Zoom lenses have recently hit the market as the top choice for professional photographers looking for a more versatile lens than prime lenses. More recently, image sensors have produced more amazing quality with sharper images at high ISO’s. With such sharp images, it is understandable that the convenient zoom lens is the more obvious choice. You can even get a cheap lens for every day with sharp images with the correct image stabilization and enough versatility.
Meanwhile, modern pro-grade lenses have such precise quality and surpass prime lenses with the same focal range. Prime lenses are still trendy choices. And wise ones too. Nikon, Canon, and Sony are producing the most modern and new lens choices superior to their predecessors. You will even see other lens brands like Sigma, producing such modern marvels for the market.
With all these types of lenses on the market, it’s no surprise that the choice between a prime and zoom lens is difficult for most customers like yourself. Let’s go over prime vs zoom lenses and see their differences at different focal lengths and other variables like low light performance, shutter speed, range of focal lengths, and zoom range. Overall, you’ll be able to tell which lens produces better image quality for your work as a photographer.
What is a Prime Lens?
Prime lenses come with a fixed focal length and are generally referred to as a fixed lens. You can’t change the set angle of view without moving. So, the image will not appear any larger or smaller in the shot. So, let’s say you are taking wildlife photography. You’d have to physically get closer or step away to get the right image. Usually, a prime lens will have a specified focal length of 50mm f. You will see ordinary prime lenses like the Canon 800mm f, the Nikon 50mm f, or Sigma 35mm f.
What is a Zoom Lens?
A zoom lens is quite different from a prime lens when it comes to variable focal length. When you turn the zoom, the optics give you an opposite angle of view. Objects will appear larger when you move the zoom ring one way, or the items will fit into the field of view by turning the zoom ring the other way. Let’s say you use a zoom lens for wildlife photography. By zooming in and out, you wouldn’t have to move to get the animal in your shot the way you’d like.
A standard zoom lens will have a zoom range of 24-70mm f. That means you might get a lens like a 70mm f focal length lens or a 300mm f focal length lens, and so on. Some zoom lenses come with variable aperture ranges, too. You may see f/3.5-5.6, which is the largest lens aperture when using different focal lengths on your zoom lens. Let’s say you get a Sony 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. The lens will have a maximum aperture of f/3.5 with a minimum focal length of 18mm. The most extended focal length range will be 55mm, which means it’s aperture would be f/5.6.
Many professional-grade quality zoom lenses have single maximum apertures throughout the zoom range. For example, some zoom lenses on the market include Nikon 18-200mm f / 3.5-5.6G VR II, Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8, and Canon 16-35mm f /2.8L II.
Benefits of Prime Lenses vs Zoom Lenses
Fixed focal length lenses may sound useless, but they’re not. Some benefits of prime lenses vs zoom lenses include:
New prime lenses are less expensive than zoom lenses. The typical 24mm f /2.8 lens might be in the $300-$500 range. But the 34-70mm f / 2.8 might cost somewhere between $1,800 to $2,300. Fast primes tend even to be less expensive than zoom lens counterparts.
If you’re a photographer on a budget, you may want to start with a prime lens since the high-quality images come at a fraction of the cost of a zoom lens of less quality but a higher price.
Overall Weight and Size
If you’re a beginner, you may be tempted to purchase a telephoto lens or a lens like a 70-200mm f / 2.8 with image stabilization. While sharper images result in fast autofocus and hold up to the conditions, they are way too big. The weight of one of these telephoto zoom lenses or zoom lenses can hurt your back, or you could sustain injuries throughout use.
The mirrorless camera market makes the desire for a massive lens weight. But most professional photographers will tell you that lightweight and quality lenses and kit lenses are the way to go. Prime lenses, on the other hand, offer a lighter size and weight with sharper images.
When you own gigantic lenses, you often decide to ditch them for memorable moments, so you don’t have to lug them around with all that extra weight. It’s just the opposite with prime lenses. You can have your prime lens ready to go in your camera bag.
You Can Learn As You Go
The best way to learn composition and find the best angles when learning photography is by using a prime lens. With a prime lens, the only way to zoom in on anything is to walk closer and try different angles. You can also utilize your prime lens to it’s full use.
But on the other hand, learning the difference between the two is often experiential. You might want to have a zoom lens on hand so you can know what works best for you over time.
Professional prime lenses allow you to get wide apertures of f / 0.95. Light conditions are better, and prime lenses also offer a more shallow depth of field. With these conditions like a wider aperture and shallow depth of field, you can achieve the most aesthetically pleasing rendered background highlights, which photographers refer to as bokeh.
While using a zoom kit lens as a beginner, you may not be able to get separated subjects so well. The small maximum aperture and lower quality lens optics are harder to navigate for the bokeh effect.
Faster Shutter Speeds
In some cases, the prime lens has faster shutter speeds than the zoom lens. For example, with a 50mm f/1.4 prime, you get four stops more than an f/5.6 zoom lens. You can then capture more images with a more significant variety of shooting situations.
Low Light Conditions
If you choose a fast prime lens, you’ll be able to shoot in low light without any blur due to the wider aperture in your prime lens. Prime lenses traditionally have simple optical designs, making prime lenses open up more easily to f /2 or f /1.2. Zoom lenses typically have optical image stabilization systems for low-light situations but don’t do the job successfully if you are shooting a moving subject.
The Downside to the Prime Lens
You are going to be somewhat limited flexibility wise. You will not have the same possibilities that you would get with the zoom, so you should probably consider it.
Benefits of Zoom Lenses
There are still many benefits to zoom lenses. Sure, they may weigh more and be more expensive. But they’re a popular choice for photographers of all levels and are super easy to use. There are many advantages to the zoom lens that the best prime lens cannot beat out the zoom for. Here are some of the benefits of using a zoom lens:
Zoom Lenses Are Versatile
Most photographers splurge on a zoom lens for versatility. You can choose from a wide-angle telephoto lens when you photograph in varying shooting situations by just turning the zoom ring. You won’t even have to move to get your shot. For example, many landscape photographers, as well as wildlife photographers, choose a zoom lens for the reason that they can’t move positions to get the right shot.
Most zoom lenses these days have a variety of 3-4 stop image stabilization systems. Canon offers Image Stabilization (IS), Nikon offers Vibration Reduction (VR), Tamron offers Vibration Compensation (VC), and Sigma offers Optical Stabilization (OS). With an f /4 lens, you’re able to get sharp images with non-moving subjects in low light conditions. The lens makes optical elements move where needed to counter any camera body shake with image stabilization systems. With that, you can use prolonged shutter speeds.
It’s not only zoom lenses that come with image stabilization. There are newer models of fixed focal length lenses that have image stabilization. When shopping, do know that lenses or camera bodies can have image stabilization built-in. For example, Sony DSLRs tend to have sensor image stabilization built-in. So, any mounted lens will work with this type of camera body.
Just one zoom lens replaces multiple prime lenses. You don’t have to worry about getting around when you only have one attached lens to your camera body. You won’t have to carry around a huge camera bag with one zoom lens. This helps reduce weight, too. And when you don’t have to swap out lenses to get the right shot, your image sensor and opticals are free from all that dust and debris accumulated. You can find full-frame zoom lenses for full-frame cameras by Canon, Sigma, and Zeiss as a bonus.
Zoom Lens Aperture
Depending on the kind of zoom lens you are using (aka if it’s a cheaper lens or not), you may have an aperture of f/2.8 and throughout the zoom range. That being said, you will probably always know what you are working with using the zoom lens.
The Downside to the Zoom Lens
You may find your zoom lens having a lower image quality due to the noise if it is a cheaper lens. You might also experience some pincushioning, aka distortion where the edges are stretched. Using the maximum zoom will cause the shutter response to slow, resulting in a more blurry photograph. Make sure you are aware of these points when using your zoom lens.
Prime vs Zoom Lenses: Frequently Asked Questions
Are prime lenses better than zoom lenses?
In several ways, the prime lens will have sharper images than a zoom lens. That’s because there’s less glass moving inside the lens. You might get better quality photos in this case. But the zoom lens’s versatility may work for specific shooting conditions and produce a better result in that case.
Can a prime lens zoom?
No, prime lenses are not designed to zoom because it’s at a fixed focal length. You will have to move closer, further away, or shift the angle you’re shooting at. You will need a zoom lens if you want to zoom.
What is the best lens for everyday photography?
Here are some of our favorite everyday lenses you can find on Amazon:
- Sony 24-70mm F/2.8 G Master. …
- Sony 24-70mm F/4
- Sony 50mm F/1.8 Lens
- Canon EF 85mm F/1.8 USM
- Canon EF 50mm F/1.4 USM
- Canon EF 40mm F/2.8 STM
- Sigma 16mm F/1.4
Do I need to own a zoom lens?
If you shoot portrait photography or wildlife photography, you will need a zoom lens to get the right images. With a zoom lens, you can easily switch from telephoto or wide-angle without changing lenses. If your subject requires switching out lenses very fast, you cannot go without a zoom lens.
Prime vs Zoom Which Lens Wins?
When you’re just starting as a beginner photographer, you will spend a lot of time mowing over whether to buy a prime lens, aka a fixed focal length lens, or if you should spring for a zoom lens. While both are amazing, it is a difficult task to choose one or the other. Many beginners opt for a zoom lens that can do it all. But other photographers start with a prime lens and never let it leave their side. So, it’s essential to know what you will be shooting.
If you are shooting wildlife photography or portrait photography, it would be in your best interest to pick up a zoom lens. But if you’re shooting anything but the former, it is merely sufficient to only shoot with a prime lens. Of course, we suggest shooting with both, so you become a well-versed photographer with any lens. Or, if you are an avid photographer, options are better to have at your disposal. Happy shopping!