Prime vs zoom lenses: what’s the difference?

  • I love using my primes for various reasons but do love my zoom, too, especially when I am out and about. Here are a few pros and cons of zooms versus prime lenses and why you may choose one over the other.

The first DSLR camera I owned was the Canon Rebel T3 with the kit lens that came with the camera, a 18-55 zoom lens.

I used my camera in auto mode back then and really didn’t want anything more than that for my photography needs at that time.

When I started getting little more serious about my photography journey about two years ago, I started to feel the limitations of my set-up and I knew it was time to change things up a bit.

The Nifty Fifty (aka 50mm f/1.8 prime lens) was my first prime lens purchase and was an obvious choice for me at that point because it is fairly inexpensive, incredibly versatile, and allowed me to get the kinds of images I loved seeing from other photographers whose work I admired.

Now, two years later, I have three primes lenses and one zoom lens. I find myself reaching for both my primes and my zoom lens depending on what and where I am photographing. Each has a place in my shooting style and each plays a special role in how I capture the world around me.

Here are a few pros and cons of zooms versus prime lenses and why you may choose one over the other.

Zoom lenses (anything with a range in focal lengths)

Apart from my kit lens that came with the camera, the first zoom lens I had was a used Canon 75-300mm which allowed me to have a range from a standard portrait focal length to a focal length that allowed me to capture action from very far away. Next I invested in a Sigma 12-24 wide angle zoom lens which I found to be a perfect fit for travel, work and family vacations.

The biggest advantage of a zoom lens is that it has varying focal lengths. It helps you to ‘not move around as much’ when you cannot or don’t want to. It’s especially helpful when photographing landscapes, sports, action, wildlife, street and sometimes even kids where you don’t have to be close to them to get your shot.

With varying focal lengths you also get versatility. This means being able to use one lens at different focal lengths for the price of one! For example, the Canon 24-70mm has the most common lengths of 35mm and 50mm built in. This means you don’t have to carry various prime lenses while being out and about or swap lenses mid-session and can still shoot at various focal lengths.

One of the biggest disadvantages of a zoom lens is its lack of ‘sharpness’ and superior image quality. Since the lens ‘caters’ to multiple focal lengths there are more elements within the lens to give the user that flexibility and this can sacrifice the image quality that prime lens shooters love so much.

I love using my primes for various reasons but do love my zoom, too, especially when I am out and about. Here are a few pros and cons of zooms versus prime lenses and why you may choose one over the other.
Sigma 12-24mm lens at 16mm
I love using my primes for various reasons but do love my zoom, too, especially when I am out and about. Here are a few pros and cons of zooms versus prime lenses and why you may choose one over the other.
Sigma 12-24mm lens at 24mm

Prime lenses (fixed focal length)

I own the 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 105mm prime lenses. With a prime lens the focal length is fixed, meaning you cannot adjust the ‘ring in front of your lens’ to zoom in or out. In other words, you must physically move around more to zoom closer to or further from your subject!

One of the biggest benefits of a prime lens is its sharpness. There are fewer elements inside a prime lens since there’s only one focal length, hence a generally higher image quality and more consistent sharpness in the images.

Another big advantage of prime lenses is wider apertures like f/1.8, f/1.4 and f/1.2. This means better potential performance in low light conditions as well as better bokeh which is often desirable in portraits.

One of the main disadvantages of a prime lens is the fact that you don’t have the flexibility of that ‘zoom’ when you physically cannot move closer to the subject.

I love using my primes for various reasons but do love my zoom, too, especially when I am out and about. Here are a few pros and cons of zooms versus prime lenses and why you may choose one over the other.
Canon 85mm lens
I love using my primes for various reasons but do love my zoom, too, especially when I am out and about. Here are a few pros and cons of zooms versus prime lenses and why you may choose one over the other.
Canon 35mm lens

So which type of lens is better overall?

That depends on where you are as a photographer and what you need!

If you intend to capture daily life and need to be able to get super close and move far away at lightning speed, a zoom might be the lens you need.

If you value tack sharp focus above all else, a prime lens might serve you best.

If you aren’t ready to invest in a bunch of lenses and get flexibility and portability at the same time for more value for your buck, a zoom lens could be the one for you.

If you desire higher image quality, capability to function in low light situations, or that dreamy bokeh in your portrait work I would look into owning a prime lens.

The key is, identify your style and needs as a photographer and choose the gear that will best help you create the kind of work you love. There is no right choice for everyone, just the right choice for you!

I love using my primes for various reasons but do love my zoom, too, especially when I am out and about. Here are a few pros and cons of zooms versus prime lenses and why you may choose one over the other.
Canon 35mm lens
Sigma 12-24mm lens at 13mm

About the Author:

Jyotsna is a mom and an electrical engineer based out in Sacramento, California. While engineering has been her background, photography is her creative outlet and passion. Having lived in and traveled to multiple countries, she loves nature and traveling. She is a lover of light and seeks to capture the everyday beauty around her through her lens. She also has a part time photography business and focuses on capturing genuine emotions and connections between families and couples.

3 Comments

  1. Lauren Jun 29 2018 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    I love love love primes..but the flexibility of the zoom is just tough to pass up for family sessions. I want all the lenses. lol

  2. Christopher Hall Jul 01 2018 at 12:50 am - Reply

    I am a prime lens person myself. However i do have a couple of zoom lenses that i use more for fun.

  3. Eric Sep 05 2018 at 4:27 am - Reply

    Great article, thank you. I use both too, mainly the 24-70mm Canon, this is a great lense and give me lots of flexibility.

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