Prime Lenses vs. Zoom Lenses

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I frequently receive emails from beginning photographers who have heard that prime lenses are better than zoom lenses, and they want to know if they should buy a prime.  A prime lens is simply a lens that cannot zoom from one focal length to another; in fact, prime lenses are often referred to as fixed focal length lenses.  A “yes” or “no” answer to the debate surrounding the prime vs. zoom lenses question is far too simplistic, so I thought it would be helpful to explain the issues that should be considered before choosing prime or zoom lenses for your DSLR camera.

Why did photographers stay away from zoom lenses in the past?

Lenses are incredibly sophistacted tools that require precision engineering and ingenuity to achieve crisp images, fast focus, and low costs.  Try to imagine an engineer designing a lens 15 or 20 years ago.  They literally used slide rules and primitive four-function calculators.  Such an approach would be impossible in today’s world.  Further, the lenses were often created for cheap film cameras that simply did not produce the detail of today’s DSLRs.

When a zoom lens is created, the engineers must design the lens to produce sharp images at any focal length within the lens’s range.  Not surprisingly, this task was not precise without the aid of computers.  Further, the lenses themselves did not have computer chips in them to transfer critical information to the camera and within the lens.

The long and short of it is that zoom lenses used to be a disaster.  The images were rarely sharp.  Lens engineers did not have the tools available to them to create advanced zoom lenses.

Do prime lenses have advantages over zoom lenses even today?

In short, yes!  For the very reasons stated above, prime lenses can be produced much more cheaply and with greater sharpness than zoom lenses.  Also, because the focus ring does not need to search as far a distance to find focus since only one focal length is available on prime lenses, prime lenses always focus faster than their zoom lens counterparts if all else is equal.

Are prime lenses sharper than zooms?

In my experience, the answer is yes; however, not by the margin that many photographers make it out to be.  Prime lenses are generally much sharper than cheap zoom lenses (under $500), but many of the pro level zoom lenses are on the same level as the prime lenses.

Also, keep in mind that even a prime lens will not produce sharp images if it is made cheaply.  I often hear photographers comment on how sharp the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens is, but I have personally never found that lens to be anything more than acceptably sharp.  Many photographers hear that “prime lenses are sharper” and somehow expect that to mean that ALL prime lenses are sharp, and that simply isn’t true.

When to choose prime, and when to choose zoom

When it comes down to which lens to buy, the fact is that it depends greatly on the lens.  For example, I would ALWAYS recommend that a beginning photographer purchase a 50mm f/1.8 lens (check the price here for Nikon, or here for Canon), but in my opinion that lens cannot approach the optical quality of the Nikon or Canon 24-70mm lens; however, the 24-70 is significantly more expensive.

If a photographer is interested in a super-telephoto lens for sports or wildlife photography, almost any professional photographer would prefer a prime super-telephoto to a zoom super-telephoto for the advantage of faster focusing, slightly sharper images, and the ability to achieve lower apertures.

When it comes to the prime vs. zoom lens debate, the real answer is that it depends on the lens.  The purpose of this article is to bring to your attention the advantages and disadvantages of zooms and prime lenses, and to point out that the simplistic “primes are better” mentality is simply outdated and overly simplistic.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    As a photographer who recently explored the same concepts that this article is bringing up, I have to say there is an important point that is especially important for beginner photographers (in my opinion, anyhow): a lens with no zoom will make you move and better plan your shot.

    I bought a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 about 1 month ago, and it has totally changed the way I shoot. I live in a city so I tend to just walk around and shoot whatever catches my eye in the street. In the past I would take an ultra wide angle and a telephoto; this always made me think “what lens will best fit this situation”. Now, however, I am forced to ask myself “what is the best position and location for this situation”.

    Since I picked this lens up I have left my others at home and it has really taught me a lot. I think limiting yourself will push you to learn more.

    Great article!

  2. says

    This article covers some important topics but fails to mention some other important ones.

    Glass quality – The quality of the glass, and the various coatings that are applied to the elements, greatly impact your images. I rarely see a difference in sharpness, and I agree with the writer of this article on that point. I do however find a massive difference in the colours when I am shooting with prime lenses versus zoom lenses. The ability to zoom is created by adding more elements, or panes of glass, into the lens, that will move around to enable focusing at different focal lengths. each element light passes through will ultimately block some of that light.

    High quality zoom lenses are made with superior glass and superior coating. The same glass/coatings applied to a prime lens will always produce a better, more vivid image. Some lenses are even using high quality plastics instead of glass. This makes the lens much cheaper, but at a terrible quality cost.

    I had an 18-105 Nikkor that came with my SLR. Worst lens I have ever used. It was versitile, capable of wide angle and substantial zoom all-in-one.. but the colour in my images was pathetic. It even had a plastic mount that attached it to the camera body, which broke. Thankfully it was covered under warranty, but for these two reasons I sold it.

    The other advantage of prime lenses is that they have a significantly smaller depth of field (DOF). Not something you want to take a landscape picture with, but for portraits, for example, it gives you a beautiful bokeh on everything that is out of focus – this picture I took recently demonstrates what I mean http://www.flickr.com/photos/blackrivet/5795047516/in/photostream – taken with a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens.

    Great advice from Bob! Being restricted to one set focal length will make you a much better photographer. If you don’t own a prime lens try setting your zoom lens to one focal length, and don’t touch it for the day. Take pictures using what you have.

  3. says

    I’m a huge advocate of the Canon 50mm 1.8 II. It’s an amazing lens that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. For those interested Nikon just released a new 50 1.8G which now has an auto focus motor in it so it will work on all their cameras.

    The 50 1.8 has always been my fav lens that i’ve even shot a few commercial projects with. On saying that i’ve just updated to the Sigma 50 1.4 for my commercial work.

    Another advantage of Primes is that you need to walk to zoom, so for that split second you are actually thinking about the shot.

    Anyway get a 50mm 1.8 and enjoy!

  4. says

    WHen you start using primes, your shooting style changes rapidly. I used to do primes many years ago. I bought the NIkon D700 and 50F1.8, 80-200F/2.8 and that was my kit. When I bought the 24-70F/2.8 and the 105Macro VR 2.8, It changes ALL for me.
    Nowadays with the technology we have, I can’t even see the difference on sharpness of the images taken with the 24-70 and the 50mm F/1.4 at f/5.6 my friend has.

    It is a matter of shooting style when using primes and zooms

  5. says

    “…the lenses were often created for cheap film cameras that simply did not produce the detail of today’s DSLRs.”

    WTF!?? Seriously!??

    “Slide rules”?? “15 or 20 years ago”??

    Maybe your talking about zoom lenses in the 60′s or early 70′s, but some lenses from the late 70′s, 80′s or 90′s had excellent sharpness, maybe not AS sharp as today lenses, but still very respectable.

    As for auto-focus I couldn’t care less.

    Lens design as well as glass quality and coatings are critical.

    It’s true, having one focal distance makes you learn to move around to frame the image, but it’s also good to learn to compose with angle and focal lenth in mind, that’s when zooms come in handy. Also to instantly put something in/out of frame with a light touch without changing much the anlge of view.

  6. says

    imho you’ve missed a couple of key elements here – speed of lens and depth of field – i have switched from zoom to prime because zoom lenses dont or rarely get down below 2.8 but there are crucial advantages to be had down below f/2 in terms of additional light on the primes as well as the narrow dof

  7. says

    To an extent I agree with “Emiliano,” (wthe exception of “WTF”) From my experience a zoom lens will also give you a “flatter” more compressed “shallow” perspective where a prime will give you a “deeper” perspective. I had a professor that was able to tell a picture shot with a fixed focus v. a zoom immediately (portrait or landscape, urban or rustic) Please elaborate on this if you like, your view and experience is much appreciated.

  8. says

    It is about time that zoom lenses are downgraded or at least being used with caution. The zoom vs fixed lens debate is even more in favor of the fixed lens. Let say you are in low light conditions at an indoor sports event and want to take good pictures shooting at high shutter speed at relatively long distance. This means you are going to be short on light running on very high ISO and of course the minimum f-stop. Let say you are about to use a 20mm f1.7 Panasonic pancake which is not going to bring you close enough to the object. Therefore you switch to a kit zoom bringing you closer and giving you 45mm f5.6. However, since you use same shutter speed at same distance in same light the thing that’s matter is the lens aperture 20/1.7 versus 45/5.6. Even thou the picture from the zoom appears (45/20)^2 times larger on the sensor that does not help under high ISO and high noise conditions since the zoom is (5.6/1.7)^2 darker. The fixed lens is a better «zoom» giving you a better quality under these difficult conditions. So therefore take a look at the aperture and please do not buy expensive low aperture lenses also called zoom lenses.

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