Prime vs Zoom Lenses: A Beginner’s Guide

In your photography adventure, you will likely purchase both a prime lens and a telephoto lens at some point. If you are a novice photographer looking to upgrade to a new lens, you are likely faced with the decision of choosing a prime or zoom lens. What kind should you get and what’s the difference?

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Pros and cons of zoom lenses

When I started photography, I bought a camera kit with a pair of zoom lenses. These starting lenses allowed me to practice with the camera and its settings. My kit came with an 18-55mm lens and a 55-250mm lens.

Pro: ingenuity

This zoom lens provided a wide range of shooting. I was able to achieve wide or close shots by rotating the zoom ring on the lens to get the desired frame. By design, zoom lenses allow you to take a composition closer or further to your subject without having to walk over or away from it. To get the desired frame for your photo, you can call in or out to set what you want in the photo.

Zoom lenses come in a variety of ranges with 24-70mm and 70-200mm being the most common. If you want the holy trinity of lenses, you can add an ultra-wide 16-35mm lens. Zoom lenses provide the best range for capturing different types of photos as you can easily frame the shot by zooming in or out.

Being so versatile, zoom lenses are great for travel and general use. The majority of photographers you see in public places use some type of zoom lens, often either a 24-70mm or 24-105mm lens. Both are great lenses and offer the best of both worlds. A 24-70mm lens usually has its widest aperture at f/2.8 while a 24-105mm lens usually isn’t nearly as fast and has its widest aperture at f/4.

Remember: the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. The shallow depth of field produces blurry backgrounds that create separation between subject and background. Either of these can quickly become your favorite lens.

Pro: a lighter camera bag

The flexibility of zoom lenses means you can carry fewer lenses in your camera bag to cover the same focal range. Instead of having to carry a 24mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens, you can only carry one 24-70mm lens (sacrificing a little reach on the telephoto end). The 24-105mm lens is more versatile, giving you the equivalent of adding a 105mm lens to your collection.

Furthermore, zoom lenses will allow you to capture any focal length in their entire range, while carrying prime lenses will force you to forgo the focal lengths between what your prime lenses capture.

Con: image quality

There are drawbacks to zoom lenses. first they Could you You have worse image quality, especially when considering lower-end lenses – in the world of modern professional lenses, there is little or no image quality gap between zoom and primes.

Zoom lenses have more complexity and moving parts, and these attributes usually come with lower image quality when compared to the simpler design of prime lenses at the same focal range.

Cons: Worse for Bokeh

Zoom lenses are generally not as fast as prime lenses. By speed we mean the maximum aperture isn’t that big, and it usually tops out at f/2.8. This does not mean that you cannot have creamy bokeh wallpapers. It just means that they are not. Like Good as a prime lens for shooting photos with a very thin depth of field and intense background blur compared to a prime lens with a larger maximum aperture.

Photograph taken with an 85mm prime lens at f/1.4.
Photograph taken with a 70-200mm zoom lens at 85mm f/2.8 aperture. Note the wider depth of field and less background blur.

Cons: Worse in low light

When using a wide range zoom lens like the 55-250mm kit lens or even a super zoom lens like the 150-600mm lens, you’ll need a lot of light to shoot with. Lens apertures are usually around f/5.6-6.3. Ideally, these are great for outdoor photography in broad daylight. Can you shoot in low-light environments with these lenses? Yes, you can but you may find yourself raising the ISO level to get the correct exposure.

Con: portability

Finally, there is the portability issue. Zoom lenses can be quite heavy, especially with the longer ranges and premium versions.

There are large, heavy prime lenses, of course, but for equivalent quality, you’d likely trade multiple lenses that are smaller and lighter in favor of a larger, heavier lens when choosing a zoom over prime lenses.

Pros and cons of prime lenses

With the flexibility and scope of a zoom lens, why would one need or need a prime lens? There are several reasons to use a primer lens.

Prime lenses have a fixed focal length which means they don’t zoom in or out. To get the desired shot, you will have to get physically close to or far from your subject to frame your photo. However, prime lenses have some advantages over zoom lenses.

Pro: Larger maximum aperture

Most prime lenses offer wider apertures (faster) than their zoom counterparts. This allows more light for your camera making it ideal for low light situations. Plus, with wider apertures, you can get a shallow depth of field that results in those nice “bokeh” or blurred backgrounds.

Prime lenses can offer maximum apertures as f/0.95, as on the Nikon 58mm f/0.95 S Noct. The depth of field at these apertures is so shallow that focusing on the subject’s eye can cause his or her nose to be out of focus.

Nikon 58mm f/0.95S Noct.
Typical photo taken in low light with a Nikon 58mm f/0.95 S Noct. Photo by Nikon.

Pro: “Nifty Fifty”

One of the most popular prime lenses is the “Stylish Fifty” or 50mm. Almost every camera manufacturer makes one of these inexpensive compact lenses. Additionally, there are a few third-party manufacturers that also manufacture it.

These lenses produce sharp images despite their price and lightweight design. It is a great lens for general photography and a pleasure to photograph with. Some may not focus as quickly as their more expensive counterparts, but they’re still a great lens for their value.

Apart from the 50mm lens, the 35mm lens is also a common prime lens taken by many photographers, especially street photographers and photojournalists. It provides a wide angle enough to capture a subject and enough background to tell a story.

Pro: Specialized Purposes

Prime lenses come in different focal lengths. Choosing one depends on the types of photography you are interested in.

For general use, both 35mm and 50mm are excellent choices. It delivers visually appealing results with minimal lens distortion that results in an image close to what the human eye sees.

For selfies, headshots and weddings, 85mm is a popular choice.

If you are interested in landscape or astrophotography, 12mm or 14mm are good choices. You can even choose an ultra-wide lens or a fisheye lens such as 8mm.

Now these focal lengths mentioned are examples only and any type of lens and focal lengths of different types can be used, but results will vary.

Cons: high weight and price

Prime lenses are loved by many photographers because of their wide apertures and ability to produce sharp images and capture photos in low light. However, many high-quality prime lenses come at a hefty price not to mention the added weight (from having such a large aperture). Don’t be surprised to find an 85mm lens that weighs roughly 70-200mm. Although there are some cheap versions of prime lenses, you may find more choices in price and image quality when choosing one.

In general, the faster the lens (wider aperture), the more expensive the lens. For example, a Sony 50mm f/1.8 sells for about $250. The company’s premium version with f/1.4 aperture is priced at around $2,000. There are significant differences in the quality of construction and materials as well as the quality of the elements used in the lens. The resulting image quality between the two can be remarkably noticeable to a trained eye but for the most part, it’s comparable but not the same.

The Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 (left) costs $250, while the Sony FE 50mm f/1.2 G Master (right) costs $2,000. The f/1.2 is noticeably larger and heavier but has superior image quality.

Choose between Prime and Zoom

Some camera and lens manufacturers have a well-developed line of lenses. For example, Canon references its premium line of lenses with the L. Sony uses the GM (G-Master) brand while Sigma offers its high-end line with the A series (ART).

These premium lines of lenses are available in both zooms and primes. If you are considering buying premium lenses, they can be a worthwhile investment. As I was told early in my photography journey, “Invest in the best glass you can buy.” This practice allows you to get great glass that, with proper care, will last for years.

Even if you decide to upgrade the camera body, you will still get a lens that produces great image quality. The lenses also retain their values ​​for some time.

Now that you know the differences between zoom lenses and prime lenses, which one will you get next? Unfortunately, there is no single answer. It really depends on your specific needs and the results you are trying to achieve. I was asked that since the 24-70mm can shoot at either 35mm or 50mm, wouldn’t that be the obvious choice? not nessacary. Again, a 35mm or 50mm prime lens can have a wider aperture that produces stunning images in low light or with a shallow depth of field.

If versatility and a lighter camera bag are important to you, you may want to consider a zoom lens. If specialization, low-light performance, and bokeh are the most important things to you, you may want to consider a prime number.

When it comes time to buy a new lens, be sure to do your research. Each manufacturer has different mounting options so you will have many choices to make. Find the right mount for your camera and also look at third-party lenses. Some third-party lenses can actually outperform the brand’s offered lens. Some things to consider when buying your following lens:

1. How much do you want to spend? Nice buy or buy twice!

2. What are you going to use it for? Is it for niche shots or part of a genre/interest?

3. Do you expect to use it for other purposes? How compatible is it with different species?

4. Do you really need it? Is it need or want? Have you reached the full potential of your current lenses?

Ask yourself these questions and be honest in your answers. Don’t buy a new lens because it’s the newest and coolest. Also, don’t fall into GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). The driving force behind your purchase doesn’t have to be just because you saw someone with a lens you wanted. Ask any photographer who’s been shooting in a while and I’m sure they’ll tell you they’ve made several purchases in the past and didn’t need them. It is possible that some equipment is lying on a shelf or in a drawer somewhere that has either been untouched for several months or has barely been used.

Not trying to discourage buying but from what I learned, I realized that most of the time, I could have taken the photo with one of my old lenses other than the one with which I took the photo. Either way, I have no regrets as I’m still looking for my next lens. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a priming or an augmentation.

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