Prime lenses vs zoom lenses: All you need to know

All lenses can be broadly sub-divided into two major categories – primes and zooms. Prime lenses are those which have a single focal length (focal range refers to the zooming range). You will find these lenses marked with the acronym 50mm or 85mm or even 200mm. Zooms on the other hand have a variable focal length. You can switch between its focal length ranges by turning the zoom ring. Such lenses would be marked as such 18-55mm, 70-300mm or 18-200mm. For obvious reasons prime lenses don’t have a zoom ring on them.

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1. Advantage of prime lenses: Quality of image

You will hear a lot of good things about the image quality of prime lenses. Prime lenses tend to have less moving parts inside and less complicated mechanism resulting in a higher quality of images. There is no zoom ring, which means there is no zooming ring. Manufacturers can thus focus their energy in making the quality of the images tack sharp. 

You are likely to notice a significant drop in quality for wide angle zoom lenses at the widest focal length. Wide angle lenses suffer from what is known as barrel distortion. Images are skewed towards the corners and the center appears bloated. Vertical lines appear curved. Wide zooms suffer from this problem more than wide primes.

Longer focal length lenses, on the other hand, suffer from pincushion distortion. Here again zooms suffer more compared to primes. As a matter of fact prime telephoto lenses such as 135mm f/2 D made by Nikon or the 400mm primes made by both Nikon and Canon are widely acclaimed to be the best in the business.

 

Weight and bulk

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Since prime lenses do not have a lot of moving parts inside, their overall bulk and weight tend to be less than zooms. There are, however, some exceptions. Some fixed focal length lenses like the Nikon 135mm f/2 D mentioned above tend to be heavier than the comparable zoom lenses. Just to make my point here, the prime lens mentioned above weighs around 800 grams and the comparable Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED zoom lens weighs only 490 grams. And this is primarily due to the lens construction. Aimed at professional photographers thus includes metal in its construction to resist heavy usage unlike the plastic material that characterizes the entry level lenses.

Faster maximum aperture

Primes have a faster maximum aperture (e.g. f1.4, f2.8, f4…) compared to zoom lenses of the same focal length range. Let’s say we compare an 18-55mm kit lens with a 50mm prime. The kit lens has a maximum aperture range of f/3.5 – 5.6. The prime, on the other hand, depending on the brand and the version, will have at least f/1.8 maximum aperture. In low light situations that extra stop or two of light can be extremely handy. Zoom lenses like the one I mentioned above would only open up to its widest aperture (f3.5 in this case) when at its shortest focal length. When you zoom in, maximum aperture drops down to f/5.6.

Cheaper price

Prime lenses can be cheaper than zoom lenses. This is a significant advantage for amateur photographers. Especially when you consider that the image quality of these lens are top notch too.

Disadvantages of prime lenses

With Prime lenses the most obvious disadvantage is the lack of zooming ability. If you need to zoom you will have to do that using your feet. Plus, for a single focal length range you will need to buy at least two prime lenses. You will also have to change lenses quite a lot when shooting.

Advantages of zoom lenses: Convenience 

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As you would come to expect, many of the disadvantages of prime lenses becomes advantages for zooms. Let’s first start with the convenience factor. The fact that a single zoom lens can often cover the focal length for two or even three primes, it gives you an incredible advantage when shooting. For travel photography when you are on vacation, you can carry a single lens to cover everything you need. This means you can stay within the international carry-on baggage limit and still packing your favorite photography gear. And you still have room for your other indulgences.

Disadvantages of zoom lenses

Weight is a factor that works against zoom lenses. But not always as has been described above already. Image quality is another factor. Then again there are plenty of good quality zoom less which produce excellent images. The Canon 200-400mm lens is one of the best in its class and is frequently used by bird, wildlife and sports photographers.

Over all the debate prime vs zooms is more dependent on personal preference, budget and style of shooting. What one photographer prefers may not be the natural choice for another.

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Why wide angle lenses, are they better suited for landscape photography?

Wide angle lenses, have often been referred to as the landscape photographer’s lens. There are a number of reasons for that compliment. Landscape photography requires that your lens offers a wide angle of view. It also requires greater depth of field (DOF) and a sharper image quality. All of these are native to wide angle lenses. But the usability of the very popular wide angle lens goes much beyond landscape photography. In this article we shall discuss the many uses of such a lens, including shooting landscape photos. But first what is a wide angle lens?

Wide angle lenses: A definition

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Technically, any lens that has a focal length (zoom vs prime) of less than 50mm is considered a wide angle. A 50mm lens is widely considered to be a standard lens because it gives the same perspective as the human eye. There is some debate in this. Some photographers say it is 40mm, others put the 42mm as the standard view. Anyways, serious wide angle starts at 35mm and wider. Anything around or under 16mm falls in the ultra wide-angle category.

Wide Angle lenses: primes vs zooms

I have already discussed in detail about prime and zoom lenses in another article (zoom vs prime). Prime lenses are designed with focus on optical performance. Zoom lenses are more convenient because they allow you to switch focal length and therefore angle of view, just by a turn of the zoom ring. This comes useful when you’re in a situation with limited space to physically move. However, these lenses can sometime cut corners on optical performance slightly lowering its quality compared to primes. Having said that there are a number of notable exceptions. The optically superior 24-70mm f2.8 (made by all lens manufacturers) is a case in point.

Wide angle lenses are available in both prime and zoom varieties. They both have their pros and cons. You can read more about prime vs zoom lenses here. Personally, when it comes to wide angle lenses, I prefer the zoom variety. This is of course when I am not shooting with the 35mm prime. The 35mm prime is a journalist’s choice – sharp, lightning quick, lightweight and cheap. Everything that I expect from a wide angle.

At the end of the day there is no one lens that will suit all photographers or for that matter all situations. The wide angle lens that you end up shooting with will depend on what you are shooting, your pocket and of course your vision.

 

Wide angle lenses: best uses

 

1.     Include foreground interest

The biggest mistake that a landscape or architecture photographer does when shooting with a wide angle lens is they forget to put something in the foreground. Placing something in the foreground is not only for complying with the rule of thirds, but also to provide a sense of scale in the photo. Wide angles tend to make distant objects from your lens appear smaller than they really are.

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Let’s say you are shooting Machu Pichu in Peru from the opposite mountain. The picture is grand, however, with absolutely nothing to refer to in the picture the viewer has no way to sense the scale of the place. Placing a person in your immediate foreground, say turned away from the camera and shooting over his shoulder can immediately give perspective and scale to the image.

2.     Get close! Get close! Get closer!

You will hear photographers who shoot with wide angle lenses advice this to you all the time. Get close. But why? This is because wide angle lenses tend to push everything back. That’s the nature of these lenses. Unless you step in close your subject will become a tiny spec in the vast emptiness.

The other advantage of getting close is so that you get to fill the frame with the subject you are photographing. Filling the frame is a much better way of composing your shots rather then leaving vast open spaces. 

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Say, you are photographing the Blue Mosque with a 14-24mm ultra-wide angle lens. Even though the mosque is pretty big, you will find empty spaces around it when looking through the viewfinder. You have to get very close to the actual building to be able to fill the frame.

3.     Follow the fundamental composition guidelines

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Certain golden rules of photography like leading lines, rule of thirds, point of interest, lines and diagonals, patterns etc. work super great when working with wide angle lenses. Landscape photographer prefer working from a low angle, keeping a subject in the foreground and a point of interest as already been discussed above.

4.     Specific uses of wide angle lenses

Wide angle lenses most often are used by photojournalists and street photographers. This is of course apart from landscape and architecture photographers. A very popular lens with the first two genres is the 35mm prime. Quite often it is pitted against the 50mm, which is yet another wonderful lens to shoot with (though not a wide angle lens technically). Landscape photographers prefer the slightly wider perspective such as the above mentioned 14-24mm lens. This lens is very sharp. Wide angle lenses create better depth of field when compared to tele lenses. Architecture photographers also prefer the wide angle lenses because it allows them to include a close-up element in the foreground making it more visually balanced.

So which wide angle lens are you using? And why? Share your thoughts!

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5 ways to improve your photographic vision

These days, with everybody wielding expensive professional photography gear it is easy to think that in order to make better images you’ve got to have better gear. If you think this way you would be far from the truth. For as long as photographers have been shooting, the eye for a great shot, the understanding of finer details as to what makes a shot stand out from the average ones has remained the benchmark of good photography. Better gear comes a long way after. You can replace expensive gear with cheap cameras and still manage to get good images. But if you don’t have photographic vision, you will never make great images; regardless of the gear you own.

So, how can one create better images? In other words how does one acquire the power to envision an image? Here are five tips that should help you – 

1.     Pick one lens and make it an extension of your eye

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This is easier said than done and takes a considerable amount of practice. When you hear a professional photographer speak about developing your vision, what s/he invariably suggests is to know how to make unique images of a scene using your tools, until that becomes your signature style. Great photographers such as Ansel Adams, Josef Koudelka, Robert Capa and Fan Ho all have their own signature styles. A significant part of that style is attributed to using a single lens and seeing the world as it unfurls through it. When used over a period of time, like the memorable combination of a Leica 35mm and 50mm prime used by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the lens becomes an extension of your eyes.

2.     Use the element of negative space in your image

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Look at the above image. The partially open window is placed towards one corner while the rest of the image is dominated by an empty space. This empty space is known as negative space. Invariably when you look at the image your eyes tend to roam around the vast emptiness and then come back to be fixated on the window. You may even start to look for details, the three potted plants, and the crochet work on the white curtains. This a clever way to focus attention of the viewer to the important aspect of an image which the photographer wants to highlight. Negative space simply helps him to achieve that more easily.

3.     Shoot or post-process in black & white

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Some compositions are best expressed in monochrome. Devoid of colors an image lacks the elements that sometimes be distracting. You can shoot in color and then post-process in black and white which gives you a greater tonal range. Black and white compositions have often been found to be more powerful than color. Back in the early days of photography when film was the dominant format for shooting, everybody had to shoot in black and white. Color film came much later. Photographers in those days relied heavily on compositional aspects to convey depth and dimension. Sadly, these days, the brilliance of colors often hide poor compositions.

4.     Incorporate repeating patterns in your image

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Repeating patterns and or shapes help you create a sort of order in an image. The human brain can perceive repeating patterns and shapes as something that makes sense. That is why repeating patterns in music create rhythm; and rhythm is harmony. In photography, when that same harmony is broken it becomes a point of interest in an image. 

5.     Incorporate lines in your images

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Lines, be it straight, crooked or curved has an effect on your images. I have already discussed the importance of using leading lines in a previous article on this website. Leading lines tend to draw the attention of the viewer towards the main point of interest in an image. Diagonal lines, especially those which travel from the bottom left of the image to the top right add an interesting dynamics to an image. I had discussed perfectly straight horizon lines in an earlier image. Such perfectly straight horizon lines can induce a sense of tranquility to an image. Lines which seem to be falling over adds a bit of tension in a composition. E.g.; a tall building shot with a slight tilt induces tension in the image. Curved lines on the other hand are frequently used as leading lines in composition.

The above tips are just a few ways to improve your photographic vision. Photography, however, is more about the practice than theory. What you learn on the internet or at a workshop has to be put into use to refine and then to adapt. Your style evolves over time as you shoot more and learn to make better images.

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Additional Reading

How to improve your travel photos by including people

While photography is being more and more accessible to everyone it has never been so important to take unique photos with an unusual perspective. With everyone shooting from a similar ‘view point’ everyone’s image is going to look alike. Hence, it becomes imperative to scout for rare locations to create unique images. In the 21st century, as a photographer, the biggest challenge is no longer how to make an image but how to stand out from the crowd by making distinctive images.

Vacations happen to be a time when the long lost camera all of a sudden becomes our best companion. They are cleaned, charged and primed for action. But more than half of the images shot on a vacation turn out disappointing. Poor composition is the primary reason. But it can also be bad lighting and incorrect exposure settings. The following tips will help you to realize some of your composition mistakes even before you make them and that way help you make better travel photos.

Include people to express scale

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Scale means when you have something in the photo that gives you a comparative reference of how big or small the scene / subject is. Let’s say you are photographing a beautiful landscape. It’s beautiful as it is and everything is perfect but without a point of reference the viewer has absolutely no idea how big the place is. What you need to do is allow someone to walk into the shot, just so that you can use that person as a point of reference. As a matter of fact, that individual will also become what is known in photography as the focal point or point of interest. The sweeping landscape and everything around that person simply converts into negative space. The viewer’s eye will invariably wander around and then get fixated onto the individual.

Images are just clicks if they don’t tell a story

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If you hear a National Geographic photo editor describe what makes a great photo worth publishing on their magazine, you would invariably hear him/her say that the picture must tell a story. Random captures often don’t have the value and depth in them which can capture the imagination of the viewer for long. Only when you go above and beyond and is prepared to go the extra mile in order to capture an unfolding moment will you ever achieve that in your photos. Sometimes the difference between a god photo and a great photo is simply is simply to include people.

Catch them in the act

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One way of capturing people, and this is only for those who would love to go the extra mile to capture a sense of the place they are visiting, would be in the act they are. I make it a point to visit the local market whenever I go to a new place. The market happens to be the most authentic place where you can really feel the pulse of the place. People buying essential supplies, busy going about their daily routine, vegetable sellers, fruit sellers, cyclists, pedestrians, sign-boards - it is a treasure-trove for those who love shooting street photos. I am not an ardent street photographer, but I have seen markets are one of the best places I can practice a bit of street photography and in the process capture off-beat images of the destination I am in.

Ask for permission

Photographing people at close quarters can be a problem in some places. Additionally, if you are like me it is a disconcerting thing for the first time. If you are unsure approach the person and ask whether you can take a photo of him/her. Explain that you are a photographer and you found him/her interesting and would like to take a picture for your collection. If you are just a casual travel photographer, which most likely you are, you can explain yourself and the reason you are taking the picture and most of the time it would be fine. It is all in the approach. A threatening and aggressive approach or a creepy approach would definitely be met with resistance. A smiling face can often mitigate the reason to worry.

Be aware of the local customs and practices

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Albeit what has been said above be aware of the local customs and practices. In some cultures aiming your camera at people is considered rude. In most western countries you are fine photographing anyone as long as you are standing on public ground and the person you are photographing is also on public ground. But always be careful photographing children. In any case, you don’t always need someone to be facing the camera to be included in the shot. This is especially when all you need is just a point of reference. A person sitting facing away from you is just as fine.