performance compared to zoom lenses. But there are other important factors, like lens quality, aperture, and price.
We’ll first look at prime lenses. Then, we’ll look at zoom lenses. Throughout our article, we’ll compare prime and zoom lenses to help you determine which ones best fit your photographic needs.
What Are Prime Lenses?
So, what is a prime lens exactly? Do prime lenses zoom? As I stated above, prime lenses have a constant focal length. In other words, they don’t zoom. And like any other photography equipment, it has advantages and disadvantages.
One issue with using prime lenses is that you may not be able to get the photo framed as you’d like it. But at the same time, they make you experiment more. They force you to think of a different way around taking a photo, one you may have missed otherwise.
Photographers buy prime lenses for two reasons, though—quality and aperture.
Prime Lens Quality
The quality of a prime lens is often vastly superior to a zoom lens as it doesn’t have as many moving parts. Furthermore, primes also have fewer optical elements inside. This means fewer chances of abnormalities. As a result, a prime lens is better at producing sharper images.
There used to be a considerable difference between prime and zoom lenses because the technology wasn’t as good. But now you can get zoom lenses that are just as good as some primes. But they come at a price.
I paid almost the same amount for my 24-70mm f/2.8 as my 35mm f/1.4. The quality of this versatile zoom lens is excellent but still isn’t quite as good as the f/1.4 prime. You still compromise even when investing lots of money into a zoom lens.
You can see how sharp the portrait image is below. It’s hard to believe that I shot this at f/1.4, the widest aperture I have. In contrast, zoom lenses would have a bit more trouble producing an image as sharp as this one.
Prime Lens Apertures
Primes have fewer moving parts, so the zooming action does not constrict them. Thus, they often have wider apertures than zoom lenses. The main advantage of having a wide aperture is that you can take photos in low light. The wider aperture lets more light into the camera.
The wide opening makes it ideal for shooting indoors—in a bar, club, or dimly lit room. These are places where you don’t want to push your ISO.
The prime lens option I mentioned above allows four times as much light into the lens as the zoom. An aperture of f/1.4 is four times larger than f/2.8. But keep in mind that f/2.8 is very good for a zoom lens.
The wide aperture also has the advantage of producing a shallow depth of field with a range of creative uses. Portrait photographers usually prefer primes because of this. A soft, creamy background is often precisely what people like to see in portraits.
I shot this photo below at f/1.4, producing a beautiful bokeh. Since zoom lenses can only go up to f/2.8 at most, they cannot produce background blur as well as prime lenses.
Prime Lens Pricing
Another significant advantage of most prime lenses is that you can buy them cheaper. For instance, you can get a 50mm f/1.8 lens ranging from around $110 to $220.
You see a dramatic increase in quality over your kit lens for that price. You also gain the ability to play around with depth of field more.
But it’s also worth noting that primes can get more expensive as the focal lengths increase. While you can get a 50mm for a few hundred dollars, you may have to shell out thousands for a 500mm.
Special Prime Lenses
Some specific lens constructions would be impossible to adapt to a zoom lens. One of them is a tilt-shift lens.
A tilt-shift lets you manipulate your perspective by shifting parts of the lens. You can also modify your focal plane’s direction by tilting some of these elements. The effect it creates results in a unique “mini-world” look.
These lenses are the workhorses of professional interior and architecture photographers. But they are also used in portraiture and event photography sometimes.
Another type of specialized prime is the defocus-controllable lens. This useful tool lets the photographer alter the form and amount of background blur without actually changing the aperture. It’s the hidden gem of portrait photographers.
Super-telephoto lenses also rarely come as a zoom. Some excellent 150-600mm options are out there, but that’s where it stops. Focal lengths of 800mm and above (with astronomical prices) are exclusively primes.
Then, of course, there are fisheye lenses that rarely don’t have zoom counterparts. There are some, like the Canon 8-15mm, Nikon 8-15mm, and Tokina 10-17mm. But there are some good, cheap, prime fisheyes lenses, such as the Samyang 8mm.
What Are Zoom Lenses?
Zooms are perfect lenses for beginners because of their variable focal lengths. In other words, they let you zoom in and out of a scene, unlike prime lenses. Zoom lenses are a lot more complicated. Prices vary a lot more depending on what the lens does.
It’s a common misconception for beginners to think that an 18-250mm zoom lens should cost more than a 24-70mm zoom lens because it has a longer focal length. That’s not true because it does so at a price.
You get what you pay for when it comes to zoom lenses. It would be hard to compare these two zoom options because they have different purposes. So, what are zoom lenses good for?
An 18-250mm is for the hobbyist. It’s often for someone who doesn’t want to carry multiple lenses—perhaps someone who travels a lot.
A 24-70mm is for a much more serious shooter. It’s often for someone who understands the compromises when building a lens with a much longer zoom range. But, at the same time, they need to be able to change the way they’re framing a photo freely. You can’t do this with a prime.
Zoom Lens Quality
The overall image quality of zoom lenses is catching up with that of prime lens options. But I reckon there’s still a long way to go.
I notice that my zoom isn’t as sharp as my prime. But I knew that when I bought it, and I’m still delighted with the results. You could call it a happy compromise.
I have noticed from using both lens types that photos appear much softer when the aperture is wide open. Pictures look better at a narrower stop. This is more noticeable with zoom lenses, but that’s just part of the compromise.
Zooms are less sharp because of optical errors coming from their complex nature. But expensive, unique glass elements and coatings correct some of these errors. As a result, you see drastic increases in quality.
So, there is quite a considerable quality overlap in prime vs zoom lenses. There are websites out there that will show you sharpness samples and MTF charts. They can give you a general idea of how a particular lens performs.
But if you plan on getting a new lens, I advise getting your hands on it and having a quick test. There’s a lot more to it than sharpness and aperture.
Zoom Lens Aperture
I always know my 24-70mm lens parameters because the aperture is f/2.8 throughout the zoom range. But cheaper lenses often lack this feature.
A more inexpensive zoom, such as a Canon 18-55mm kit lens, has an aperture of f/3.5 when it’s zoomed all the way out at 18mm. But it slowly narrows the aperture to f/5.6 as you zoom in, letting in less than half the light. We call these variable aperture lenses.
Reaching f/2.8 throughout the entire range is an achievement that is not very common with crop-sensor lenses. But the three large brands (Canon, Nikon, and Sony) now offer f/2.8 standard zooms. They are part of their advanced crop-sensor systems.
They are quite expensive, though. They come close in price to their full-frame counterparts.
These have since become very popular in the mirrorless videographer community, but also among photographers. They are relatively affordable, especially for what they offer.
Not long ago, Canon introduced a 28-70mm f/2 lens with the new RF mirrorless system. It’s a beast of a lens, for sure, at a beast of a price. But some professionals love it for its image quality and large aperture.
Zoom Lens Price
Quality zoom lenses can cost a lot of money, but they do reach a limit. A good zoom can only do so much before the lens maker has to stop making compromises and start making a new version for a different focal range.
When buying lenses, a zoom is often cheaper and more sensible. You can do more with it.
Conclusion: Are Prime Lenses Better Than Zoom?
So, are prime lenses better than zoom? Which do you think wins the prime vs zoom argument? I will use a prime lens when I know what I’m shooting and the focal length that fits the situation. Or I’ll use it if I’m shooting in low light and want to let more light into the lens.
But I probably still use a zoom lens more often. It’s not a better option. But I can do more with it. And even though it’s heavier, it’s worth the extra weight.
I would encourage everyone to use a prime. I found that my photos started coming out much better after using one. And it also taught me a lot about aperture and depth of field. My camera bag will always have prime and zoom lenses because they have different uses.