Prime vs Zoom Lens: Understanding the Difference

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Prime vs Zoom Lens: Understanding the Difference

Are you struggling to choose between a prime lens and a zoom lens?

It’s a common problem. In fact, the question of prime vs zoom lens is one that pretty much every beginner photographer wrestles with.

That’s why I wrote this article. I’m going to give you clear guidelines for choosing a prime lens vs zoom.

And when you’ve finished, you’ll know exactly which lens is best for you.

Sound good?

Let’s dive right in.

Shot taken with the prime lens

What is a Prime Lens?

The defining feature of a prime lens is a fixed focal length. That is, a prime lens lets you take a picture with a single angle of view.

Related: How to Choose the Best Lens for Astrophotography

So if you use a wide-angle prime lens (e.g., 18mm), you’ll only be able to get wide-angle shots. If you use a super-telephoto prime lens (e.g., 600mm), you’ll only be able to get compressed, distant shots.

I took this photo with a 400mm prime:

Photo of the bird taken with the prime lens Nikkor 400mm

The major camera manufacturers offer prime lenses that cover the entire spectrum of focal lengths, from wide-angle to super-telephoto and everything in between.

What is a Zoom Lens?

The defining feature of a zoom lens is a flexible focal length. You can turn a ring on the lens and go from one angle of view to another.

For instance, an 18-200mm zoom lens will let you capture wide landscape photos at 18mm. Then you can zoom to 100mm for a nice intimate shot, and then to 200mm if you want to capture a photo of a distant object.

For example, you can capture a more environmental photo like this:

environmental photo taken with wide angle prime lens

And then take much tighter photos, like this:

wildlife photo taken with telephoto prime lens

Note that there are zoom lenses of all types. There are purely wide angle zoom lens (e.g., the Canon 10-20mm lens), there are purely telephoto zoom lenses (e.g., the Nikon 200-500mm), and there are mid-range zooms, such as the Canon 70-200mm zoom.

Related: Fundamentals of Cleaning Camera Lenses

There are even zoom lenses that go from wide-angle to long telephoto, such as the Sigma 18-300mm zoom.

Prime vs Zoom Lens: Which Should You Choose?

Now that you have an understanding of the main difference between primes and zooms, it’s time to get to the real question:

Which is better, prime or zoom?

Macro shot of a flower taken with the prime lens

The truth is that primes and zooms each offer different, but potentially useful, features. And your choice depends on what you’re interested in photographing.

Let’s start with prime lenses:

Prime Lens Advantages

There is one glaring difference between prime lenses and zoom lenses:

Prime Lenses Offer Better Image Quality

When you compare a prime lens against a zoom, the prime lens will almost always come out on top. Prime lenses are sharper. They’re more contrasty. And they have fewer image quality issues, such as unpleasant color fringing.

Look at this photo:

It’s nice and sharp (taken with a prime lens). A zoom lens, however, would probably have caused some unpleasant color fringing around the edges of the flower.

Related: Best Macro Lenses for Nikon DSLR Cameras

Zoom lenses, on the other hand, often display questionable image quality, especially as you get toward the end of their focal length range. For instance, it’s fairly common to see a drop in sharpness as you approach 300mm or 400mm on your telephoto zoom. And for many photographers, this is a dealbreaker. 

So if you’re looking for the absolute best image quality, a prime lens is the way to go.

Yes, there are zooms that perform really well. But chances are that the high-performing zoom costs more than double the equivalent prime lens.

Which brings me to the next big prime lens advantage:

Good Prime Lenses are Relatively Cheap

While high-quality zoom lenses can cost an arm and a leg, you can often grab an ultra-sharp prime lens for less than 300 dollars.

This makes prime lenses great for beginners with high standards. If you’re looking to take photos with professional-level image quality and you’ve only got a couple hundred dollars to spend, a prime lens is your best option.

This photo was taken with a sub-300 dollar prime lens:

Prime Lenses Offer Wide Maximum Apertures

A wide maximum aperture is represented by the f-number found in the name of the lens: f/1.8, f/2.8, f/4, etc. The lower the number, the wider the maximum aperture. And prime lenses tend to have very low f-numbers.

This means that the lens can take in a lot of light. So you can keep shooting even in dark conditions.

Related: Selected the Right Lens for Your Nikon D3400 DSLR Camera

A wide aperture is therefore useful for photographers who need to be able to work in all sorts of light: sports photographers, wildlife photographers, bird photographers, and more.

(Plus, a wide aperture creates a more pleasing background blur.)

Let’s talk about the final advantage of primes:

Prime Lenses are Small and Light

In general, prime lenses are much smaller than their zoom-lens equivalents.

In fact, many zoom lenses can be painfully heavy. Whereas prime lenses tend to be light and easily transportable.

This tends to break down as you get into the super-telephoto arena. But for portrait photographers, event photographers, and more, a prime lens is going to be much easier to work with. 

Zoom Lens Advantages

Now that we’ve talked about the benefits of a prime lens, it’s time to discuss zooms.

What makes zoom lenses valuable?

Zoom lenses are nice for a couple of reasons:

Zoom Lenses are Flexible

This is it:

The main advantage of a zoom lens.

With a zoom lens, you can go from wide-angle to telephoto in seconds. You can capture a close-up portrait, before zooming out for a wide shot, before zooming in again.

Related: Should I Use a UV Filter on My Lens?

For some photographers, this flexibility is essential. If you like to shoot in a fast-paced environment, where you don’t have time to change lenses or change your position, you’ll struggle without a zoom lens.

You cannot achieve this flexibility with prime lenses. By the time you’ve switched from your 18mm prime lens to your 200mm prime lens, the shooting opportunity will have disappeared. 

Now let’s talk about the final advantage of zoom lenses:

Zoom Lenses Often Have Image Stabilization

Image stabilization makes sure that your photos are sharp, even in low light. It compensates for any camera shake.

This is a useful feature. But it’s not quite as valuable as a wide maximum aperture (of prime lenses). Because while image stabilization compensates for camera shake, it doesn’t allow you to take photos of moving subjects in low light.

I couldn’t have captured this photo without image stabilization:

The conditions were just too dark!

I should also note:

Prime lenses can have image stabilization. It’s just a lot less common!

Prime Lens vs Zoom Lens: Which is Right for You?

Now you should have a sense of the pros and cons of both lens types.

Prime lenses offer high image quality at a relatively low cost. But zoom lenses are far more flexible, allowing you to take shots at many different focal lengths.

So which should you choose?

Here’s what I recommend:

If you absolutely cannot live without the flexibility of a zoom lens, then go with a zoom. For instance, if you’re planning to photograph your child’s sports games, you’ll need the versatility of a zoom lens.

But if you can handle the inflexibility of a prime lens, then go with a prime.

Prime lens image quality is just too good. Which will make a huge difference in the long run.

Are you still not sure which lens to get? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll help you decide!

Jaymes Dempsey

Jaymes Dempsey is a photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s obsessed with nature, and loves teaching people new photography tips and tricks. To see more of Jaymes’s work, check out his portfolio website (https://www.jaymesdempsey.com/) or his photography tutorial blog (https://www.jaymesdempsey.com/blog/).
  • Gerald Nielsen says:

    Good article. You answered many questions that I had. Thank you.

  • I’ve been convinced to get a prime lens, but should I get a 35mm or 50mm as a standard?

    • Viktor Elizarov says:

      I prefer the 50mm focal length, but in order to achieve it I use 35mm lens on my APS-C camera Fujifilm XT2

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