Many years ago I was wondering whether to go for prime or zoom lens. But now, I am almost certain what I need. If you have the problem in knowing what suits you the best, then it is for you!
However, I want to remind you that this is a highly debatable topic. If you do not agree with my discussion then you are free to ignore it or probably tell us your opinion in the comments.
The idea of this article is to give you the pros and cons of Prime lenses and Zoom lenses so that you get to decide what is best for you!
What is a Prime Lens?
A lens that has only one focal length is called a Prime lens. In other words, you cannot zoom a prime lens. They are generally designed to suit only for one purpose.
These are also called as Fixed Focal Length Lens.
Here is a small list of Prime lenses:
- 24mm f/2.8
- 50mm f/1.8
- 60mm f/2.8 macro
- 85mm f/1.8
- 300mm f/2.8
- 400mm f/2.8 and so on
There is a range of prime lenses from Fish-eye (ultra-wide-angle) lens to the super telephoto lens suited for different purposes.
What is a Zoom Lens?
A lens that has a range of focal lengths is known as a zoom lens. User can change the focal length from minimum to maximum supported focal range using just one lens!
Here is a small list of Zoom lenses:
- 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5
- 17-40mm f/4
- 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6
- 70-200mm f/2.8
- 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6
- 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 and so on
Apart from the focal length range, you may also notice that some of these lenses have variable apertures.
For example, an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 is a zoom lens with variable aperture sizes. Meaning, it can support a range of focal lengths starting from 18mm to 55mm with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 @ 18mm to f/5.6 @ 55mm.
Whereas, 17-40mm f/4 is a zoom lens with a fixed aperture. Meaning, it can support a range of focal lengths from 17mm to 40mm with a fixed maximum aperture of f/4. You will get a maximum aperture of f/4 @ 17mm through 40mm.
Advantages of Prime Lens
A prime lens is generally built to produce the highest level of quality for the focal length they are designed for. The simple reason being, since they are meant to do only one job they better be the best in that. Usually, the resulting sharpness and contrast are much superior compared to zoom lenses.
#2 Faster Apertures
Usually, prime lenses come with faster apertures that are not feasible in zoom lenses for a certain range.
Though there are some zoom lenses with f/2.8 apertures which are definitely faster, most of the zoom lenses have slower apertures like f/3.5 and above for the same focal length. Faster apertures like f/2.0, f/1.8, and f/1.4 that are found in prime lenses are not available as of today in the zoom lenses.
Faster aperture helps to photograph in the low light conditions without the need for a flash or tripod.
#3 Shallow Depth of Field (DoF) or Bokeh
As we understand from our Aperture article, larger apertures result in a shallower depth of field. With prime lenses being faster lenses with larger apertures, it is quite easy to get that pleasing blurs in photographs especially useful for portraits.
Macro lenses, which are also prime lenses, tend to have shallow DOF as low as few millimeters resulting in super smooth and pleasing blurs.
Because the prime lens has only one focal length, the cost of the lens is generally cheaper than the zoom lens of similar focal length. This is due to a small number of moving elements that are used to construct these lenses.
But not all prime lenses are cheaper than the zoom lenses. Especially super telephoto lenses of focal length 300mm and above cost several times more than their zoom counterparts. Note that the aperture of a super telephoto prime lens is generally impractical to achieve in the telephoto zoom lenses.
There is no zoom lens that covers 600mm and 800mm focal length that is available in prime lenses.
Prime lenses are generally smaller, lighter and compact compared to the zoom lenses. This is because they use a small number of moving elements.
Again the super telephoto lenses are an exception to this. A 300mm f/4 lens weighs ~ 1500 g compared to a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens ~ 750 g.
Whether it is a prime or a zoom lens, larger the aperture heavier will be the lens.
For instance, 300mm f/2.8 lens weighs ~ 2900 g and 300mm f/4 lens weighs ~ 1500 g.
Advantages of Zoom Lens
The main reason for buying a zoom lens is its flexibility. It provides many focal lengths in one lens enabling you to compose a scene in many different ways from right where you stand!
At the same time, it is usually debated among the photographers that it makes you a lazy photographer who does not want to move. If you possess a prime lens, you have to inevitably move around to achieve the right composition.
Note that compositions that you get by changing the focal length will be different from that you get by moving closer/farther. This is because of the wider or compressed perspective that you get due to shorter or longer focal length respectively.
#2 Weight, #3 Size, & #4 Price
I know you might be surprised to see these three factors here, which are advantages of a prime lens. They are used in relative context here.
Unless you are a wildlife photographer who most often needs super telephoto lenses, you need a range of focal lengths to achieve the desired effect in your photography. This means you might need a wide angle lens, a normal lens and/or a medium telephoto lens.
If you choose to go with only prime lenses, you may need at least a 24mm, 50mm, 85mm, 200mm to cover the usual range. It might be a wise idea for a professional photographer to carry these lenses to get the top-notch quality in his/her photographs, but for most photographers out there, it is either not feasible due to price, size or weight.
Added to these obvious problems (loosely speaking) noted above, the problem of changing these lenses often and protecting the sensor and the lens from dust is a tedious process for many.
Just one zoom lens 18-200mm is probably efficient and probably sufficient to most of the photographers out there which is definitely much cheaper, lighter and smaller in size!
What’s Best for You? Prime Lens or Zoom Lens?
I think you know it better!
I prefer prime lenses over zoom lenses for their quality and faster apertures. Also, since I do a lot of wildlife/bird photography I think it is much better to invest in a faster lens that is capable of giving faster shutter speeds to freeze the action.
Even in the case of landscape photography, I would prefer to use primes lenses over zoom lenses. This is because I am in love with my 50mm f/1.8 lens and its superior quality. If you haven’t tried any prime lens so far, then you could probably invest in this well deserved and most famous prime lens (50mm f/1.8).
I don’t have many privileges to spend all of my money into buying those expensive ones (in combination). If I have to go for a zoom lens, then I would prefer a constant aperture over the variable aperture.
Are you a bird photographer? Then you might be interested to read Best Lens for Bird Photography for Beginners and Experienced Photographers article.
Here are the lenses that I use for my Photography at present (updated in May 2019):
- Bird/Wildlife Photography – Nikkor 600mm f/4 VR prime lens, Nikkor TC1.4 III, & TC2.0 III teleconverters.
- Landscape Photography – Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 VR lens, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, & Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 lens.
- Macro Photography – Nikkor 40mm f/2.8 DX lens
What’s your story? What do you have? Do you like prime or zoom lens?