I talk a lot about my love affair with prime lenses. That being said, my glass arsenal has a number of beloved zoom lenses in it that I never want to be without. One of the most common questions I get asked about lenses is what’s the difference between prime and zoom lenses.
If you are just starting out and have your very first DSLR or Mirrorless camera, you’ll likely begin your journey with a kit lens. A kit lens typically refers to a 18-55mm zoom lens that is bundled with your camera. Some photographers will say you can’t get a good photo with a kit lens. I disagree. Much like an amazing singer can sing you the phone book and sound amazing, an awesome photographer can get solid photos with kit glass. That being said, there are limitations. You’ll likely feel as though you’ve outgrown your kit lens pretty quickly because while I bet you can take stellar photos with it, in some cases, you’ll have to work harder to get those photos with your kit lens than you would with an upgrade. But, I digress. This isn’t supposed to be about kit lenses. Want to know more about them? Check out my kit lens overview here.
While most people start out with the zoom lens, often their first upgrade is to a prime lens. Let’s dig a bit more into those lens types.
What is a zoom lens?
A zoom lens has a variable focus length, which means that by turning the zoom ring, you can achieve different angles of view. Simply put, you can zoom into your subject by turning the zoom ring in one direction, and then zoom back out, allowing more objects into frame, by turning the zoom ring in the other direction.
Zoom lenses are always named so you understand the maximum and minimum focal length. Like my favorite landscape lens, the Tamron 15-30mm. That lens will allow you to take photos at a variable focal length of 15mm through 30mm.
Zoom lenses have their own advantages. That’s why I carry a few in my arsenal. My Tamron 15-30 wide angle is my go to for landscape. My Sigma 150-600 is my favorite wildlife lens. My Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G is my go to for sports photography. These are all very specific circumstances where the versatility afforded by a zoom lens is going to come in handy. In many of these instances, I’m more limited in terms of where I can be in proximity to the subject, so having a variable focus length is preferred. Portability is also another factor to consider. Instead of carrying around 2-3 fixed lenses, a zoom lens can offer you a one-stop shop.
Zoom lenses also have some disadvantages. Often, zoom lenses will not be as sharp as their prime lens counterparts. Not, this is not always universally true, meaning at certain focal lengths, the zoom will be perfectly sharp. But, as you go to the top end of the focal length, diffraction can often cause your photos to be less sharp. Another issues is speed. A zoom lens will often be slower than a prime lens, since they have smaller or narrower apertures, which mean they let less light in.
What is a prime lens?
A prime lens has a fixed focal length, meaning that the lens has a set angle of view. Simply put, if you want to get closer to something, you’ll need to bring the camera and lens physically closer to the subject. And, similarly, if you want to allow more objects into frame, you will need to physically take the camera and lens further away from the subject.
Prime lenses are named so you know their specific focal length. Like my favorite portrait lens, the Sigma 85mm. That lens will allow you to take photos at a focal length of 85mm.
Prime lenses have their own advantages. The main one for me has to do with aperture. Prime lenses often have a larger or wider aperture which means a shallow depth of field. Shallow depth of field creates really creamy bokeh, or the blurry background that is often aesthetically pleasing. Larger/wider aperture also means more light is reaching the sensor, which means these lenses are often better at low light photography. Cost is also a factor. You can often find high quality prime lenses that are more economical than their zoom counterparts, too.
Prime lenses also have some disadvantages. The biggest one is likely that fixed focal point. There will be times where you truly wish you could zoom into the subject and you can’t with your prime lens because you can’t physically get closer. Another issue is price. Yes, one prime lens might be cheaper than one zoom lens, but that one zoom lens covers way more focal lengths. This means you will likely need to switch lenses more often or carry more than one camera body wherever you go.
So, who wins in the Zoom vs. Prime battle? As I keep saying, that decision will end up being a personal one. I believe that there are certain circumstances where a prime is your best lens bet… and there are other circumstances where a zoom will likely be your best bet. The most important thing you can do is decide what photos you want to take and then get your hands on some lenses. You’ll also want to determine just how much gear you want to bring with you. If you are limited on space (or finances), a zoom kit lens might be a great place to start. If you aren’t space or financially limited, perhaps look at higher end, metal body prime lenses? Either way, focus on the fundamentals, learn your style and have fun.