Misconceptions Around the Zoom Versus Prime Lens Debate

After we graduate from the complete beginner phase of our photography journey and as we start to ask the important questions like "which camera should I buy next," we invariably land on a discussion thread or Fstoppers article lampooning the plebeian zoom lens over its rival prime. "Move with your feet, you lazy so and so" and "look how light my backpack is," cry the baying mob as you hang your not-so-sharp head in shame. But, not all is as it seems.

My tounge-in-cheek introductory paragraph aside, I actually do enjoy using prime lenses. For me, Canon's 50mm f/1.8 (nifty fifty) is the first thing to come to mind when this discussion pops up. For such an affordable lens, the image quality is fantastic, at f/1.8, it's great in low-light situations, but more than anything, I enjoy the simplicity. 

Coming to you from Andrew of the YouTube channel Denae & Andrew is a much-welcomed counterargument to the eternal saga that is prime versus zoom lenses. Many photographers wax poetic about their superior prime and how using a zoom lens will turn you into a lazy shooter. As Andrew points out in this video, however, in many scenarios, having a zoom lens is far more beneficial, especially to the inexperienced photographer. Starting out with a zoom can give you more perspectives of the same subject, so it's much easier to figure out what works and what doesn't. Going forward, it's easier to decide on your preferred shooting style; maybe then you can invest in a prime. 

As a landscape photographer, oftentimes, moving closer to a subject with my feet could land me in a spot of bother, such as in the sea or at the bottom of a cliff. So, for me, when out shooting in nature, it's a no-brainer: zooms all the way. Andrew points out some other interesting misconceptions around the comparisons, so the video is well worth a watch.

What do you think? Are primes really that much better than zooms?   

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13 Comments

In the distant past, when shooting an SLR and film, I would never have considered a zoom.
There were some really bad zooms. I was young, more flexible, and focused on landscape images (tripod most of the time). My slowest lens was f2.

When converting to digital, I had a chance to reconsider my choices due to the availability of great image stabilization, weather resistance, etc, My camera shop allowed me to use a new ultra wide-to-portrait f2.8 zoom for 30 days. I was very impressed and purchased it. I no longer fear zooms and have settled on a mix of a few fast primes plus zooms.

Jerome Brill's picture

A tip for anyone importing and editing in Lightroom, filter your images by focal length. If you mostly use zoom lenses or that's all you have you might find a focal length you tend to use a lot. You can use this to figure out if you need/want a better lens at that focal length.

It is true that not all primes are sharper than zooms. Although this is tackling the misconception as a whole. Most basic kit zoom lenses are not going to be as sharp though. You'll need to spend some money to get a good zoom that can compete with even mid priced primes.

If you want a good zoom though and don't care about primes, invest in the 24-70 for most systems.

To me i own both primes and zooms and the use of lens is dependent on shooting factors and look I want to achieve . But the bottom line is no matters the advances in technology, lens design, and coatings, primes will always be sharper than zooms. It physics, less glass, fixed FL equates to less refaction/distortion , light loss, and increased sharpness. Plus when using zooms ,you are changing the focal length, you are then forced to cope with compression and DOF differences . Where as with primes no matter if you physical move these factors remain constant. I think it is best to use the right lens according to what you want the final image to look like, and what the physical surroundings you have to deal with

I would only edit your comment to, "primes have the ability to be sharper than zooms." Not all of them are.

With glass improvements, more sophisticated designs zooms have come a long way, to be honest in a double blind analysis I would not expect anybody to identify If an image at a given aperture and focal length is taken on a prime or zoom. So if you can’t discern the difference is there one ?

Between specific zooms and primes, no. I'm just saying there are good and bad zooms and primes.

Logan Cressler's picture

If you physically move, your DOF is not constant at all, changing the distance to subject is the #1 factor for your hyperfocal distance, well that and sensor size....

My Nikor 70-300 zoom is sharper than a lot of cheaper primes, so primes are not ALWAYS sharper than zooms. There are still crappy primes, and lessor quality primes.

Forced to cope with compression and DOF issues? I am not even going to tackle this jibber jabber. Again, when you MOVE nothing remains constant, prime or zoom.

Overall, your entire comment is basically rubbish

Rob Mitchell's picture

I use the right tool for the job. Zoom or prime.
Anyone I hear declaring they only use primes doesn’t is just limiting themselves. Their issue, not mine.

Sophie Charlotte's picture

I'm not exactly comparing apples with apples as my zooms are all Sigma, not art series obviously so are a little inferior to my Nikkor primes.
But I find my zooms are very noticeably less sharp and as a result have ditched them for everything but wildlife photography as although I love the versatility, its just not worth the compromise.
I use a 35mm 1.8 99% of the time now as it gives me a large amount of flexibility with the ability to stop down for faster shots and creamy bokeh. The other 1% I use a 50mm 1.8 when I know I'll have more space or only want tight shots.

Being lucky enough to own top shelf lenses, I don't put much thought into optical superiority when choosing which lens to use; my photographic goal is the only consideration.

Robert Nurse's picture

When presented with a compelling image, do viewers consider the lens' optical criteria? I know there are far "better" lenses out there than are in my gear bag. But, as you said, shoot for that compelling imagery.

Adam Chandler's picture

Focal length is such a powerful tool and I find zooms, in many situations, to be incredibly useful for on-the-fly changes in composition. Moments happen quickly and moving my feet isn't always an option to get the shot I'm after. That being said, I think it all depends on what you're shooting. Increasing focal length (stepping back and zooming) can sometimes make up for a slight aperture deficit if background blur is the goal. And I find both my primary zooms to be super sharp. All that being said, with the strength of eye AF in today's cameras I'll be more likely to use super-fast primes (with their incredibly shallow dof) than I used to...at least on one of my camera bodies...

The only area where zooms fall significantly behind is max aperture, yes there is a measurable difference but I am not convinced that it is observable in practice