The battle continues. Which is better, a fixed focal length lens (prime) or a variable focal length lens (zoom)? Although some will say the answer is simple, I tend to disagree. The decision to use either type of lens should be based on your needs, not on popular belief. Let's take a look at the difference between these lenses and find out which one is a better fit for you. Who knows? You might be surprised what you decide.
When I first started shooting weddings and portraits I only used zoom lenses, namely the 28-80mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/2.8. They were great for all types of shooting, but I wanted to play around with extremely shallow depth of field. I purchased some great prime lenses like the 35mm f/1.8 and the 50mm f/1.4. They allowed me to have even more latitude with low light shooting, but could be limiting when distance shooting was necessary. Over the years I have made the transition into hybrid lens shooting. I see the value of both types of lenses and use them as I need them.
Prime Lenses: Prime lenses are fixed focal length lenses that cannot be zoomed to achieve a different focal length. What you see through the camera is what you get. Changing perspective with prime lenses only occurs when you move your position. Traditional prime lens lengths were found in 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 135mm. These focal lengths were popular because they were optimized focal lengths for specific photographs styles. Nowadays, there are many other focal lengths available for prime lenses, but many follow these traditional lengths (when the crop factor is taken into account).
Zoom Lenses: Zoom lenses are available in a myriad of focal lengths. They have a focal range that varies. This length can be changed by twisting the ring on the lens. Zoom lenses can either have a variable or fixed aperture range. Kit lenses are generally zooms with a variable aperture range. They are typically less expensive and less desirable. Zoom lenses with a fixed aperture of f/2.8 or less are usually more expensive than ones that are fixed at f/4.
What's so great about prime lenses?
- Prime lenses are optimized for a superior photograph. Primes tend to be sharper than zooms. They also tend to be easier to calibrate due to fewer moving parts. My favorites are the 35mm, 50mm and 85mm lengths--I own them all in apertures of f/1.8 and f/1.4. Because of the immense depth of field from these lenses, I tend to get some pretty awesome bokeh. But be careful, not all lenses are tack sharp when wide open. Make sure to test your lens to see what aperture renders the best sharpness.
- Prime lenses tend to be less expensive than zooms. Well, kind of. It's hard to compare apples to apples here. Of course you get more focal lengths with zoom lenses, so it's not exactly equal. But if you have a limited amount of money and have the choice of a cheap zoom or a high quality prime for the same price, I would recommend the prime lens with no hesitation.
- Prime lenses seem to last forever and are timeless. I have never had a mechanical issue with one of my prime lenses (I'm not saying it doesn't happen), whereas I have had to get two of my zoom lenses fixed due to them locking up. The more moving parts there are in the lens, the more that can go wrong.
- Prime lenses weigh less than zoom lenses. If you compare lens of equal quality, a prime lens almost always weighs less than zoom lens. If you want to pack a lighter camera bag, a couple of prime lenses with unique focal lengths might be a great solution for various looks.
- Prime lenses are better in low-light situations. Because prime lenses have minimum apertures that are larger than most zoom lenses, their light gathering capabilities are better.
What's so great about zoom lenses?
- You can't beat zoom lenses for flexibility. My favorite zoom lenses allow me to cover a decent focal range while maintaining a minimum aperture of f/2.8 or less. Because my professional photographic experience is portraiture, I love the new 18-35mm f/1.8 lens from Sigma for cropped sensor cameras (check out the image gallery here). It covers a great range while having fantastic sharpness even at its minimum aperture. For full frame cameras I love the 24-80mm f/2.8 lens. And my favorite telephoto lens is the 70-200mm f/2.8.
- Zoom lenses a great when you can't "zoom with your feet." Sometimes you just can't get as close as you want. Telephoto zoom lenses are a useful tool when you need that extra length. I used my 70-200mm lenses when we took our trip to Yellowstone National Park. I was able to zoom in on amimals when it was too dangerous to get closer on foot.
- Zoom lenses help you get the shot faster. I almost always crop in camera, which means I rarely crop my images after I hit the shutter. When I use a zoom lens during a wedding or while photographing a young child that moves around quite a bit, I find it faster and easier to photograph with a zoom lens to get the exact focal length I want. When you can easily twist a ring for the perfect focal length, it's just simpler to get the shot than switching lenses or moving my body. Of course I don't stand in one place during a session and I don't advocate lazy photography, but zoom lenses can allow you to get a full length shot one second and a close up the next.
So which is better--prime or zoom? I'm pretty sure you can make a case for both of them. Good thing manufacturers make a wide assortment for us to choose from. For me, a mixture of both zoom lenses and prime lenses are best. What about you? Weigh in with your opinion in our forum. Have a great weekend and go grab that shot!