Are Prime or Zoom Lenses Better for Portrait Photography?

One of the most fundamental choices you can make is whether to use a prime or a zoom lens. For portraiture, there are benefits and drawbacks to each option. If you are new to portrait photography and wondering which is right for you, check out this great video tutorial that will show you the pros and cons of both to help you make the right choice.

Coming to you from Miguel Quiles with Sony I Alpha Universe, this awesome video tutorial will show you the pros and cons of prime and zoom lenses for portrait photography. It used to be that prime lenses were noticeably sharper and the obvious choice if you wanted top-shelf image quality. However, in the past decade or so, zooms have made some remarkable strides forward, and the gap between the two is not what is used to be. As such, you might prefer the versatility of a zoom lens, especially if you are shooting in a studio, where you likely will not be using a wide aperture that often. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Quiles. 

If you would like to continue learning about the art of portraiture, be sure to check out our range of tutorials on the subject in the Fstoppers store.

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11 Comments
Paul Sokal's picture

No mention of maximum aperture? Come on, man!

Gary Pardy's picture

Paul, you might notice that many readers are triggered by bourgeois elites and their love of fast apertures. Wouldn't want to offend any kit lens portrait photographers out there.

Brian Tokuyoshi's picture

The main challenge with Zooms is that it's way too tempting to choose a focal length based on where you're standing, instead of having the intent to choose a focal length for the specific shot you want to take. There's a clear difference in how a photo looks at 24mm versus 70mm, but when you're shooting zooms, you tend to stand still and frame by zooming, and pick, say 43mm completely randomly.

Mike Shwarts's picture

Sometimes you are stuck in one spot and have to use a zoom that way. But I agree. A zoom should be used like a set of primes without having to change lenses.

Garth Scholten's picture

I used to buy into the "zooms make you lazy" argument until I realized that primes require more work to get "that" shot. It can be just as tempting to make the prime lens you have mounted work rather than switching lenses and moving for a better photo. Often, with primes, it's not simply a matter of "zooming with your feet". It may require relocating the client get the most out of a given fixed focal length lens.

Lenses are only tools and the question is which tool works best for you?

I appreciate prime shooters who develop an eye to visualize their surroundings from the perspective of a given prime lens. They are good at finding a location and knowing where to position the client that will allow their favorite prime to create that "pop" to the image before they even look through the viewfinder. This is a skill that is perfected with practice.

However, I find the zoom to be more liberating, particularly when photographing high school seniors on location. These sessions are often about finding a surrounding that fits the client and quickly capturing that fleeting look before it passes. I find that the 70-200 zoom lens enables me to quickly explore different perspectives by zooming with the lens AND my feet. It isn't just about filling the frame. It's often about picking a focal length that best fits the specific image to flatter the client while framing the background to make that "pop". For a given shot, I don't have to choose between an 85mm or an 135mm prime when 118mm best fits the given image. For me, this is about letting the image dictate the focal length rather than making the focal length dictate the image.

Still, I'm very intrigued by the potential of the 50mm 1.2 and the 85mm 1.2 lenses. Someday, I hope to add these tools to my kit. Maybe it's not about which is the best tool, but which tool do you most enjoy using to create great images?

Jim Tincher's picture

Ultimately it probably doesn't matter if it's a zoom or prime... what matters is the quality of the glass. I use both primes and zooms.

G B's picture

I have an f2.8 zoom with incredible IQ. I did a portrait shoot a few days ago using that lens and a f1.8 prime lens only 5mm above the zoom. I used the prime, not for DOF but for the bokeh. This video doesn't mention the better bokeh that primes usually have, nor, as Paul Sokai mentioned, no mention of max aperture.

Come on, man! Mark II

Michael Lasher's picture

As someone not recooping on investment, I'm not going to buy the best of the best of the best. That being said, I've got two decent primes and two decent zooms and each is going to have their strengths and weaknesses. If I'm trying to take a shot from across a river, my zoom will give me the versatility to capture the best shot possible. If I'm taking a picture of something relatively stationary and not 250 meters away, then a zoom will give me more options.

Kirk Darling's picture

I'm extremely concerned about the angle and perspective of the picture. "Zooming with your feet" inevitably changes the angle and perspective from shot to shot.

I will generally stand at the distance that gives me the angle and perspective that I want. Zooming from one position maintains angle and perspective.