Lenses: Prime vs. Zoom

by William Lulow

I guess I can add my name to the list of photographers who prefer prime lenses to zoom lenses. Even though the zooms are convenient, I have found them generally less sharp over the years. The other thing is that primes tend to make you think more about composition and which lenses you will carry with you for a specific job. In this world of instant digital satisfaction, we need to think more about the kinds of images we make rather than just snap away.

In the days of traditional film photography, some wise old sage told me to slow my shooting down. Use my view camera more often. I remember having to set up the tripod, mount the camera, load film holders, etc. There were no zoom lenses for large format photography, so you had to decide from the beginning, what you wanted to include in the shot. The zoom lens enables one to crop in the camera, a helpful tool, but one that often supplants the thinking process.

A good wide-angle prime lens will take in most of a scene and with digital processing, one can then crop and correct the image to obtain a certain result.

A fixed focal length telephoto lens will get you close enough to your subject to fill the frame. But the added benefit of working with this type of lens is that you get used to what it can do quickly. You become more aware of the field of view, the limitations of hand holding it and the nuances of thinking about a single type of image in your head rather than later in post production.

Each prime lens is used for a specific purpose. The telephotos are used to compress distance and to bring objects closer. The normals are used to capture a scene as the eye would see it. The wide angles are used to include more of a scene or for some visual effect like distortion. (Especially with the super-wides or fisheye lenses).

Canon 24mm f_1.4Canon 50mm f_1.2 Canon 200mm f_2.8

So, the real difference is that for those who really haven’t decided exactly what type of image to make, the zooms are convenient. For those who are able to put more thought into the photographic process, the primes are best.