Welcome to our Minute Photography series, where we explain photography and lighting tips & tricks, myths, and techniques. For more education and details on similar concepts, be sure to check out our Photography 101 Workshop.

In just 60 seconds, we are going to explain the basic differences between prime and zoom lenses.


Simply put, prime lenses have a fixed focal length. In other words, a 50mm prime lens will only ever shoot at a focal length of 50mm (unless you’re using a crop sensor camera, which would make the focal length of a 50mm lens appear closer to an 85mm lens; even then, the focal length would remain fixed).


Zoom lenses have a varying focal length. A 24-70mm zoom lens, for example, allows photographers to shoot as wide as 24mm or zoom in as tight as 70mm, all while shooting from the same location.

[REWIND: Why The Camera Adds 10 Pounds]

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Let’s consider the strengths and weaknesses of prime and zoom lenses.


Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 35mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, 1/200, ISO 50

Because prime lenses don’t require moving optical parts, for the same or even less money, you can generally get lenses that provide better image quality. That’s not to say that zoom lenses¬†do not or cannot yield high-quality images, but prime lenses can typically open up to wider apertures, yielding more pleasing bokeh aesthetics and the separation between the background and subjects.


A Canon 24-70mm lens, with an aperture of f/2.8, costs nearly $2000 (depending on where you buy it, applicable taxes, etc.). The $400 version of the 50mm prime lens, however, can open up two extra stops to an aperture of f/1.4, and it only costs a fraction of the price of the zoom lens. On the other hand, for the money you spend, zoom lenses offer more focal lengths.


Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 35mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, 1/200, ISO 50

With wider apertures that offer extra stops of light, prime lenses also work better in low-light situations. However, what you gain in quality and low-light performance, you lose in versatility, which brings us to our next point.


Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 at f/2.8, 1/160, ISO 3200

Zoom lenses are going to be more flexible than prime lenses in situations where you just don’t have the time or space to move or switch lenses. For example, whereas a shooter on a 50mm prime lens would have to physically move away from a subject to capture a wider angle of the scene, a shooter on a 24-70mm zoom lens would be able to quickly zoom the lens out for a wider angle shot without having to relocate. In certain situations, such as a bridal recessional, versatility like this is key. Space is tight, the action is fast, and you don’t want to miss a moment.

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Stay tuned for more simple & effective photography tips & tricks in our Minute Photography series! And for more of the best education in photography, from mastering manual mode to lighting and posing your subjects, check out SLR Lounge Premium.