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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Raymond Bohn's picture

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.

Robert Montgomery's picture

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

Robert Molan's picture

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 ?

Robert Molan's picture

Absolutely and its not always on the basis of price. I shoot both zooms for their versatility, primes because the restrictions they place means you have to think more creatively..

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

Robert Montgomery's picture

I am talking about aspects ratio's . And yes the ratio remains the same in primes.When you vary the FL you change that ratio. Guess you missed that one in optical physics. Shoot what you want. Go tell Newton and Maxwell they were wrong. If you can achieve the same DOF in your shots regardless of changing your FL just by zooming apply for a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Logan Cressler's picture

"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"

You straight up said when you physically move the DOF and "compression" (whatever the hell you think that is) remain constant. No they dont. At all. Period. That is sheer nonsense no matter how you try to spin it.

Robert Montgomery's picture

Degree angle of view. Is constant in primes. Zooms are varied. DoF related to compression of subject to background hyper focal what is in focus is shallower in telephoto's the background appears closer to the subject. In zooms this to will vary do to the fact that telephoto's are optical weaker than wide angles at all apertures. If you physically move with primes you still have the same angle of view. And rhe same hyperfocal distance scale. When you zoom you are changing that scale. It is not spin it is not rubbish . All you have to do is look at a zoom lens . On older lenses, They included hyperfocal lines gudes, that actually bow to show the effect. As for compression The greater the FL the more the background will appear closer to the subject and the shallower the DoF will be . This is mathematics . Hate to burst your bubble. But you can believe whatever you want it does not change physics.

Deleted Account'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.

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...

Robert Molan's picture

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

Kenneth Rose's picture

What do I think? I think everyone should make up their own minds, and web sites like Fstoppers should stop publishing clickbait articles that just rehash the same old arguments.,

Scott Carey's picture

I used to advocate that 'check out your most used FLs with zooms on Lightroom' entirely - till I realized those numbers boiled down mostly to the EXTREMES of my zoom lenses, while still hovering around the 35-50mm FLs.

That, at least in my case, showed three things in my decade and a half of photographing:

First, that I was indeed getting lazy to 'zoom with my feet' when I got to the end of my zoom lenses' reach - a luxury obviously not allowed to prime users.

Secondly, that I needed a full frame body to get wider angles - which I did - or crop (slightly) into tighter views when needed.

Finally, that, at least for my favourite genre, street photography, the 35-to-50(ish) focal lengths are indeed the bee's knees.

So, as I still occasionally carry zoom lenses on my urban incursions, I must confess that, though they enable me to have less 'misses' , that does not necessarily mean I get more 'keepers'. Not to mention their bulk, which as I'm at the brink of my fifties, undeniably becomes an important issue.

And even when I miss the 'decisive moment' with a prime due to not being able to get closer/further away, that shot goes straight into my 'get back to' mental list, keeping therefore, my creative juices flowing. When that happens with a zoom lens, my guilt complex is somehow more acute.