Prime vs Zoom Lens (Choose the Right One for You)

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by David Em
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When it comes to choosing a lens, one of the biggest decisions is prime vs zoom lenses. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length while zoom lenses can change.

Three camera lenses.

What’s a prime lens?

Nikon 105mm prime lens.
Nikon 105mm f/2.8G

A prime lens is a camera lens that has a fixed focal length and is also known as a fixed lens.

The downside of a constant focal length is that you might not be able to frame your subject the way you wanted to. Therefore, you’ll have to physically move to change the look of the photo.

Related: Holy Trinity of Lenses: 3 Lenses Every Photographer Needs

For example, when you’re photographing a portrait, you can move further away from your subject to show more of their body, or closer to take a headshot.

The fixed focal length means that you have to move in order to change the frame and composition which makes you more creative.

There are many focal lengths to choose from with prime lenses. Examples of prime lenses are the 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm, and 300mm. From wide-angle to telephoto, there are different focal lengths for different purposes.

What’s a zoom lens?

Canon zoom lens.
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L

A zoom lens is a camera lens that can alter the focal length via the zoom ring. If you want to zoom in towards your subject, turn the zoom ring one way. If you want to zoom out and show more elements into the frame, turn the zoom ring the other way.

The downside of a zoom lens is that you don’t have to move to change the focal length which can lead to laziness.

However, the benefit of a zoom lens is the ability to change the focal length without moving. If you don’t have a lot of space to move around, this is vital to getting different types of photos.

Zoom lenses can easily change focal lengths and by doing that, the maximum aperture can change too. You can find this by searching for the type of lens you have.

For example, the Canon 18-55mm is a common kit lens. Its maximum aperture ranges from f/3.5 to f/5.6. This means at 18mm, the maximum aperture is f/3.5 and at 55mm, the maximum aperture is f/5.6.

Prime vs. zoom lens

A line of camera lenses.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Here’s a deeper analysis of the differences between a prime lens and a zoom lens. You’ll also learn which lens works better in different situations and with different features.

Maximum aperture

Prime lenses often have lower apertures than zoom lenses. Many zoom lenses have a maximum aperture of f/2.8, whereas a prime lens can go down to f/1.4 and even to f/0.95.

A larger aperture means that you’ll have a more shallow depth of field and it’s also easier to shoot portraits at night because the lens is able to open wider which will allow more light in. This makes it ideal for shooting indoors or outside with low light.

Winner: Prime

Focal length

The zoom lens offers more of a variety when it comes to focal length without having to carry around a bunch of lenses.

The prime lens is great if you’re willing to carry multiple lenses or want to stick with a specific focal length throughout the photoshoot. Overall, the zoom lens has an edge because of its versatility.

Winner: Zoom

Image quality

A zoom lens has extra glass that the prime lens doesn’t have. This causes the image quality of a zoom lens to be slightly worse than a prime lens.

That to say, the image quality from a zoom lens is still great. However, you’ll notice that the images won’t be as sharp as your photos with a prime lens.

Winner: Prime

Price

Since the prime lens has less glass, it’s generally cheaper than a zoom lens. However, if you consider the number of prime lenses you’d need to cover the same number of focal lengths, then the zoom lens is cheaper.

If you’re looking to purchase one lens that’s affordable, a prime lens is the best choice. More specifically, the 50mm f/1.8 is between $100 to $200 and will make a positive impact on your photos.

If you’re currently shooting with a kit lens, this purchase will instantly help you take photos with a shallow depth of field.

Winner: Prime

Depending on the type of photo you’re taking, you’ll need different focal lengths. For example, if you’re photographing headshots, a longer focal length is best. If you’re shooting an urban portrait, you may want a wide-angle lens. Here are the best prime and zoom lenses:

Prime lens

24mm

The 24mm lens is a great wide-angle lens that works well for group portraits or capturing more of the background. This prime lens is great for portraits because it’s a sharp lens that excels in low-light.

BrandLens
Canon24mm f/2.8
24mm f/1.4
Nikon24mm f/2.8
24mm f/1.4
Sony24mm f/1.4
Sigma24mm f/1.4 (for Canon)
24mm f/1.4 (for Nikon)
24mm f/1.4 (for Sony)

35mm

The 35mm lens is a classic lens that works well with portraits because it’s similar to what the human eye sees. It’s not as wide as a 24mm lens but still captures enough of the background to give context to the photo.

BrandLens
Canon35mm f/1.4
35mm f/2
Nikon35mm f/1.4
35mm f/1.8
Sony35mm f/1.8
35mm f/2.8
Sigma35mm f/1.4 (for Canon)
35mm f/1.4 (for Nikon)
35mm f/1.4 (for Sony)

50mm

You may have heard of the nifty-fifty and that refers to the 50mm f/1.8. The 50mm f/1.8 is an affordable lens that captures incredibly sharp portraits and it’s one of the most popular lenses in portrait photography.

BrandLens
Canon50mm f/1.8
50mm f/1.2
Nikon50mm f/1.4
50mm f/1.8
Sony50mm f/1.8
50mm f/1.4
Sigma50mm f/1.4 (for Canon)
50mm f/1.4 (for Nikon)
50mm f/1.4 (for Sony)

85mm

An 85mm lens eliminates perspective distortion that occurs in wide-angle lenses. This lens is great because it easily blurs the background while focusing on your subject.

BrandLens
Canon85mm f/1.2
85mm f/1.8
Nikon85mm f/1.8
85mm f/1.4
Sony85mm f/1.8
85mm f/1.4
Sigma85mm f/1.4 (for Canon)
85mm f/1.4 (for Nikon)
85mm f/1.4 (for Sony)

Zoom lens

24-70mm

The 24-70mm lens is one of the most versatile zoom lenses. It covers a wide range of focal lengths and is perfect for quickly changing the look of an image. For example, you can photograph a full-body photo and close-up portrait by zooming in and out.

BrandLens
Canon24-70mm f/2.8
Nikon24-70mm f/2.8
Sony24-70mm f/2.8
Sigma24-70mm f/2.8 (for Canon)
24-70mm f/2.8 (for Nikon)
24-70mm f/2.8 (for Sony)

70-200mm

If you want a longer lens that creates amazing bokeh, the 70-200mm lens is a great choice. It captures sharp photos and can blur out the background smoothly.

BrandLens
Canon70-200mm f/2.8
Nikon70-200mm f/2.8
Sony70-200mm f/2.8
Sigma70-200mm f/2.8 (for Canon)
70-200mm f/2.8 (for Nikon)

Frequently asked questions

Is there a big difference between f/2.8 and f/1.4?

An aperture of f/1.4 is 2 full stops of extra light when compared to f/2.8 and this means that it’s able to capture 4 times the amount of light.

How important is Image Stabilization?

Image Stabilization is important because it combats against camera shake which results in sharper images. This comes in handy when you’re shooting with slower shutter speeds.

Are prime or zoom lenses better for events?

When you’re photographing events such as parties, corporate events, or weddings, there’s a lot of movement and people. The zoom lens is great for events because you have the ability to quickly change focal lengths. Without the zoom lens, you’ll find yourself missing a lot of great potential shots.

Conclusion

The prime vs zoom lens debate is a big topic in photography. Both types of lenses deserve a spot in your lens arsenal.

The best lens depends on your situation and how much space you have to move around. You also need to consider how difficult it’ll be to swap out prime lenses.

The two lenses serve different purposes and by understanding your need first, it’ll be easier to choose the right lens.

More resources:

Featured photo by Unsplash.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and advice to grow your photography business. Learn more about Portraits Refined