No matter how expensive your body, unless you put a good piece of glass in front of it you will never see the camera’s full potential.
There are a huge variety of lenses available. Not only from camera manufacturers but also from third parties such as Sigma and Tamron. These companies produce lenses that are generally as good as, and sometimes surpass, those offered by the camera manufacturer.
There are two main types of lens available to you, prime lenses and zoom lenses. Both have their devotees and both are capable of stunning results, but does one really outperform the other? Is the trade off between flexibility and image quality worth it, or even noticeable?
Both prime and zoom lens users passionately defend their choice and will argue at great length about their choice of lens. By examining both lens types and their advantages, hopefully it will help you come to an informed decision as to which lens is best for you.
A prime lens is simply a fixed focal length lens. In terms of engineering it is a lot less complicated than a zoom lens, it only needs to be sharp at one length and therefore the designers time and effort is focused much more acutely which, in theory at least, leads to greater quality. This less complicated approach gives the prime lens certain advantages.
Advantages of a Prime Lens
Because of the need for less moving parts and a more simplified construction, the cost of a prime lens tends to be less than a zoom lens, with some very notable exceptions. The quality and maximum aperture of lenses determine their price bracket with lenses such as the Canon 85 f1.2 coming as a huge investment.
One prime lens that is renowned for delivering quality on a shoestring budget is the ‘Nifty Fifty’. The 50mm f1.8 prime is a fantastic lens that can be picked up for well under one hundred pounds. The Canon and Nikon models are always very highly recommended for those looking to get better image quality than the kit lens that came with their camera. If you shoot a camera with a crop sensor, 50mm is a perfect length for head and shoulder portraits and on a full frame body it is a good walkabout lens, covering many different situations well.
Prime lenses tend to have a wider aperture than zoom lenses. There are two main advantages to this. Shooting in environments like dimly lit churches, it allows you to keep a lower ISO and still get enough light onto the sensor to use a decent shutter speed. With the ability for digital SLR’s to handle noise incredibly well at higher ISO these days this is becoming somewhat a moot point, but a fast prime will always get you out of a bad lighting situation better than a zoom.
The other advantage of having a wider aperture is the small depth of field it offers. This allows you the ability to isolate subjects from the background and opens up creative possibilities to you. This blessing can also be a curse. When using a very small depth of field, you really have to nail your focus. Any error in your technique is amplified when using a narrow depth of field. That said, when it is done correctly, the results can be stunning.
A prime lens is smaller and lighter than a zoom lens. The 50mm lens is probably the lightest and if you are carrying a camera round all day the difference in weight between a zoom and a prime is appreciated. In fact you can carry a few prime around with you and still not hit the weight of a good quality zoom lens. A prime is a great option for those who like to travel light.
The advancement in zoom lens technology has been huge. Zoom lenses now offer great quality. That said, a good prime lens delivers the ultimate in image quality.
Prime lenses are not only able to shoot wider apertures, but will generally outperform zoom lenses. They offer sharper, crisper shots, that a zoom lens simply cannot match, especially at the wider apertures such as f2.8. That being said you should never assume that just because it is a prime lens, it will perform better. As I said, the modern high end zoom lens can deliver some amazing results, sometimes images are hard to distinguish from those shot with a prime lens. A good prime lens though just gives your images that “certain something” that simply cannot be beaten.
It Improves Your Technique
A prime lens can make you a better photographer. Not being able to zoom your lens to get the shot, you need to think. You are now not afforded the luxury of being able to zoom, you need to get your mind working, to be creative. When thinking about how to shoot an image with a prime lens you work harder as you have the boundary that the lens has set you and you have to figure how to get the shot. Shooting a 50mm for a day definitely gives your photographic mind a good workout. It also makes you get a little exercise, as your feet become your zoom.
Of course that said you can get the same experience by being disciplined and setting your camera to one focal length and only shooting that for the day. I have tried this approach and I failed within an hour, just to get the one shot that I simply had to zoom out for. Maybe your willpower is stronger than mine, but like not having a bar of chocolate in the cupboard, not having the option removes the temptation.
A zoom lens allows you to have a variety of focal lengths available to you in one lens. They have become the most common type of lens for photographers and allow you to shoot wide and zoom focal lengths easily. The advancement in technology has seen the quality of the zoom lens become much greater. Modern precision engineering means that modern zoom lenses are deliver sharp results throughout the range of the zoom.
Advantages of a Zoom Lens
The One Box Solution
In the same way that a prime lens offers lightness the zoom lens offers a variety of focal lengths in one package. This means that if you want to shoot different focal lengths on a day shoot you do not have to carry around a bag full of lenses. The zoom simply allows you to mount your lens on your camera and away you go. It also means that you do not need to spend time changing lenses every time that you wish to change focal length. This also reduces the amount of times you have to remove and mount a lens, therefore reducing the cameras sensors ability to pick up dust during this process. Whilst it may not be an issue in a studio or indoor setting, it is definitely something to worry about when out in the wild in poor weather.
The argument of prime lenses spurring your creativity as a photographer is all well and good, but if you are photographing something that is constantly moving for example a live music performance, or a small child who has eaten sugar, then there is no substitute for having a lens that allows you to zoom in and out to capture the action. Photography is full of fleeting moments and the worst thing to be doing when these occur is trying to change your lens to capture the action.
Whilst a prime lens is generally cheaper that a zoom lens, the argument remains that one prime is no replacement for a zoom. To get the same variety you would get for a standard zoom lens you really require three primes. When you add this up you end up with a figure that is comparable and in some cases, the price of a set of prime lenses works out more expensive.
So, prime or zoom?
That answer is; it depends what type of thing you shoot. I would make an argument that a 50mm lens is an inexpensive and valuable addition to any camera bag. There is also, in my opinion, something about a portrait shot on an 85mm lens that makes it stand out.
That said, I rarely use primes. A lot of my shooting requires me to capture subjects in fast moving environments, this means that the versatility of a zoom lens is unbeatable. I am starting to do a lot more portraits of late and am looking to continue. I am looking to invest in a prime lens solely for my portrait work.
In an ideal world you would have both. My camera bag has the following Focal length lenses (Please note, I shoot with a full frame camera):
10-18mm f4 Zoom (I use this for landscapes)
24-70mm f2.8 Zoom
70-200mm f2.8 Zoom
50mm f1.4 Prime
85mm f1.4 Prime
90mm f2.8 Prime (Macro)
That to me is the ultimate lens lineup. If I only shot portraits and static subjects though, it would probably be all primes - but for weddings and events where people are moving, I prefer to have zoom lens. It really does depend on how you shoot and what you shoot.
If you are new to primes, I would suggest investing in a ‘Nifty Fifty’. It gives you a cost effective way to dip your feet into the world of primes and if you find it isn’t for you, then you can sell it on with little loss. If it is your thing, it becomes the first step into a new and exciting world.