The Long Shot: Zooms vs. Primes

Should I use a zoom lens or a prime lens? It's a question that many photography sites and blogs have covered at one point or another, and its usually answered one of two ways: either they recommend that you use what's best for your type of photography or that primes are somehow the decisive type of lens to use if you’re a “serious” photographer. It’s this second answer that leaves me shaking my head.

Primes are fantastic at their specific focal length. Because of that one specific focal length, the manufacturer can focus (no pun intended) on superior optics designed for that particular lens. They’re also usually faster (f/0.95 and up) and some say they’re sharper than zooms.

So primes are the obvious choice, right?

Not quite. Having said all of the above about the optics of a prime, I think the clear answer is actually one that I mentioned in the first paragraph: it really comes down to your type of photography. And for my type of photography, I'll come right out and say it: I can’t stand using primes, and I'm aware that this statement puts me in a minority of photographers. In fact, I'm probably only one of three people on the planet who will admit it! In an effort to clarify, I'm going to point / counter point the advantages of primes and try to offer some insight as to why I feel that zooms are the choice for me.

“I’d rather use zooms over primes for 95% of what I shoot.”


Point 1: Are primes sharper?

I have to admit, this is most likely a 'yes', to a certain degree. It really just comes down to the optics of the lens being dedicated to one focal length. The thing is, if you want to go full zoom, there are m43 zoom lenses that are very nearly as sharp as their prime counterparts. The Panasonic 12-35mm, Panasonic 35-100mm, Olympus 12-40mm and the Fuji 18-55mm have all been praised for their sharpness and image quality. If shown side by side, you might be able to nitpick at an image to find pixels from a prime lens that are slightly sharper than its zoom counterpart, but I feel like that's an enormous waste of time. I'd like to spend less time pixel peeping and more time looking at the image as a whole. In fact, I think many people would struggle if subjected to a "Prime vs Zoom" photo comparison contest with todays current crop of m43 lenses. When you move away from the kit zoom lens (which we can all agree are less expensive and probably less impressive image-quality wise) and invest in zoom glass like the ones noted above, I think you'll find that zoom technology in the m43 system is stunning and satisfyingly sharp.

Point 2: Are primes faster?

No doubts here either. In general, prime lenses are better in situations where you require f/1.4 or f/1.7, or even f/0.95. However, once again, it all comes down to your type of photography. Is it all that necessary to shoot at such a large aperture? I know which lighting conditions I can and cannot get a decent shot in with my zoom lenses. I also tend to shoot in either the morning, daylight or just as the sun is setting when I can get that last shred of lighting in. On top of that, I usually don’t shoot wide open, and at this point I don't shoot portraits where DOF is critical to the shot. I'm never really shooting in near total darkness so I haven't run into the situation where I absolutely must shoot at f/1.4. To be fair, I do own a Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 prime lens, but it usually does not see the camera very often because my 12-35mm suits my shooting style fine right down to f/2.8 if I need it. My preference is to stick with the zoom lenses that have a fixed aperture across the entire focal length range. They’re more expensive, but usually optically superior to zoom lenses with variable apertures and they'll get you closer to the speed of primes.

Point 3: Don't primes teach you to "Zoom with Your Feet"?

Seriously? This is actually a saying? It almost sounds as if photographers who use zoom lenses aren't somehow capable of moving around to get the best angle or set up the best framing for their shot. True, I'm sure there are those among us out there who see something nice that's far away, zoom in and don't put any thought into it, and that's fine - that’s their photo. On the flip side, I think there are more zoom photographers out there who match this style: you see something that catches your eye, you investigate the angles, you pick the focal length that matches your scene and you find the right composition and timing for the shot. Once you're finally behind the lens, you can make instant minute adjustments to the composition with your zoom. Basically, you're quite capable of using your feet to find the image, and your zoom gives you a toolbox of quick focal length adjustments to make sure that you get the composition you want. 

That's a key point to the argument, I think. If you frame your shot and find that you need to go slightly wider, and you're using a zoom lens that has that ability, you can make that instant composition shift and get the shot with the angle you want without leaving the eyepiece. If you're on a  prime lens, you have a few options:

  1. Take the shot and be content that you didn't get as wide as you would have liked.
  2. See if you can move back and potentially miss the shot entirely.
  3. Try to switch to a wider prime in time and potentially miss the shot entirely.
  4. Never take the shot at all.

 All of these options apply to zoom lens users as well, it's just that there's also sometimes the option of simply readjusting your focal length to fit the shot.

It's silly to me that "zoom with your feet" is something people say, because I guarantee that nobody is able to zoom with their feet over a cliff or closer to an animal. Sure, there are long primes that you can use for wildlife and sporting events, but that brings me to my next point....

Point 4: How many lenses do you want to carry?

I went with the m43 system for one very important reason: great image quality in a form factor that was smaller and lighter than DSLRs. Yes, you can get a long prime lens for sports, but as soon as those players get closer to you, you've got to rapidly switch bodies to that second camera with the wider prime to catch that action, and then switch bodies again when the action gets further away again. A lot of people don't have two camera bodies and so they're forced to change lenses constantly. Yes, you can discipline yourself to use only one or two focal lengths, but isn't that extremely limiting at the same time? How frustrating is it when you need a little more reach but just can't get the lens switched in time to catch the shot?  I'd rather have the ability to get a crucially tighter shot right there on the spot then fumble with a critical lens swap.

Aside from that, it all comes down to what kit you want to carry around. I like to keep things light and as inconspicuous as possible. Having an assortment of five or six prime lenses in my bag would simply bog me down. In the m43 system, I’d have to carry around a 12mm, 14mm, 17mm, 20mm and 25mm to cover the range of my single 12-35mm lens (and even then not cover all of it):


Again, all of those primes are faster glass and maybe slightly sharper, but neither of those points makes me want to carry around multiple lenses when one zoom can cover them all. Price is another factor here: even if you just went with the 12mm, 17mm and 25mm, you're spending $900 more than the 12-35mm. I just feel like that is money better spent on other parts of the kit.

There is one very important catch in the argument for zooms, and that is to again point out that my system is entirely m43 (micro four thirds). If you're using a DSLR or full frame rig, you're looking at something more like this:

A Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 zoom, a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom and a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 prime

A Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 zoom, a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom and a Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 prime

DSLR or full frame users are looking at much larger zoom lenses compared to m43, and also your pricing structure is drastically different. The Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens above is $2299 as of today - so definitely take into account that the whole Price / Size / Kit Weight argument can go out the window unless you're talking about mirrorless m43 systems!

Point 5: Will using primes teach you better composition?

This goes hand in hand with the “zoom with your feet” statement. Supposedly sticking to one focal length and concentrating on that field of view will help develop your eye and make you a better photographer. Fine, that may be the case, but there’s nothing that says you can’t do this with a zoom lens too. A skill that I’m still trying to focus on is to fill the frame entirely with the shot and not do any cropping after the shot is taken. I'm sure there are plenty of prime users out there who also crop their images - thereby essentially zooming in to a point of the image that better fits their original intent anyway. In my opinion, cropping an image taken with a prime lens is just zooming in after the fact.

The only caveat there is if you really do just stand in one place and zoom to something when you actually could have walked to it. I highly suggest finding the right composition before you shoot with your zoom lens and then use the zoom to make those slight “crops” to your composition before you take the shot. In most cases, it's probably going to be a better shot if you do the walking to the shot instead of letting the lens do it for you.

Then again, it’s your photo and it’s your style of photography, and in the end it doesn’t really matter if you shoot with primes or zooms. It doesn't make you any more or less of a photographer because you choose one over the other. The real way to produce better photographs is just to enjoy it and keep shooting every day, regardless of which type of glass is attached to your camera.


Product photos in this blog post are courtesy of B&H and prices illustrated are current as of this post.