The difference between prime lenses and zoom lenses can often be a source of confusion for photographers who are picking up a camera for the first time.
I remember when I first started with photography, wondering why someone would choose a lens with a fixed focal length over one with a whole range of focal lengths built into one.
Surely that would mean creating more work for yourself?!
Fast forward a few years, and I’d stepped into the world of wedding photography with my chunky DSLR and equally chunky 24-70mm zoom lens. Shooting an entire wedding with just that one lens was a piece of cake – I could go from wide-angle shots of the church to a tight, flattering portrait shot with just a twist of the zoom ring.
I’d found the perfect tool for the job… but I had to admit – it wasn’t enjoyable.
Then I started reading more about prime lenses and their various advantages. The only compromise was that I’d have walk closer to my subject, rather than just zooming in with my lens. I looked down and remembered I had two good legs, so I decided to take up the challenge!
I’m not going to tell you that prime lenses are better than zoom lenses, as they aren’t. Neither one is better than the other – it just depends on your needs.
What I’d like to do with this article is to explain why I believe that using prime lenses has helped me to produce better photos. I hope that it gives you some perspective on why you may want to choose a prime lens over a zoom lens too.
Some might think that being able to change your composition with a zoom lens without even moving your feet would be an advantage.
However, I found it confusing to have an entire range of focal lengths literally at my fingers, and wouldn’t know where to stand before I lifted the lens to my eye. After all, a quick swivel of the barrel would ‘correct’ any distance issues, so standing in just the right spot seemed less critical.
Prepare to spit out your coffee at your screen with my next statement: Zooms can make you a bit lazy with your compositions.
However, using a prime lens encourages you to envisage the composition by the constraints of your focal length. You get set in place to take the shot even before holding the camera to your eye.
The more you get used to using just one focal length, the quicker you’ll be able to visualize your final shot by looking at the scene (with your eyes, sans camera!). In my opinion, zoom lenses with their myriad focal length options don’t encourage you to develop this skill as much.
Prime lenses, in general, have wider maximum apertures than zooms. More light is let in when the shutter opens, meaning you’ll be able to get the exposure you need in a low light situation without having to increase your ISO or lower your shutter speed.
Being able to shoot with a lower ISO means clearer images. And being able to use a faster shutter speed will help to improve the sharpness of your shot.
If you’ve ever wondered why those indoor shots of your kids taken with your kit lens (I’m guessing it’s a f/3.5-5.6 zoom, or similar) are slightly blurry, there’s a good chance it’s because your lens isn’t letting in enough light. Your camera is slowing down the shutter speed a bit too much to compensate.
By investing in a f/1.8 prime lens, for example, you give your camera more of a fighting chance. You allow it to take advantage of higher shutter speeds to produce sharper images.
3. Depth of Field
Now, depth of field is the main reason most photographers love using prime lenses. Prime lenses have a wider maximum aperture than zooms, enabling you to take advantage of a shallower depth of field.
Depth of Field refers to the range of focus in your image. Shooting at a wide aperture of f/1.4 provides more out-of-focus blurring effect (‘bokeh’) than there would be if you were to shoot at f/2.8. Assuming that all other variables remain constant.
The ability to blur the area both in front and behind your subject using a wide aperture helps to separate your subject from other elements in the photo. The subject stands out more.
You can still produce nice bokeh with a telephoto zoom lens by shooting at the maximum aperture at a longer focal length. In turn, altering perspective and creating a different look to the image.
While shooting with a wide aperture won’t make you a better photographer, it does allow a higher degree of creative control over your image. Being able to fine tune what is and isn’t in focus in your picture using a wider aperture is just one other great way to take your photography to the next level.
Size and weight of your lens is a subjective one. I think that in general, every photographer would prefer to have a lighter lens on their camera, given a choice!
When I switched from using a heavy 24-70mm zoom to a lightweight 35mm prime lens, it was as if I’d bought a whole new camera. The shooting experience just felt so much better.
Now I’m not suggesting that just by having a smaller, lighter camera in your hands, that you’ll be able to produce better photos. However, the shooting experience will undoubtedly be more pleasurable. Having fun with your photography is an excellent catalyst for taking more pictures, which will eventually mean you’ll improve. You see what I’m getting at here?!
One thing to note: a prime lens doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be small and light. Indeed, many fast (i.e., wide aperture) prime lenses are rather large and heavy. Similarly, there are plenty of small, lightweight zooms.
For the most part, you’ll be able to find a small, lightweight prime lens that offers all the advantages listed in this article. I guarantee it’ll feel better on the end of your camera than a zoom.
5. Image Quality
Ok, hold your horses for a second. I don’t want to wage a prime versus zoom war here! The difference in sharpness and general image quality between these two types of modern-day lenses is, for the most part, indiscernible.
However, the above statement is only valid for expensive, ‘pro-grade’ zoom lenses – usually the ones with a fixed aperture, i.e., a zoom lens which doesn’t automatically change its aperture when you twist the zoom ring. Or only ones that contain a large amount of high-quality glass.
Fixed aperture zooms are bigger, heavier, more expensive, and usually on par in image quality with even the best prime lenses.
Instead, I’m referring to the difference in image quality between a cheap prime lens and a cheap zoom lens. For around $100, you’ll be able to get a much sharper image from a cheap prime lens than you would an equivalent zoom.
All the major camera brands offer a cheap prime lens that ticks the above boxes. It’ll be able to knock the socks off the zoom lens that came with your camera.
I used zoom lenses for the first few months in my career as a wedding photographer, then switched to primes. I’ve never looked back.
I currently shoot with a 35mm lens for 99% of the wedding day. When I can’t get close enough to the action, I use an 85mm lens. Having only two focal lengths to think about is incredibly liberating. Through consistently limiting my focal length options, I’m able to ‘see’ in 35mm or 85mm terms, whether the camera is to my eye or not.
I appreciate zoom lenses have their place and are an excellent choice for many photographers. That said, I encourage you to have a play around with a prime lens to see how it can improve your photography too.