One Zoom Lens to Rule Them All: Which One Would You Choose?

Zoom lenses are very versatile. In a way, these lenses offer an infinitely variable focal length adjustment. If you could have only one zoom lens, which focal range would you choose?

In my previous article about the benefit of using three primes instead of one zoom lens, some readers might have presumed I don’t like zoom lenses at all. But primes and zoom lenses complement each other. Both are tools that can be used to capture your subject. That might be landscapes, portraits, or many other types of photography. Which one you prefer to use depends on the type of photography you perform. But it's also a matter of personal choice and taste.

Which do you prefer? A zoom lens or a prime? There is no wrong answer. It is very personal.

Today, many high-quality zoom lenses are as good as the primes in a lower and medium price range, or even better. As a matter of fact, I think only the best primes produce better images. But these primes are expensive, very large, and heavy. I experienced this first hand during my current review of both the Canon RF 50mm f/1.8 and the Sony G Master 50mm f/1.2. But you would have to compare the results really carefully to see the difference with a good quality zoom lens in real-world use.

I have been using these for a review. I love primes like these, but I also love zoom lenses. They're much more versatile.

If you would compare the results of the 50mm lenses I mentioned with a modern 24-70mm lens, the overall image quality will be the same when used in a similar way. In other words, unless you compare the images side by side in great detail, the choice between using a zoom lens or prime mainly comes down to preferences and practical benefits.

I love using primes, as became clear in that previous article I mentioned. But that doesn’t mean I don’t use zoom lenses. On many occasions, I prefer a zoom lens over a prime — during bad weather is one example. But the zoom lens will also provide a lot of flexibility during the formal group portraits during weddings. It allows me to act swiftly if something happens during these moments.

The 70-200mm lens is perhaps one of the most popular tele zoom lenses available. No wonder, since it can be used for a lot of different kinds of photography. Is this your one zoom to rule them all?

One Zoom to Rule Them All

If you could have just one zoom lens, wouldn’t it be great to have a lens that would go from 10mm up to 500mm? If possible with a fixed aperture of f/1.4 across the zoom range and a macro function that will go up to a 2:1 magnification. Of course, such an aperture is impossible to achieve. 

I made this mockup of the lens that has everything that is possble (except tilt-shift). A 10-500mm zoom lens with a fixed aperture of f/1.4 and a 2:1 maco capability as well. And yes, a built-in tele converter. One zoom to rule them all.

Zoom lenses come in shapes and sizes. There is a zoom lens for every focal range, with or without fixed apertures across the complete focal range. There are also zoom lenses that have a focal range from 18mm up to a staggering 400mm — truly a zoom lens to rule them all. You might never need to change a lens ever again.

Go for Quality and Not the Amount of Focal Range

You can choose a focal length that has everything you’ll ever need. Unfortunately, this will have a huge effect on quality. The larger the zoom range becomes, the more difficult it will be to have the optimum lens element combination. You will see a degradation in sharpness, an increase in chromatic aberration, and massive lens distortions. Zoom lenses are always a trade-off when it comes to quality, but they will become much more obvious when the zoom range increases.

Extreme magnifications are possible. This Nikon P1000 zooms from 24mm up to 3,000mm full frame equivalent. The small sensor will hide a lot of defects of this lens. But it won't produce the same quality images as a smaller zoom lens like the 15-85mm on that Canon 7D Mark II.

A 3x zoom is the maximum zoom range that is possible without losing too much quality. That is what I learned a long time ago. But I believe modern lenses can go up to 5x zoom without too much quality loss. If the zoom range is increased beyond that, the lens will show an increasing loss in quality up to the point it is no longer acceptable.

It is up to you until what point the image still has acceptable quality. It depends on the resolution of your camera, but also on the use of an image. When a photo is only for social media, a bad quality lens will go unnoticed. But when a photo is for print and commercial use, you want the best possible quality.

With two or three zoom lenses, you have every focal length you need. But which one would you choose if only one was available?

If I would have to choose just one zoom lens, I wouldn’t try to find a lens that covers every possible focal length. Instead, I would try to find a zoom lens with the most useful focal range for my kind of photography, without sacrificing the image quality too much.

I Would Choose the 24-105mm Zoom Lens

For me, the one zoom to rule them all would be a 24-105mm zoom lens. It has the perfect zoom range with a nice wide angle on one side and decent tele on the other side. The focal range is perfect for all kinds of portraits, and the 24mm is just wide enough for landscapes. But it also allows you to zoom in on the more intimate landscapes.

This is the zoom lens I would have to choose: a 24-105mm.

The 24-105mm zoom lens is also a nice one for everyday use and holidays, of course. Of course, on some occasions, I would wish for a wider focal length. But remember, it is easy to shoot a couple of images to cover a wider field of view, which can be stitched together. On the long end of the zoom range, a small crop is always possible.

It Is About Field of View, Not Focal Length

One last thing about the one zoom to rule them all. I mentioned a focal length that is based on the field of view with a full frame sensor. That field of view is the only thing that matters, not the focal length. If you use an MFT or APS-C sensor, you need to compensate the crop factor. A 24-105mm lens will be similar to a 12-50mm on the MFT camera, or a 15-85mm on the APS-C camera. 

When I say 24-105mm zoom lens, I refer to the field of view. This is different for APS-C sensors and MFT sensors, like this Olympus.

What Would Your Choice Be?

Fortunately, I won’t have to choose, since I have more than one lens. But if I would have just one lens for my photography, it would be a 24-105mm. What lens would you choose? Please share your one zoom lens to rule them all in the comments below. Do mention your kind of photography also. I am looking forward to your response.

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55 Comments

Tammie Lam's picture

Based on what I see the RF 70-200 is as good at 200/2.8 as the EF 200/2 at 200/2. Sharp and contrasty. One stop slower but so much smaller and lighter. The RF has less astigmatism compared to the 200/2, so bokeh is pretty straight (i.e. boring) and of course not as blurry, but it’s a workhorse lens. The 200/2 is still a unique lens capable of producing unique results. So… there is no clear winner :)

barry cash's picture

I doubt 70-200 properly compared best the primes, but the 200mm glass that's 6000 per copy or used to be 3-4k has always been cherished.

Robert McCaslan's picture

I see very different from you.

I have the RF 70-200 and absolutely love it. It is probably the most prime-like zoom I have owned and it is indeed excellent at 200mm. It's bokeh is close to what I achieve with my better prime lenses like the RF 85 1.2 and Sony 135mm GM. But it's just close, and there is a clear difference between the zoom and the primes.

The 200/2 is legendary as one of the best primes ever. The bokeh is renown and but for the price and the excessive distance required for portraiture, I'd want one in my kit. Take a look at this video to see how good the 200/2 actually is. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOvxALQUC48.

Thus, I agree with you that the 70-200 is worthy of high praise. But trying to put in on par with one of the best primes ever is, perhaps, a step too far.

Tammie Lam's picture

It's always fun to read when someone points out to a youtube video for an IQ comparison ;)
I have both those lenses, and I trust my own eyes. This is my photo stream: https://photostream.us, and you can just search "ef200" to see the photos taken with it. The 200/2 has a pronounced astigmatism which is very visible here: https://photostream.us/#/photo/4892. For a "lab-like" comparison - TDP usually has answers: https://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/ISO-12233-Sample-Crops.aspx?...
If you like the RF 85/1.2 bokeh - try the DS version. You'll like it even more. I have both the DS and regular version, and 99% of the time I'm shooting the DS.

El Dooderino's picture

OT but I really like your Photo stream!

Tammie Lam's picture

Thank you :)

Robert McCaslan's picture

Since I haven't personally used the 200/2, just seen images taken with it, I'll concede to your personal experience and withdraw my case. I love the 70-200 but still suspect that I'd prefer the prime over the zoom when shooting portraits. Perhaps something in your photostream will persuade me to the contrary. I look forward to reviewing it.

Tammie Lam's picture

No doubt you can find terrific images online made with the 200/2, but please remember that processing makes a huge impact on the final image. I trust TDP because that's just a bunch of charts and repeatable unprocessed shots. Maybe my Photoshop skills suck, or I am half blind - I really don't see much difference. Yes, the bokeh blobs are a fraction larger with the 200/2 wide open, but I didn't see anyone measuring them with a ruler. The first image is f/2.8 and the second one is f/2. That would be the same difference (maximum) as you'd compare the RF 70-200 @ 200 to the 200/2.

Reginald Walton's picture

Well if Canon would update that 28-300 lens, that would be the bee's knees!

David B's picture

The RF 24-240 is pretty darn close! With better sharpness and more megapixels to crop, the zoom range might technically be better.

Urban Rump's picture

I recently switched to the Canon R5 and got rid of all my EF glass. So far I have purchased the RF 50 f1.2, 85 f1.2, 28-70 f/2 and the 70-200 f2.8. And my favorite is the 28-70, the color, contrast and sharpness are remarkable. And the convenience of a zoom makes it very easy to use in a lot of situations. It's odd because I rarely used my old EF 24-70 in favor of my 85mm.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I hear a lot of good things from the 28-70mm. I hope to use it someday... ;)

David B's picture

Maybe rent it? It's kind of wild the first time you pick it up. Cheers!

Robert McCaslan's picture

I probably need to stop reading these comments. I too have heard good things about the 28-70mm. However, like you, I rarely pull out my EF 24-70mm, so I convinced myself that I don't need an RF lens in this range. I have the 15-35mm and the 70-200 as well as a 40mm Sigma prime to cover this range. I'm going to have to make do for a (long) while without the 28-70, but it's nice to hear how good it is.

Urban Rump's picture

Haven't said this about any gear for a long time but the 28-70 is actually fun to use!

Ian Meyers's picture

Agreed, the 28-70 is my favorite piece of glass ever

Lorin Duckman's picture

great lens, but too heavy to carry. sorry I got rid of it.

Brad Husick's picture

The Leica SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 lens is astonishingly sharp and versatile.

Flash Back's picture

Did a brief test of that 90-280, and yes it's prime sharp with great contrast.

Matthew Lacy's picture

Looks like it comes with a heavy vignette though.

Nando Harmsen's picture

That looks like a post-processing vignette, I think.

Flash Back's picture

Yes I added that in post to give some impact. Ducks aren't that interesting!

Darrel Crilley's picture

Agreed. The 6 yrs old SL zooms 24-90/90-280 are probably peerless and should be at price point. Neither is constant 2.8 but the detail and clarity, especially on SL2 sensor, are indeed astounding. On my first ski touring trip of 19-20 I was blown away by the micro contrast and fine details rendered in complex alpine mountain scenes. I had used the Fuji 50-140 and 100-400 for two years beforehand. Neither could remotely compete. Even without peeping the SL images were obviously so much sharper.

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

Fujifilm XF 100-400 mm is my choice - I was waiting to see of anyone would post on the new Nikon 120-300 F2.8 lens.

David Pavlich's picture

That's easy; my Canon 70-200 f2.8L II. Just a terrific lens!

Walt Polley's picture

24-120mm f/4 - I like the bit of extra reach (120 vs 105mm)

Kurt Hummel's picture

I’ll take the Canon EF 200-400 F4 with built in 1.4TC but I’m really happy with the RF 100-500.

Nando Harmsen's picture

The RF100-500 is a bit more portable
;)

Robert McCaslan's picture

That's why this article is so silly. There is no one zoom unless you only shoot a narrow range of shots. I could probably get by with the 15-35 and 100-500 (I love both lenses) but just one? Not going to happen.

W Mitty's picture

Aw, come on. Have a little fun.

Kurt Hummel's picture

Yep the 100-500 is so easy to take anywhere. It has been the perfect lens to carry along with the 600 F4, the 100mm gap has been easier to deal with than the 200mm gap I had with the 100-400.

Michael Dougherty's picture

As a general purpose and travel lens, my 24-200 on my Z7II is flexible and sharp. Recently sold my F-mount 24-120.

Tom Reichner's picture

Nando Harmsen said,

"A 3x zoom is the maximum zoom range that is possible without losing too much quality."

I'm not so sure about that, Nando. Are you sure that you made that statement based on the current state of zoom lenses, or did you make it based on the state of zoom lenses 6 or more years ago?

I ask this because the Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 version 2 is a 4x zoom, yet it yields exceptional image quality at all points in its range. It was released in 2015.

Also, the new R mount Canon 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 is a 5x zoom, yet also yields exceptional image quality at all points in its range.

I believe that when a blanket statement is made, without any qualifiers or exceptions, then he who makes the statement should do some research first, to make sure that no exceptions exist. Because, if exceptions do exist, then one runs the risk of their blanket statement being inaccurate, and no one should ever be okay with inaccurate information being published.

I think that we all need to be careful with what we say and how we word our statements, to ensure that we never disseminate misinformation.

Nando Harmsen's picture

The statement is based on the old days, way before 2015. Perhaps even in the previous millennium. ;) It's what I learned then, but there is absolutely no proof it was true.
I reviewd the 100-500 you mentioned, and it produces amazing results. But would you go beyond that zoom range? I would love to hear about a lens with a longer focal range dat has a similar image quality. I am always happy to learn

Tom Reichner's picture

Nando,

I would agree with your statement about 3x being the limit for uncompromised image quality for lenses a decade or more ago. But these days it's different, and for that I am very glad.

I think that recent technological advances have allowed for much closer tolerances in lens component manufacturing and assembly, and that is why the latest generation of zoom lenses can go way past the 3x rule and still produce prime-like image quality.

By the way, the lenses I use the most are both zooms - the Sigma 300-800mm f5.6 and the Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 version 2.

The big Sigma is wonderfully sharp, but is a little limiting at just 2.67x. But I get around that limitation somewhat by using it with both a full frame body and a 1.3 crop factor body, for a bit more range when it comes to field of view equivalence.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I love the EF100-400L II. The 300-800 sounds like a nice lens, especially with f/5,6. Must be a monster of a lens, thinking about my time with the EF800mm f/5,6 :)

Tom Reichner's picture

Yes, Nando, it is a monster. It weights 13 pounds, and is extremely front-heavy, which makes it awkward to carry and mount. But I have had it for almost 7 years now, and have gotten quite used to working with it, so the awkward balance and weight aren't so bad because I've learned how to adjust for them.

For the way I shoot, having my long lens be a zoom is so much better than having it be a prime. I use the entire range of the lens, especially the part of the range between 500mm and 800mm.

With wildlife, because of the topography/terrain and heavy brush, one can often not walk a bit closer or back up a bit, and is often "stuck" at a given distance to the subject. This is why I love a zoom - it allows me to adjust the framing the way I want from the place I must shoot from, instead of being forced to make do with framing that is a bit wider or a bit tighter than I would prefer.

I've had big primes in the past and felt like my creativity was severely restricted - like I had these ideas for ways I wanted to shoot the subject, but couldn't, because I was "stuck" at a fixed field of view. The zoom allows me to put into action the creative compositions and perspectives that I think up in my head and see in my mind's eye.

Nando Harmsen's picture

I understand the downside from the big tele lenses. I heard about one guy who used a 500mm f/4 a lot, but he had an extra camera with a 70-200mm next to it, for the moments the 500mm was too long.
But he was shooting mainly from shelters with not much room to move.

Timothy Linn's picture

The 24-105 is probably the right choice even though it is kind of a boring choice. I'd like to say the RF 28-70 F2 but my back is overruling me. If not for the weight, I'd be on the 28-70 bandwagon.

Jacques Cornell's picture

First, no piece of equipment gets to "rule them all". Silly click-bait hyperbole designed to pit fanboys against each other. How about "Which zoom if you could have only one?"

My choice for hiking has long been a Panasonic 14-140 f3.5-5.6 on my GX9 or GX8. It's unusually sharp and consistent across the frame and the zoom range. It allows me to get everything from wide vistas (sometimes with stitching) to details on the side of a distant mountainside. It weighs next to nothing. And, it lets me avoid lens swapping, so I can snap off a variety of compositions within seconds without falling too far behind my hiking friends who don't stop for me when I pause every few minutes to shoot.18"x24" prints are crisp & detailed.

That said, I'm tempted by Tamron's 70-200 f2.8-5.6 as a walkabout lens for my a7RIII.

Charles Mercier's picture

Well, it certainly wouldn't be that monster 10-500mm f1.4!!! lol

Jan Holler's picture

Very hard decision, but I'd probably go for the Nikkor AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8 or the 24-70mm f/2.8.

Teemu Paukamainen's picture

Now that's easy. Olympus M.Zuiko 12-100mm f/4. Good range, great IQ, portable size. If only it was an f/2.8 though... :)

Steve D's picture

For a one-lens solution for my Sony a7RM3 (I have 15 zooms and primes in my drawer, including several G-series), I find that my usual choice has become the Tamron 28-200 f2.8-5.6. For times when I 'know' I won't need the additional length, it's the Sony 24-70 f2.8.

Gregory Urbano's picture

the tamron 28-200 is on my wishlist

Kirk Darling's picture

For the retail portraiture that I do, my practical choice also winds up being, for Canon 24x36mm, the 24-105. I've got a cash flow to monitor and many things my money has to go toward. Every dollar spent has to bring in more than a dollar, and a bunch more money spent that will not increase my bottom line is not the way to stay in business...particularly in these covid days.

Leo D's picture

16-300 f1.4 :)
No, it depends on the type of photography. While traveling the Sony 16-35 f2.8 is on the camera about 70% of the time. If i had a 7R it would even be more versatile.
But for my commercial work there is no one lens. I buyed the 24-105 instead of 24-70 because of the longer range, and if i want wide aperture i prefer the 35/50/85 primes over a 2.8 zoom that only goes to 70mm. I use the zoom often to explore what prime to grab.
For product shots in studio i typically work between 50 and 70 (so 24-70 would do), but for portraits i want longer. 85 is the most usable when indoors. For many wedding photographers 24-70 2.8 probably is a must for speed.
Somehow i hate working with heavy, long lenses (and tripods as well, though i use them a lot still). I didn't use my 70-200 2.8 much for that reason. With people i don't like the working distance, the weight the difficulty with precise framing. 105mm prime would be the max for me. Apart from portraits I like to walk around, discover, experiment, play. Long lenses are more an obstacle and i take my camera off the tripod the moment i can.

I love the idea of a f2 zoom, but the size and weight are a turn off. It's also too intimidating i think.

Gregory Urbano's picture

The Tamron 28-200mm for my Sony a7ii is on the wishlist and conveniently reviewed on Fstoppers recently as well.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

I love the idea of 12-100/4 on MFT and would pay for scaled up full frame equivalent 24-200/4. I don’t even ask for 2.8 :)

Nando Harmsen's picture

Perhaps the mentioned Tamrom 28-200? That comes close to the 24-200/f4.
It sounds like a nice lens.

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