Many people asked me one of the oldest questions in Modern Era Photography : is it better to shoot with primes or with zooms? Here are my thoughts about this topic and I remember I have asked this question myself many times. I had strong debates with friends and this topic invited me to search the web, looking for a clear answer. I needed the expertise of professionals, to see what are the pros and cons when working on site with different type of lenses.
After I have slowly built my limited experience as a photographer (especially Landscape and Travel), I have felt on my own skin the pros and cons of using both prime and zoom lenses. Of course I have started with a kit lens, my first zoom being EF-S 17-85mm IS USM on a Canon 60D and my first prime was the famous EF 50mm F1.8 II plastic-fantastic lens. As a beginner, I loved the Canon EF zoom more, but the IQ from the nifty-fifty was way better.
Afterwards I wanted to expand my focal ranges and add more flexibility to my travel photo bag, so I bought the older version of Canon EF 24mm F2.8 (the one without IS) and the newest version from Tamron, the SP 70-300mm USD with VC (Vibration Compensation – their acronym for image stabilization). I loved them both, especially the 24mm prime – this focal length was more useful for me than the zoom from Tamron, which was occasionally used, even though the image stabilization was a great pro point for me at that time.
Later, the EF-S 17-85mm was sold and a newcomer took its place in my bag : the great Samyang 8mm F3.5 fish-eye prime lens. I loved this lens for its extreme field of view, great colors and contrast, superb resistance to flare and adequately sharpness. And that was pretty much my DSLR past – 2 zooms and 3 primes on Canon EF mount.
Now, getting back to the main topic, I will let you know my impressions I have gathered while shooting on the field. And I have heard so many times that shooting with zooms will get you lazy, this being the area most beginners prefer, while using prime lenses will give you the “expert” label so many people look to get it. We are all different and our needs and skills are very different. This is why I don’t agree with this harsh separation into those two categories (prime shooters and zoom shooters), especially when describing them and their skill levels in photography. So this is what I personally think about all this.
Zoom Lenses are good for me for their :
1. Focal length range. A zoom lens gives me the flexibility to compose my frames at the ideal focal length I need, for a specific moment. I don’t need to move my feet to get the optimal framing, I just rotate the zoom ring and frame my shot subsequently. Sometimes I don’t have the possibility to move (standing on a cliff, being in the middle of a crowd, or when shooting in tight spaces like on a small street or inside a church). Zooming is like virtually moving myself to the best spot. I gain speed and control and I decrease my chances of missing the prefect framed shot.
2. All in one concept. A good zoom lens will replace (sometimes) at least 2 prime lenses, so this could mean saving money, saving space in my photo bag, traveling lighter with less lenses (one or maximum two zoom lenses, when traveling, can do all the work you need, while being comfortable). Changing lenses means : dust exposure to the sensor in your camera and the chance to miss unrepeatable moments, because you were busy changing lenses.
Zoom Lenses are not so good for me when :
1. I need to travel really light and I feel that a small prime lens (maximum 2) could do the work for me as well.
2. I need to be as unobtrusive as possible, really blend into the crowd, not wanting to intimidate the people with my cannon-like zoom, ready to launch psychologically disturbing projectiles.
3. I need the best IQ performance in low light conditions (shooting inside a bar, church, museum or a house, while at a live performance, concert, out on the street during evening and even at night). This means lower ISO settings, faster shutter speeds and the chance to actually get the picture right, when shooting hand-held. For this, you need a fast lens and the prime lenses are faster that zoom lenses. The faster, the better (most of the times), so for me “fast” means the possibility to start from F2.0 and going faster, like F1.4 and even F1.2
Prime Lenses are good for me for their :
1. Great IQ (image quality). When image quality comes as your first priority, you need a very good fixed lens. The prime lens has a much simpler construction. Their optical elements are designed to work for a single focal length and they will deliver the best possible results, outperforming the IQ from a zoom. I mean sharpness, contrast, colour rendition, chromatic aberrations and bokeh.
2. Bokeh. This comes hand in hand with fast apertures (and focal length, too). When working with apertures like F2.0, F1.4 and even F1.2 like this one, you get the subject separation you have dreamed about. Perfect for portraits, especially.
3. Low Light. A fast lens means, of course, the best IQ when you need to photograph in low light situations. You can get a decent shot (or your best shot), photographing hand-held using lenses with fast apertures.
4. Smaller, lighter. A prime lens (well, up until the 100 mm focal length limit, to approximate a little) is normally smaller and lighter that its equivalent zoom lens. If you need to travel light, then one, maximum two prime lenses are all you need to get the job well done. Not getting that kind of “look, the camera guy!” attention could serve you well in many situations. A mirrorless camera with a good prime lens could be all you want. Using my Fujifilm X100S with a 23mm f2.0 fixed lens offers me the chance to capture high IQ images, without carrying heavy gear. The 23mm on APS-C sensor will give me the 35mm field of view in Full-Frame terms. More about this camera you can find here, in my small and humble Fujifilm X100S Review.
5. Creativity. This is considered a very subjective aspect. A prime lens will limit your physical conditions of getting the best shot, in terms of appropriate distance to your subject. But I have discovered that “zooming”with my feet (when this is possible and it is, most of the times) forces me to think, re-think my composition. Being out from my comfort zone while using a zoom, I compose my shot not only getting closer or stepping back from my subject, but also moving sideways, leaning, making all those physical adjustments to get my ideal photograph. When you deal with technical limitations, you must compensate with creativity, let your imagination flow. And think more. The best way for me to grow-up as a photographer, in terms of quality and creativity is when I feel a constant pressure of technical limitations. Shooting with only a prime lens, for a while, until you see the world in 35mm, 24mm or 50mm, may be the best thing could ever happen to you, as a growing photographer. My favorite focal length, if I am forced to have only one prime lens, is the 35mm. And for that, I have a small and magic tool : Fujifilm X100S.
Prime Lenses are not so good for me when I really need all the powers of a good zoom lenses, when I travel a lot and I would like to limit my dust exposure to the sensor and I surely have to be ready to get the shot from every position.
If you ask me which type of lens I prefer, it is very difficult to answer you. I could say Prime Lenses, because I am obsessed with image quality and for IQ, I prefer to work more, think more, carry more in my bag. Of course my budget limitations really dictate what I actually use and carry in my bag.
I am a Fujifilm enthusiast and I really enjoyed working with two of their firstly launched prime lenses in the X range : XF 18mm F2.0, very light, (so small for an impressive F2.0 aperture), quick AF and XF 35mm f1.4, razor-sharp and fantastic colours and bokeh from a nice F1.4 aperture.
UPDATE: The XF 56mm F1.2 has found its place on my Fujifilm X-T1 and the F1.2 aperture is simply amazing, both for portraits and in low light conditions. Together with the XF 35mm F1.4, they make a great prime lens kit.
Having the amazing pro-grade XF 16-55mm F2.8 zoom lens and the very good XF 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 OIS means that working again with zoom lenses could be a real pleasure, while getting the IQ I loved.
As a conclusion, those are the lenses I owned/own and they helped me a lot in my growing process:
Primes, in their acquisition order :
1. Canon EF 50mm F1.8 II
2. Canon EF 24mm f2.8
3. Samyang 8mm F3.5 fish-eye
4. Fujinon XF 18mm F2.0
5. Hoya 35mm F2.8 M42 Mount – Manual Focus
6. Helios 58mm F2.0 M42 Mount – Manual Focus
7. Fujinon XF 35mm F1.4
8. Pentacon Auto 135mm F2.8 M42 Mount – Manual Focus
9. Fujinon 23mm f2.0 fixed on Fujifilm X100S
10. Fujinon XF 56mm F1.2
And I dream about :
1. Fujinon XF 16mm F1.4 or XF 14mm F2.8
2. Fujinon XF 90mm f2.0
Zooms, in their acquisition order :
1. Canon EF-S 17-85mm F4.0-5.6 IS USM
2. Tamron SP 70-300mm F4.0-5.6 Di VC USD
3. Fujinon XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR
4. Fujinon XF 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 OIS
And I dream about :
XF 50-140mm F2.8 OIS WR
It is a very difficult task to draw a straight line between primes and zooms. They are tools, they come in different qualities and prices and each one of us has specific needs (and different budgets, too). I enjoyed so much working with prime lenses, they have a certain charm (especially the old legacy manual focus lenses, but more on that in a future article), but I have discovered that Fuji can make great zoom lenses that really replaces primes, in terms of IQ. My XF 16-55mm F2.8 WR replaces my need for 18mm, 23mm, 35mm XF lenses and the 58mm F2.0 Manual Focus lens that I own now. My XF 55-200mm F3.5-4.8 OIS has better IQ than my 58mm F2.0 and 135mm F2.8 Manual Focus lenses that I own now.
Since I have made my switch from the DSLR area to Mirrorless area, Fujifilm, to be more precise, I have learned many interesting things, but I will end my article, mentioning two of them : 1. Fujifilm gave me back the joy and comfort while photographing with zoom lenses, thanks to their wonderful IQ, build quality and aperture ring on each lens. 2. Fujifilm showed me that my crucial need to move from APS-C area to Full Frame area (when still owning a DSLR), in order to increase the IQ or quality of bokeh is over. I am very comfortable with this APS-C X-Trans, no anti-aliasing filter and I have so much to learn in photography, it will be quite a while until the day I will feel my creativity is crushed by the absence of a Full Frame sensor.
All photos and text – © Sebastian Boatca 2015 / www.sebastianboatca.com