We humans are tribal creatures, so it seems in many walks of life. Including photography. Which camp do you fall into? Nikon or Canon? SLR or mirrorless? Prime or zoom? People can get pretty passionate about explaining why their choice wins out, in a game of photographic top trumps.
Today I’m going to discuss that age old question - prime or zoom. We’re likely going to work with one better than the other, and so it’s important to make an informed decision on which merits your hard-earned cash. So here’s what we could bear in mind:
On a purely practical level, primes are smaller, and lighter. Much easier to have hanging around your neck for a prolonged period of time. And when it comes to bang-for-your-buck, a good prime lens is rarely beaten on pure image quality. You generally get higher quality optics, less distortion and significantly wider apertures (and beautiful bokeh) for less money than an equivalent zoom. This is because, for any amount of money you spend on a lens, you’re going to be trading some optical quality in exchange for the complexity of a zoom’s functionality. As with nearly everything, you get what you pay for.
You’ll also need to be on your toes more with a prime - which you could see as a good or bad thing. Indeed, primers may argue how the need to move about to re-compose a shot keeps you “on the button”, forcing you not to be lazy. It can make you part of the action, adding a certain dynamic to your shots. Many photographers find that primes are great for conditioning yourself to think fast and solve problems without taking the easy option. I know that many street photographers and even wedding photographers favour primes, and some don’t even own a zoom lens.
I learned on a prime, and love using them. My Fujifilm 56mm f1.2 is a sublime lens, and would probably be my first choice when out shooting in the dark, where I can really take advantage of having the aperture wide open for low light. I also love the wonderfully shallow depth of field.
Zooms, obviously, give a whole new level of immediate flexibility - fine tuning the framing and composition to perfection with a flick of the wrist, when you otherwise couldn’t have moved to the right place at the right time. My zoom gives me the opportunity to catch that perfect shot a prime might miss. I myself usually shoot with my Fujifilm 16-55mm f2.8 - and when I don’t have it, boy do I miss it. I usually find myself shooting at the 55mm end, but I know when I want the wide angle and it’s there for me when I do.
It all comes down to the end result, and without my zoom in tow, that final composition may simply not be what I wanted. Buy the right zoom, and superb optical quality along with compositional flexibility can make for the ultimate, all-round, go-to lens. When it comes to image quality, I can’t tell the difference between those I took with a prime lens or my zoom. It’s superb.
Zooms are also my choice if I’m shooting in an unfamiliar space, or am restricted in how I can move around - a small room or the press pit of a music venue, for example. The zoom allows you to compensate for those critical factors beyond your control.
So - prime or zoom - which one’s better?
Photography is just not that clear cut, so the broad answer is: neither. It’s not what you’re shooting with, but how you use it. And because thinking process and methods are different from one photographer to another, this means that what works best for me may not for you. I think we should all experiment with both primes and zooms, to find our niche.
We need to be subjective when it comes to any kind of gear. Once you’ve begun developing as a photographer, success in photography depends upon you - not on buying specific lenses. What images you want, how you prefer to work, what location you’re going to be in - a whole range of different factors - all these are points to consider when deciding upon prime vs zoom. Because it’s different for everyone, I think it’s impossible to say one is universally better than the other.
So there you go. That’s it, really. I know I’m a bit outnumbered as a frequent zoom user on the street photography scene. And I realise the irony of attaching a great big zoom to a conveniently compact mirrorless camera body, but it’s a compromise I’m willing to take for that added flexibility.
So, which type of lens do you prefer?
Here's an example where my zoom lens was important. I was standing on a relatively cramped stairwell, and I wouldn't have got that geometric combination of bannisters in shot were I not able to zoom right out to the wide-angle end of my 16-55mm lens.
Here's an example where my prime lens was important. Shooting in almost pitch black (apart from the fireworks, of course), the ability to open my 56mm lens right out to f1.2 allowed me to let in as much light as I possibly could, whilst also allowing me to get the bokeh effect of the fireworks in the background.