The Two Types of Lenses: Prime and Zoom
All lenses can be put into one of two categories, prime and zoom. Prime lenses (35mm, 50mm) have a fixed focal length and you change your composition by physically walking towards or away from your subject. Zoom lenses (Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II, Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II) can change their focal length inside the lens, so you can get closer to your subject without physically moving. I’m going to explain the strengths and limitations of both prime and zoom lenses in the video and article below.
What’s The Difference Between a Prime Lens and a Zoom Lens?
There are a lot of things to consider when choosing a zoom or prime lens.
Why Choose Prime Lenses?
- Better Quality Glass – A good prime lens generally gets you sharper images and faster glass. Faster glass means a better aperture range which allows you more room to shoot in lower light.
- Size and Weight – With less moving parts and simpler construction, prime lenses are significantly smaller and lighter than a zoom lens.
- Price – There are some excellent prime lenses that are very affordable. Canon their Canon 50mm f/1.8 that is well known in the industry as a great value lens for only $100.
- Purpose – Depending on what you shoot and how you shoot, you might only need specific focal lengths which naturally would amount to spending less.
Why Choose Zoom Lenses?
- Variety & Range – As a wedding photographer, I knew that I needed a wide array of focal lengths. By purchasing three lenses (Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L), I was well covered for everything I would need to shoot a wedding.
- Convenience & Speed – Not only is zooming in and out very convenient and easy, it’s also much faster than having to change lenses between shots. Changing lenses brings with it some hazards like exposing the sensor to dust and the possibility of dropping the lens during the process.
- Quality – Today’s market offers great quality in zoom lens options with fast glass and reliable sharpness and in some cases they come with image stabilization functions.
Which Lenses Do I Use?
Having started out as a wedding photographer, I wanted to make sure that I had the full range of focal lengths I would need. I started with the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L Mark I and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L and later added the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II to round out my collection. It was about a $6,000 investment, but I loved the convenience and quality that these three lenses offered. To buy prime lenses to cover an equivalent range, I might have gotten away with spending half that amount, but I would be carrying more gear and changing lenses more frequently. As I got into portraiture, I refined my collection by adding primes which I use selectively based on the shoot I’m doing. My favorite portrait lenses are my Canon 50mm f/1.2, Canon 85mm f/1.2 and Canon 135mm.
The pros and cons for each lens type boils down to image quality, weight, size, convenience, price and preference. Don’t feel compelled to choose one method or the other. Take your time rounding out your collection. Lenses are a longer term investment than camera bodies, so be sure to understand what you shoot, what lenses you need and why you need them. It’s always a good idea to borrow or rent a lens (a few times) before committing to a purchase.
To get more information on Canon lenses, check out our SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars Series, the ultimate visual guide to real world differences between a whole host of Canon professional zoom lenses and primes.