The Prime vs Zoom Lens Debate

The zoom or prime lens debate. It’s as old as photography itself. Convenience vs quality, versatility vs weight, aperture vs flexibility, cost per lens. The arguments rage today, as strongly as they did back in the days of analogue. Lenses are expensive. Getting it right is important. So here are a few of the arguments and explanation of some of the trade-offs that may help you decide which camp zoom or prime best suits you.

Let’s start with image quality. There are those who believe that prime lenses with dedicated internal lens element designs, less glass, and generally wider full apertures are a no-brainer if you are genuinely committed to image quality.  However, in today’s world of advanced lens design and manufacturing expertise, it can be argued, this is no longer strictly applies. Zoom lenses have come a long way and can achieve levels of image quality and a lack of distortion that would previously have been unthinkable. The problem is, this comes at a price. Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus and Leica all make superb high-end zoom lenses that can perform at the levels demanded by professionals. The problem is, they are expensive. Expect to pay upwards of £1,000, ($1,350) as a starting price for a high-end zoom. A prime lens of the equivalent maximum aperture is likely to set you back somewhat less, around £600 ($800). It is these sorts of unforgiving trade-offs that constantly influence the lens choice of photographers who have yet to plant their feet firmly in one camp or the other.

One aspect to consider carefully is the type of shots that you tend to take. If you are a street photographer, the best image opportunities are likely to be transient, a few split seconds at best. Fumbling in your bag for the right prime lens is just not sustainable and can be incredibly frustrating. If light levels are at a premium, increase your ISO. Capturing the essence of the moment is a must. Conversely, if you tend to shoot architecture, you are not constrained by having to react with split-second timing, and might well appreciate the luxury of choosing exactly the right focal length with a generous maximum aperture to boot, especially for interiors where light is at a premium.

Controversially for me, the argument for prime lenses has been lost for landscape photography. You are generally shooting at small apertures in order to achieve the maximum depth-of-field. You will generally also be using a tripod and most likely filters to compensate for the sky or to achieve long exposures. Constantly having to change lenses and filters each time you are looking to capture a slightly different angle of view can be frustrating. In these cases, zoom lenses tend to have the edge.

Some photographers don’t believe you need to make such a binary choice. Their kit bag is a mix of zoom and prime lenses to that suits their intended portfolio. I am sort of in this camp myself. I have a few prime lenses, such as an 85mm f1.8 which I use almost exclusively for portraits, whereas my 17-40mm f4 is my staple for landscapes. In the end, your lens choice is highly personal and you need to feel comfortable with your kit bag.