Within the photography community there are many reoccuring debates: RAW vs. JPEG, Canon vs. nikon, Full Frame vs. Crop Sensor. etc 

One of the biggest when it comes to lens selection is Prime vs. Zoom.

A Prime lens is one that has a fixed focal length; there is no zoom ring on the lens so the focal length always remains the same. If you were wanting to get closer to or further away from your subject you would physically have to do so. There is a wide range of prime lenses available, from wide-angle prime lenses (eg. 20mm and a 14mm) to medium- and long-range telephoto prime lenses like a 300mm or 600mm lens.

Nikon 300mm prime lens.

A Zoom lens, on the other hand, has a range of focal lengths available to the photographer. These lenses have a zoom ring, and you do not need to physically move to adjust your angle of view. There is a broad range of zoom lenses available, be it a wide zoom lens (eg. 12-24mm or 16-35mm), the telephoto zoom lens (eg. 70-200mm, 100-400mm, and 150-600mm), or the multi-purpose zoom lens (such as the 18-300mm and 24-105mm lenses).

Nikon 80-400mm zoom Lens

One of the biggest advantages of using a prime lens is that you generally get to use a wider aperture (smaller f-number) such as f/1.4. For example, the Sigma for Canon 20mm f/1.4  Lens and the Canon 50mm f/1.4mm Lens.
Zoom lenses tend not to be able to go to as wide an aperture as prime lenses. Zoom lenses that do feature wide apertures, like the 70-200mm f2.8 or 16-35 f2.8, tend to cost substantially more.

You can therefore get a really shallow depth of field using a prime lens, which creates a bokeh effect which means that your subject would be in focus and the background/foreground is blurry. Obviously other factors are involved, such as distance from subject and distance from subject to background, but if all these are the same, the prime lens will generally give you a shallower DOF.

Another advantage of having such a wide aperture is that the lens will perform better in low light conditions; because Prime lenses generally have wider apertures, they can achieve a faster shutter speed. If you are in a situation where light is low and you do not have a tripod, using a prime lens would be advantageous as it allows more light into the camera.

zoom lens’ best feature is that you can shoot at a variety of focal lengths; the ability to quickly change perspective and add variety to your shots within a second cannot be overstated.

For the travelling photographer, carrying around five or six different lenses is somewhat of a burden. If you like to pack light and are prepared to compromise slightly on the image quality and the ability to shoot a wide aperture, then a zoom lens is an ideal choice for you, as you can have multiple focal ranges in one.

The two shots below were both taken with the Canon 7D Mark II bodies, but with different lenses. The first shot was taken with the Canon 600mm prime lens, and the second shot with a Sigma for Canon 150-600mm lens, a zoom lens. Both photographs were taken with the same ISO, focal length and exposure in order to see the differences between the two lenses. Notice the differences in light; the Canon 600mm deals a lot better in low light than the 150-600mm.

1/320 sec at f/4,0, ISO 1600, 3 EV. 600mm prime

1/320 sec at f/4,0, ISO 1600, 3 EV, 150-600mm Sigma @ 600mm

 

The two shots below were both taken with the Nikon D740 body, but with different lenses. The first shot was taken with the Nikon 80-400mm lens, a zoom lens, and the second shot with a Nikon 300mm lens, a prime lens. Both photographs were taken with the same ISO, focal length and exposure in order to see the differences between the two lenses. Notice the differences in light; the Nikon 300mm deals a lot better in low light than the 80-400mm.

1/1250 sec at f/5,6, ISO 800, 80-400mm @ 300mm

f/2.8, ISO 800, 300mm prime

 

Like in so many things, there is no right or wrong here. Your needs will ultimately dictate what lens you should get.

Prime lenses tend to have better image quality and low light performance yet lack versatility and cost substantially more.

Zoom lenses usually don’t perform as well in low light, yet offer a wider focal range and are generally cheaper.

Your call…

If you are about to visit us and are unsure which lens is right for you, our Londolozi Photographic Studio has a wide range of lenses and camera bodies to rent.

Simply click on this link to see what is available, and hopefully we can help you find something to suit your photographic needs during your stay.

 

Filed under Photography

About the Author

Kylie Jones

Photography Manager

Being someone who loves the bush, people and photography Kylie has found her way to her dream job in the Londolozi Studio. Despite completing her Humanities Degree, she felt unsatisfied and found herself drawn to doing a wildlife photography course. Being both creative ...

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9 Comments

on Prime Lens vs Zoom Lens: Which is Better?

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake

Great blog again Kylie. Love it when I learn something.

Joanne Wadsworth

Kylie you wrote a very informative piece with clarity along with good examples. I’m sure your article helped someone who didn’t completely understand their equipment or possible future options.

Ian Hall

Er Nikon lenses on Canon bodies?

James Tyrrell

Hi Ian,

Haha, apologies, it was meant to read as Nikon D750. Changed forthwith!

Best regards

Denise Vouri

Morning Kylie

In my photography critique group, we often discuss this issue of lenses. Two of us have 50mm Nikon prime at 1.4 and I have a 105 mm macro 2.8 as well. I do think a bit is lost with a zoom, especially at the full out range, but as you state, unless you can physically move closer to your subject, especially in the bush, that’s what you get. My Nikon 70-200mm did a great job last year whilst in Africa and I never used my 24-70, so…….. good for thought.

Vin Beni

Thanks Kylie–very informative.
This has helped this inexperienced photographer understand some differences, particularly with lighting, from each lens and subsequently the differing results when I’ve used both types of lenses.

Cameron James

I rented a Nikon 80-400 from your studio last winter. Sean was super helpful in teaching me how to use it. Ultimately, I was so pleased with the results, I bought one for myself!

Callum Evans

Very interesting article. I use zoom lenses myself but they really struggle in low light. Very interesting to see the contrast with a prime lens

Michael & Terri Klauber

Thanks Kylie! We are still in love with our Canon 70-200 and 100-400 II, but will try a fixed lens on our next visit!

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