5 Reasons Why Prime Lenses are Better Than Zoom Lenses

Gear & Apps July 20th 2013 10:36 PM 18 Comments

primes

[REWIND: SLR Lounge’s Original Article on Primes vs Zooms]

Fixed focal length lenses, also known as prime lenses, are some of the best lenses that you can own. In general prime lenses are sharper and perform better generally than zoom lenses at comparable focal lengths.

As with all things it is a bit of give and take. Zooms afford you the ability to hit several focal lengths without having to switch a lens, while primes offer you the ability to get the most out of the focal lengths that you shoot with. Check out this great video by DigitalRev on the topic below…

I am a huge fan of primes, and use them whenever possible. I think that primes are especially important when you are learning photography because they force you to move around to change your shot, thus forcing you to think more about what you are doing.

If I had the choice between a combination of the the Canon 50mm f1.8, CANON 85MM F1.8, and the Canon 28mm f1.8 vs the Canon 24-70 I would almost always choose the 3 primes. The only exception being a sporting event where the 24-70 fits with the requirements of the environment more.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Do you prefer Primes or Zooms? Which is better? Let us know in a comment below. 

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Anthony Thurston

About

Anthony Thurston is a portrait and sports photographer based in the Salem, Oregon area as well as a senior writer here at SLR Lounge. You can check out some of his work on his Website. You may also connect with him via Email, Google Plus, or Facebook.

18 Comments

    • Pam

      I really began to “get” Photography when I bought my 50mm f1.8 nifty fifty. I now have the 50L, 100L macro and also the 24-70L and 70-200L. I LOVE my collection because with kids having zoom is a large benefit to let them do their thing and not be up in their face with the camera :) When u want something light and more portable with amazing bokeh I go for my 50L it’s amazing as well as in low light. Great article, I couldn’t see the video though.

  1. Mike Edwards

    I am a huge fan of prime lenses. Prior to buying my Nikkor 85mm 1.8G I was using the 17-55 Nikkor. As a portrait photographer, I use the 85mm mostly all the time. I feel like the prime lenses produce sharper images, with beautiful and smooth bokeh. So pretty much my primary lenses are my 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm.

  2. Jorge

    For general purpose I would never choose a prime over the Nikon 24-70 2.8. So sharp all the way through. Primes give better bokeh if that is what you need and I rarely do. IMO 50mm primes are a waste of time but again unless you need bokeh. I think the Nikon 60mm afs-g is a far better replacement over the 50’s and are great for portrait landscape, and close up macro. While 50’s normally get great bokeh they are in no way as versatile as the 60mm and IMO the 60 is far sharper and produces nicer contrast overall. I only use my 50 for very dark situations. I find the Nikon 24-70 2.8 to be as good as the way more expensive 24mm 1.4 and more contrast over the 24mm 2.8.

    • Ryan

      I’d love to hear more about why you think a 50 is a waste of time over a 60? It can’t just be sharpness (especially since there are 50s out there that are insanely sharp). The only benefit I can think of over the 50 is that the Nikon 60mm F2.8 is a macro lens and focuses closer. But unless you are a macro shooter that really isn’t a big deal.

      Also ironically, I would use Bokeh as a strike against the Nikon 50s, not “for” them. I find that the Nikon 50s produce distracting and ugly Bokeh. (personal opinion) When I want narrow depth of field I tend to move to a longer focal length.

    • Tony

      I too own the 60mm micro and there is no comparison to any 50mm made by anyone except Leica in terms of sharpness. I’ve used quite a few primes and the only one I’ve seen come remotely close was the 85mm 1.4g. The 60mm micro is probably the most bang for your buck prime you can get IMO. It’s a true macro lens, it’s amazingly sharp, it’s reasonably fast (except at very close focus) and it’s very compact.

  3. Ryan

    Another benefit of primes that isn’t mentioned is redundancy. If you have 3 primes then accidentally drop one of them and break it you can still keep shooting, you are just a little more limited. If you only have 1 zoom and the same thing happens you can no longer shoot until it is replaced or repaired.

  4. Alan

    Zooms are very handy for shooting wildlife, where zooming with your feet can scare away your subject or get you mauled. They’re also nice for documentary/event filming when you have little to no control over your subject and might want to intercut between wide angles and closeups. Other than that, primes are usually preferable (although there are a handful of truly outstanding zoom lenses out there).

  5. Chris M

    I’ve come to the same conclusion. I had primes at 28mm 1.8, 40mm 2.8 and 50mm 1.4. Then I got the 100mm 2.8L Macro, which is also fantastic for portraits in addition to 1:1 macro. I had the 70-200mm 2.8 zoom on my wish list, but realized I could pick up a 200mm 2.8L for a third of the price and have a sharper lens. With a 2.0x teleconverter, my prime range is now 28mm to 400mm, and I couldn’t be happier. I only have one zoom, the 24-105mm 4L, which I use for casual occasions when I just want to take one lens. I shoot primarily wildlife and insects as a hobby, and couldn’t be happier with my prime setup. I picked up all of the lenses above for the same price as the 70-200mm 2.8L IS II, and have a longer, sharper range with some real low light performers.

  6. mike

    i like switching away from zooms because i find myself making way too many shots with too wide a lens… 50mm as the “wide” lens is refreshing once in a while…

  7. nicolae

    primes, primes, primes,I own only a wide zoom sigma for my crop-sensorcamera .28mm 1.8g ,50mm 1.8, 50mm 1.4 ,50mm 1.2 , 85mm 1.8g , tokina 100mm 2.8 , 180mm 2.8 , 300mm f4 and for DX 40mm 2.8, 35mm 1.8, I prefer primes

  8. Glenn

    The Canon 24-70 f/2.8L II is such an amazing lens. It stays on my camera most of the time and is as good in every focal length as my 100L macro. This lens beats the 24L, 24 TSE, 35L and 50L in terms of sharpness and makes thise lenses obsolete unless you require the shallow dof if the primes.

  9. Geir Anders

    The main reason why I love shooting with my primes when working with people and events, is the fact that I almost always end up going too wide with the zooms. If I use my 24-70, I too often find myself at 24mm – realizing too late that I am not getting close enough on my subjects.

    If I had on of my primes, it would probably force me to concentrate on the real core of the situation. Not always, of course, but often this is the case for me.

    On the other hand: When I’m shooting for clients, I have to be prepared for very quick changes and sudden moves – which means that my 24-70 is really helpful. I just have to remind myself of my little mantra: «Get a little bit closer, and remove the non-essensial from your view».

    I currently have a FF camera with 17-40, 24-70 and 70-200 zooms – as well as 28/1.8, 50/1.4 and 100/2.0 primes. When at work in the field, the 24-70 is what I use the most. When shooting personal stuff, the primes are my friends.

  10. David

    Prime lenses are completely useless in my line of work. I would need so many lenses to cover my needs it would be ridiculous. I live with my 16-35 2.8 and 70-200 2.8 and use my 24-70 2.8 maybe 10% of the time. I need a full range of focal lengths with as little lens changing and as possible for fast shooting. My 50 1.4 is my only prime and haven’t used a prime lens in probably 10 years.

  11. Pat Harris

    I’m all about the primes. Whenever I have to shoot with my zoom, I think my focus is off until I remember, oh yeah, cheap zoom, soft photos. And the price difference is just too much for me to handle at this moment, especially for f2.8. Indoors I really need that faster lens. My Sigma 30mm f1.4 lives on my camera indoors. And with the price difference, it’s actually cheaper for me to buy a 2nd camera body (and have some redundancy) and use two primes, rather than buy one super expensive zoom. I’m sure if I were made of money, I’d sing a different tune, but for right now, I’m all about the prime. Plus, primes make you really think about your compositionl

  12. Mark G

    Although I prefer shooting with prime lenses, there is a time and a place for a zoom lens. Back in ye olden days of film, especially in the days of manual focus, prime lenses were king as zooms were truly sub par. The exception was, in my opinion, the 70-210 Vivitar Series 1. I owned the 2.8 version and it was fantastic! It complemented the 24mm 2.8 and 50mm 1.8 Nikkor lenses that I used. I also had the Nikkor 35-70, but it was slow. It’s only advantage was when I traveled. Because of it’s compact size and decent range, I could pack it and my Vivitar along with my Nikon FE into a very small camera bag. It served me well when I visited Israel.

    Prime lenses are still the way to go if you can, but zoom lenses have come quite a long way, especially in the past 5 years. Also, keep in mind, there are some places where switching lenses is simply not an option, that’s where a zoom really shines. Ever visit Siesta Key Beach in Florida? The last thing you want to do is risk exposing the sensor to the beach’s fine sand.

    Also, beginners should learn to shoot with a 50mm (or 35mm for crop sensor cameras). I would go so far as to suggest shooting fully manual (focus and exposure) and turn off the LCD (or cover it). If that isn’t a way to encourage critical and creative thinking then I don’t know what is.

  13. abrianna

    Primes are good for when you can get close to subject or object. When shooting some sports, you need zoom as some places have rules about getting on the podium, floor or deck where the athletes are. Swimming, gymnastics and tennis all come to mind. That is why at Wimbledon, the professionals have the big zooms-same goes for elite swimming and gymnastics meets. Without zooms there we would never get the close ups of athletes in those sports-same thing with figure skating and ice hockey.

    Also shooting wildlife without a zoom is pointless as you can’t get close to them without scaring them or putting yourself in danger. So again it comes down to what you shoot. I do portraits, nature/landscapes still lifes, some wild life and swimming. Wildlife and swimming-zoom only. Sky shots also are usually zoom. Others it all depends on how close I can get to the landscape or nature.

    It is not one or the other-both have their place, depending on what you shoot.

  14. Alberto

    Over the last 30 years or so I have been down both roads. I used to carry two camera bodies and a few lenses. My Olympus body with the Zuiko 135 mm. gave great sharpness. But eventually you get fed up carrying all that gear. I went all the way down to a bridge camera, which I have since sold.
    It all depends on what you want to do with your camera. I enjoy landscape and also like wildlife. If you have a small fixed lens on, shooting a scene and a bird appears you can be sure that by the time you change to your 500mm. the bird will have gone. I now have a Nikon D3100 body, as it’s small and lightweight and put on a Tamron 18- 270 zoom when I’m hill walking with friends or on holiday. If I’m out alone just looking for photos I’ll take my Sigma 150- 500 as well. For the moment I find this a good compromise. Let’s be honest there is not an ideal car for every job, they all have advantages and disadvantages, be it size or cost and cameras are just the same. Like life you have to make compromises.

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