Prime vs. Zoom Lens – A Guide for Beginners

When looking at some professional photographers’ fantastic work, beginners often wonder how they achieved those spectacular shots. More often than not, the answer lies in the lens used.

But what lens should you pick? There are endless debates in the photography community on Canon vs. Nikon, film vs. digital, RAW vs. JPEG, to name a few.

That’s why it comes as no surprise that there’s also a sticking point in lens selection: Prime vs. Zoom lens.

Not all Camera Lenses are Created Equal

Rather than go into the same argument, we thought it would be better to give beginners an informative overview of the two most widely used lenses today.

More recently, more and more people have been gravitating towards zoom lenses. With the rapid advances in image sensor technology, it makes more sense – especially for beginners – to go with the convenience and versatility of zoom lenses.

Even cheap models these days can produce sharp images with the aid of their image stabilization features. Some expensive professional lenses even rival or surpass prime lenses’ results from the same focal length.

Still, prime lenses have many devotees who swear by them, and understandably so. The preeminent brands like Canon and Nikon have continued to improve their prime lens lines, with third-party companies like Sigma eager to follow suit.

On the downside, that doesn’t make the selection process any easier. It’s still worth learning all the bells and whistles, their differences, and the advantages they have over each other.

What’s a Prime Lens?

Simply put, there’s NO zooming in or out with a prime lens because it has a fixed focal length. That means it has a predefined viewing angle that can’t be changed.

The only way you can change a shot is by changing your point of view, which means you have to move. To enlarge a subject so it will fill the frame, you must get closer to it. The opposite goes if you want to make it smaller by moving away.

Prime lenses also come in various shapes and sizes, depending on their use. You might be surprised that there are also prime telephoto lenses.

They have the distinction of having only a single focal length. For example, manufacturers have prime lens versions with f/1.4 35mm, f/1.4 50mm, f/1.4 85mm, 100mm, 200mm, etc. 

What’s a Zoom Lens?

Zoom lenses have an adjustable focal length range. You can change manually how far the lens is from the sensor with a simple twist of a zoom ring back and forth.

They allow you to zoom in and make subjects appear closer or zoom out to make them look farther away. And you can do it standing on one spot, or move to another if you please.

As mentioned, they have an operational range you can work in specified by their minimum and maximum focal ranges.

A standard zoom lens like 24-70mm can work with all focal lengths within that range. In addition to that, they can also have a fixed aperture or a variable aperture ranges.

For example, Canon EF-24-70mm f/2.8L will have a fixed aperture of f/2.8 throughout its focal length range. However, a Canon EF24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 will have a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at 24mm and f/5.6 at 105mm.

On the other hand, most superzoom lenses have much higher focal lengths, and the maximum aperture can work throughout the whole zoom range. Examples are the Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM and Sigma AF 100-400mm f/5-6.3.     

Advantages of Using Prime Lenses

You might ask: Why use prime lenses if they’re so limited?

Price

For many, their lower price tag is justification enough.

Lenses don’t come cheap, and a 24mm f/2.8 prime lens costs around $100-$400. Compare that to a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens that will set you back anywhere from $1100-2500.

As you can see, you can have several prime lenses that cover your favorite focal ranges between 24-70mm, and you’ll still have money to spare. 

It’s the reason why those on a shoestring budget highly favor them. It gives more people a chance to create first-rate images without the compromise of buying a cheap substandard zoom lens.

Smaller Size and Weight

A more obvious advantage is their compactness.

These lenses are more comfortable to lug around because of their smaller size and weight. Unlike zoom lenses, they have no moving mechanical parts and multiple glass layers.

Of course, the trade-off is that they’re not as versatile as their hefty cousins. Nonetheless, having two different prime lenses is still lighter than a single zoom lens.

This advantage gets smaller once you bring more prime lenses with you with varying focal lengths.

Still, the difference can be jarring when you see one of the monster zoom lenses that some beginners attach to their cameras.  It’s not uncommon for their sheer size to cause neck and back pain, and other long-term injuries.

That’s why we also see many photographers jumping into the mirrorless camera bandwagon because of their compactness. They have limited options for lenses and accessories compared to the DSLR market, though.

In my experience, I found it better to have one or two go-to primes that are more convenient to take with me on some out of town trips.

You Learn to be More Creative

Before the arrival of zoom lenses into the mainstream photography market, they were mostly exclusive to pros. For ordinary folks, they changed the magnification in and out using the old-fashioned method of walking.

To some, moving around opens their eyes to more possibilities. They can experiment with more angles and perspectives that they would otherwise miss if they frequently stood on one spot.

Primes force you to look around more and explore your surroundings to find better compositions. Although a zoom lens allows the same freedom, its features tend to spoil users and make them lazier. 

To a certain extent, I can agree with that argument. But there are many things one can learn too from using a zoom lens. I believe you’ll be limiting your progress by sticking to just one type.

Wider Aperture

Until recently, most zoom lenses were stuck with an f/2.8 maximum aperture. They have improved in the last few years, but those with wider apertures come at a hefty premium.

You can find a prime 50mm f/1.8 for under $300. For professionals, some open up as much as f/0.98. Zoom lenses still have a long way to catch up in this regard.

Primes not only allow extra f-stops for letting in more light but also have a shallower depth of field. The results are beautiful, creamy looking bokeh backdrops around a subject.

It’s for this reason that they’re much sought after by most portrait photographers.

It’s also why beginners can’t duplicate the same bokeh quality: because of the limited maximum aperture of their zoom lens. You’ll have to invest in a more expensive zoom lens with better optics and wider aperture controls.

Better in Low Light

Once again, due to their larger apertures, fast primes are ideal for shooting in low light conditions without camera shake or blur. They can open up to f/1.2, for example, whereas most zoom lenses are limited to f/2.8. 

As a result, they can let in as much as three times more light than even some pro zoom lenses. Despite many zoom lenses nowadays having image stabilization features, they would still have difficulty capturing sharp images of a subject that’s moving around.

Advantages of Using a Zoom Lens

Zoom lenses, without a doubt, are more versatile than primes. Their variable focal length and other advantages more than make up for their being expensive, bulky, and heavy. 

Versatility

As mentioned above, their versatility is the main reason why people buy them. A single lens allows a photographer the ability to tackle a variety of tasks.

You can start from a wide-angle shot and go to a telephoto zoom in real-time at the twist of the zoom ring. There’s no changing of lenses and no need to move away from your spot every time you zoom in or out. 

For example, a wildlife photographer doesn’t have to get in the face of a lion and risk being eaten alive just for a close-up.  Similarly, landscape photographers don’t have to cross a river to zoom in to a distant subject and can easily frame their shot.

Image Stabilization Features

Most zoom lenses sold today feature a 3-4 stop image stabilization. They help a lot in getting sharper images in dark conditions, sometimes even when shooting moving objects.

Thanks to much-improved technology, even lenses with as narrow apertures as f/4 can still yield crisp photos. The mechanisms also do an excellent job of compensating for camera shake even at extremely low shutter speeds.

Keep in mind that some cameras have image stabilization built-in that can also benefit prime lenses. There are new primes with this feature as well. However, it’s still more widely used in zoom lenses.

Portability

You might think, because of their bulky size, that zoom lenses would be less portable than primes. That might be true when comparing them one-to-one.

Since they have variable focal lengths, even three prime lenses can’t substitute for a single zoom lens. It saves you the hassle of packing a bunch of lenses if the work requires multiple focal lengths. 

Final Thoughts

Many beginner photographers would probably be salivating at the jack-of-all-trades versatility offered by a zoom lens.

I would highly recommend that you buy one, but only if you have the funds. You could always try out primes later on, especially for their bokeh and low light image quality.

However, if a zoom lens will burn a hole in your pockets, then having one or more quality prime lenses would be the way to go.

Don’t be tempted to get a cheap zoom lens. Think of it as a long-term investment. It will last you many years, but you don’t want to be stuck with mediocre images.

Whatever type you end up with, you won’t have any regrets, as long as it helps you improve your skills and creativity.

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