Prime vs Zoom - The Great Photography Lens Debate

29 May 2019

There are a few ongoing debates in the photography world, and the battle between prime lenses and zoom lenses is one of them. It’s as hotly contested as Canon vs. Nikon, or in recent years, mirrorless vs. DSLR.

We’re here to answer your burning questions! In this blog post, we break down the differences between these two lenses, and how to choose a camera lens to suit your scene and skill level.

What’s the difference between a prime lens and zoom lens?

The main difference lies in the focal lengths.

A prime lens has a single focal length and a maximum aperture of f2.8 to f1.2. When you mount a prime lens to your camera and look through the viewfinder, you’ll see one field of view. Prime lenses don’t zoom. So, if you want to fill your frame with more background, or get a closer look at a subject, you need to physically move. In the photography world, this is known as “zooming with your feet.” Prime lenses require skill and patience, but they offer plenty of reward. More on that in a minute!

On the other hand, a zoom lens offers multiple focal lengths that are measured in millimetres. For example, a standard 18-55mm lens has a range between 18mm at the widest point, and 55mm at the longest, and you can play around with any focal length between those two points to compose your picture. Also known as superzoom lenses, these lenses are easy to use. To zoom in or out of a scene, you simply rotate the ring on the lens barrel.

Prime vs Zoom - The Great Photography Lens DebatePrime vs Zoom - The Great Photography Lens Debate

The major benefits of a zoom lens

Prime vs Zoom - The Great Photography Lens DebatePrime vs Zoom - The Great Photography Lens Debate

When it comes to versatility, it’s hard to compete with a zoom lens. Thanks to the in-built focal lengths, you can quickly frame, crop and compose your photos without moving around. They help you to experiment with composition, and react more quickly to the scene in front of you. As every photographer knows, there’s nothing worse than missing the shot because you were fumbling around with lenses or buttons.

Though they offer a range of focal lengths, zoom lenses are surprisingly compact. For that reason, they appeal to travel and wildlife photographers who walk a lot and can never quite predict what – or where – they’ll be shooting that day. They also suit photographers who don’t want to lug around more than one lens, such as those who are jetting off on an adventure and restricted to carry-on luggage.

By doing the job of several lenses, a zoom lens is a jack-of-all-trades. It’s cost-effective, and the high-end lenses are weather sealed, which means you can shoot without worrying about water, dust and wind damaging your lens. We’d recommend buying a zoom lens as part of a well-rounded, general-purpose photography kit.

The major benefits of a prime lens

If a zoom lens is a jack-of-all-trades, a prime lens is a master. It has a precise optical design and one focal length, so the image quality is naturally superior. Prime lenses have less distortion, and they separate the foreground from the background for sharper photos. If you’re hoping to create a bokeh effect, a prime lens is your best bet.

Since there are fewer elements involved in the construction of a prime lens, the photos are not only crisper – but they’re less likely to suffer from flaws, such as chromatic aberration. Another product of their design is that prime lenses are usually faster, which means they provide a bigger maximum aperture. Thanks to their faster and wider aperture, prime lenses are perfect for photographing in low-light conditions. They’ll adapt to low light without forcing you to compromise your photo by increasing the ISO or lowering the shutter speed.

Prime vs Zoom - The Great Photography Lens DebatePrime vs Zoom - The Great Photography Lens Debate

Prime lenses take a while to get used to, but their advocates argue that they promote creativity. Unlike a zoom lens, the only way you can recompose your photo is by physically moving (or cropping the photo in post-processing). By making you move around, prime lenses can not only sharpen your composition skills, but they can also encourage you to survey a scene from a few different vantage points. 

Note: There are zoom lenses that rival the image quality of prime lenses, but they tend to be much more expensive. To give you an idea, a basic Canon 50mm lens with a maximum aperture of f1.8 is $179.95; while a Canon 17-55mm zoom lens with a slower aperture of f2.8 will set you back $1,299.95.

That brings us to the next question: What focal length should you use?

  • For street photography and landscapes, choose a wider lens (18-50mm)
  • For portraits, go for a normal to short telephoto lens (50-90mm)
  • For travelling, pancake-style prime lenses are portable and lightweight

How to decide between a prime lens and zoom lens

Prime vs Zoom - The Great Photography Lens DebatePrime vs Zoom - The Great Photography Lens Debate

This isn’t a question of which lens is better. They serve different purposes, so the best lens for you comes down to your style of photography.

Most modern photographers have a collection of zoom and prime lenses in their kit – and for good reason.

If image quality is your priority, it’s worth investing in a carefully curated collection of prime lenses. Similarly, if you want to produce photos with a beautifully textured bokeh, a prime lens should be your go-to.

However, if you’re looking for a flexible, easy-to-use lens, that’s a strong case for a zoom lens. Event and wedding photographers often shoot with a zoom lens because it can adapt to any scene and situation, and they can’t risk missing a candid moment. The same goes for travel photographers whose adventures could take them anywhere in the great outdoors.

Start building your lens collection

Questions? Chat to the experts at your nearest Ted’s Cameras store. They’ll be able to help you to find a lens – or lenses – to fit your photography style, skill level and budget.

Save $10*

When you subscribe to ClubTed today!

Save $10*

When you subscribe to ClubTed today!