Prime Lens or Zoom Lens?

One of the commonest questions that a lot of photography beginners ask – Which lens to buy next? In my opinion if a person is asking this, then the person is not yet ready to buy another lens. (More on this – Next lens to buy?) My first lens was a normal prime lens. Once I felt the need for a wider lens, after many years of use, I bought my second lens and so on. I have very few lenses in my collection and most of them were bought after facing limitations of the earlier lens for a long time. I do have a few lenses which were bought out of sheer desire rather than actual need but they are few in number.

That was the first question – to buy or not to buy a lens. The second important question one has to answer, is to buy a zoom lens or a prime lens. Be it the first lens, second lens or third, buyers face this question every time there is a need for a new lens.

For beginners- prime lens is the one that has a single focal length. It means that with a prime lens, the angle of view remains same. For changing the size of subject in the picture frame, one has to go close or away from the subject. A zoom lens on the other hand has a varying range of focal lengths available. ‘Zoom’ is a slang which has now become a common name for such lenses. Nikkor 50mm lens is a prime lens whereas the ubiquitous Nikkor 18-55mm which comes as a kit lens with many starting Nikon models is a zoom lens.

In terms of optical quality, the zoom and prime lenses are almost equal now. The technology has improved a lot over the last few decades. Thanks to the technology improvement and high penetration of digital cameras, it has also become economically profitable for most companies to manufacture the best possible zooms. Gone are the days when prime lenses were the only real option.


Why do I use primes?

I use prime lenses most of the time. I have my own reasons for this –

  1. They are smaller in size and lighter in weight than the zoom counterparts that give similar optical quality and speed (widest aperture). The cost is also less is most cases.
  2. Even when I was a zoom lens user, once I gave a serious thought and analyzed all my images. Almost all of them were either clicked at the lowest focal length or the highest focal length. Read that last sentence a second time. Even with zoom, I had used my lens at around the maximum and minimum focal lengths. Interestingly, zoom lenses have the best image quality and least distortion, away from both the extremes of focal length. I was not using my zoom lens in the range where it performed the best. (Now I understand this and so when faced with the zoom lens, which happens once in a while, I rarely go to either extremes of focal length.) This realization about my usage of the zoom lens, further prompted me to go out for prime lenses. Now I use primes almost exclusively.
  3. The prime lenses also force me to visualize my images before clicking. When I have used a prime lens for some days, I start seeing images that I can make with it, even in the absence of the camera. Prime lenses have this effect by forcing a user to look at things with the angle or view and perspective that the lens presents. Prime lenses also force me to walk around while trying to get the perfect composition. I frequently end up noticing many more interesting images when I do so.
  4. The primes that I have provide me really wide apertures. I can capture creamy bokehs and paper-thin focal planes. Very difficult to find this in zooms.


So is it the primes or the zooms, that win?

Though I do use primes, I don’t say that zooms are bad. I admire zooms too and for their own reasons. Vibration Reduction is commonly found on zooms and very rarely on primes. It is easier to find a zoom lens at a neighborhood photography store than a prime lens. With zooms, lens change gets limited and potential for sensor dust gets reduced to some extent.

Dry Trees by a Lake

(Equipment : Nikon D60 with a Nikkor 18-55 kit lens, 1/160, f/6.3, 100 ISO)

Zooms are good but I find primes better for my use. Take your call and go for whatever lens you like, as long as they don’t end up being stored all the time.

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