Zoom Lenses Vs Prime Lenses – Which is Best for YOU?
Today we are talking about zoom lenses and prime lenses. What’s the difference and why should you go for one over the other? Remember it is sooooooo much better on the podcast but if you are more of a reader I have some show notes for you below…
Over the past two episodes we have been getting to grips with focal length. What it means and how it impacts on your photography. If you missed those and you are unsure about focal length then make sure you skip back and catch up. A basic understanding of focal length is probably important for this episode.
Let’s start with zoom lenses.
Most cameras come with a zoom lens these days. A zoom lens means that it can zoom in and out to different focal lengths. So, for example, the 18-55mm kit lens which comes with most entry level DSLRs is a zoom lens. When it is turned all the way in, it is a wide-angle lens and has a focal length of 18mm (which is around 24mm on a cropped sensor) and when it is turned all the way out it is a telephoto lens with a focal length of 55mm (which is around 80mm on a cropped sensor).
The word zoom kind of says it all. With a zoom lens you are able to zoom in on your scene to magnify your subject and then zoom out on your scene to see more. All whilst staying in the same spot.
It’s like feet for your camera.
If you have a zoom lens you should be able to see the different focal lengths available to you. They should be visible on your lens somewhere. To zoom in and out you simply turn the middle section of the lens and you can move up and down the different focal lengths. At 18mm you will look through and see a wide angle version of your scene and as you zoom in you are going to see the angle of view get narrower and narrower and your subjects get larger and larger as they appear closer to you.
Zoom lenses are pretty common and it is easy to understand why. Lets talk about the benefits of using a zoom lens;
They allow you to move less and capture more variety.
For example if you are covering a wedding and you don’t want to be intrusive then a zoom will be perfect because it will allow you to zoom in to capture action happening far away from you and then zoom out to allow you to capture the closer stuff without having to run all over the room disturbing guests.
You won’t miss any action.
With a zoom lens you won’t have to change your lens to get a different angle of view. You can keep shooting without the hassle of switching lenses all the time.
You can travel lighter.
No one wants to carry lots of heavy lenses about with them unless they have to. Carrying one lens is appealing, especially if you are on holiday or just out for the day. Seriously portable and flexible.
It might be easier on the wallet.
It is feasible that if you invest in a good zoom you might not need to buy another lens. So whilst a good zoom might be expensive, it will be cheaper than buying several prime lenses.
On the flip side…
Zoom lenses don’t always allow you as wide an aperture as you might like. Also, the widest aperture you can achieve is often much narrower the more you zoom in on the more affordable zoom lenses. For example, the 18-55mm kit lens lens can open to f/3.5 when you are using it at a focal length of 18mm but when you zoom in to 55mm you will find that the widest aperture you can achieve is more like f/5.6. I talked about this in episode 3. This means that when light is low and you need to let as much in as possible then this lens at 55mm is not going to be the lens which will allow you to do this.
This isn’t the case with more expensive zooms but when I say they are more expensive, I mean WAY more expensive! For example, there is a pretty fabulous lens which many photographers favour – the 70-200mm f/2.8. When you are zoomed out to 70mm you can open to f/2.8 and when you are zoomed in to 200mm you can also achieve f/2.8. The price tag is upwards of £1200 for the privilege though!
The alternative to a zoom lens is a fixed focal length lens. We call these ‘prime’ lenses. They only have one focal length and you can’t zoom in or out at all.
Many of you listening to this may well have the 50mm 1.8 lens. I have talked about this lens in episode three and I also bang on about it a lot in my eBook – ‘Buying your First DSLR & Lens’. It is a fantastic lens which will perform beautifully for a very small price and will allow you to open your aperture wide. It is a very popular prime lens for this reason. However, many beginners who purchase this lens and use it for the first time are very much thrown by the fact that it doesn’t zoom.
I suppose we are all used to zooming now. Our point and shoot cameras zoom, our phone cameras zoom and our kit lenses zoom. Then all of a sudden you find yourself with a lens which doesn’t do that. You might feel that this is a real flaw and you might feel limited by the lack of zooming action. But let me let you in on something …
You have feet!
This leads me nicely to the first benefit of shooting with a prime lens.
They inspire creativity.
Instead of zooming, you just move! And do you know what happens when you move? You start seeing all sorts of photo opportunities! Yes, it takes some getting used to but it is worth it! I personally think that photographers with a prime lens are often far more creative than those shooting with a zoom for that very reason. They are forced to move, search and experiment. That can only be a good thing in photography!
But why else would you purchase a prime lens that only allows you to shoot at one focal length when you can purchase a zoom lens which allows you to shoot at lots of different focal lengths??
The quality is higher.
Think about this for a minute. A prime lens is made to capture one focal length. That’s it. This simple fact means it is probably going to do a damn good job of it. It’s like everything in life. When you purchase something that does multiple things, is it going to AMAZING at each and every one of them? Probably not. There are always going to be things it does better than others. And that is often the case with zooms. There will probably be some focal lengths they perform better at than others.
You know that saying; ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’?
A prime lens is made to be brilliant at one thing, capturing the light at one specific focal length. You can bet that it is going to do it pretty well!
They are faster.
Prime lenses allow you to open your aperture wider. If you listened to episodes 2 and 3 on aperture you will know that a wide aperture allows you to shoot with a faster shutter speed. And you know from episode 4 on shutter speed that a fast shutter helps us achieve sharpness. We call lenses which open wide, fast lenses, for this exact reason. Not only that, if you can open your aperture wide you can also keep shooting in lower light without needing to use a flash too.
They are smaller and lighter.
Creativity, quality and speed are the reasons I choose to shoot with prime lenses. However, not to be forgotten is the weight and size issue. Prime lenses tend to be smaller and lighter than zoom lenses so more portable and easier on the old back!
So what’s best for you? Zooms, primes or a mixture of both? Again, for every photographer you ask you will hear a different opinion. But the truth is it really all depends.
It depends on what you want to shoot, where you are going to shoot and how you are going to shoot.
Shooting a wedding without a zoom would be a pretty tough gig, as would shooting a sports match. You have to weigh it all up and decide for yourself. Many photographers end up with a mixture.
You get great zooms and great primes and you also get poor zooms and poor primes. Do your research and base your decision on what you want from the lens. What is right for someone else might not be right for you.
What I will say is that lenses matter. They REALLY do!
If I had to choose between a decent camera with a fabulous lens or a fabulous camera with a decent lens I can assure you I would choose the first option.
Today isn’t the time to go into that further but I will in future episodes…
Over in our facebook community recently there has been a lot of chat about how difficult it is to find the time to practice your photography. I can really sympathise with this and I thought it was an excellent topic for a podcast episode so tune in next time when I will be giving you lots of hints and tips for finding the time to develop your skills.
In the meantime have you signed up for my 10 day crash course yet? It is ten days of audio and emails which will take you from auto to manual mode. It’s absolutely free and you can subscribe at www.autotomanual.com.
Hope you will join me next time!