What is a Prime lens?
A prime lens is a lens that has one focal length only. They come in all focal lengths ranging from wide angle ones through to the longer telephoto ones.
What is a Zoom lens?
A zoom lens is a lens that has a range of focal lengths available to the photographer in the one lens. These have become increasingly popular over the past few years as they are obviously a very convenient lens to have on your camera as they mean you can shoot at both wide and longer focal lengths without having to switch lenses mid shoot.
Arguments for Prime Lenses
1. Quality – while zoom lenses are improving considerably in the quality that they offer to their users, prime lenses are known for being high quality , fast & ability to produce crisp and precise shots. This is an argument that often comes out in the prime vs zoom lens debate but it’s worth remembering that in every manufacturers range that there are some lenses (both prime and zoom) that are known for being exceptionally sharp and there are some that are known as being a little muddy. While it might be true that general prime lenses are extremely high quality & fast , it shouldn’t be an assumption you make of every prime lens.
2. Price – prime lenses are generally simpler in terms of construction. They have less moving parts and as a result they are cheap to buy & afford. Once again, there are many factors that determine price of a lens (including quality & build quality) so not all prime lenses are ‘Cheap’ (some can be incredibly expensive at the Pro end of the spectrum) but search around and you’ll find some that are definitely value for money. Cheapest lenses (but still not so bad in quality) are ‘nifty 50’ lenses – or 50mm prime lenses, particularly from Nikon or Canon. Canon 50mm f1.8 is cheaper then Nikon 50mm f1.8D by around 50 bucks.
3. Weight – Due to simple construction of prime lens , Prime lenses are often smaller and particularly lighter lenses than zoom lenses in similar focal lengths.
4. Speed – in general prime lenses are faster (in terms of aperture) than zoom lenses. This is slowly changing as zoom lens improvements continue to be made by manufacturers but in the Canon range if you want extra fast lenses you’ll start with prime lenses (for example the 85mm f1.2 and 50mm f1.2 lenses for example). This allows you to shoot in lower light without the need for a flash. It’s kind of sad that Nikon doesn’t offer f1.2 lenses.
5. Technique – The one thing i like about prime lens is that it’s challenge your creativity out of the process. Zooming would be your legs , and you have to move around to find the best angle. Prime would make you think about your shots a little more & you will have to work harder. Zoom lenses make photographer lazy because some photographers just shoot from one position and just zoom in & out to take a shot. I have seen a number of photographers using zoom lenses and just zoom in & out staying in one position and just fire away without really thinking of angle & stuff.
Arguments for Zoom lenses
1. Portability – When prime lens pull out the ‘weight/portability’ argument, zoom lens lovers often argue that a point in favor of the zoom is that you only need to carry one lens instead of a range of lenses to have the same focal length range. Instead of carrying around a 24mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens you could carry one lens that covers the full (or close to) range of focal lengths. You’ll also never have to change your lens and risk getting dust on your image sensor.
2. Price– while zoom lenses might be more expensive than prime lenses the cost of one lens in comparison to multiple lenses can often be comparable.
3. Flexibility– perhaps the biggest argument for Zoom lenses is the flexibility that the offer a photographer. They allow someone wanting to shoot at a variety of focal lengths the ability to quickly change perspective and add variety into their shots within a second (or a fraction of one if you’re a quick zoomer). This is ideal for many types of photography including weddings or sports where you have to constantly be looking for random shots and may not have the time (or ability) to physically move closer or further away from you subject.
So to go for Prime or Zoom lenses?
Obviously there is a range of factors to consider and ultimately the decision will come down to a number of factors including the type and style of photography that you do, your budget, the need for portability, how often you’re willing to change lenses, the quality you’re after and the shooting conditions you’ll be shooting in.
My own opinion with lenses is to go with both.