Prime Lenses vs. Zoom Lenses

In Gear by Jim Harmer22 Comments


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.

About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.


  1. It’s all down to preference and situation I’ve found. I’m a big fan of prime.. I have a Nikkor f1.8 35mm and I agree with others that the images appear less ‘flat’. I found it best for personal photos like holiday portraits but it’s a good all rounder. Also primes force you to move yourself rather than the lens which means you can discover some amazing compositions (especially with a 35mm). I can never leave without either my Sigma 18-200mm or Nikkor 55-300mm though because in the back of my mind I always think I’ll spot something (like an urban animal) that the prime won’t ‘catch’. Plus I’m a fan of night long exposure so the zoom lenses give a lot more versatility for me.

    As an amateur enthusiast I don’t understand telephoto primes though? For example a 400mm f2.8. I can see the benefit and the quality it can provide (especially in lower light) but due being fixed at that focal length it seems that it would only be useful from a known fixed spot (like in a sports stadium) and without experience it seems to me like wildlife photography would be a big pain unless you are waiting at a fixed spot? I’d never doubt the pros but thats my confusion with it as without the guidance of a pro I see wildlife as unpredictable and opportunistic and therefore I’d feel more comfortable with a zoom lens.

  2. Love the primes. They seem sharper, crisper and the color seems better to me. I’ve been shooting since the early 70’s and lenses have come along way for sure. Using the 50 F1.4 (late version), the 28 F2 (late version) and the 85 F1.8 (late version) tend to satify my favorite focal lengths. Sometimes I’ll shoot with the 24 F2.8 but the first three lenses mentioned are good. Very good.

  3. I hear a lot of fans of the 50mm prime. Till recently, I had the 50mm f/1.4 prime – the problem with that lens is that 50mm is simply not a useful focal length unless you are interested in taking close-ups or pictures of people’s faces all the time. I got myself the 35mm f/1.4 lens and I have to say it is a MUCH MORE useful focal length, and serves a lot better multi-purpose role.

  4. Srikant – this is only true if you are not using a full frame camera. Even on a cropped sensor, it still ends up being pretty close to the beloved 85mm. Your comment is a matter of opinion – one that I agree with, but most others do not. In tight places (or when shooting large groups), I find that on the cropped sensors, the 50mm is simply too long. But if you have the ability to back up, it still is a great lens. Or if you have a full frame body, it is the perfect length (again, my opinion). I have the 50mm for my full framed bodies and a 30mm for my other cropped bodies. They both work great. I find myself shooting weddings with only the 50mm 1.4 and 70-200 2.8 (and 100mm 2.8 for ring shots), leaving my other lenses as weights to make my shoulder sore.

  5. Personally, I find my canon 40mm pancake my favourite lens. Very sharp, relatively quick too and always nice results

  6. Hi Larry. .I enjoy bird photography and I am no pro at it. I am deciding whether to get the canon f/2.8 L USM II with a 1.4 MKII exteder of go zoom and get the Sigma 150 -600 OS DG S. I know prime will cost more and I know Sigma may be heavier? I’ll be using Canon 7D MKII. Please advise the better option in terms of “better images” thanks.

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