Zoom vs. Prime lens, what should I choose? This is the ubiquitous question many photographers ask when they want to buy new cameras and lenses. The truth is, there are so many different lenses for different types of shooting. The debate over zoom vs. prime lens can be confusing!
Furthermore, you have to identify what both can do and decide according to your findings. In this article, we focus on the advantages and biggest differences to make it easier for you to choose which one fits your needs.
Prime Lenses Advantages
Aperture: When a lens has a wider maximum aperture, it is considered to be faster than another with a smaller maximum aperture. Prime lenses tend to have wider maximum apertures than zoom lenses. Sometimes the aperture values in prime lenses can be as wide as f/1.4, f/1.2 or even f/0.95. In this case, the wider the aperture, the more light the camera sensor can receive. This is a great benefit in low light conditions.
Image Quality: Another significant advantage in prime lenses is they have excellent image quality. Many prime lenses are incredibly sharp and combined with a full frame sensor can deliver outstanding images. Despite being smaller and lighter than zoom lenses, they can still produce very crisp photos even at the widest aperture. It is the best option for portraits, while you can isolate your subject from the background and create the “bokeh” effect!
Built Quality, Weight, and Ergonomics: In most cases, prime lenses are light. They are well constructed and designed. Their mechanism has fewer moving parts and high-speed motors so they can quickly focus and capture movement. The small and lightweight design allows you to take them anywhere especially when you travel.
Cost: The cost of a prime lens can differ from brand to brand. In some cases, many would argue that a prime is cheaper than a zoom lens, but this is not always true. Excellent fast primes with wider maximum aperture and great built quality like Zeiss can be more expensive than other common primes. These prime lenses are sharp from corner to corner. Distortion and vignetting are less noticeable too.
The average price for prime lenses is 500 US dollars.
Zoom Lenses Advantages
Aperture: Standard zoom lenses have a variable aperture. This means when you zoom in, the aperture will change and at the same time, you will lose light (your image will become darker). Heavier, more professional zoom lenses work better in low light because they have a fixed aperture. It doesn’t matter how much you zoom in, the aperture will stay the same, and you will be able to maintain the same amount of light throughout the zoom range.
So, constant aperture zoom lenses tend to be a better option, but they’re more expensive. The standard aperture on a fixed zoom lens is f/4.0 or f/2.8. The f/2.8 is wide enough to use it in low light conditions, but newer cameras and technologies can handle noise in high ISO values ending up using an f/4.0 zoom lens without losing detail.
Image Quality: Modern zoom lenses are outstanding! They can compete against most primes and can deliver super-fine results in almost throughout the whole focal length range. Some zoom lenses in the middle of their range can be excellent. There is a small compromise at the end of the range, but you barely notice it.
Built Quality, Weight, and Ergonomics: The last five years, camera manufacturers have created amazing zoom lenses with excellent build quality. Most of them are heavy, but when you hold them, you feel you’re holding something of value. Despite being heavy, they are very easy to use and easy to focus and zoom. More expensive ones, like the 24-70mm or 70-200mm, have custom buttons giving the photographer more flexibility to shoot.
Cost: Fixed zoom lenses cost more than the ones with variable aperture. Shooting outdoors with variable aperture won’t be an issue, but if you need to shoot indoors, you will need a fixed aperture. The average price of a fixed aperture zoom lens is 900 US dollars.
Biggest Differences Between Zoom vs Prime
Focal length: You might have heard that you can be more creative if you use a prime lens vs. a zoom lens to compose an image. This argument might not be so accurate. The reason is, you cannot zoom with your feet even if you could get closer to your subject! You can recompose with your feet, but zooming means changing your focal length.
The different focal lengths give you different magnification and distortion. A prime wide-angle lens will show more distortion in a close-up portrait shot, like on the image above. On the other hand, a 50mm or 85mm will make the portrait look more natural. So you either have to own multiple prime lenses with different focal lengths or own one zoom lens to be able to change focal lengths as you’re zooming in/ out and reach your subject from a distance.
Aperture: A big difference between zoom vs. prime lenses is aperture. Prime lenses have a wider maximum aperture than zoom lenses. In very few occasions, some zoom lenses have a wider aperture than normal f/2.8, but they are not too many and not supported by all camera brands.
Image Quality: Both zoom and prime lenses produce excellent image quality. In the past, prime lenses were superior over zoom lenses, but nowadays this is not the case. Zoom lenses can be equally good, providing great sharpness and beautiful natural colors.
Weight and Handling: Zoom lenses are bigger, more complicated but not necessarily heavier than prime lenses. Of course, a telephoto 100-400mm would be heavier than a 24-70mm or a 50mm prime but lately lens manufacturers are trying to reduce weight in middle-range zoom lenses for Mirrorless cameras like the Tamron 28-75mm F/2.8 Di III RXD for Sony E-Mount. Nevertheless, prime lenses will always be more compact and easier to carry with you.
Cost: Photography can be cheap, or it can hurt your pocket. It depends on what you want to do. If you’re going to buy a camera and lenses for a hobby, you can spend much less money on a camera, a few lenses and be happy. On the other hand, if you want to become a professional photographer and start making money, you should invest in good glass.
Most cameras in recent days with 24MP image sensors and good Auto Focus produce decent image quality. The key to a great image comes to the lens. You can find zoom and prime lenses in the market with almost identical image quality. The more you spend, the better your picture will look.
The wise thing to do before choosing a lens is to figure out which camera and mounting system you want to use. If you’re a beginner, you have to start with a kit lens. The kit-lens will teach you how to use the zoom, how to focus manually and what settings you need to use in manual mode. Then, depending on where you are and what you want to photograph, you will start understanding what different lenses can do for you.
Will your next lens be a zoom or prime lens? Let us know which lens you are considering and why?