Prime vs. Zoom lenses- what's best for you?


All photographers strive to have quality equipment that matches the types of shots they aim to capture. But what works for some, doesn’t necessarily work for all. One of the biggest debates in photography is whether or not your kit should contain prime lenses, zoom lenses, or both. And there’s not really a right answer. Each lens serves a different purpose and allows you different advantages (and disadvantages) to what you’re trying to shoot.

The purpose of this guide is to highlight the differences between prime and zoom lenses, and our professional suggestions on when you should be utilizing different lenses. We’re here to help you find the right lens for your photography needs. 

Prime Lenses

Prime lenses have long been the favorite of professional photographers. With lens manufacturers like Nikon and Canon consistently releasing newer and better prime lenses, your photography game can be considered top notch with a kit of advanced prime lenses.

What is a Prime Lens?

A prime lens is a lens with a single focal length. You can get prime lenses in a wide range of focal lengths depending on what subject you are shooting, including wide angle lenses and macro lenses.

What are the benefits of Prime Lenses?

  1. Quality
    While zoom lenses are improving considerably, prime lenses are recognized for their quality and ability to produce advanced images. That being said, quality should be taken with a grain of salt as there are good prime lenses and lower-grade prime lenses that won’t pertain to as high of quality.

  2. Price
    As prime lenses don’t need to zoom, they tend to have less complicated structures and therefore can be found at a cheaper price. For photographers on a budget, using prime lenses is a great way to get world-class quality at a fraction of the cost of most zoom lenses. Not all prime lenses are ‘cheap’ but there are options available for each price point and quality level.

    A fan favorite? 50mm prime lenses from Canon or Nikon are a go to for any prime kit and can be found at a range of price points and aperture availabilities.

  3. Weight
    Generally speaking, prime lenses are usually quite a bit smaller and lighter than most zoom lenses. With that in mind, prime lenses are great for heading on-location or while you’re traveling as long as you can capture what you need with that single focal length.

  4. Technique
    Prime lenses are classic. They are what photographers have used forever, and there’s a reason they are still used. Established photographers will argue that zoom lenses make photographer’s lazy. It’s said that prime lenses keep creativity alive on shoots, forcing you to move around and adjust your light to find the right shot for that particular focal length. This is a fantastic way for beginning photographers to learn composition and eventually become mastered photographers.

  5. Shallow Depth of Field & Aperture
    We’ve all been there. You’re a new photographer, you buy a kit Canon and the zoom lens is terrible. A main reason for the dissatisfaction is the smaller maximum aperture. Prime lenses are widely available in aperture lengths, so we always suggest upgrading so you can capture the creamy background for any portrait or product photography you’re looking for vs. what you get out of consumer kit zoom lenses. Prime lenses are often great for low-light as well,  with some opening up as much as f/1.2.

Zoom Lenses

Recently, zoom lenses have taken the photography world by storm as a versatile choice for photographers on the go. The latest releases feature high-quality craftsmanship that rivals most prime lenses, so it makes sense why people are opting to purchase zoom lenses. Depending on the lens, they can be extremely adaptable for day-to-day needs.

What is a Zoom Lens?

A zoom lens has a variable focal length that can be adjusted by turning the zoom ring, moving the elements inside to achieve a different view. They have two focal length lenses and can adjust to anything in between those lengths. Zoom lenses can also have variable aperture ranges, although most professional level lenses will have a single maximum aperture.

What are the benefits of Zoom lenses?

  1. Price
    When you buy a camera and start building a kit, purchasing a good quality zoom lens is often a more sensible (and at times, cheaper) option because you have more variety with it. With a quality zoom lens, you have the flexibility of having both a wide lens with a quality aperture and a telephoto lens without having to switch lenses.

  2. Convenience
    Despite the extra weight and, at times, cost, they can be extremely convenient to use which is why they have become so popular. Zoom lenses are great for photographers who need to handle a variety of different types of photographs on location. For example, if you’re shooting a wedding and need to be able to adapt quickly to capture different types of shots during a ceremony, a quality zoom lens is often necessary to get every shot you need.

  3. Image Stabilization
    Quality zoom lenses can offer in lens image stabilization systems, for example, Canon’s Image Stabilization (IS) or Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR). Even if you have a 100-200 f/4 lens, you can still have sharp photographs when shooting in dark environments due to moving internal optical elements that move with the camera when it shakes.

  4. Optimal for Travel
    One zoom lens can easily replace a group of prime lenses. When traveling, this is especially ideal as you only need to worry about transporting a single attached lens. This could save you space when traveling, allow you to have better security and significantly less risk of damaging your lens by having to switch on the fly.

So what’s better, zoom or prime?

Photographers are often faced with the choice between buying a few fixed prime lenses, or a quality zoom lens. Both of these choices have advantages and disadvantages, depending on your lifestyle and style of shooting. If you’re an adventure photographer who travels a lot, prefers to pack light, and are shooting overall landscapes or lifestyle imagery- a zoom lens will more than likely be enough quality for what you need. If you’re a specialized product or portrait photographer, carrying a kit of prime lenses is going to allow you the quality and sharpness that zoom lenses often lack a professional quality maximum aperture.

Our professional opinion? If you’re a photographer who is doing this for a living, go with prime. Although it might take some time for you to build your kit to the standard you want, it will be well worth it for the quality and skills you’ll learn about using key elements of photography to your advantages such as depth of field and aperture.

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