Prime Lens Vs Zoom Lens: What’s best for you?

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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.

Idea of this article is to give you pros and cons of Prime lenses and Zoom lenses so that you get to decide what is best for you!

Nikon-50mm-12-24mm-lens

Copyright: Nikon

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.

Nikon-50mm-lens

Copyright: Nikon

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 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 zoom lens. User can change the focal length from minimum to maximum supported focal range using just one lens!

Nikon-12-24mm-lens

Copyright: Nikon

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 a 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 maximum aperture of f/3.5 @ 18mm to f/5.6 @ 55mm.

Whereas, 17-40mm f/4 is a zoom lens with fixed aperture. Meaning, it can support a range of focal lengths from 17mm to 40mm with fixed maximum aperture of f/4. You will get a maximum aperture of f/4 @ 17mm through 40mm.

Advantages of Prime Lens

#1 Quality

Prime lens are 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 is much superior compared to zoom lenses.

#2 Faster Apertures

Usually prime lenses come with faster apertures that are not feasible in zoom lenses for 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 of a flash or tripod.

#3 Shallow Depth of Field (DoF) or Bokeh

As we understand from our Aperture article, larger apertures result in 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.

#4 Price

Because prime lens have only one focal length, the cost of the lens is generally cheaper than the zoom lens of similar focal length. This is due to 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 are no zoom lens that covers 600mm and 800mm focal length that are available in prime lenses.

#5 Size

Prime lenses are generally smaller, lighter and compact compared to the zoom lenses. This is because they use small number of moving elements.

Again the super telephoto lenses are 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

#1 Flexibility

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 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 prime lens. They are used in relative context here.

Unless you are wildlife photographer who most often need super telephoto lenses, you need a range of focal lengths to achieve 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, 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 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 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 on this well deserved and most famous prime lens (50mm f/1.8).

I don’t have much privilege to spend all of my money into buying those expensive ones (in combination). If I have to go for zoom lens, then I would prefer constant aperture over variable aperture.

Here is what I use for my Photography at present:

  • Bird/Wildlife Photography – Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 and Nikkor TC2.0 III
  • Landscape Photography – Nikkor 12-24mm f/4 and Nikkor 50mm f/1.8
  • Macro Photography – Nikkor 40mm f/2.8

What’s your story? What do you have? Do you like prime or zoom lens?

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26 Responses to Prime Lens Vs Zoom Lens: What’s best for you?

  1. Jim Hill August 17, 2014 at 9:09 am #

    Prathap, yet another interesting article in which you outline some additional pro’s and con’s of the two lens types.

    Considering the quality of the images that you post i am amazed to see that you only use a 300mm lens. I am left wondering what is going wrong with my 500mm 🙂

    Best regards,

    Jim

    • Prathap August 17, 2014 at 11:28 am #

      Dear Jim,

      Thanks you for your kind words. I am sure you are getting much better photos with 500mm lens. 500mm is in my wish list 🙂

      Best Regards,
      Prathap

  2. Myer Bornstein August 17, 2014 at 11:14 am #

    Well now there is a Zoom Lens up to 600 mm the Tamron 150-600 and getting great reviews on this lens

    • Prathap August 17, 2014 at 11:32 am #

      Dear Myer Bornstein,

      Great to know! Thanks for the information.

      Best Regards,
      Prathap

  3. bruce August 17, 2014 at 8:49 pm #

    Is there a reason one can’t copy your articles. I like to archive article for later use if necessary as I can’t recall everything I read. Just curious.

    • Prathap August 18, 2014 at 12:05 am #

      Dear Bruce,

      I wanted to disable the right click functionality to protect my images. By mistake I had disabled the text selection too. Sorry about that. You should be able to copy it now.

      Best Regards,
      Prathap

  4. Devansh August 17, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

    Sir can u please tell me what lens. Will suit me if I want to achieve a pleasant blur in portraits . and it should be a bit cheaper also .

    • Prathap August 18, 2014 at 12:14 am #

      Dear Devansh,

      85mm f/1.8 lens on a full frame sensor is usually regarded as the best lens for portraits. Since 85mm is a medium telephoto lens it compresses the background resulting in smoother bokeh or a pleasant blur.
      If you are using a Cropped sensor, then probably a 50mm f/1.8 lens will be your best bet since it will give an effective focal length of 75mm (50mm x 1.5 crop factor) or 80mm (50mm x 1.6 crop factor).
      50mm f/1.8 is the cheapest and the best lens available and could be used for multiple purpose. If money is a big factor, then go for 50mm f/1.8 whether you have a full frame or a cropped frame.

      Several photographers also use 135mm f/2 lens which is a very expensive. Since it is a telephoto lens the bokeh will be much more smoother and it helps to achieve a softer look of the skin.

      I hope this helps.

      Best Regards,
      Prathap

  5. Keval Desai October 27, 2014 at 5:23 am #

    Hi Sir,
    I am planning to buy Nikkon D5100.
    i am interested in landscap, close ups (flower/objects) and wildlife (rare).
    please suggest me a lens (cheaper as a budget constraint).
    if u have better suggetion for DSLR than D5100 than also i would appriciate your comments. 🙂
    thanks a tonne..!!

    • Prathap October 28, 2014 at 11:35 am #

      Hi Keval Desai,

      I would suggest you to go with a camera that is in your budget (like Nikon D5100) and a kit lens like 18-55mm or similar. Start using the camera and take as many photographs as you like learn as much as you can about how to handle the camera and learn composition techniques.

      May be after few months or a year you would understand your real interest and your needs. Till then save your money for the best lenses. If you are really keen on going for one more lens, then it is 50mm f/1.8. If you confine yourself to one lens and start working on light and composition and the techniques you will be able to become better photographer.

      I would suggest you to think about wildlife photography a little later as things may be bit more expensive.

  6. Apoorva Shah November 16, 2014 at 6:27 am #

    Great article prathap. I have a 50 mm Canon f/1.8 lens. can it be used for landscape photography ?The reason I am asking is my prime requirement is landscape and people all along have been claiming its only for street or portrait photography .

    • Prathap December 3, 2014 at 12:24 am #

      Thank you so much Apoorva. Fantastic question and observation! Yes…you can definitely use 50mm f/1.8 lens for landscape photography. I use it very often. The image quality and the color contrast you get in 50mm is unbeatable by the wide angle lenses atleast in my opinion.

      It is most often used as the primary lens for Portrait and Street photography, so is usually said to be best for that purpose. For landscape photograph it is not a primary lens but definitely a very useful lens.

      I hope this helps!

  7. Siva Prasad November 18, 2014 at 7:50 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information.

    • Prathap December 3, 2014 at 12:18 am #

      My pleasure! Siva Prasad.

  8. Alokes June 18, 2015 at 12:16 am #

    Thank you very much for considering this topic. I know prime or fixed focus lenses are great but sometimes I felt we may need to carry two camera bodies to capture some precious moments.

    • Prathap June 19, 2015 at 3:46 pm #

      Hi Alokes, I think you are right in one sense. But think about the quality you get out of these prime lenses. Except for action photography, it is fairly easy to change the lenses back and forth for other photographic pursuits. I would recommend you to try out at least 50mm f/1.8 prime lens and you wouldn’t ever repent.
      With practice you would be able to change the lenses in seconds.

  9. Nze Anizor June 18, 2015 at 3:45 pm #

    Thank you very much, Sir. I found this quite helpful as I prepare for a DSLR.

    • Prathap June 19, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

      My pleasure! Nze Anizor.

  10. Boopaathy June 18, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

    I have Nikon D7000, i like doing wildlife photography, I’m doing it as my hobby. Is the camera will suit for wildlife photography ? Can you list me some lens which will be suitable for wildlife photography.

    Your blog’s boosting me interest more on bird photography, started doing small shoot on birds. Thanks for the nice blogs.

    • Prathap June 19, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

      My pleasure! Boopaathy. I am glad that my articles are encouraging you to do bird photography. That’s an honor!
      Ofcourse, Nikon D7000 is definitely suitable for wildlife photography. I have used it to take many photographs and in fact it was one of the first DSLRs along with Nikon D300s which made me to take up bird photography.
      I would suggest you to consider buying 70-300mm VR lens if you are on budget, otherwise, 80-400mm VR lens would be the best bet because it covers a very good range. You might not have to change the lens for years to come if you buy 80-400mm VR lens. So, think about it.

  11. Tarun July 3, 2015 at 11:19 am #

    Great article & Blog. Just found it
    I am new to DSLR world and debating between a 35 mm or a 50mm prime lens for landscapes. Which do you recommend or do you think its better to go with a 12-24 mm.

    I am using a crop sensor Nikon D7000 and currently using a 18-140mm.

    Thanks and again great website.

    • Prathap July 4, 2015 at 11:05 pm #

      Thank you so much! Tarun.
      For landscapes, I would suggest you to go with 12-24mm f/4. This is one of the best lenses for a crop body. Buy a 50mm f/1.8 lens for medium shots or macro or creative focus or panoramic shots. I hope this helps.

  12. Mohawk51 March 30, 2016 at 12:17 am #

    Prathap, prIme lenses on full frame without a doubt. The three I carry are the 20mm/2.8, the 40mm/2 and the 85mm/1.8 The Voigtlander 40mm Aspherical is my favorite. Hands down!

    • Prathap March 30, 2016 at 9:04 am #

      That’s great to hear!

  13. capt srini October 5, 2016 at 6:46 pm #

    hi prathap
    very informative and educative piece.now ,i need some expert advise while nikon 300mmf/2.8 is on wish list .lack of funds is a big issue in deciding what to buy i have narrowed it to the new nikon 300 f/4 VR,but can i use a teleconverter i yes is it only 1.4 III? please help me else i have to wait till the next mllenium to save for the 300 f2.8

    • Prathap October 5, 2016 at 8:07 pm #

      Hi Srini, Thank you. Yes, you can use 1.4x TC as well as 1.7x and 2.0x TCs on 300mm f/4. Remember that you’ll seriously degrade the autofocus performance and light gathering capabilities.
      I would recommend 200-500mm if you are bird photographer.

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