Zoom vs. prime lenses – breaking the two most common misconceptions

Jan 12, 2017

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Zoom vs. prime lenses – breaking the two most common misconceptions

Jan 12, 2017

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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In addition to “analog vs. digital”, there’s another everlasting argument between photographers: zoom vs. prime lenses. Many people choose one side and categorize themselves either as “zoom shooters” or as “prime shooters”. Yet, there are those who don’t pick sides, but use both types equally.

There are some common claims about prime lenses, and “prime shooters” usually use them to justify their choice. In this video, Matt Granger deals with the two most common ones. One: prime lenses are sharper than zooms, and two: primes are more creative because they encourage you to zoom with your feet. Are these claims true, or just misconceptions?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHoZL8_iwUc

Prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses

In the past, when the technology was less advanced than today, this was true. Prime lenses were simpler and easier to make than zoom lenses. When it comes to sharpness, distortion, chromatic aberration – primes used to beat zooms at all these categories.

However, this is not necessarily the case today. According to Matt, some 70-200mm lenses can stand well against most primes and show equally good performances at most or even all focal ranges. He was fortunate enough to have a conversation on this topic with late Dr. Hubert Nasse from Zeiss. Dr. Nasee supports Matt’s opinion on the difference between zooms and primes. He claims that a well-made zoom is often better than corresponding prime lenses, at least in the middle of its focal length range. It’s because the optical efforts are higher in the zoom than in prime lenses.

Now, from my experience as a “poor photographer”, I still find prime lenses better than zooms if they are both relatively cheap. I found affordable prime lenses that give me great image quality and sharpness, yet I still haven’t found a zoom lens that gives that same quality without cashing out a lot more money. With zoom lenses, you always get what you pay for, and primes can sometimes surprise you even at a lower price. So, I suppose your budget needs to be… flexible if you want to buy a zoom lens that will match or outperform a prime. Matt doesn’t mention it, but I believe it’s something to have in mind.

“Zooming with your feet” with prime lenses

Matt seems pretty annoyed when talking about this topic. In his opinion, “zooming with your feet” doesn’t exist. By definition, “zooming” means changing the focal length of your lens. You can only “recompose with your feet”, because it’s what you actually do by moving back and forth. So, linguistically speaking, he’s right. Although it’s maybe a bit too technical for everyday use.

If you shoot only with a prime lens, you can get a different shot by moving back and forth and have your subject closer or further away from you. But you can’t get the compression effect and you can’t get away from the distortion inherit in your lens.

“Zooming with your feet” increases creativity

Matt discusses the point that “zooming with your feet”increases creativity, as a second misconception about primes. He particularly addresses photographers who encourage others “not to be lazy” and “zoom with their feet”.

In his opinion, it’s okay if you use this approach to practice creativity. If it helps you think through problems and see things in a different way, that’s great. But if you’re not using prime lenses only for challenging yourself and for the learning process – you are actually the one who’s being lazy. You can get a similar effect with a few primes as you would with one zoom, but you can’t get them using only one prime and moving back and forth.

In addition to practicing creativity on purpose, I’d add another situation when you should shoot only with one prime lens: when it’s the only lens you have. You will probably get stuck with only a prime lens at least at one occasion. And if the best camera is the one you have with you, the same goes for lenses.

Personally, I use both zoom and prime lenses, but I must admit I lean towards primes. At least because I still haven’t treated myself with an outstanding and pricey zoom lens. What about you? Do you agree with Matt’s points? Do you belong to the “prime clan” or the “zoom clan”? Or you don’t pick sides at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

[Zooms VS Primes – the real trade off | Matt Granger]

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Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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31 responses to “Zoom vs. prime lenses – breaking the two most common misconceptions”

  1. Randy Dalton Avatar
    Randy Dalton

    Use the lens that provides you with what you need for what you’re shooting.

  2. stewart norton Avatar
    stewart norton

    Last year i sold my 24-70 and moved to a system using two bodies and primes, part of the reason was that i realised a couple of photogs who work i really liked shot only with primes and that in part was how they got thier look. I usually have my 28mm f1.8 on one and either my 50mm f 1.8, 85mm f1.8 or 70-200 f2.8 on the other ( i love my 70-200 too much to let it go !). It took a bit of getting used to but i actually found myself enjoying it more as i used to have a tendacy to zoom and shoot quite tight but now I’m having to be more creative with my composing.

    1. David J Avatar
      David J

      I’m tempted to do that too. I’m also kind of a budget-conscious photographer, amassing equipment piece by piece over the last ten years or so, and I’m aghast how cheap some primes can be compared to zooms in the same range. I’m a Canon guy (not by choice, my camera was something given to me – a wonderful gift), and that little “Nifty Fifty” has been one fun lens to play around with. When I look at it and I think “I paid $100 for this!” that surge of satisfaction from getting a great deal runs through me. No, it’s not “L” class, but for a great little $100 prime, I actually don’t mind if I drop it in a stream or lose it altogether or something. I’m also tempted to get a zoom telephoto that’s prime because I do photograph birds in my yard a lot, and I remember reading about a “L” class 300mm prime that was less than half the price of the zoom in the same focal length range. So financially, I’ve been considering it big time. And at the end of the day, it’s the satisfaction of enjoying photography that I’m after, and if primes bring me that satisfaction, then that’s what I’ll do.

      Currently I’m only using kit lenses, but I’m excited to try out the prime route.

      Great article, and great comment stewart norton.

      1. jakecarvey Avatar
        jakecarvey

        that’s great thinking – knowing what you want and what are ready to pay for the privilege is something that seems lost on many people – spending the time to figure it out is priceless

    2. Ralph Hightower Avatar
      Ralph Hightower

      I have a choice of three bodies to use; two are twenty to thirty years old, so they shoot film. The other is a DSLR that is three years old. At a practice round of The Masters, I brought my Canon F-1 with the FD 28mm f2.8 and my 5D III with a rented EF 100-400 f4.5-5.6L II. I didn’t want to be swapping the EF 100-400 with my 24-105 f4L for the wide angle photos.
      Yea, I could be called a budget-conscious photographer by using old film cameras.

  3. Theuns Verwoerd Avatar
    Theuns Verwoerd

    1. Moving yourself (and the camera) changes perspective.
    2. In very low light, the aperture range of lenses has a significant impact. Prime lenses not only have more aperture options on the wide open end – but even if you’re shooting at f/4 regardless, prime lenses feed more light to the autofocus system.
    3. Prime lenses are typically lighter and more compact, which can be an issue when you’re shooting for 2+ hours continuously.

    1. jakecarvey Avatar
      jakecarvey

      re: #1 this is true only depending on how much the subject fills the frame from the center to the edge of the lens. A wide angle lens close up to a face, “sees” less of the ears, than an 85mm lens moved back to the same relative framing.

  4. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
    Kay O. Sweaver

    B0keh.

    1. David J Avatar
      David J

      On that, it seems to me there’s a real “bokeh fetish” trend going on, to the extent I’ve seen people actually introduce digital bokeh in post, or go with such shallow depth of field choices that it actually becomes a distraction. For me, the ability to frame and compose a subject in its proper context without resorting to shallow DoF is more skillfull and interesting. I only go for shallow DoF when the background is junky or distracting in some manner and I’m unable to recompose the shot to get rid of it. Otherwise, I’d take tack sharp border to border on a well-composed shot any day over “bokeh.” Bokeh = bleh. Furthermore, it grates on me even more in film making. Just my opinion though.

  5. Assaf Cohen Avatar
    Assaf Cohen

    François Oren Chikli Shir Mazal Cohen

  6. Sam Dickinson Avatar
    Sam Dickinson

    The reason I started shooting primes because they were cheaper, especially for wider apertures, but I’ve continued on that because I like the fact that they’re lighter. I shoot a D3, so not a light camera, but the weight is in a different place and feels a lot better to me.

    1. csnyderphoto Avatar
      csnyderphoto

      It’s really hard to determine if they are indeed cheaper. Yes, a standard prime will be cheaper than a zoom, but the prime of course covers just one focal length. Once you buy lenses to cover the comparable zoom range, it’s likely it could cost more (depends on which system you shoot).

      1. Sam Dickinson Avatar
        Sam Dickinson

        I depends on if you’re looking for focal lengths or lens type (eg. portrait lens, etc). For me, I photograph people, so a 50mm and an 85mm suits 90% of my needs.

    2. stewart norton Avatar
      stewart norton

      I shoot D3S and that coupled with a 24-70 is a huge amount of weight to be carrying around for 10 hours + at a wedding , my primes weight a fraction ! To me its about look..it one of those things you can’t put your finger on but 24mm on a prime looks different to 24mm on a zoom to me at least.

    3. Gokul PM Avatar
      Gokul PM

      Check out Sigma 24-35mm f/2

  7. One other person is typing… Avatar
    One other person is typing…

    Zooms are as sharp as primes …almost.

  8. Van de Velde Photography Avatar
    Van de Velde Photography

    I carry zooms and primes. Prefer primes but sometimes zooms are the only option…..

  9. Maxim Bulat Avatar
    Maxim Bulat

    Out of my 3 lenses (all Nikkor) 17-55/2.8 DX is inferior to both 80-200/2.8 D and 50/1.4 D in picture quality. Would I get rid of 17-55? Nope since it is a good carry around lens, which is always on my D7200. I do often wide night shots and this is were I miss a quality lens. Either go with wide prime or consider 12-24.

  10. Doug Sundseth Avatar
    Doug Sundseth

    When you’re out shooting, there’s exactly one place to get any specific photo from. From that place, the photo you get (neglecting for the moment depth-of-field issues) will be the same regardless of focal length, other than in its field of view. You can try this for yourself by shooting with two different focal-length lenses from the same place and cropping to the same field of view. (Note that there are exceptions for specialty lenses like fisheyes and tilt-shift lenses; this really only applies to rectilinear lenses.)

    The difference is that you lose resolution if you have to crop in post, while if you crop by changing your focal length, you keep as much resolution as possible.

    Compose with your feet; crop with your focal length.

    The huge advantage of zoom lenses is that they give you a whole bag full of different focal lengths, and thus in-body crop choices, with a single piece of hardware.

    As others have noted, the big advantages of primes are that they can give you wider apertures when you need that for speed or subject isolation and that for a given focal length, they are lighter.

    On balance, I find the advantages of zooms to outweigh those of primes in most of the sorts of situations I shoot. The advantages of sharpness that can sometimes show up when using primes are more than compensated for by the resolution advantages that usually obtain when using zooms.

    But I do really like my 85mm f/1.8 for portraits.

  11. Don Frame Avatar
    Don Frame

    I’ve adapted my 1965 Nikkor S f/1.2 to my Mark II and I’ve also adapted a G.Zuiko 1.4 (55 and 50mm respectively. They both deliver the results I need in low light. When shooting transient sources of bright light at night, my Nikkor’s aperture ring is so smooth I developed a method of “aperture manipulation” where I change the aperture as light sources change. This photo is the Nikkor with Aperture Manipulation:
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bc0c62260ec18b715bec66f360ee88b2ccf8b3d58c634777d72a4ef1d56838ec.jpg

  12. Gal Yellowstone Avatar
    Gal Yellowstone

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a8fd4ec954d1ec49d996267ca38af8d63b7d17bdcaa56d30d0f1b3c8c8c4e2c4.jpg

    Much wildlife photography would be impossible without the flexibility of zoom lenses; obviously it’s infeasible to approach a grizzly bear and cub with a fixed focal-length lens as she and her baby move back and forth, closer and farther away. In fact, tourist attempts at photographing wildlife with a cell phone or iPad (with their rudimentary zoom functions) have resulted in plenty of injuries and once in a while, a death.

  13. Jozef Jean-Marie Timuľák Avatar
    Jozef Jean-Marie Timuľák

    1. Sigma 50-100/1.8 is sharper and cheaper than many other primes. May have better bokeh too.
    2. There is no compression or distortion inherent in lens. It depends only on distance.

  14. jakecarvey Avatar
    jakecarvey

    As a video shooter primarily, and shooting often in low light situations, but also directing several (4-6) camera operators at the same time during events, I feel that the tradeoff is about three things:

    1. The amount of available light (day vs. night)
    2. commitment to learning the cinematic “language” established over the years
    3. budget (both for investment in cameras (FF or crop) and lenses, and in terms of time / energy / crew available in a shoot)

  15. Paddy Avatar
    Paddy

    Primes are smaller lighter and sometimes cheaper but sometime you just need a nice zoom lens!

  16. WillMondy Avatar
    WillMondy

    I use both zooms and primes.
    I mainly shoot landscapes, so f/5.6 to f/11 are my main apertures, which is where zooms are normally performing well.

    When I shoot macro, I use my 105mm macro prime lens so I can get in close
    When I shoot moonlit landscapes and night landscapes I use my 35mm f/1.4 prime to suck in the little light available.

    I’m going to move to a two zoom setup, with 24-105 and 100-400, but have a bunch of primes from 14mm to 85mm with the 105mm macro too.

    At the end of the day, it’s the best tool for the job!

  17. tom rose Avatar
    tom rose

    I have been using three of Canon’s finest zoom lenses (16-35 f/4, 24-70 f/4 and 70-200 f/4) but none of them produces images that are remotely close in attractiveness to those I get from my ancient and much less costly primes such as the 35mm f/2 EF. Whether the more attractive look is due to more detail, sharper corners, less distortion, fewer and smaller aberrations, colour balance or something else entirely I do not know and do not care!

  18. Chris W Avatar
    Chris W

    The bokah on a 85mm f1.4 can not be achieved by any zoom, & you have the option of two extra stops for increasing shutter speed. I would love Nikon to produce a 28-105mm f2.8, as 70mm is too short for the limit of a normal zoom, so we end up with 24-120 f4.0, & now we’ve lost 3 stops, & the cheaper zooms it’s 4 stops. With normal zooms everything is about sharp, but no bokah.

  19. tom rose Avatar
    tom rose

    I used to be very happy using zooms but when I saw the first results from my Canon 135 f/2 L I realised that my 70-200 L was rarely going to be used again, if ever. Emboldened by this realisation I began to look at images made with the latest 35mm f/1.4 L. When I can afford one I expect that the superb 16-35 f/4 L and 24-70 f/4L, wonderful as they are, are not going to be used very often either.

  20. tom rose Avatar
    tom rose

    Well, I thought my ‘L’ zooms were pretty sharp, until I used Canon’s 135 f/2. That is when I realised how much detail those top-of-the-range zooms were losing, compared to a good prime (which in this case happens to be a very old design). A 50 f/1.4 followed with equally superior results to my 24-70 ‘L’ lens. Now a 35 f/1.4 and 85 f/1.4 are on the shopping list.

    Many of the arguments in favour of Primes over Zooms might be spurious (e.g. “Zoom with your feet” and “It makes you a better photographer”) but there is no doubt that the best primes still out-resolve the best zooms, as well as being less affected by aberrations and distortions and faster.

  21. Peter Avatar
    Peter

    ” So, linguistically speaking, he’s right.” Not just linguistically. The compression of the background is a huge difference. When you use a 50mm prime, however you walk further or back, you will never have the effect of a wide angle shot. There is no way to zoom out that much and have the same photo. So he is right, it is nonsense zooming with your feet.

  22. Bengt C Avatar
    Bengt C

    I shoot (almost) exclusively with primes on APS-C these days. The reason is it gives me $2500 zoom lens quality at 1/10 the price. The larger apertures makes the APS-C/prime setup providing the same dept-of-field and noise quality as a fullframe/zoom kit. With APS-C you need to get new lenses ($350) for the short focal lengths whereas used legacy glass ($35) works fine for the longer focal lengths.

    Manual focus takes the autofocus lottery away, very rewarding. The learning also becomes more efficient as you need to learn and apply hyperfocal- and zone-focusing. You also get to learn just how insanely small apertures are actually needed to get enough depth-of-field in some situations.

    I do however occasionally use the stabilized kit zoom at low-light with stationary subjects. Even though I have a f/1.4 normal prime, the smaller zoom aperture (compensated by very low shutter speed) gives more useful depth-of-field giving significantly better images in such low-light situations.

    But there are drawbacks too. First, the slow pace during capturing can be annoying for some subjects (people), but I guess that can be overcome by practice from the photographer. Second, handheld telephoto becomes very, very difficult with legacy glass. Not only do you need very high ISO for fast enough shutter speed. But focusing also becomes very hard, as the image in the viewfinder is jumping like crazy. I’m therefore considering a modern stabilized zoom for the 50-200 mm range.