a photo showing an owl with background blur

Prime vs Zoom Lenses – Which Is Best?

In photography, there are some debates as old as the hills – RAW vs JPG, Canon or Nikon, full frame vs crop sensor. One of the oldest is the eternal debate about the relative benefits of prime vs zoom lenses.

Of course, as with so many photography gear related questions the obvious answer as to which is best is, “Well, it depends!” However, here I’m going to clarify the options and help you see the wood for the trees. Let’s have a look at some of the crucial areas where prime and zoom lenses differ.

Weight

One of the ways in which prime and zoom lenses differ the most is their weight.

Most zoom lenses contain much more glass than a prime lens – up to twenty glass elements, as opposed to between 6 and 12 in a prime. This means a prime lens will always weigh much less than a zoom of the same sort of focal length.

A cross sectional diagram of prime vs zoom lens elements

For instance, the Canon 24-70mm f2.8 zoom, one of the standard zooms used by professionals, weighs in at just over 800g. By comparison, the Canon 50mm f1.8 prime is a mere 159g. Yes, you can argue that by choosing the 50mm you’ve only got one focal length to play with. Of course, you could buy the 28mm and 85mm lenses as well (both of them f1.8 too) and the three together would only weigh fractionally more than the zoom lens, while having a faster maximum aperture and giving you an additional 15mm in reach!

The weight savings for smaller form factor cameras is even more impressive. With my Micro Four Thirds camera, I can carry the equivalent of 24, 50, 90 and 150mm (all f2 or faster) in a tiny bag and they come in at just 675g.

Remember too, carrying a lighter kit will also enable you to keep shooting for longer. There’s nothing quite as energy-sapping as lugging around huge quantities of heavy gear. Travelling light will allow you to keep going long after those who bring everything ‘just in case’ have packed up and gone home!

WINNER: Prime lenses

Size

An image of canon 24-70mm L lens next to a Canon 50mm L lens for size comparison
Prime lenses are generally smaller than zoom lenses.

Prime lenses are also the winner when it comes to their size. While it can give one’s ego a boost to walk around with a DSLR and a big professional zoom lens, that feeling of superiority soon wears off when you realize how big these lenses are! By comparison, the standard f1.8 prime lenses I mentioned above are positively tiny.

Smaller lenses can be an enormous practical advantage in some genres, such as street photography or journalistic work. Working with smaller gear makes you much less intrusive and allows you to blend in with the crowd more easily. I habitually do my street photography with a compact micro four-thirds camera and a single, small prime lens and I’m all but invisible with this kit. So many people have smaller cameras these days that everyone assumes you’re just a tourist, even if you’re actually a professional!

WINNER: Prime lenses

Price

When it comes to getting bangs for your buck, prime lenses are definitely the way to go. The Canon 24-70mm f2.8 zoom I mentioned earlier costs an eye-watering 1699 USD. Compare that to the Canon 50mm f1.8 lens, which is just 125 USD!

a photo with money notes around a lens
Prime lenses cost less due to having less glass elements and simpler design.

 

While zooms have been around a while now (the first zoom lens was patented in 1902) their designs weren’t really honed until the last twenty years or so. By comparison, prime lenses have existed as long as photography itself. This means their designs have long since paid for themselves in terms of development time and cost. Add to that the reduced quantity of glass inside and they are significantly cheaper. You could buy all three of the Canon 28, 50 and 85mm primes I mentioned earlier instead of the 24-70 zoom and still have over 800 USD left over to spend on something else!

Legacy option

If you want to save even more money, don’t overlook older legacy lenses. Many older primes will work on modern DSLRs straight out of the box and they’re excellent lenses. My first prime lens was a 25-year-old Canon 50mm f1.8 mk1, which I bought second hand for the princely sum of £59. Sure, it sounded like an angry bumblebee as it focused but it was super sharp and taught me a huge amount about photography.

If you’re shooting mirrorless and are willing to buy the appropriate adapter the world is your oyster as there are infinite numbers of legacy lenses you can try for very little cash!

WINNER: Prime lenses

Sharpness and Quality

Zoom lenses have improved enormously in recent years and it’s possible to create superb images with them. However, primes will always have a slight edge. It’s important to remember prime lenses only need to excel at a single focal length, whereas zooms have to cover multiple focal lengths. This means that zoom lenses will always tend to be more prone to distortion and chromatic aberration.

If you’re not convinced about this do take a look at this blog post by Lens Rentals, where they show categorical evidence.

Of course, as I’ve heard Scott Bourne say many times, 90% of modern lenses are better than 95% of photographers so, for everyday use by folks who aren’t pixel peepers, you’re unlikely to see too much difference!

a photo showing an owl with background blur
A sharp subject and a wonderful bokeh. Taken with a zoom lens

WINNER: Prime lenses….but only just!

Light Gathering Ability of Prime vs Zoom

This is one category where prime lenses win, hands down.

The brightest zoom lenses (with only one exception I can think of, the Sigma 18-35mm f1.8) have a maximum aperture of f2.8. While this is enough to create some lovely, creamy bokeh in the background of your images there are plenty of prime lenses that are much faster.

Shooting inside a dark church like this is much easier with a fast prime lens. Photo by Helen Hooker

Let’s assume for a moment that you’re shooting with the zoom lens that came with your camera. Most entry-level kit lenses tend to have a maximum aperture of around f3.5. That’s not bad, but as you extend it to the long end of the lens that aperture will get smaller, with most ending up at f5.6.

Lens speed

Compare that with a 50mm prime which has a maximum aperture of f1.8. That’s a full three stops faster than the long end of your zoom. For example, let’s say at f5.6 on your zoom you get 1/60 second shutter speed. You could get the same exposure with an f1.8 on a prime lens at a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second!

If you ever find yourself taking photos in dark places that extra light gathering ability can be immensely helpful. Imagine you’re commissioned to take photos of a rock band playing on a dimly lit stage, with a lead singer who leaps around energetically. At 1/60 second he’s going to be a blurred mess, whereas the prime lens’s ability to shoot at much faster shutter speeds gives you a huge advantage. To learn more about what makes a lens fast read our shutter speed guide.

WINNER: Prime lenses

Speed of Focusing

This is one scenario where the distinctions are a little less definite. Light is critical to any photo so the ability of a prime lens to gather lots of light can be helpful when it comes to focusing speed too. That said, modern zoom lenses are immensely sophisticated and the vast majority will cope with any everyday situation you are likely to throw at them.

I caught this robin coming into land using a relatively slow zoom lens but its modern technology still allowed me to focus quickly enough. Photo by Helen Hooker

Photographers who work in specialized fields, such as sports or wildlife photographers will often need the best autofocus response to capture fast action. However, for most of them the top end professional zoom lenses are quite quick enough so I think we can consider this an honorable draw!

WINNER: Dead heat.

Flexibility and Versatility

This is one category where zoom lenses win, hands down.

Sometimes there are occasions where you just have to shoot from one spot, so the ability to use a zoom lens to alter your point of view is priceless. This can be particularly crucial if you ever find yourself photographing fast-moving indoor sports or a performance event.

This photo was taken from the edge of a sheer cliff so zooming with my feet wasn’t an option so a long zoom lens was a necessity! Photo by Helen Hooker
Inclement conditions

Zoom lenses are also worth their weight in gold if you have to shoot in inclement conditions. Changing a prime lens in conditions where the air is filled with sand or water (be it rain or perhaps salty sea spray) is a recipe for camera damage. Another occasion when a zoom is probably more practical is on safari – swapping prime lenses in the back of a moving vehicle is far from ideal!

Prime lens purists will tell you that the solution is to change your lens in the car or inside a large plastic bag. But if you’d rather not risk it a zoom lens can be your best friend! If you really would rather use a prime lens, it’s worth considering purchasing or hiring a second camera body for such occasions so you can avoid difficult lens changes.

Trade-off of between quality and versatility

You might argue that a superzoom, such as the Nikon 18-200mm lens, is the answer to every possible scenario. Of course, such a lens does give you immense flexibility of framing but there is always a trade-off. In this case, it’s the image quality you’ll be able to achieve, especially at the extremes of the zoom range. The extremely wide and telephoto focal lengths will be more prone to lack of sharpness, distortion and chromatic aberration. That said, they’re still probably better than many of the zoom lens available in the 1970s!

Of course, if you want the ultimate flexibility when traveling, you could consider taking a zoom lens for everyday use and a fast prime for indoors and at night. You really can have your cake and eat it!

WINNER: Zoom lenses

Creativity

When it comes to creativity, does it matter whether you are using a prime vs zoom lens?

Bokeh effect and subject isolation

From a simple, technical point of view, prime lenses have advantages in terms of differential focus. As well as offering benefits in low light, a large maximum aperture allows you to direct your viewer’s attention to a particular subject in your photo. A small f-number means your depth of field becomes much narrower so you can ensure your subject is sharply in focus while the background falls away into a pleasant blur. Playing with depth of field with a prime lens in this way is huge fun and addictive too!

This sort of shallow depth of field is much easier to create with a prime lens. Photo by Sam Wolff.
Think about composition

We’ve already established that a zoom lens can be enormously helpful if you are restricted to shooting from one place. Conversely, there’s also a danger of a zoom tempting you to stay in one spot, even if you are able to move around, simply zipping from one end of the focal range to the other. This can result in ill-thought out snaps, whereas shooting with a prime may encourage you to produce more considered images because you have to work that bit harder.

Don’t forget too that shooting with a prime lens will help you to ‘see’ at a particular focal length. Shooting regularly at one focal length will become instinctive after a while and you’ll soon find you know how much will fit in the frame before you’ve even brought the camera to your eye.

WINNER: Prime lenses

Specialist Genres

There are several specialist genres where prime lenses have the upper hand….

Video – In the world of cinema prime lenses have traditionally been most commonly used. With the advent of DSLR video capabilities zoom lenses have become more popular though. The season six finale of the TV show House M.D. was shot entirely with a Canon 5D mk2 and a selection of zoom lenses. This setup was chosen because it offered the best combination of quality and flexibility to shoot in a tight space (the episode was largely set inside a collapsed building). If you’re planning to do some videography with your DSLR or mirrorless camera it’s worth considering what you’re shooting when choosing your lens. Prime lenses are great for scripted storytelling where your shots can be pre-planned. Of course, they’re also great in low light or at night. On the other hand, a zoom might be a better choice for event, documentary or journalistic shooting where flexibility is key.

Shooting close up – If you fancy photographing something really small at close quarters a macro lens is the way to go. While some zoom lenses claim to have macro capabilities only a prime macro lens will get you genuinely close to your subject. They come in a variety of lengths but around 100mm is a popular focal length and they make great portrait lenses too!

Tilt-shift lenses – For those folks who are serious about architectural photography, a tilt-shift lens is the best way to keep your uprights straight and parallel. Like macro lenses, these are always primes and pretty pricey too!

Shooting with a tilt-shift lens made it much simpler to keep the building’s vertical lines upright. Photo by Davide Gabino.

Do remember, if you want to try out something specialized and aren’t sure if you’ll use the lens enough to justify buying it, you can always rent them to test drive them.

WINNER: Prime lenses

Thinking of buying a prime lens?

As you’ll probably have realized by now I’m a self-confessed prime lens addict! Of course, I use zoom lenses when the situation requires one but I feel more inspired and creative with a prime lens on my camera. To learn even more about prime lenses, check out 8 reasons to own a prime lens.

So, what would I recommend if you want to buy your first prime lens?

The choices are endless but I would strongly recommend a 50mm lens to start with. The f1.8 versions of the 50mm lens is a little over 100 USD for most brands (Canon 50mm, Nikon 50mm) and is a fabulous lens. Of course, if you buy second hand you can spend even less.

The tiny Canon 50mm f1.8 prime lens

50mm gives you a field of view similar to the human vision so it’s a very natural focal length. If you use a crop-sensor camera you’ll need something wider – around 35mm for APS-C sensors and 25mm for micro four-thirds – in order to maintain the same field of view. That said, you can still use a 50mm lens on a crop camera and just step further back!

Conclusion

As I think you’ll have figured out, my own personal winner in this competition is the prime lens.

Remember though, while much of what I’ve said here is a matter of fact there’s still a lot of personal preference and opinion involved when it comes to choosing between prime or zoom lenses. I hope the information here at least helps you to come to your own conclusion, even if that conclusion still is “it depends”!

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