Debates in the photography community are quite common, ranging from topics on photographic gear to brands and much more. One such never-ending debate is the prime lens vs. zoom lens debate. Photographers often argue about how prime lenses are better than zoom lenses and vice versa. It is obvious that both lens types have pros and cons, but in my opinion, when it comes to primes, pros outweigh the cons.
I won’t go into specific features or compare them based on build quality, weather sealing, etc., since the thing that I see in a lens is the image quality and whether it pushes me to the limits.
Since I like to experiment a lot, convenient and easy stuff just don’t do the job for me. When I started doing photography I was shooting with a film camera fitted with 58mm f/2 lens. That was all I had. Even though digital cameras were already advanced enough I couldn’t really afford one. But shooting analog with fixed focal length made me pick my photos better, pay more attention to framing and taught me how to use my legs in order to frame better. Therefore, in my point of view, prime lenses beat zoom lenses in a variety of categories.
1. Scale the Learning Curve Faster
It is better to start learning photography with a prime lens instead of a zoom lens. That’s because you probably won’t have the convenience of a zoom lens, and you’ll learn to move more in order to frame. As a result, each photo will feel more rewarding due to the work you had put in it. Also, you’ll see the selective focus much better on prime lenses due to their wider apertures that will allow you to master selective focus much faster.
2. Get Better at Focusing
Well, nowadays we all rely on the autofocus, especially those of us who don’t have a perfect, 20-20 vision. However, it is very easy for the camera to miss the focus having the wide apertures that primes provide, whether it is due to the sensor picking up the wrong thing to focus on, or your moving slightly back or forward. That means, by using a prime lens you’ll practice focusing as well, even though you will most likely be using autofocus.
3. Produce Sharper Images
Prime lenses are significantly sharper than zoom lenses. That is due to the fact that they don’t have extra glass inside that moves in order to zoom. As a result, you get a better quality photographs due to less diffraction, which increases with higher number of lens elements inside as in the case of zoom lenses.
4. Capture Beautiful Bokeh
Having maximum apertures of f/1.4, f/1.2, even f/0.95, prime lens generally have wider apertures than most of the zoom lenses (with the exception of the Sigma 18-35 f/1.8). Having wider maximum aperture not only provides intense background blur and very small field of focus, but it also means that the lens gets significantly sharper when stopped down. Another great thing about prime lens and wide apertures is the bokeh (the specular lights, in particular). Prime lens can deliver those really good defined specular lights, whereas most of the zoom lenses just make everything blurry and smooth. It is a matter of preference, of course, but with prime lens you can easily make interesting backgrounds instead of boring ones.
5. Become a Low-Light Ninja
The prime lens gathers more light as a direct result of the wider aperture, thus increasing the general quality of the image in low light. If you use 2.8 zoom lens and 1.4 equivalent prime lens, you get 2 stops more light in the case of the prime lens, meaning you can go from 1600 ISO to 400 ISO, for example.
6. Avoid Lens Distortion
Fixed focal length lenses generally have smaller number of elements inside and no moving elements (except for focus, of course). It means that the amount of distortion is significantly smaller when compared to the focal length equivalent of zoom lenses. I’m not saying that there isn’t any, but I certainly don’t know about any that are completely distortion-free.
7. Travel Light
Primes are significantly smaller in size when compared to zoom lenses, thus more suitable for traveling and packing. And since they are smaller, they tend to weigh less, thus they wear you down less.
Prime vs. Zoom: A Quick Comparison
Let's see some of the advantages of zoom lenses over prime lenses. In the first place, zoom lenses provide you with convenience. They can replace whole range of prime lenses and save you the time wasted in changing lenses. The trade-off, however, is a less sharp image, heavier and bulkier lens (often more expensive), and smaller maximum aperture.
Generally, professional photographers who photograph weddings and similar events rely mostly on zoom lenses since the pace of the event doesn’t leave enough breathing time to swap between prime lenses. Often you’ll see these photographers having two or even three bodies hanging around with different lens. On the other hand, fine-art photographers need more quality in the picture (quality being less noise, picture being as sharp as possible and having less distortion). Therefore, they tend to use prime lenses due to the picture quality they provide.