Zoom lenses are wonderful things. With one lens, you have a large number of focal lengths at your disposal. The adjustments are infinitely variable. But in reality, you can often shoot everything with only three different focal lengths. You may even benefit from it.
With two zoom lenses, you can cover a focal length range between 24mm and 200mm, or even more. If you add one extra zoom lens, the range can be extended to extremes if you like. So, why would you limit yourself by using just three lenses with a fixed focal length?
Although zoom lenses are very flexible, it is not always necessary to be able to zoom. In many cases, you can shoot anything you like with a wide angle lens, a standard lens, and a tele lens. I believe the lack of zoom may even force you to look at your subject in a different way.
Wide Angle, Standard, and Tele
When I was reviewing the Fujifilm GFX 100 back in 2020, I was offered to choose a selection of lenses for my trip to Lofoten, Norway. I decided to go for three primes: a 23mm wide angle lens, a 63mm standard lens, and a 250mm tele lens. These lenses were relatively small and easy to carry with me.
As expected, this threesome made it possible to shoot every landscape without problems. But I was forced to make a very conscious choice which lens to use. I had to think about focal length in combination with the distance to the subject. It made me look at the landscape in a different way. Losing the ability to zoom in and out made me consider my composition more careful.
To be honest, I liked this way of photography a lot. I have to be honest a second time also. The 102-megapixel sensor of the Fujifilm GFX 100 allowed a lot of post-processing cropping, which gave me extra flexibility. It made it easy to ditch the zoom lenses for this occasion.
Fortunately, I have a lot of experience with primes, not only from my days in the analog era but also from my portrait and wedding photography. I love using primes, and my favorite three lenses are 35mm, 85mm, and 135mm. I know I can shoot everything during a wedding with just these three focal lengths.
The Pros and Cons of Zoom Lenses
The benefit from zoom lenses is obvious. You have a lot of focal lengths to choose from. With the infinitely variable adjustments, you can frame your subject to extreme perfection. But having multiple focal lengths in one lens will bring some trade-offs.
Every lens has multiple elements to get the best possible picture quality. You need a unique combination of lens elements for each focal length. The perfect lens elements combination is impossible to achieve when having multiple focal lengths combined in one lens. It will almost always be a trade-off. If the focal range will become larger, the image quality will decrease even more.
That is why an 18-200mm lens is almost always worse in quality compared to a 70-200mm lens. Although the overall quality of modern zoom lenses is amazing, it is nearly impossible to get the best possible image quality with a zoom lens.
The Pros and Cons of Primes
With primes, the lens design can be optimized for that one single focal length. Image quality is at its best. If you are looking for the best possible image quality, a prime will be the lens for you.
The downside of a prime lens is the lack of a variable focal length. You have only one at your disposal. It means you need to move back and forth in order to change the size of your subject, or you need to change the lens for another prime that meets your demands.
A benefit of primes may be the smaller size, although modern high-quality primes are not small at all. And on top of that, you may need two or three primes instead of one or two zoom lenses. Perhaps this counteracts the benefit from a possible smaller size.
Looking Differently at Your Scenery
If you have only a few focal lengths at your disposal, you need to think more about the composition and the field of view. I think you will be more aware of the aspect ratio between foreground and background, a very important thing in photography that is often overlooked.
Manipulating the foreground and background can also be done with a zoom lens. But it is too easy to change the focal length without thinking about the aspect ratio. In a previous article, I wrote about the importance of manipulating the relative size of foreground and background. If you can’t zoom, you will automatically go closer or farther, away and you will look at your subject differently.
Using primes will sometimes lead to photos that have a wider field of view than initially intended. After all, you only have three focal lengths at your disposal, and you don't always have the possibility to change your position. If you find yourself in a situation where the standard lens is too narrow and the wide angle too wide, you may need to choose the wide angle and crop the image afterward.
This is why using three primes works very well with high-resolution cameras. You have the flexibility to crop without losing too much resolution. Using a wider field of view can also help during post-processing. You have the ability to rotate the image or to fine-tune the composition a bit without losing important details in the image.
Which Focal Lengths Should You Try?
For every photographer, there is another perfect threesome. As mentioned, I use a 35mm, 85mm, and 135mm lens for my weddings. But someone else may prefer a 24mm, 50mm, and 100mm. For a landscape photographer, I would advise something like a 17mm, 50mm, and a 200mm lens.
Just look at the metadata from your photography work, and you can discover which focal lengths you use the most. Lightroom Classic is one of those programs that allows you to look at the amount of use per focal length. You will learn a lot about the focal lengths you use the most.
Have I Gotten Rid of My Zoom Lenses?
This article is not about ditching your zoom lenses. And I wouldn’t advise getting rid of your zoom lenses just because a prime can produce better quality images. With our normal use, the quality difference will be too small to notice anyway. If your photography benefits from zoom lenses, just keep using them.
The flexibility of zoom lenses is always a big plus over the primes. Although I love using primes, I also enjoy using zoom lenses. For holidays and travel, a zoom lens is very convenient, but also in situations where changing a lens will be challenging, very difficult, or very foolish. So, I won’t get rid of my zoom lenses. I will use them both and make a choice depending on the situation, but always with a strong preference for the primes.
Are you using primes or zoom lenses, and why did you make that choice? What do you think about the idea of using three primes instead of zoom lenses? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
I’ve been carrying two camera bodies with two prime lenses for several years now, 35mm/1.4 and an 85mm/1.2 (sometimes replaced with a 135mm/2). The quality I’ve gotten from those primes was more superior than my zoom lenses. However, I occasionally use the zoom (24-70mm/2.8) when traveling with others, for convenience.
Note: I use two bodies to avoid changing lenses. It wastes time, and attracts dust (desert climate).
Sound exactly like my own preferences - only difference is, we don't have desert sand. But I wouldn't mind exchanging locations for a while ;)
How about the beaches! :D
Wind, sand, salty sea air, and perhaps a bit of sea-spray in rougher weather...
Or the sandy Veluwe, with a bit of wind...
Primes may be good for getting a better, perspective. Instead of being lazy and zooming in or out to frame a subject, you may stop and think about whether a longer focal length from farther away, or a shorter length from closer works better.
That are a lot of lenses.
I have these: 8mm fisheye, 24mm, 40mm, 105mm macro that I occasionally use as a portrait lens when I want to make a big stink getting people out of my way across a large area. 😛
Yeah, but it's sooo expensive...
I mean yes, in terms of value (more focal length options). But there are a lot of cheaper prime lenses and those will perform goof enough for modern non high resolution sensors.
Everyone has a different style and uses different tools. However, the caption on one of the landscape pictures used as an 'example' seems to defeat the purpose. If I can't see from the picture that it was taken with a prime, then what's the point? I'd rather buy the best zoom I can afford and not have to change lenses constantly or carry a second body around, unless I'm using the 24-70 and 70-200 zooms for an event assignment.
To each their own.
It is not about seeing from a picture if a zoom or prime is used. Who cares about that. It is about the way you use the lenses and how it can effect the way you capture a landscape.
But as I said, it is also possible to achieve the same result with a zoom. If you can resist the temptation of using only zoom to make the composition
I think his point was that when you point out that you can just crop in post (like your examining picture), you're simply saying 'my prime lens couldn't get me the perspective/composition I wanted so I had to 'zoom in post', aka crop to get it right. If you would've had a zoom you could've gotten it exactly how you wanted in camera and not thrown away a bunch of megapixels and image data. That's how I understood it anyway.
Ah, I understand
When I had a Nikon film camera, I owned a 28mm, 50mm and a 105mm. I usually used the 28, sometimes the 50 and almost never the 105. I now have a Sony and I LOVE the 24-105mm and use so much of all the lengths.
I think the 24-105 zoom range is the most versatile lens possible.
Another Great Article Nando. I recently purchased the D780 moving to FF, with it I purchased the 24-120 as a grab lense and the 16-35. My focus is landscapes and cityscapes. Both the lenses have VR on them which given the advances in usable high ISO is somewhat redundant. The issue that I have is that these lenses are Heavy and quite large! I have a 20, 50 and 85 with a combined weight of less than the 24-120. These three are substantially lighter and smaller, which is good for transport and discretion in public. All of the lenses serve their purpose but the weight difference has me utilizing my primes more often visualizing and composing my images accordingly. I may add a 35 at some point If I start to miss that range and just sell the 16-35.
Thank you for the article Nando!
You're welcome. Thanks for the reply
I think its "right tool for the right job" if you are unconstrained in where you can photograph and how much lens changing you can do, primes are amazing. They can very much change your approach and how your take pictures. As a event and theatre photographer i am normally very constrained in movement and its zooms all the way... its not unheard of me having my 11-24 24-70 70-200 200-400mm with me. I once photographed a opening night and got talking to another photographer who only shot on primes, i later on got to see his work from that night, it really was not good...
From my time as a concert photography I loved to use the 35mm and 85mm. I never had a feeling of missing any other focal length.
If the other photographer you mentioned didn't perform so well, I think it tells us more about the quality of the photographer instead of the used lenses. ;)
It was more that he was having to crop so hard to make a shot relevant. I think your also right in that he might have not have been such a good photographer. For me its about being able to turn up to an unknown venue with many unknown factors and still deliver. My agency also have a 8 megapixel requirement, so you can't over crop
If he had to crop a lot, I think he did a terrible job. As an event photographer you need to be at the right place at the right moment, I think. And with the right lens. It is like wedding photography. Be prepared.
But I agree, zoom lenses make these thing often much more easy. :)
There's only one case when I'd rather not use primes: bad weather. Who loves or has a method to switch lenses under heavy and windy rain?
Other than that I just pick what I need, and what I am able to carry due to weight and size constraints.
To change lenses in (heavy) wind and rain,
- Find a sufficiently shielded underpass / overhang / busstop
- Stand with your back to the wind to further shield your equipment
- Run back and forth every time you need to change a lens
- Curse a lot and promise yourself to invest in at least one more body
Thanks for the hints! I'll have to check for caves, because unfortunately there's few bus stops up there in the mountain ;-)
Check the caves for bears, trolls and yeti's, obviously. That might be a once-in-a-lifetime shot. ;-)
But on a serious note, yeah of course I recognize your problem. Some kind of poncho that you can pull over your head and bag and shield everything while you change lenses, if you have to?
Even when you're out with multiple bodies and zoom lenses of different focal lengths you can't foresee everything and may want to change lenses.
I have to disagree with this zooms makes you lazy adage. A zoom allows one to change framing and perspective which a prime cannot. This opens up a lot more creative possibilities. Ultimately use the tool you want to use to realize your vision - I personally would not trade in my zooms for a prime, especially for landscapes (I can see the benefit of primes, with their wide apertures for portraits).
«I can see the benefit of primes, with their wide apertures for portraits.»
I cannot even see the benefit there. I shoot portraits, and I rarely shoot at even f/4. How much Toneh does one need to separate the subject from the background? Why must only one eye be in focus? Why should I choose between the nose tip and the ear?
F/2.8 and wider is great for low light situations, but sucks for portraits. Portraits require a DoF greater than 2mm.
If your depth of field is too thin, use focus stacking. I bet an upcoming Sony A1 mark 3 will be fast enough so you can shoot a focus stack at 120 images per second RAW, so you have all your images before the model even blinks an eye, and Apples' future M3 processor will be fast enough to merge the focus stack before you can blink an eye!
Just joking of course. ;)
Isn't that a matter of taste, shallow depth of field with portraits? If you can't see the benefit of shallow depth of field, it doesn't mean someone else can.
Fortunately Tim van der Leeuw has the sollution: focus stacking (I like the joke :) )
To me fast primes are mostly about shooting in low light, but sometimes I also shoot with them in daytime to challenge myself to find the right framing for a shot when I can't zoom -- pretty much what Nando advocates actually. :D
It is not about being lazy with zooms. Use the lens you like the most. Both can offer the same picture. But the lack of zoom can force you to look differently at your landscape. With zooms you need to resist the temptation of mainly using the zoomfunction In that case you can achieve the same thing.
The standard go-to and profusely overused saying that 'primes force you to be more creative and see things differently' or 'zooms make you lazy' is getting boring.
Zooms HELP in my creativity. They allow my camera to see what I see and what I envision for my final image. And having a 100mp medium format that allows you to crop just makes my point even further. You're just zooming in post.
The image quality point is no longer relevant. Even Zeiss engineers will tell you that modern high end zooms can match primes. If there is an image quality advantage with primes, it's not tangible or discernable and it's certainly gone once you start cropping and throwing away megapixels.
I love primes. They're often cheap, fast, lightweight, and compact. But they're extremely limiting. Probably time to end the romanticizing, IMO.
Sorry but I'm gobsmacked at your comments.
Firstly you emphasise the point Nando is making about laziness when you say use your zoom to frame what you are seeing (which means not moving around and exploring other perspectives which is necessary with a prime) and then you talk about cropping in to use the part of the shot you want ! Whatever happened to getting the framing right first time 'in-camera' ! Obviously we can all imagine some exceptions to this (obstacles - such as rivers or ravines etc., parades etc. where zooms are useful)
Then you say what advantage do primes have over zooms? Well how about letting in much more light (usually by up to 2 stops) for low light environments? And better bokeh ? And being smaller (many, not all)? And usually lighter (many, not all)? Often using much smaller and more portable filters ? How about big wildlife/bird primes which far exceed the IQ of equivalent FL zooms? Or Astro ? I could go on .. and on . and on.
IQ example : compare that of say the Sigma 105/1.4, Samyang 85/1.4 (most fast 85s) or Sony 135/1.8 to a 70-200/2.8. Or a fast 50mm from most manufacturers (Nikon, Canon, Sony, Zeiss, Voigtlander etc.) vs. the very best 24-70/2.8 zooms.
There is a time and place for both primes (listed above) and zooms. Zooms may work best in fast working environments where there may not be time to perfect your perspective (e.g. weddings, events). or where a fast lens is not required (landscapes perhaps - though I use primes mostly there too).
That said I still used 3 primes and one zoom to work 4 bands playing a club last night. 12mm, 21mm and a 55/1.2 and the 70-180/2.8 was the zoom.
N.B. I see you added a post below some of which I can agree with.
I can see how you're 'gobsmacked' at my comments because I'm not entirely sure you read my post. You also stated that I made more than one post, which I didn't.
For me photography doesn't have to do with laziness, but rather creativity. Zooms allow me to "explore other perspectives" with great efficiency and many times achieve "perspectives" that would be otherwise unattainable with primes. My point about cropping was nothing more than an illustration that people who clamor about the greatness of primes but end up cropping are really just zooming. They're not "getting it right first time in camera" because their prime isn't allowing them to. Make sense?
My last paragraph talked about why primes are great so I guess we do agree, lol???
Primes that "far exceed the equivalent FL of zooms" isn't the case anymore in my experience. Is the image quality better? Yes. But I think "Far exceeds" is a massive exaggeration. It's not even tangible to 99% of the viewers. Sports and wildlife shooters use those massive telephoto primes for their light gathering capabilities and subject isolation, not their sharpness improvements or better image quality.
In the end I just think the primes argument gets overplayed and romanticized. Primes are great for many reasons, but more often than not, they are just extremely limiting, IMO.
Ah sorry for assigning Luke's post to you. My bad.
As for IQ, just get yourself over to Dxo and look at some charts. I'm definitely not saying charts are everything but you can look at results too, try comparing any of your zooms to the results from a Sigma 105/1.4 or Sony 135/1.8, or any Otis. In fact even a Samyang 85/1.4 blows the socks off any f2.8 zoom.
Of course there are situations where it's difficult to tell the disparity but more often than not it's pretty clear unless stopping down to small(er) apertures. f1.4 - f1.8 looks nothing at all like f2.8 which is why photographers of many genres use them. It is of course indeed very tangible even to non-photographers, even if they don't understand what they are looking at.
In very low light (I shot 3 bands last weekend in a very poorly lit club where it seems they only had blue, red and white lights) there was no way to shoot at f2.8 unless I was happy with 5,000 ISO, so faster lenses an absolute godsend. Even my ancient f1.2 Cosina 55mm outperformed them.
As for your comments re. wildlife photography - sorry but that's risible. having lived in Africa for 5 years I can tell you that the light gathering of big primes is not the primary reason for their use, it's because the IQ far far exceeds that of equivalent FL zooms. This isn't even a question for discussion.
Zooms are of course useful for speed and convenience, and there are some superb zooms (Sony 24-70 comes to mind), and if it helps your creativity then that's great for you, but just because something works for you doesn't make it a universal truth. It clearly isn't.
For weddings/events personally I’d go for a 24-70mm f/2.8 (or equiv) so you have a good range for portraits/group shots, and no need to switch between lenses which could potentially mean missing key moments.
Unless your carrying three cameras or happy to switch on one of two bodies..
Also for landscapes/travel that’s when I might use some primes as they’re nice and sharp for the landscapes and can be pancake pocketable.
I started with an old 50mm f1.4 on film and loved that lens for how fast and sharp it was, but now have a range of zooms/primes and a standard view prime is still my favourite (50mm equiv).
I never used the wide primes as I didn’t see much more quality in them than the wide zoom lenses. I have a 90mm equiv prime and think that’ll be nice for portraits - but have hardly used it, it’s pretty constricting.
The quality you get from top glass is awesome, but I’ve recently just been seeing what I can get relatively cheap second hand to play with. The 10-18mm is great fun and also the 45-200 on m4/3s I’ve used a lot more than I expected when out for macro/street/landscape even. Though the omd 14-42mm is pretty dull, and on canon the pancake primes are only any use as a second video camera for two-shots. Otherwise I’m more often using a zoom.
And also an old om 28mm with fish eye adaptor.
This discussion happens all the time. Primes vs zooms? It's always a matter of what you need, and what you can carry, if you're out and about, or if you're a studio photographer.
I use primes rather than zooms. I don't do it to slow me down and make me think. Some few may like that, most of us prefer the easy life! I don't use primes instead of zooms because I am obsessed with the ultimate in picture quality (by which most people mean sharpness). I have never in my entire life (61 years) cried out "Oh, no! A spot of chromatic aberration!" I use primes because I adore shallow depth of focus. All my primes are extremely "fast". This aspect of primes was mentioned only obliquely in reference to their value for portraiture. And one responder claimed that he hates shallow DOF in portraits! Almost no other mention is made of this characteristic of primes by respondents. Dando's examples are all standard sharp-front-to-back images. But if "f/8 and be there" were my motto, I would sell all my primes and get a single superzoom.
Zooms and primes are complementary tools. In addition to the comments made in the article and in this section, telephoto zooms are the best choice for moving subjects, e.g., sports, wildlife, and subjects at a distance. In addition, telephotos "compress" an image, which is useful for landscapes. Primes are available with much wider apertures than zooms, allowing much greater control over depth of field and when shooting in low light situations. I use 24mm and 55mm primes with my full frame camera and a 70-350mm zoom with my APS-C camera. I'm thinking of buying an 85mm prime. Match the lens to the task.
Sorry but telephoto zooms are FAR from the best lenses for wildlife. sport and birds : which is why all serious photographers of those genres use primes.
A lot of good points are made within the primes as well as zooms, however the big companies are making out the best from photographers personal/professional preferences to the like. In the film days it was primes and photographers became use to moving and setting various compositions to get that look, then zoom was introduced, (same look less movement). Fast forward to present, we are full circle on the primes being inserted back within the photographers lineup and still the company is making their point satisfying that one photographer here and there $$$. Either prime or zoom, keep producing beautiful images.
I love shooting corporate events with three bodies and three primes on me - 25/2 on a7III and 35/1.8 and 85/1.8 on two a7RIIIs. Crop mode also gives me 52mm and 130mm EFLs. An a7RII stands by on a tripod with 18/2.8 for venue shots. It's often possible to get better edge sharpness from primes, which matters when shooting landscapes or very large group portraits.
For 6 years I shot events entirely with three Micro Four Thirds bodies and 12/2, 20/1.7, 45/1.8 and 75/1.8 primes. These lenses gave me just 0.5-1.0 stops less total light gathering than I'd get from 35mm-format bodies with f2.8 zooms.
Three bodies? I love to use two, but I think three becomes a bit difficult to carry with me. How did you solve that?
When going out to shoot landscape / nature, I sometimes took 3 bodies with me in recent weeks. It helps that one is very small, has a very small UWA lens (EF-M 11-22), and fits in a small bag on the handlebar of my bicycle. :D
The other 2 bodies fit in my shoulder bag.
One body for UWA, one body for normal zoom, one body for telezoom. Or perhaps one of the bodies for a macro lens or one of primes.
That way I can switch between focal lengths super fast -- just reach for another body.
Of course, when walking that wouldn't be convenient -- I could manage but it would get heavy and cumbersome. I could carry one around my neck and 2 in the shoulder bag and grab one as needed. But at that point, the equipment would just be getting in my way.
I carry two on an OpTechUSA Dual Sling and the third on a narrow, short OpTech neoprene neck strap. With my MFT kit, this was no burden at all. Even with my a7[x] kit, I don't really feel the weight, since each individual camera isn't particularly heavy. I shoot week-long conferences this way without gear-induced fatigue. The Dual Sling, in particular, makes a HUGE difference, as it spreads the weight across my upper back and eliminates the need to shrug to keep a shoulder strap from slipping off.
Several years ago, I suffered a crippling bout of bursitis in my right shoulder. I couldn't use my right arm AT ALL for two weeks, and it felt like getting kicked in the nuts 24/7. Worst pain I've ever experienced. Of course it was my right shoulder (good thing I'm a lefty!), because that's where I'd been carrying heavy cameras and shoulder bags for 30 years. I realized I had to 1) lighten my load, and 2) change the way I carry. I'd been shooting with two EOS 1-series bodies, large zooms, and large speedlights for years. No more.
Right now, I'm on the fence about whether to ditch the a7III with Batis 25/2 and go back to my GX9 with Oly 12/2 on the neck strap. The WA lets me use slower shutter speeds, so I don't need the 35mm format's greater light gathering as much in dim conditions, and the GX9 is much smaller and lighter. Either way, I'll keep the two a7RIIIs on the Dual Sling with 35/1.8 and 85/1.8. I might also ditch the a7RII with 18/2.8 for my GX8 with 7-14/4 on tripod for venue shots. Again, don't really need the light gathering for this, and for this kind of work 16-20MP is plenty. Some of my clients don't even want the full-rez files - I just give them 2048px files optimized for online use.
Speaking of which, with DxO PhotoLab 4 Elite and PureRAW's DeepPRIME noise reduction doing such a fabulous job with MFT files up to ISO 12,800, I'm starting to wonder whether I really needed to add 35mm format to my kit at all. I suppose I'm just a bit of a perfectionist, but my clients are perfectly happy with my MFT files. Hmmm.
Thanks for sharing. For weddings I use a Spider Pro duo camera holster that makes it easy carrying my 5D mark IV camera (with 85mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4) whole day long. But I wouldn't think of adding another camera. :)
With smaller and lighter cameras that would be much more easy indeed.
Yeah, those f1.4 lenses are heavy. I replaced my 35/1.4 with a 35/1.8 for this reason. Also, note that my 3-camera setup is for event work. When I'm out wandering the countryside shooting scenics, I bring just one camera, one zoom, and maybe a couple of primes.
At the moment I have the new Canon RF50mm f1.2L and Canon RF50mm f/1.8 standing next to each other for a review. The size difference is unbelievable. And that for just half a stop more light ;)
The smaller one is tempting, but falls vastly behind in image sharpness. If I would have to choose between the RF24-70mm f/2.8 and the RF50mm f/1.8 I know I would skip the prime
I can see the advantages of primes, but for me, they don't outweigh the convenience of zooms.
I have a few primes (40mm, 100mm macro), but find myself using my zooms (24-70, 70-200) far more often. The 40mm is great for walking around (much lighter and smaller), and the 100mm is for when I need the maximum sharpness and/or close focusing, Neither lives in my camera case; they get rotated in when I know they'll be needed or useful. The staples are the 24-70 and 70-200, and the third lens is either the 100mm macro or the 17-40mm wide angle.
I feel quite comfortable carrying a 14mm, a 35mm and a 85mm. Now I would like to buy some telephoto lens, but in that case I should think about buying a bigger backpack for carrying so many stuff :(