Prime or zoom lens ?

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May 192015

Prime or zoom lens ?

Prime or zoom lens
It is an interesting topic, which lens we need or which lens we prefer, primes or zooms ? I use Canon and Nikon cameras so mostly I know these two manufacturers lenses, but choices regarding focal length shows similarities in other brands as well.

To start I have two prime and two zoom lenses at the moment which can change time to time as I constantly test a lens of some kind.

Prime lenses

Many people never tries a prime. Try a very good prime and you will be surprised. You can possibly make pictures you only dreamt of. But not all primes are good. There are several prime lenses which is simply not needed. The thing here you have a single focal length, it needs to be right other case no point to have the lens.

For Dx cameras the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 is a must have lens for serious shooters. Not very expensive, excellent, sharp and bright. The focal lens is also quite useful. For Canon the situation is not so simple. If you not after portraits the 50mm lenses can be annoying on a crop camera. Picture quality is nice but what to do with it? Canon 135mm f/2 and the Canon 200mm f/2.8 are two extraordinary lenses to try. Other interesting prime lenses is the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art and Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lenses. Both lens is very sharp even wide open, and can create a nice bokeh.

If I think about a prime lens I want better image quality or better brightness or speed or both. If the prime lens only a little better image quality than the zoom, perhaps not worth it. Typical is some older Canon prime lenses without any special elements just don’t deliver in terms of picture quality.

Some of them makes some ok images but nothing extraordinary, and some of them even missing the minimal coating meaning very bad against flare. On the other hand awkward lenses like the Canon 28-300mm makes pictures with better contrast and colors (not resolution) because there are some special elements helps to increase quality.

Special lens elements

Lenses with special elements mostly ED or fluorite are much better in terms of picture quality.

To check it the easiest way to check the high end lenses of the telephoto realm, all of them has flourite and Ed elements. Some lenses works ok without special elements, but in many cases without it won’t be keepers. My approach I don’t want 20 lenses in my bag, but want the the really best 2-3 ones. Why to buy and carry 5 wide angle prime if all mediocre or similar to a zoom ?

Benefits of prime lenses:

-Usually more brightness
-Smaller size and weight
-Usually better sharpness
-usually better contrast
-Better against dust
-Easier to be better built

Drawbacks of prime lenses:

Not so versatile, or other words very poor in versatility, zooming with feet, the problem it is not always possible.

Other area where primes excel is long focal length wildlife/bird photography. The image quality of some this long primes are fantastic.

Zoom lenses

Benefits of zoom lenses:

-Higher versatility
-Greater flexibility to create, compose

Drawbacks of zoom lenses:

-Most high quality zooms are very expensive
-Usually less bright, than prime lenses


If we don’t want to change lenses all the time two camera bodies are preferred. I don’t like to change lenses all the time, so I have two camera bodies. There are other benefits as well, there is a spare camera if something happens.

Superzoom lenses

There is one more option but mostly for beginners: one camera with a superzoom lens. A 18-300, 16-300mm or other lens like this is not a serious option, we end up a very versatile and comfortable setup but we sacrifice quality at all length, we don’t have a sharp wide angle neither a sharp telephoto, and loses lots of light in the way f/3.5-6.3 usually.

If we specialized and don’t want to participate all kinds of photography it is ok the one camera setup, either with a normal lens, a macro, a telephoto or a wild angle.

Mid-range zoom

A 24-105mm lens on Full frame or 15-85mm, 16-85mm lenses are the best options for one lens solution covering wide range but the long end. In fact I like my 16-85mm very much, it gives very nice versatility, only the long telephoto and a brightness is missing.

Two lens setup

The usual setup is one wide and one telephoto lens.
The possible combinations: two prime, two zoom, one zoom, one prime.

Two zooms

Most people like most wedding photographers using two zooms. On a Full frame body a 24-70 and a 70-200mm cover the range from 24-200mm but it is very boring I think. But it is a very versatile setup.

Two primes

Let’s say with two primes we have a style in photography itself. Bold decision. Obviously if our goal is something high level, we choose two very nice prime lenses and we set. Some possibilities missed, but we can have bright lenses, we can go light, and has the best image quality.

One prime one zoom

This is my setup one wide angle zoom and a bright prime telephoto. At the wide end is very hard to find a prime which is very good and not extremely pricey, and the focal length is also not easy to find out. If would need to 24mm or 15,16mm on crop would be my choice.

Nikon has a very nice 24mm f/1.4, Canon also has (24mm TS-E only manual though) but the price..hmm. Still if we pay the price we very much degraded in usability with the 24mm. If we speak about crop cameras, we would need a 15,16mm prime. It is very hard to even think about a remarkable 16mm for crop. Zeiss has a manual 15mm prime which is also very expensive.

At the longer end until the new Tamron 150-600mm and the new Canon 100-400 II there we no really good lens for wildlife photography, the best choices the Canon 400mm f/5.6 and the Nikon 300mm f/4.


Which lens you prefer, the Tamron 150-600mm for 1070 USD or the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 FL Ed VR for 18,000 USD ? Interesting question and the answer is different for anybody. But let’s state that most people cannot afford these super expensive miracles. I like photography very much but there are other things in life as well which need money. The list is long and not really interesting.