Prime vs Zoom Lenses, in-depth guide

A notorious never-ending Prime vs Zoom Lenses battle! What are prime lenses and what are the zoom lenses?

  • The prime lenses are the lenses with a fixed focal length (you cannot zoom) while zoom lenses are, of course, lenses with moving parts which allows you to perform the zoom function. Both types of lenses have their own advantages and disadvantages, which creates an endless battle between Prime vs zoom lenses in photography

Among the day to day photographers, either professional or amateurs, we’ve always been wondering, and as some of us already been taking a decision, which lenses should I focus on buying?

What are the advantages and disadvantages, the differences and which type is worth going for? In this post, I will try to make it clear the differences between those two categories and probably help you find the right lenses for you.

Prime vs Zoom Lenses – In detail!

Prime Lenses:

prime lens photograph 35mm (prime vs zoom lenses)
Lonely mountain – Photograph taken with a prime cheap lens 35mm by Gabriel at photornia.com

The prime lenses are those lenses with a fixed focal length: That means you cannot ZOOM at all. (not optical zoom at least).

But with the sacrifice of not having ZOOM at all on your lens, there come some advantages.

1: Prime LensesQuality

As simple as it is, the sharpness of a prime lens is SUPERIOR to the one lens with ZOOM. On a prime lens, we have less glass inside because there are no moving parts in order to perform a zoom

By having less glass inside a lens, the sharpness is better and the price range should be lower for the same glass quality.

If you see two lenses for sale for the same price, one with zoom and one prime, expect that prime lenses could have better quality glass inside. Less glass = better quality for the price.

2: Prime LensesPrice

As I’ve been talking above that due to the fact that in a prime lens is less glass, the sacrifice of manufacturing extra glass for a lens comes with the advantage of having a lower price overall.

You can pick some PRIME lenses of good quality which offer great sharpness for a very cheap price, comparing to a zoom lens.

But if you are looking to invest a bigger amount of money on lenses, the long focal length prime lenses can have prices where you can add even another zero to an end of a price for a zoom lens.

Let’s take a look on the price of the Nikon 500mm f4E FL ED prime lens, which can bounce up to even £10.000 where the price of Nikon 200-500mm zoom lens you can buy as low as £1000.

But in that case, we are talking the language of a high-end quality prime lens which quality will always far exceed any of the zoom lenses which exists on the market.

3: Prime LensesLow light and Aperture

Expect that you often will see prime lenses with an aperture of 1.8 or 1.4 which allows you to take stunning photographs in low light situations

Having a wide aperture there comes the advantage of having a shallow depth of field, giving you the possibility to create stunning bokeh photographs and to open a new creativity area for you

As an example, on the time of updating this post, I had the chance to buy Nikon 50mm f1.2 manual focus prime lens which is a beast in term of aperture.

The below photographs are indeed taken with Nikon 50mm f1.2 manual focus prime lens.

The night sky photographs are taken with the ISO relatively low at 2500, f1.2 and exposure of 8 seconds. Keep in mind that those photographs are just drafts (I wanted to give you a real-life example) and not a combination of long exposures which increase the content quality of the night sky drastically.

4: Prime LensesDisadvantages

As the option to go for a prime lens seems to give you butterflies, we shall look on the downside of buying a prime lens as well.

Fixed Focal Length = No zoom = more lenses

Having a zoom lens which can cover the focal length between 24mm for instance and 105mm, will give you the opportunity to take different types of photographs within the focal range just by moving the zoom ring

You can take a wide 24mm landscape photo, closely photograph a seagull at 105mm or take some nice photographs of your friends at 50mm. That you can do with a ZOOM lens.

Having a PRIME would mean that you need to buy all those focal length lenses to cover different subjects or types of photography. You will never be able to take a photograph to that seagull at 24mm unless you catch it.

To cover different topics, you will find yourself having a bag full of PRIME lenses and interchanging them all the time, which increases the risk of getting dust to your sensor or missing a crucial moment.

5: Prime LensesConclusion

If you are focusing yourself on a single type of photography, you are looking to be creative, or you don’t want to invest too much money, having a PRIME lens could be the solution for you

For instance, if you are or want to be a street photographer, you will probably need a 28mm or a 35mm prime lens. Even 50mm on a full-frame camera will work flawlessly.

Or if you love taking portrait photos, a good 50mm, 85mm or even 105mm will open the creativity side of you.

The bokeh resulted from those lenses at a 1.4 or 1.8 focal length, will make your photographs to be outstanding compared to those taken with a zoom lens.

It is always a headache indeed in having to pick between Prime vs Zoom Lenses. But let’s continue, shall we?

Zoom Lenses

waves under a pier - photograph taken with a zoom lens with VR on (prime vs zoom lenses)
Under the pier old structure with waves, taken with a zoom lens handheld with VR on – Photograph taken by Gabriel M. at photornia.com

1: Zoom LensesQuality

In terms of functionality and complexity, with the zoom lenses is another story. The zoom lenses have more glass and moving parts in order to perform the optical zoom function.

Although their complexity, the sharpness is still very good, but will never reach the image quality resulted from a PRIME lens.

With honesty, there is no much to say about the quality of a zoom lens. It all depends on the lens price. There are on the market cheap zoom lenses which fail in delivering even the basics in the standard of quality. But there are also zoom lenses with a sharpening out of common.

2: Zoom LensesPrice

The average prices of a zoom lens compared to the prime lenses are usually higher. Adding more glass to a lens is an extra cost.

But when you’re aiming for high-end zoom lenses, their prices seem to be lower than the prime.

Seeing this from a different perspective, a good investment into a zoom lens could be even priced lower than multiple prime lenses you would have to buy in order to cover the focal lengths of the zoom lens

I own the Tamron 24-70mm G2 VC USD,(Amazon link) where I paid over a grand to own it.

If I would have to buy 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 70mm prime lenses to cover the focal lengths, I would pay probably nearly double the price, to match the quality of the glass.

My conclusion about the pricing, it does worth to do a one-time good investment into a good zoom lens for your needs and have no worries anymore.

Enjoying our Prime vs Zoom lenses article? Spread the love and give us a share 🙂

3. Zoom LensesLow light and aperture

Looking from the technical side, PRIME lenses would have a good win over zoom lenses in the aperture case.

As I said before, a PRIME lens aperture goes down to 1.8, 1.4 or even lower. A zoom lens with an aperture of 2.8 is considered a good one

On my best knowledge, one other lens I own, 18-35mm from SIGMA ART (Check on Amazon, affiliate link), has one of its lowest aperture from any zoom lenses existent on the market, of 1.8.

There is one more thing I forgot to mention. On the zoom lenses, you will often see the VR (Vibrance reduction, or OS – optical stabilisation) or the equivalent named from different manufacturers

You probably know what VR is and how is acting, but shooting in low light situation handheld with a zoom lens with an aperture of 2.8, definitely wins against a prime lens under the same light conditions, with an aperture of 1.8

Taking pictures with a prime lens without VR, at a shutter of 1/50sec, it is very difficult without a tripod to take a sharp picture. Most of the results would be blurry.

But in the case of a zoom lens with VR, you can take a nice sharp picture without a tripod even with the shutter down to 1/4sec.

But a PRIME lens with VR. That’s another story. And very rare and expensive to get one (at least on Nikon / Sigma / Tamron line)

4: Zoom LensesDisadvantages

I probably covered most of the disadvantages of using a zoom lens above, but I will try to summarise this.

Casual/good quality zoom lenses price is higher than prime lenses

The sharpness of a prime lens is often better than of a zoom lens

In time, overusing the zoom ring, dust is attracted inside the lens. When the optical zoom mechanism moves, it creates a sort of vacuum which acts as a magnet for dust particles.

The sharpness of the lens would not decrease in the case you get dust inside, but the contrast does.

If you own a zoom lens for a while, use a magnifier and some direct light on the glass and check it. Do not panic as I did when I first saw a cloud of dust inside of my Sigma 105mm

5: Zoom LensesConclusion

If you love to explore your creativity into multiple sides of photography, you don’t want to carry too many lenses around, or you just need a general lens “good for all”, going for a zoom lens may be your solution

Travelling around, going on holidays and exploring different places could have great benefits on taking photography with a zoom lens over the prime lens

You may not want to carry a full bag of lenses and change it every time you pick a different subject or area. You will definitely want to enjoy travelling and take photographs without to stress too much about all those focal lengths.

Of course, I am talking here from beginner or intermediate point of view, when you want to take in special photographs mostly for yourself on this case, for social media or your website.

Aiming for commercial photography, you will want the maximum sharpness to focus on. But in the past couple of years, even the zoom lenses improved a lot, and the quality and sharpness can take us by surprise sometimes.

The verdict on Prime vs Zoom Lenses!

In the end, is your decision about what you are going to pick between zoom or prime lenses. This post is just my personal point of view based on facts and using different zoom lenses and prime lenses over the years.

Before we go, I will list below on most types of photography, which I would recommend more to pick between the zoom and prime:

Prime vs Zoom lenses – “Into the real world”

  • Architecture Photography – You will probably need a wide prime lens over a zoom lens.
  • Astrophotography – No questions here: Always a prime lens. You need the aperture to be as wide as possible for the extra light to capture.
  • Cityscape Photography– Is mostly a preference pick, but a wide prime lens would give better results. But do not be fooled by that. If you are a strict cityscape photographer or you want to be one, we have to keep in mind the size and distance from the city you want to take a picture. A zoom lens can solve the issue of having different focal lengths, multiple prime lenses or a single good prime lens and the knowledge to create panoramas in special.
  • Drone Photography – Probably you will need a drone for that 🙂
  • Event Photography – At concerns or events with low light situations, a fast prime lens would be the best choice. You will want to freeze the moment and get no motion blur at all. Although a zoom lens with optical stabilisation can take more stabilise photographs, you will get plenty of motion from having a slower shutter speed than with a prime lens with a wide aperture.
  • Fine Art Photography– Can be done with both prime and zoom lenses, but for the most creative part, you will need a prime. Or more. But you need a lens out of the ordinary to get the best out of fine art photography. As an instance, if you are a Nikon user, I would recommend going for the 50mm f1.2 manual focus prime lens. It does worth every single penny.
  • Indoor Photography – Prime lens over the zoom lens. A zoom lens can also perform amazing if it has optical image stabilisation.
  • Landscape Photography – Both are good. Is just a preferential pick. But if you are aiming for the extra sharpness in landscape photography, I would rather go for a prime lens. I did landscaping with both prime and zoom lenses, and I’ve noticed an increased quality of the images taken with a prime lens.
  • Macro Photography – You will need a macro lens for this. There are both zoom and prime lenses with the macro function on the market.
  • Night Photography – A fast prime lens or a good low-aperture zoom lens with VR.
  • Portrait Photography – Prime lens for creativity, but you can do a good job even with a good zoom lens
  • Sports Photography – Always a zoom lens over a prime lens
  • Street Photography – A prime lens between 28mm and 50mm; can be done with zoom lenses as well.
  • Travel Photography – You would prefer a zoom lens over a prime in this case. Just my personal choice.
  • Wedding Photography – A combination between those two maybe. Some photographers would prefer to use more prime lenses, some others the zoom lenses. It is more like having two cameras, one attached with a standard zoom lens (such as 24-70mm) while other a 50mm for portrait photographs. Every wedding photographer will have their own personal gear different from others.
  • Wildlife Photography – On a budget, a zoom lens. Highend investment, a prime lens (because they are really expensive)

Of course the listed above list is just a reference of what work best with the type of photography. And in some cases, the tilt-swift lenses would perform better than the other two. But that’s another story for another topic.

Prime Lenses – a day to day usage.

Recently I had the chance to buy a Nikon 50mm f1.2 prime lens manual focus, which I started to fall in love with.

Using a prime lens with a very fast aperture in day-to-day life will open you new areas of creativity, unimaginable by any zoom lenses existent out there.

I love to take an artistic photograph, images to express an emotion, a mood or which looks fantastic on the wall. I love fine-art photography and photographs “out of the ordinary”

With a zoom lens, you will never be able to reach those levels of creativity. This is the main advantage I am using a prime lens daily.

But this does not mean that on the other side I am not using a zoom lens daily. Let’s explore the realm of an artistic world, shall we?

Prime lenses have something special related to the amazing shallow depth of field or bokeh resulted by using them. A prime lens will always specialise you into a specific focal distance.

As an instance, as mentioned above about my 50mm prime lens, I love to take 50mm photography. Sticking to a single focal length allows me to master my lens quicker than any zoom lenses. Not only that I can take outstanding creative pictures with a prime lens but I can reach one another level in my journey as a photographer.

Or maybe you will like 28mm, 35mm, 85mm, 105mm photography. It is just the concept of using a single prime lens for your main camera (preferable full-frame camera for the best results) to make you a more artistic person unless you are trying to cover more than one area in photography.

Zoom lenses – A day to day usage

One another lens which I own and definitely mentioned before is the Tamron 24-70mm f2.8 G2 lens. This is my favourite from any zoom lenses I owned so far, and can’t find any negative sides.

Using a zoom lens in our day to day life will help us cover more than one area in photography and for our most scenarios, we only have to turn the zoom ring to get the perfect frame for our elements.

Are you travelling a lot, do you want to capture the beauty of this world as it is, small or big in size? you will probably need a good zoom lens in this case 🙂

Although a zoom lens will not reach the creative level of a very fast prime lens, this will have its own uses. You can do solely everything with a zoom lens as with a prime lens.

Landscape, long exposure photographs, street photography. What does stop you not to use one single lens for all of them, and remove the hassle for having a dozen prime lenses?

A zoom lens will be always easier to use in a day-to-day scenario than a prime lens. The possibility to zoom in and out when photographing your kids riding their bikes? You don’t need a fast prime lens to create some memorable photographs.

There will be always a battle between prime vs zoom lenses. It all depends on you, depends on the type of photography you are performing, it really all depends on your creativity level.

But:

If you are an artist, you will love prime lenses, and this should be your final decision.

If you are more like a regular person or traveller, you should focus on buying a zoom lens.

Which one do you prefer for your type of photography?

Prime vs Zoom Lenses? You can leave a comment below.

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Prime vs. Zoom Lenses - an in-depth article covering both prime and zoom lenses, and help you chose which is the best for you reflecting on the type of person you are and your niche in photography.
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About Gabriel Mihalcea

Howdy! You’re here! Great things to start! Hi, I’m Gabriel I live in the UK in the beautiful town of Hastings. I am a photographer, and I do DSLR and drone photography. I always loved to capture everything I could see through the eye-finder of my Nikon, or the bird-eyes of my drone. My expectations are to share everything I learned about photography and help anyone in need to reach their potential. Honestly, nobody ever reached their maximum potential as there would always be more room for improvement, more information to achieve or new technologies in photography released on the market. But leaving that aside, I am here to help anyone in need.

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