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Prime vs. Zoom lens and knowing when to use the right one

Prime vs. Zoom lens and knowing when to use the right one


As a photographer, you must have heard of these two terms called ‘Prime’ and ‘Zoom’ lenses. But, you might not have heard about their clear-cut ‘advantages’ and ‘disadvantages’ of each lens. Henceforth, it is significant to know these terms in details, which would help you in utilizing the ‘right lens’ for your photography sessions and also get the right quality image.

So, let’s quickly get on with ‘Prime Lenses’ and ‘Zoom Lenses’ with their advantages and disadvantages

To understand the prime lens and zoom lens, you need to understand the focal length first. Focal length is the distance between the lens and an image sensor when the subject in focus. In simple terms, the focal length is ‘details of the view.’ Larger focal length, you see ‘the lesser detail of the view’ and shorter focal length, ‘more the detail of the view.’ Look at the two similar images with different focal length to make it clear.

Photo by Colgent Ip
Focal length: 70mm
‘Image looking sharp and beautiful on the focused area’

This fashion portrait is effectively retouched to look beautiful and eye-catching. As a photo editing service provider, FotoFigo aids you in retouching your client’s photos with quality in and also ensuring quick delivery.

Focal length: 300mm

Fixed focal length is called a ‘prime lens’. For example, 50mm is fixed focal length. Here you cannot change into different focal lengths. In other words, you cannot zoom in or out; and, have to move front or back to get the right composition.

A lens having different focal lengths in one lens is called a ‘zoom lens’. For example, if the specification of the camera’s focal length is between 50mm - 200mm, then you can zoom in or zoom out to the specified range with a single lens in the camera. You need not change into different lenses for the composition and detail in the image. So for 50 – 200mm camera, 50mm is the standard or minimum focal length and 200mm is the maximum range of zoom. To be clear, see the images below.

Focal length: 50mm
Focal length: 100mm
Focal length: 200mm

Thus, you can zoom from 50mm to 200mm.

Most significant ‘Advantages’ of Prime lenses

  • Sharpness - Causes less distortion if you use a quality prime lens and also prevents from doing vignetting (post-processing on edges) for the images.

    Photo by EVG photos
    ‘Prime lens accumulates more light to the lens since wider apertures, more sharpness towards the focused area.’
  • Wider Aperture - Prime lenses come with maximum aperture. Thus, accumulating more light and also enabling us to utilize faster shutter speeds. Prime lenses are helpful in night event photography and also avoids camera shakes due to the utilization of faster shutter speed.

    Photo by Daniel Xavier
    Take a look at this sharp portrait. Prime lens accumulates more light since the use of wider aperture and also maintaining sharpness on the focused area. This is a prime advantage of prime lenses.
  • Reduced depth of field - If you are interested to blur off the background for concentrating only towards the focused subject then, using prime lenses are the best choice. Best for photographing a model, couple, products, and wedding portraits where it helps to make a significant point of interest only towards the specific subjects.

    Photo by Pixabay
    ‘Reduced depth of field on the unfocused areas and sharpness and quality on focused area’ Photo by Dam Tuong Quan
    ‘A beautiful portrait’

    Here prime lenses play an important role and are much better in quality than zoom lenses.

  • Good for practice though some lenses are expensive - As prime lenses have fixed focal length, you have to move either forward or backward to get the perfect picture that you intended. So, as you move around you would learn to get the good composition rather than just standing still and zooming in or out with the zoom lens.

  • A generic advantage of a prime lens is that it is lighter in weight, the price is not that expensive but some are, and finally good for learning composition.

Disadvantages of Prime lens

  • Prime lenses have fixed focal length. So, you cannot zoom in or out.

  • Switching to different focal length lenses is very expensive and maintaining multiple focal length lenses would be complex.

  • It is challenging when photographing macro, as said above there is no zoom feature available and also difficult to manage the specific subject for a perfect composition. But, in prime lens image can look sharper, reduce the depth of field, the area which is unfocused, and also accumulate more light as it has maximum aperture. So, this statement is contradictory because if you know, ‘how to composite well in fixed focal length cameras,’ then the images can look better than ever. So, some of the expert photographers love prime lens even though it is difficult to handle macro photography.

Advantages of Zoom lens

  • Can handle impossible situations - When there is no scope for moving forward for photographing, zoom lens plays a significant role. Example: While photographing the birds on the side of a river.

  • Helpful in quick-paced events - During wedding photography day, there would be limited time for photo shoots and should click in a different perspective. Changing the prime lenses of multiple perspectives would consume a lot of time; would lose important wedding moments, and also makes complexity for creating a perfect composition during a limited time. So, zoom lenses would be helpful during these situations, as you can make full use of different focal lengths for the shoots and make perfect composition within no time.

  • Some generic advantages of the zoom lens are they have ‘multiple focal lengths.’ Hence, prevents changing of lenses, the resources become much lighter as you need not carry multiple lenses.

Disadvantages of Zoom lens

  • The depth of field (sharpness) is lesser when compared to professional prime lenses.

  • You won’t get zoom lenses with widest of apertures as compared to a prime lens which has the ability to incorporate higher light into the lens that enables usage for faster shutter speeds.

  • When you zoom in to approximate level in zoom lenses, you won’t get a perfect quality image like in prime lenses. Take an example of ‘50mm – 200mm zoom lens’ and ‘200mm prime lens,’ the image looks better in default ‘prime lens’ which is of 200mm focal length than zoomed 200mm in a zoom lens.

Ultimately, usage of prime lens and zoom lens depends on particular situations. The main significance of prime lenses would be, it allows more light since widest apertures like f/1.2, f/1.8, better for low light photography, better sharpness on the point of interest than zoom lenses, and reduced depth of field in unfocused areas. Whereas, the zoom lens can be used when you want to click the photograph in different perspectives on a limited time interval like on a wedding day. Also, when in the situations where you cannot move further for photographing and want to focus and zoom in on a particular point of interest for the perfect composition, zoom lenses are used.

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