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Prime vs Zoom Lenses (Complete Guide)

Rajib Mukherjee Avatar
Rajib Mukherjee
18 January, 2023 • Updated 14 days ago
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The debate of prime versus zoom can be a confusing one for emerging photographers. The answer depends on your individual needs. Some photographers swear by their zooms, while others take pride in shooting with primes. However, it’s tough to diversify and experiment with just one type, so many photographers prefer primes and zoom to explore their photographic pursuits.

This discussion will establish the meaning of prime and zoom lenses, while also covering the strong suits and shortcomings of each. If you have a limited budget and can’t afford to splurge on a range of lens types, this article will help you narrow down the best choice for you.

What are Prime Lenses?

selective focus photography of Canon OES 60D camera on white

Simply put, prime lenses are lenses that don’t zoom. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length; therefore, if you wish to be closer or farther from the subject, you will have to adjust your physical proximity.

Prime lenses offer the critical advantages of faster aperture and overall improved optical performance. Because these lenses have fewer moving parts, manufacturers can infuse these lenses with the best optical qualities. One of those optical qualities is the ability of the lens to shoot with a fast wide aperture. With prime lenses, you can affordably get apertures such as f/1.8, f/1.4, and f/1.2. These apertures shoot with three stops or more extra light compared to traditional kit lenses.

Yes, modern zoom lenses have been able to shoot with fast apertures. Lenses like the 70-200mm f/2.8 and the 24-70mm f/2.8 offer an optical performance comparable to prime lenses. These zoom lenses come at a higher price point, so prime lenses have retained their demand.

What are Zoom Lenses?

black and silver DSLR camera

As the name suggests, zoom lenses are designed to have a variable focal length. These lenses can zoom and change the focal length on demand within a specified range. Apart from the focusing (and sometimes image stabilization properties), these lenses have elements that allow the lens to change the focal length.

Zoom lenses have a second ring on the barrel that allows the zoom to be externally controlled.

One exciting feature of zoom lenses is that some lenses have a variable maximum aperture. As you zoom in with the lens, the maximum aperture drops down. Let’s use an example to explain this.

Let’s say you’re using a kit lens, like 18-55mm f/3.5 – 5.6. This lens has two sets of numbers. The first is the focal length, and the second is the aperture. The focal length of the lens is between 18mm and 55mm – that part is easy to understand. The other section states an aperture range of f/3.5 to 5.6. This suggests that the maximum aperture when the lens is at its shortest focal length, 18mm, is f/3.5. And the maximum aperture when the lens is at its most extended focal length, 55mm, is f/5.6.

Some zoom lenses have a fixed maximum aperture across the focal length. These lenses are premium quality lenses. Examples of these lenses are the 70-200mm f/2.8, the 200-500mm f/5.6, and so on.

Related Guide: Camera Lens Filters Explained

Prime Lenses Versus Zoom Lenses

Let’s compare the different aspects of both prime and zoom lenses to determine which lens shines in which field.

Price

male hands with folded pennies

A significant advantage of prime lenses over zoom lenses is in the area of pricing. In terms of pricing, the prime lenses are cheaper than the zoom lenses. For example, an 85mm f/1.8 lens costs under $450. However, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens costs under $2000. This is a significant difference in pricing. If a photographer does not require a 70-200mm and the only focal length they would be shooting at is 85mm, then it makes more sense to get an 85mm lens rather than invest a crazy amount of money on a 70-200mm. They can even buy a couple of fast aperture primes and save a considerable amount of money at that price.

Winner – Prime Lenses

Versatility

Zoom lenses with glasses

The most significant benefit of a zoom lens is that it’s very versatile. It combines several focal lengths on a single barrel, effectively giving you several lenses. With a zoom lens such as a 24-70mm, you can use the focal length of 35mm, 50mm, and 24mm without moving your feet. This is ideal if you have limited mobility, such as being stuck in your seat at a sports game. So, in terms of versatility, zoom lenses are better than prime lenses.

Winner – Zoom Lenses

Aperture

Prime lens Aperture

Primes tend to have faster apertures compared to zooms.  This is the main reason prime lenses tend to fare better in low-light situations. As explained in this discussion, manufacturers can focus on the optical qualities of these lenses because of fewer moving parts inside prime lenses.

Winner – Prime Lenses

Zoom

black Canon EOS camera

By definition, one lens set does not zoom (prime), and the other does (zoom). When you’re shooting with a prime lens, you have to be the perfect distance from your subject to achieve your desired composition. Suppose you want to tighter composition – you have to move in closer. Prime lenses are often referred to as a hard-working photographer’s lens, and rightly so.

On the other hand, zoom lenses can change their focal length. You can stand in one spot and use the optical zoom to move in closer to your subject or move away from your subject. There is a lot of flexibility with zoom lenses.

Winner – Zoom Lenses

Optical Performance

two black zoom lenses on gray linen

In terms of optical performance, prime lenses do tend to be superior. So, if you’re comparing two inexpensive lenses, like an 18-55mm kit lens with a 50mm f/1.8 prime, the prime lens will offer better optical performance than the zoom lens.

If you’re willing to spend a bit more, however, you will be able to find a very optically sharp zoom lens too. These lenses can easily give prime lenses of comparable focal length a run for their money.

Winner – Tie

Weight

person holding black camera zoom lens

Prime lenses tend to be lighter than zoom lenses. This is because prime lenses don’t have the zooming mechanism, meaning there are fewer inner parts to add weight. This affects the portability of your backpack and overall mobility.

Winner – Prime Lenses

Portability

person holding black Sony DSLR camera

When using primes, you have to carry several lenses with you. Especially if you’re traveling, there could be a 35mm prime, 85mm prime, and a 50mm prime in your bag. Portability is affected when you’re using multiple lenses.

On the other hand, if you’re using a zoom lens such as 24-70mm or 70-200mm, you could quickly shoot with that single lens without having to change lenses for every new scene. You can pack one or two lenses and have everything you need to capture an entire vacation of memories. Despite the increased weight, zoom lenses still win this round.

Winner – Zoom Lenses

FAQs

Are prime lenses better than zoom lenses?

Technically, yes, prime lenses are superior to zoom lenses if we look at the average performance of a prime lens and then compare it with that of a zoom lens.

However, there is a catch. Both primes and zooms have exceptional examples of great optical features, handling, and performance. Lenses such as the 70-200mm f/2.8 are exceptional lenses and can give 85mm, 105mm, and other 200mm primes a run for their money in terms of optical performance.

On the other hand, lenses such as the 50mm f/1.4 prime, the 85mm f/1.8 prime, and the 105mm f/2.8 are superb lenses in every respect. Optically, these lenses are capable of producing excellent results.

The reason for our answer is that prime lenses have fewer moving parts inside them. As a result, manufacturers can concentrate on the lens’s optical quality rather than the zooming properties. Because of this, prime lenses tend to be optically superior, on average, to zoom lenses.

Are prime lenses faster than zoom lenses?

Yes, prime lenses tend to be faster than zoom lenses because they have a wider maximum aperture, allowing the lens to collect much more light than zoom lenses with a comparable focal length. Because prime lenses allow for capturing more light, they also enable the use of faster shutter speeds. A faster shutter speed helps capture sharp photos even when the subject is not stationary.

Another advantage of a fast aperture is that you can capture a shallow depth of field. A shallow depth of field means that only the subject of an image is in focus. Such a depth of field is ideally suited for capturing portrait photos.

Do professionals prefer using zoom lenses?

Yes, professional photographers often prefer using zoom lenses for most shooting circumstances. This is because zoom lenses give them the advantage of changing the focal length without changing their position or proximity to the subject. If a photographer is working in a tight space without much room to maneuver, a zoom lens allows them to get close to the action. Prime lenses, however, require the photographer to move to change the composition.

Conclusion

In this discussion, I have covered all the parameters that will help you decide which lens is suitable for your photography genre and style.

It is challenging to pick one lens over the other. Both zooms and primes have advantages and disadvantages and you’ll be better off having one of each in your arsenal. Lenses are costly, however, so I hope this article has helped you decide which would be the best lens type to invest in first.

Rajib Mukherjee Avatar
Written by
Rajib Mukherjee
Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. The first time he ever clicked an image was with an Agfa Click IV back in 1984. A medium format film camera. From that auspicious introduction to photography, he has remained hooked to this art form. He loves to test and review new photography gear. Rajib travels quite a lot, loves driving on Indian roads, playing fetch with his Labrador retriever, and loves photography. And yes, he still proudly owns that Agfa Click IV!
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