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Prime Lenses vs. Zoom Lenses: Which Should You Use?

written by: Balachandar Radhakrishnan•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 5/20/2011

What are the pros and cons to using a prime lens with your digital camera? What about zoom lenses? Which should you buy? If you are new to photography and aren't sure what sort of lens you should buy for your digital camera, learn everything you need to know about primes lenses and zoom lenses here.

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    Zoom Lenses

    Even if you don't own a DSLR camera, you probably already know about zoom lenses simply from your point-and-shoot digital camera. These lenses are capable of closing in on a subject as well as going wide to provide a sense of space. They are usually supplied as a "kit lens", the 18-55 being the most popular. It is therefore safe to say that most digital SLR owners have handled zoom lenses often. The big two of digital SLRs have their own zoom lenses. Canon shooters looking for Canon zoom lenses should check out this article and for Nikon zoom lenses we've got a separate article here. Of course third party manufacturers also offer zoom lenses like the Tamron zoom lenses. Now what makes zoom lenses so appealing is the comfort that they offer in framing, you can compose your picture with flexibility. With the 18-55 zoom lens you can go comfortably on the wide end for group photos as well as zoom in on that expressive face while shooting on the street. The ability to zoom comes from the presence of several lens elements that are located inside the lens which, by the way, is also why they are big and heavy. The camera industry keeps re-inventing zoom lenses and pushing them to the limits because of the comfort that photographers like to have. A few examples worth noting would be the 15x zoom capability of the new Tamron 18-250 and the Canon EF 70-300mm DO IS USM zoom that is just half the size of a similarly capable lens. In fact, the level of innovation is such that some of the professional end zoom lenses, like the Canon L series, are capable of providing a picture quality as good or close to that of prime lenses. The question of how to choose zoom lenses come down to factors of price, image quality and in the case of telephoto zoom lenses weight as well.

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    Prime Lenses

    Prime lenses have a fixed focal length and cannot be changed. They are usually cheaper than most zoom lenses and provide a fantastic picture quality. They also tend be "faster lenses" meaning they can let in more light, allowing you to shoot at ambient light without the need for flash. Their quality is attributed to the fact that they don't carry multiple lens elements that zoom lenses have, to provide the zoom feature. The presence of these multiple lens elements introduces variables like internal reflection, glare etc. which interfere with picture quality. It should be noted that some of the higher priced zoom lenses come with a special coating that prevent such encumbrances, but at a price! So, when it comes to fantastic photo quality then the Prime vs Zoom lens war is won by primes. A cheap good prime lens can easily compete with a costly zoom lens, this can be seen in the case of the Canon 50mm lens. The 50mm f1.8 lens Canon EOS cameras is fantastic prime lens for Canon shooters. Remember that this is a case only with consumer quality zoom lenses, the higher end (priced) zoom lenses can, in most cases, match the quality of prime lenses. Another remarkable feature of prime lenses is that they're pretty light compared to zoom lenses. Again, this is due to the absence of multiple lens elements. Keep in mind, however, that prime lenses are not cheap; some may be priced equal to pro quality zoom lenses!

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    Points to Remember

    Zoom lenses:

    1. Great carry around lenses

    2. Better flexibility in framing shots

    3. More suitable for amateurs

    Prime lenses:

    1. Great value for money

    2. Fast lenses

    3. Offer the best quality of picture possible

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    Evaluate Your Needs

    The answer to the question, "Should I go for prime lenses or zoom lenses?" depends on the person who poses the question. First, ask yourself:

    1. Do I carry around my camera everywhere I go?

    2. What budget do I have allotted for my lenses?

    3. What is my style of photography?

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    How Prime Lenses & Zoom Lenses Suit Your Needs

    Do you carry around your camera everywhere? Yes/No

    Okay, so you're a photo enthusiast who carries your camera everywhere. I wish I could do that, as I've seen some of the best photos from people who do this. It's all about capturing the moment by being at the right place at the right time. Having your camera with you at all times means that you need to cut out "accessory creep", where people carry every possible camera add-on they've got. You need great flexibility in shooting. Sometimes you're taking a candid capture of the cute kid enjoying an ice cream, the next moment your shooting that surfer riding the waves. You need a lens that can allow a wide shooting range. So, zoom lenses are the way to go! They offer the greatest flexibility in such instances.

    How much money can you throw at your lenses? I can afford to spend more/ not very much

    The pictures that you take primarily depends on the kind of lens that you use. The camera that you use is only secondary! So, if you're thinking about being on the conservative side when it comes to buying lenses then you need to sacrifice mobility and comfort. Zoom lenses are often pricier than prime lenses. The range of shooting ability and comfort of not having to carry a bunch of lenses or keep changing them comes at a price.

    What's your style of photography?

    You don't take a sword to a gunfight! Choosing the right lens mostly depends on the kind of photography you intend to shoot. Street photography, shooting sports, etc., where the subject is constantly displaced in space, means that you need to be able to adjust your focal length to get that perfect shot or expression. Furthermore, you need to able to capture that defining moment rather than fumbling for your lens in your camera bag and switching it! There is no better tool than a zoom lens for this task.

    If your work involves more event photography or studio photography, then you've always got the option of switching lenses and reframing a shot without worry of missing the "prefect shot". Prime lenses are among the best portrait lenses. Shooting with a prime lens with a wide open aperture brings the essence of the face that you're shooting along with a wonderful bokeh. There is no doubt that this should be your choice.

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    Prime Lenses vs. Zoom Lenses: Verdict - Equally Good

    Your choice to go with prime lenses or zoom lenses can be a endless conundrum. The simplest solution would be to pose the above mentioned questions to yourself and make an informed decision based on your answers. For the beginner photographer, remember that the comfort that zoom lenses offer is oftentimes too good to give up. But, then again, there is also the view that one should learn on a prime lens since they are the classical way of composing and makes you a better photographer. My personal opinion is that it's in the hand of the person who shoots, so it really doesn't matter what you choose as long as you can understand the limitations and strong points and use it appropriately.

    Read What Lens Should I Use? for additional tips on how to decide which camera lenses to use for your photography.