Prime vs. Zoom Lenses: The surprising answer! [IP31]

In Episode 31 of the Improve Photography Podcast, Jim and Dustin answer listener questions about the differences between Aperture, Photoshop, and Lightroom, as well as questions about choosing a specialty, zoom lenses vs prime lenses, and more!

Guide to Episode 31

[0:38] Is there a way to quiet down my DSLR so it doesn't make sound when I'm shooting in quiet situations (like a recital)?

It would be awesome if there was a silencer attachment for your camera, but unfortunately there isn't. Some DSLRs have a “quiet shutter” option that you can find in the menu. For some cameras it works relatively well, but for some it really just slows the shutter down and doesn't make a difference in the sound (other than prolonging it).

If you are really serious about trying to quiet down your camera, you can buy a sound blimp. It looks like an underwater housing that fits over your camera, and it really quiets the camera down. However, these are really expensive so you'll probably only want to look into it if you're a professional photographer.

If you're desperate, try wrapping your DSLR in bubble wrap or a blanket or something. No guarantees it will work, but hey – can't hurt to give it a try, right?

[2:40] How do you figure out what kind of photographer you want to be? Is there such a thing as an all-around photographer?

Yes, there is such a thing as an all-around photographer. (Check out Rick Sammon. His specialty is not specializing.) If you're a photo enthusiast, feel free to shoot a little of everything. There's no reason you need to pick only one thing and never ever shoot anything else.

At the same time, however, there's nothing wrong with having a specialty. This will help you improve your skills in that specific area, and can possibly help you get business in your niche.

But how to decide what you want to be? That's a tough one. Think about what people are always asking you to help them with – this could be a tip-off for your specialty. Also, what motivates you? What do you find you simply can't pass up in your photography? Finally, what are you best at? This is a tough one for you to see, but if you can ask someone who is more experienced then you are able to get a good idea of what you're best at. (This is one of the great things about our photo classes because we do photo reviews for our students. This is a great opportunity for students to submit their work and for the professors to help guide the photographer toward their strengths. Sometimes it is very apparent where our students should focus their attention, but often this is something that you need an experienced photographer's eye to recognize.)

[9:03] Custom white balance: Where and how does one take the light reading?

The first thing to remember is that the white balance is something that you will just look at on your finished photo and if you're not happy with it, you can just adjust it. Take your photos in RAW and then you have the nice little slider in Photoshop or Lightroom that allows you to adjust the white balance. Even if you do scientifically get the “correct” white balance when you are taking the photo, there's a good chance it will be too cool and you will need to warm the photo up to make it a compelling photograph anyway. So really, why bother? Take the photo and then adjust the slider once you pull it in. You'll be happy with the range of possibility the software gives you and you won't have to spend time, money, and energy trying to get it correct in the camera.

However, if you are set on using a grey card to get the correct white balance, remember that there is always going to be ambient light, so you want to make sure you've got the grey card right where the picture will be taken. Have the subject hold the grey card right below their chin and take your metering shot that way.

As a general note, if you are a portrait photographer and you are shooting with a cooler white balance, warm it up. The picture will be so much more inviting once you do, especially for light-colored skin tones.

[14:21] Is it better to buy a really good zoom lens that can hit lots of different focal lengths and performs well in low light or buy a bunch of separate prime lenses and switch them out as needed?

First, let's talk about the difference between a zoom lens and a prime lens, so you can understand why a good quality zoom lens can cost SO much more than a good prime lens. A zoom lens lets you use a range of focal distances (70-200mm for example), while a prime lens only uses one focal distance (50mm for example). Because of this, you will find that prime lenses can be relatively inexpensive while good quality zoom lenses are typically much more expensive. This is because the prime lens is much easier to manufacture – the only concern is for the lens to be sharp at one focal point. However, a zoom lens must be sharp over a range of focal points, and is thus more difficult (and expensive) to produce.

A prime lens can be a great step up from the kit lens that comes with your camera, because they are generally better quality without huge sticker shock. However, once you have tasted a good quality zoom lens, you'll never want to go back to using a different prime for every situation. The convenience of having one lens that is sharp and produces good quality photographs is vastly preferable to carrying around 3 different lenses and switching between them every time you want to take a different shot. For a good quality (inexpensive) wide angle zoom lens, check out this Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens. (Also on that page you will find all Jim's current lens recommendations.)

[19:13] Is it often a problem for lower-end cameras that they don't focus correctly? Do people generally need to be messing with the AF fine-tune if their photos aren't sharp?

Sharpness is an issue we hear about on an almost daily basis from our photography students. There are so many things that can affect the sharpness of your photographs, and all too often the basics are overlooked when trying to correct soft photos. Check out this article where Jim gives 7 tips for getting tack sharp photos. Usually when dealing with sharpness issues, the problem is user error. Be sure you are doing everything correctly (not mashing the shutter button, using a fast enough shutter speed, using a tripod, focusing on the eyes, etc) and if you are certain that the error isn't your fault, then it is worthwhile to mess with the AF fine-tune. But remember – not all lenses and cameras are created equal, so the quality of your gear can come into play here too.

[23:30] How does Aperture compare to Lightroom?

Lightroom and Apple's Aperture both offer very similar functionality. They are photo organization, categorization, and editing programs. The purpose of these programs is to quickly work through a batch of photos and get them organized and apply basic edits. Both programs are very capable and professional photographers use both programs regularly.

However, there are definitely some differences between the two programs. The advantage of Aperture is that it is less expensive than Lightroom, but it is Mac only. The advantage of Lightroom is that it is FAR more popular, so you'll find many more presets and learning resources available. Also, since Lightroom is made by Adobe, which also makes Photoshop, it's easier to bounce between the two programs as you use different tools on your photos.

One more thing to note about Aperture: the software hasn't been progressing much lately. Because of this, Jim is concerned about the possibility that Aperture could slowly fade away. It would be terrible to have all your photos in Aperture and then no longer be able to access them because the software isn't up to date with the latest version of your operating system.

So, if you are choosing which program to buy, both Jim and Dustin lean toward Lightroom.

[30:07] What is the difference between Lightroom and Photoshop?

Jim and Dustin almost always recommend that photographers choose Lightroom as their first serious photo editing tool. It is incredible software. What they like about Lightroom is that it is much simpler to use than Photoshop, it allows you to edit through a large volume of photos quickly, and it will help you to categorize your photos so that you can actually find them when you're looking for them. Lightroom allows you to crop, remove blemishes, add color, adjust exposure, and all of the other edits that photographers make to most of their photos.

Photoshop, on the other hand, is really a tool that is intended for doing deep surgery on your photos. Photoshop allows you to composite two photos together, swap heads in a group photo, etc. Think of Photoshop as surgery, and Lightroom as a quick office visit.

Another good option is Photoshop Elements, which has most of the features of Photoshop, but for less than 1/5th of the cost. Photoshop Elements is a good way to learn Photoshop, but many of the tools work differently than on the full version, so there will be somewhat of a learning curve when you eventually buy the full version of the program.

Almost all professional photographers use both Lightroom AND Photoshop in conjunction. Jim and Dustin use Lightroom to import and categorize photos, choose favorites from a shoot, and make the basic corrections. Then, if there is a serious problem in the photo, they pass it over to Photoshop for the heavy lifting.

You can buy Lightroom, Photoshop, and Photoshop Elements here. You can read more about the difference between these programs here.

If you are interested in a class to learn to use Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements) we offer those here.

[36:40] How easy is it to go from Aperture to Photoshop or Lightroom?

Unfortunately, to make this switch, it isn't very easy. There are quite a few programs that you can use to transfer your photos from Aperture to Photoshop or Lightroom. However, they just aren't going to quite work perfectly. Unfortunately, you can expect to lose some edits and some of your organization. Jim recommends setting aside a few weeks where every night you take a few hours and reorganize your photos once you have made the switch.

Is it worth the work? Both the guys think so, especially given the lack of progress Aperture has been making lately.

One setting Jim highly recommends is to set up Lightroom to also write the changes to the file. This way, the changes you make to your photos are not only in the software you are using but also in a sidecar file in case you ever decide to change the program you are using for organizing your photos.

[40:43] Are there any free options for photo editing software?

There are a few free options out there: Pixlr (looks very similar to Photoshop), Gimp (Jim isn't a fan of this one), Picassa (neither of the guys is a fan of Picassa), etc. However, your best bet is always going to be Photoshop or Lightroom.

[43:00] Doodads of the Week

Jim's doodad of the week is an underwater housing. He's getting one from ewa-marine to test, and will get back to us on this.

Dustin's pick of the week is Light Studio ($2 in the app store!). This app allows you to see what different lighting will do to a 3D head. It's a great way to learn about lighting and get some inspiration and identify flattering lighting styles.

[46:54] Prizes for reviews!

The winner is rajeshmer.  If that's your username on iTunes, email Jim at [email protected] to get your free online photography class.

To be entered to win the online photography class each week, simply go to this podcast on iTunes and write a one or two sentence review.  While they appreciate a a 5-star review, any review will get you entered to win a class for free (a $98 value).

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4 thoughts on “Prime vs. Zoom Lenses: The surprising answer! [IP31]”

  1. I’m leaving the same review here that I left on iTunes because I can’t tell if iTunes is going to allow me to leave another review. If there is somewhere better to leave podcast reviews if we have trouble leaving one on iTunes let me know :)!

    ” 5 Stars!
    Great session. Very relavent topics for me as i’m adding either a 24-70 or a 70-200 to my gear before the end of the year. Also relevant and helpful was the conversation about specialty. I too just love taking photos of pretty much anything and feel a little resistant to pinning myself to one genre though whittling down the scope is necessary at some point. Thanks Jim and Dustin!”

  2. Please explain how to “set up Lightroom to also write the changes to the file.” I can’t seem to find the correct setting.

  3. Nelson,
    After listening to this podcast (31) I switched to Lightroom from Aperture. I’ve been trying to find the answer to the same question and finally stumbled across it. In Lightroom (Mac) it’s under Catalog Settings; Metadata. Check the box “Automatically write changes into XMP”.


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