There seems to be a never ending debate amongst 35mm DSLR camera photographers about what is better to use; a fixed focal length prime lens or a more versatile zoom lens. The truth is that there isn’t a simple answer. Prime lenses and zoom lenses both have their advantages and disadvantages. Personally, I have a mixture of both for my own various uses. Here are 5 of the pluses and minuses of each:
1 – Better Optics – Primes technically offer better optical performance. Since the lens elements don’t need to focus at various focal lengths like a zoom lens they can be precisely made to be very sharp at just one particular focal length.
2 – Weight – Primes are lighter weight and smaller sized usually than zooms. Since they often require fewer lens elements to construct than a zoom, this makes them lighter as they don’t need to be as big and long as they don’t need to extend the lens elements in order to zoom and focus at different focal lengths.
3 – Bokeh– Prime lenses usually have nicer, creamier bokeh. This means the background blurring by prime lenses is often smoother and more appealing looking than the out of focus areas in images shot with zoom lenses.
4 – Wider Apertures – Prime lenses are often made with larger apertures than zoom lenses. This means more light can enter through the lens and into the camera. This extra light results in faster shutter speeds for primes than zooms, which is useful in low light conditions and for creating greater background blurring when desired.
5 – Cost – Some prime lenses are less costly than zooms. This is because they only offer one focal length and, if you don’t require a variety of focal lengths, then you might be better off with a more affordable prime lens than a costly zoom if you feel you might not make the most of a zoom’s various focal lengths.
1 – Better Value – Sometimes buying a zoom can be better value for money if you need to cover a range of focal lengths. This means you can get a variety of focal ranges out of one lens instead of perhaps buying 2-3 lenses. This could end up being more economical and a cost savings if for example you end up buying just one zoom lens verses three prime lenses.
2 – Size – Zooms are typically larger than prime lenses. They tend to look more professional, but they can also be more invasive looking if you are trying to capture candid photos of people on the street. So size can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the situation.
3 – Versatility – When you have a zoom lens you have more versatility in your shots as you can take various shots of the same subject using different focal lengths. You can also change the focal length very quickly without having to physically move yourself backward or forwards in respect to the subject. This means you can more easily take a multiple of shots of the same subject with different croppings with the same lens. For example, you can take some captures with a wide crop and others with a tighter crop all within a matter of seconds using a zoom. With a prime you would have to change you physical position or change lenses to do the same thing.
4 – Convenience – Sometimes having a zoom lens where you can change the focal length will allow you to shoot in certain situations that a prime lens cant. If for example you need to get closer in on a subject, but can’t physically move forward toward the subject, that can be a big advantage for a telephoto zoom lens versus a prime. A person using prime lenses might have to change lenses in that situation to one with more telephoto capability, which slows down the workflow. Perhaps even resulting in a missed shot opportunity while making a lens change with a fixed focal length lens.
5 – Distance – Telephoto zooms can also be very handy if you are shooting on the street and want to be able to capture candid shots of a subject from further away. Sometimes prime lenses, which don’t zoom close-up, forces the photographer to get closer to a subject and this could ruin a nice, natural, fleeting, candid moment if you have to get too close the subject and the subject notices the camera.
So there you have it. And as with anything in photography, buying the right equipment comes down to your budget, and what you really need for the type of photography you mainly shoot. Therefore, before you buy a lens, it is best to consider the pros and cons of the lens you are planning to purchase. Can it comfortably do what you need it to do, will you use it enough to make it worthwhile or will it just sit in the cabinet most of the time collecting dust? Answer these questions first because, for your own personal needs, a zoom might be better than a prime or vice versa. So consider the pros and cons of each and make your lens purchases wisely.