I know. There are hundreds of articles out there on this subject already. Here’s the thing: most of those pieces simply spell out the pros and cons of zoom and prime lenses, then tell you that which one you choose depends on what you’re going to use them for. They never really answer the question as to which is the better choice.
I’m going to take a different approach here…
While I’ll concede that how you use your lenses does make a difference, I’m going to take a different approach here and tell you why I have a definite preference. I know that many readers won’t agree, and that’s okay. I’m simply sharing my opinion, based on what’s important to me, with an emphasis on one difference I believe most comparative articles don’t consider.
The Zoom Advantage
So, this isn’t rocket science. The obvious advantage to shooting with a zoom lens is that they cover a wide range of focal lengths. That one feature impacts you, the photographer, in several ways:
- You don’t have to move around as much to frame a shot.
- You can use the same lens for different genres.
- You don’t have to switch lenses as often.
- You can carry less gear.
I could go on all day, but let’s not get carried away. There are many, very good reasons why some photographers prefer variable focal length lenses. Some will tell you that their genre depends on them. Sports and wedding photographers are two that come to mind immediately. Many landscape shooters, too, prefer the ability to frame different shots from the same point of view. In my opinion, however, there’s a point missing in these arguments and I’ll get to it in a while.
Again, this is no mystery. Prime lenses have a few obvious advantages and although I know I don’t need to list them all, bear with me while I name a few:
- Less weight (so you can carry more gear)
- Fewer moving parts
- Less tendency to “drift”
- Less susceptibility to vibration
- Less chance of misalignment of elements (“slop”)
- Wider, constant apertures (faster)
- Better optical quality/price ratio
Please note that I was fair on that last point; fixed focal length lenses aren’t necessarily less expensive. Kit zooms are among the cheapest on the market. Unfortunately, few have the optical quality of even a modestly-priced prime lens. It’s a simple matter of manufacturing costs – it takes more time and more expensive materials to create a high-quality zoom lens.
The Missing Link
The deciding factor for me is, in a word, engagement.
If you haven’t already figured it out, my preferences align more toward prime lenses. What may surprise some readers, though, is that the most important factor to me isn’t in either of the lists above. Yes, those differences are important, but there’s something that matters more.
The deciding factor for me is, in a word, engagement. By shooting with a fixed focal length, I find myself more involved in the creative process. That’s because some of those advantages of a zoom lens actually disengage me in some ways.
For instance, if I want to get closer to a portrait subject with a prime lens, I need to physically get closer to the subject. On the street, during an event or even in the studio, this can create a connection with the subject I don’t have by taking a more “covert” approach with a zoom lens. Even with a longer prime, I’ve got to work my way in and out of the crowd to get the framing I want and that involvement with the environment heightens my awareness of the setting. That’s not to mention that the crowd is more aware of me and more involved, too.
I put myself in the right place for the shot.
Photographing nature is much the same, in that by physically changing my position to get the shot, I’m more aware of my surroundings. This immerses me more in the emotional aspect of the moment and also provides me with opportunities for shots I might have otherwise missed. When I’m shooting landscapes or starscapes, the Irix 15mm is the lens that’s on my camera.* I put myself in the right place for the shot.
For wildlife, birds, sports and moon photos, something longer is obviously called for and I like the 500mm focal length, because I can hand-hold it when necessary and it has enough reach, especially if I do a little stalking (engagement again). For more skittish subjects an extender will get me out there, but I’m still going to need to work enough to get the framing I want and that makes it more fun and challenging.
Feel Free to Disagree
Let me reiterate that I know many readers will have different opinions on this subject. I just thought it might be a welcome change for some to hear something other than “it depends.” I also thought it might be interesting to tell you why I like shooting with primes. For me, getting the right image is much more rewarding if I’m more involved in the process.
By the way, I’m not a purist. I still have and use my 18-55mm and 75-300mm kit lenses, but the telephoto almost never moves off of 300mm and the shorter lens usually stays at 50mm or 35mm. Call me old-school; it’s just a more complete experience for me.
Discussion is welcome here, so don’t hesitate to leave me a comment, even if you disagree. Please keep it family-friendly and be polite!
*This may change when I can get my hands on the Irix11mm.