This is a really hot topic with photographers. It’s almost on the rank of Canon Vs. Nikon. Almost.There are a lot of Pro’s and Con’s to both lens types, so let’s take a look!
First, maybe you’re new to the lens scene and haven’t ever heard the term “prime lens” before. Well the official definition is: A lens of fixed focal length. What this means is that you can’t zoom in or out or, as photographers say, you have to zoom with your feet.
You might be thinking something along the lines of, “Why would I ever want that?” So hear me out. Prime lenses are some of the most beloved ones out there. Why? Because of the quality. The more moving parts inside a lens will lower the quality of the final image, so choosing a lens that has no zoom option will render a sharper, cleaner image. Prime lenses also typically have wider aperture capabilities for that nice, soft focus that can make a photograph look so nice and that can be ideal for low-light photography.
On the downside, they can range from decently cheap to extremely expensive. Nearly all prime lenses have a wider aperture than zoom lenses, but if you want one with the widest aperture, that’s where the price tag comes in.
For example, a Canon 50mm prime lens with an aperture of f/1.8 sells for only $90. If you get a slightly wider aperture on the same lens for f/1.4, that will increase the price to $330. There is a third option with the largest aperture of f/1.2; that lens retails for $1,450. That last one is also in Canon’s L-Series, which is one of the best on the market. It really is that bump in the aperture and quality that increases the price significantly. Depending on what you do, maybe it’s worth it, maybe it isn’t.
Now the other downside is that sometimes you can’t use the lens you want. If you’re in a cramped space and you want to use a nice 85mm prime lens for a portrait shoot…well that’s too bad, because you can’t zoom out (as a portrait photographer I wouldn’t want to go much lower than 85mm for this genre but this is just an example). This means that you’ll take extra time changing lenses.
These are the ones where, surprise surprise, you can zoom in and out. These are the most common lenses you’ll see around. They can be big, they look impressive, and they’re more versatile. The typical ones are in the medium price range of a few hundred dollars.
Sticking with that Canon example, if you do NOT go for an L-Series lens, you’ll almost always stay under $1000. My personal favorite zoom lens, a Canon L-Series 24-105mm lens retails for $999.99
As far as aperture is concerned, these lenses won’t go as wide as prime lenses. More expensive lenses will give you something a little better, such as f/2.8. However, because they zoom, that aperture will rarely be supported the whole way through. Something you’ll see very commonly is the aperture listed as f/3.5-5.6mm. What this means is that when it’s zoomed all the way out, the aperture can be set to f/3.5, but as you zooom further is, it will automatically set itself smaller, all the way up to f/5.6
Now, these lenses are also more versatile. You wouldn’t usually shoot landscape with an 85mm prime lens, and you would never shoot portraits with a 30mm lens. But if you have a zoom lens of 24-105, that makes it great for both! You can zoom out to the wide-angle setting for things like landscape and then zoom in to that nice, tight setting for great portraits. That’s basically like having multiple lenses in one! Sounds great, right? There’s still a trade-off.
Zoom lenses will typically have a lower quality. This is for the same reason prime lenses have a higher quality: the moving parts. Zoom lenses have more of them, which will lead to a lower quality image. That’s not to say these will have bad quality by any means, or photographers would never use them! A lot of other features come into play when it comes to quality, like the quality of the glass or the quality of the camera, to name just a couple.
Those are the main differences between the two kinds of lenses. Personally, I use both kinds.
My big caution is to watch out for quality. I’m not going to bad-mouth companies as a whole, but I used to have a zoom lens from Tamron. I bought it when I was 18, shortly after I started studying photography in college, because it was cheap and could fit in my college student budget. That was a really bad decision on my part. I liked the fact that is had a macro feature, but after using a comparable lens from Canon, the quality was night and day. So sometimes it’s nice to buy a lot of lenses because of cheap prices, but be careful that you’re not sacrificing image quality for that low cost.
That’s all I have on the subject, but if you think I’ve forgotten something or have something to add, feel free to add a comment or send me an email!