Zooms vs. Prime Lenses | What is the difference?

What do you shoot with – Zoom lenses or Prime Lenses?

Zoom Lens – Covers a flexible focal range, ie 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm
Prime Lens – Covers a FIXED focal Length, ie. 35mm, 50mm, 85mm

I think the majority of shooters choose zooms because of the flexible focal range. Today’s zooms are of an amazing quality, especially the higher end models with the Fixed Aperture of 2.8. (This means that you can use f2.8 whether you are shooting at 24, 30, 50 or 70 on the 24-70 lens)

Most “kit” lenses that come with cameras have a Variable Aperture. This means that if you have a 24-70 3.5-5.6 kit lens, you can use the larger aperture of f3.5 at the 24mm setting, but if you zoom to 70mm you are limited to f5.6. This is the downside of kit lenses. Kit lenses are MUCH lighter than the top end models, but they are not built the same. So when you splurge for the $1,500+ version you will DEFINITELY notice a difference. It is like a Honda Fit vs. Honda Pilot. You will pay lots more $$$ but the rewards are greater too.

I remember the first time I put a 28-70 2.8 piece of glass on my Nikon D100. I was blown away and made the decision at that point to only buy the best glass. If I could not afford it, I would wait until I could. Next step was higher end Prime lenses. Again, tried it with the 85 1.4 and was hooked.

If you do not want to spend $$ then do not put the good glass on your camera! LOL. You will have no choice. (I had the same change when I tried a Mac for the first time back in 2002. Been hooked ever since.)

So which is right for you – zoom or prime? That choice is yours. I own both, but primarily use Prime lenses 95% of the time. Here are my reasons for using Primes:

  • They are sharper (IMHO)
  • Have advantage of reaching apertures of 1.4 (1.2 on Canon). Talk about Shallow Depth of Field.
  • The colors and contrast in my out of the camera files are beautiful
  • Much Lighter than zooms (typically)
  • They make a smaller footprint on the camera (typically).

Primarily I am a Documentary Wedding Photographer. What that means to me is to be as unobtrusive as possible. Prime lenses give me a better fit for being unobtrusive because they are smaller and lighter. I already have a Big Black Box that I put up to my eye when I see a moment. Sometimes it is hard for people not to notice that, in and of itself. When I put a Huge Zoom on the front of my Big Black Box it makes me that more noticeable. Also the primes I use have max Apertures of 1.4 – 2.0 so that enables me to avoid using flash. Flash for the majority of Documentary Wedding Photography is off limits (with the exception of the reception, which I will discuss in a future post.) Talk about being noticed… LOL pop a flash on your camera, start shooting and wa-la, you are no longer invisible.

Even when I do portrait shooting I opt for Primes the majority of the time, because of the Sharpness, Colors and Contrast. I do not worry about missing a shot because the Primes keep me accountable. I need to be intentional when shooting. I find that when I use a zoom, I tend to get lazy and spray more un-intentional shots. Zooms make me zoom for the sake of zooming and not intentionally compose an image. Primes make you use your feet to get close. Getting Close makes better pictures. There is an old saying, “If your pictures stink, then you are not close enough.”

I can tell you that I use zooms sometimes, if I want to have just one lens on me. My main zooms are the 12-24 f4, 28-79 2.8 and 70-200 2.8 VR.

My primes are: 20 2.8, 35 2.0, 50 1.4, 85 1.4, 105 2.8

Love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Comments 104

  1. Ok this is very good topic and an ongoing conversation on many online forums/groups. I started with the kit lenses when I purchased my first DSLR. I still have that kit and use it for back up every once in a while. But, I can tell you that the reason why I chose to go with primes on my latest camera body, was because of three main reasons:
    1. I like to move around and compose and recompose, I like to get physical and on the ground when framing my subject. I always say that a little sweat keeps my creativity flowing.
    2. Similar to what you already stated, the sharpness and overall color contracts is superb. ie. Nikon 85mm f/1.4
    3. Light and portable, I have a very small camera bag where I can fit all my three primes and camera body.

    My arsenal consists of the Nikon 20mm f/2.8 (fun lens), 50mm f/1.4, and 85mm f/1.4. Camera body is a D700.

    P.S. The only zoom that I may consider purchasing is the 70-200….

  2. A lot of people seem to worry that they’ll be limited, using prime lenses. Honestly, it’s amazing how little you even notice it.

    Do I move more now? I don’t know. It’s not something I’m thinking about. I’ve never picked up my camera, only to think “Ah, geez, I gotta walk forward four steps now!” Zooms are handy, particularly when you’re not looking to lug around your whole arsenal of lenses, but I missed that flexibility so much less than I thought I would.

  3. Thanks for the follow up! But I still want to know how you got the shot of the little girl from above on your prev. post with an 85mm. Unless you’ve gotten a lot taller, I’m assuming you had to be standing on something to get you high enough to get that shot. I guess since I only have 1 prime lens ( a 50 1.4) I feel limited sometimes because I’m not tall enough to get some of the shots I want and I can’t switch to a wider or longer prime if I need it. Plus all that switching = dust on the sensor (another topic I’m hoping you will cover.) 😉 I am making myself a promise to use this lens more.

    OK, now for a totally random request for advice that involves a Prince (80’s pop star) impersonator and a friend’s 40th birthday. (I warned you it was random!)
    I need to know how best to shoot the following 2 situations:
    1.) A person dancing in front of a spot light but behind a sheet in a dark room at night (so you can see their silhouette on the sheet.)
    2.) The same person dancing in a still fairly dark room at night with a strobe light blinking.
    I have the following equipment:
    D300s
    50 1.4
    24-70 2.8
    18-200 3.5 – 5.6VR
    SB-800 & 900 speedlights

    So how do I capture this performance that will certainly be one to remember? Which lens to use? Flash or no flash? If using flash should I bounce it or aim it forward? Off-camera lighting is not an option. Any suggestions from you or any of your readers would be appreciated. I know this is WAY off-topic, so if followup here is not appropriate, please email me at zap@woh.rr.com.
    Thanks!

  4. Using my kit lens I always tend to forget to adjust my shutter when I zoom in. I mainly use it out doors and I do have a 50mm 1.8 lens I bought cause it was so cheap. I promised myself I wouldnt buy the expensive glass until I could afford a full frame body or should I go ahead and buy the expensive glass for a D90 and will they be compatible if I upgrade later?

  5. Love my zooms for Weddings. Having the ability to optically move towards people is a definite bonus! I think, by nature, when you move towards someone with a camera they, for the most part, either notice and/or get nervous. I like Wedding Photojournalism with my zooms. If you are portrait photographers then primes are a better option for sure. My opinion is, if you are changing environments a lot and moving around then zooms are best and if you are more of a portrait photographer then primes are the best bet. The bottom line is, to each his/her own though. Get the best glass you can and eveything will work out.:-)

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  6. I was just thinking about this! I rented the 24-70 2.8 and had to ship it back yesterday, it was a very sad day. Then I headed off to a shoot w/my 50mm 1.8. What a huge difference in quality! I’m definitely a zoom girl. I’ve dropped quite a few hints to the hubby…hopefully Santa will be good to me this year!

  7. I have to say that I love both for different reasons. At weddings, I do like the flexibility of having my 70-200 on one camera and a 24-70 on the other. Both of these are awesome lenses that I’m very glad I invested in.

    On the other hand, they can’t give me results like this: http://tinyurl.com/ylau4tp That was with my 85 at 2.0, and the bokeh and quality are just fab. Primes are also good when my little arms are worn out from the weight of the zooms.

    But sometimes I’ll bust out the big ol’ zoom at a wedding if Uncle Bob is hovering. *kidding* 🙂 Lovin’ your posts!

  8. @Noel: You can definitely have a more expensive lens on the D90 (ie. 85mm f/1.4) and still use it. Keep in my that you will have the 1.5 crop factor on your DX format. However, when you get ready to upgrade to a full frame camera, the lens will come along just fine. Either way, the lens will work on your D90. If you want to learn more about crop factors, here is a good link http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/crop-factor.htm

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