Prime Vs Zoom Lens: Which is better?

I’m sure you’ve heard the word zoom and prime being thrown around from time to time in the photography world.  More importantly, how one is better than the other or how you should always use one over the other.

Well, you’ve come to the right spot.  We’re going to eliminate all of the confusion.  We’re not only going to ask the age old question, what’s better: a prime or a zoom - we’re going to give you real world examples of how one could be better than the other.

So stick around and keep reading.  I’m more than certain you’ll learn a thing or two and you might even be surprised at what you hear (or read haha).

Without further ado, let’s get started.

The biggest difference (fixed vs zoom)

The biggest and most obvious difference between a prime and a zoom lens lies in their focal range.

A prime lens has a fixed focal length.  This means if you purchase a 50mm prime, your focal length is 50mm.  No more, no less. Prime lenses can range from 9mm to thousands of mm in focal length, but again, they do not change.  This would mean if you wanted a 24mm focal length for a wider landscape shot, you would have to physically change the lens to a 24mm (or a lens that’s capable of 24mm).

A zoom lens on the other hand is able to zoom in and out.  For example, a common zoom lens used by most professionals is a 24-70mm .  This means you’re able to zoom in from 24mm to 70mm and back.  This adds a lot of versatility to a single lens.  The most obvious advantage to a zoom is the ability to hit multiple focal lengths without having to change the lens.

So you may be asking yourself at this point - why do so many photographers rave about their prime lenses and how some even collect them?  Well, the answer may be obvious, but may surprise you as well.  Keep reading!

A major (almost) hidden difference: Aperture

Prime Vs Zoom Lens

Believe it or not, the most significant difference for seasoned photography professionals is aperture.

We will pull out a prime lens over a zoom if:

1. We know the focal length that we want is within the prime range that we are currently carrying with us.
2. If the aperture we desire is better achieved on a prime lens.

For example, we know that we want an 85mm focal length for a portrait shot we are taking in the field.  We have two lenses in our bag that will meet the 85mm requirement.  Both of these lenses are:

85mm f/1.8 (prime)
70-200mm f/4 (zoom)

Both of these lenses will hit 85mm, but one of them allows for lower aperture.  As we already know, lower aperture allows for more light and a greater bokeh effect.  We pull out the prime, attach it to our camera, set to f/1.8, and begin firing.  Taking amazing photos along the way.

That is the major underlying difference, aperture.  You will not find a zoom lens that stops down past f/2.8 (there are a few such as the sigma 18-35mm).  And while this may not seem like that much of a difference, it really can be.  Bokeh and depth of field are greatly affected as well as low light performance.

This is something you  really should keep in mind when thinking whether you need or should be shooting on a prime.

I personally have 3 primes in my bag - these include:

Zeiss 55mm f1.8
Sony 85mm f/1.8
Laowa 100mm f/2.8 Macro

I one day hope to own both the Sony 100mm f2.8 STF (for buttery smooth bokeh) and the 135mm f/1.8 GM.

Sharpness is also a big difference between the two types

As you may expect, image quality is affected when adding more elements to a lens.  There are more moving parts and just more “stuff” in the lens.  This will obviously affect image quality.

For the most part, zoom lenses are not as sharp as their prime counterparts.  Edge-to-edge sharpness is greatly affected.  You may not notice much of a difference in the center of either lens when comparing the two - but when looking at the corners, you’ll most certainly notice a difference.

Vignetting is also a by-product of zoom lenses over a prime.  But you’ll notice vignetting across any lens when you open the aperture wide open and start stopping down (this is why I didn’t make vignetting its own section within this article).  You can fix vignetting very easily within any photo editing software as well.

Creative differences between the types of lenses

Now that you understand the technical differences, you should also understand how it’ll be different while out in the field.

The major difference is how you’re going to use either of them.  Focusing more on the prime side of things, you obviously will not be able to zoom.

While you think this may hinder your ability to take the photos you want - what this is actually going to do is make you move.  You’ll be backing up, moving forward, left and right.  You’ll almost be dancing (haha).  But this is a good thing!  Because while you’re moving, you’re seeing angles and different shots that you have never seen had you just used a zoom.  Trust me.

There are more times than not that I have taken a shot with a prime that I would have never taken with a zoom at the same focal length.  Many of these shots would include crouching or shots closer to the ground.  This comes from seeing those shots as I was setting up others.

Now with zooms, you will get shots that you wouldn’t be able to with a prime.  Let’s take a 24-70mm zoom for example.  If you are in a tight location where you can put enough room between yourself and the subject at let's say 85mm, you would benefit greatly by having a 24-70mm zoom.  You could zoom out and take photos across all of those focal lengths.

So, as you can tell, there are a few creative differences between the two that you should consider before purchasing or using on out in the field.

Should I use a prime or zoom lens for travel?

Prime Vs Zoom Lens

This is a very common question asked by many beginner to intermediate photographers.  The answer always comes down to versatility.

You’ll want a lens you’ll be able to span across multiple focal lengths without having to take the time to switch the actual lens.  Think of yourself as almost “running and gunning” while shooting travel photography.

A zoom lens would obviously benefit you the most in those situations.

I highly recommend a 24-105mm lens for travel photography.  You get the wide angle of 24mm and the ability to zoom in quite a bit to 105mm (or even a higher equivalent on an APS-C camera).

What about a prime or zoom lens for landscape photography?

Prime Vs Zoom Lens

This question isn’t as common, but I do see it from time to time.  You’ll want to be versatile as well in this genre of photography, but with a wider focal length.

A 16-35mm is the perfect focal length for a full frame camera while 11-20mm is great for an APS-C camera.

You’ll want those wider angles to capture as much of the landscape as possible while being versatile enough to find toon your framing (with zoom).

FAQ: prime vs zoom lenses

Are prime lenses better than zoom lenses?

The simple answer is no.  Neither are better than the other when looking at the bigger picture.

Either type of lenses have their strengths and weaknesses.  Primes are able to achieve much lower apertures with better depth of field and better edge to edge sharpness.  While zooms are more versatile and are better for a large range of applications.

It’s not that one or the other is better - it’s more about how either one of them would benefit you in the situation you’re in.

Can prime lenses zoom?  

No.  Prime lenses are fixed focal length lenses.  You would have to physically move your body to get closer or further away from your subject (mimicking zoom).

Are prime lenses worth it?

Absolutely!  There is a kind of look that you’ll get from a prime that you just don’t get from a zoom.  You also benefit from its lower aperture and greater depth of field.  I highly recommend at least trying them out before you discredit them!!

You now have a better understanding of prime vs zoom lenses!

I’m glad you finished reading the entire article!  You now have a better understanding of the difference between prime and zoom lenses and how either of them could benefit you and your situation!

Feel free to check out my other articles on camera lenses and how each of them could benefit you as well!

As always, thank you so much for reading!  

Until next time, keep shooting and creating!

I have been taking photos and film since I was a child. Now that I'm in my mid 30's, I want to share with the world what I have learned over the years. I attempt to live every day to the fullest and share that with you through my blog. I am an electrician by trade and photo and video lie within the "hobby" aspect of my life at the moment. It's what I'm truly passionate about.
Back To Top