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.

Log in or register to post comments

55 Comments

Previous comments
Daniel Medley's picture

I'm a portrait shooter. Probably 80% of what I do is in the studio. For what I do, there can't be one lens, zoom or not.

I've got a 24-70 2.8, a 50mm 1.4, an 85mm 1.8, and a 135mm 1.8.

They each serve their purpose and each one can do things that I need that the others cannot.

As far as sharpness and "micro contrast" almost any lens manufactured in the last decade is going to be indistinguishable from any other lens in a comparable focal length and f stop to the average person or consumer.

Tom Reichner's picture

No existing zoom lens could "do it all" for me, nor do any of them even come close. The 100-400mm Canon is the most useful, but I only use it for about 40% of my photography, as it is nowhere near long enough for a lot of my wildlife work, nor can it focus close enough to do the super close-up work that I like to do with reptiles and amphibians.

But, if I could design a zoom lens that would be adequate for 70% of the photography I do, and if the design had to be reasonable and possible, it would be something like:

80mm to 500mm f5.6

built in 1.4x teleconverter (like Canon has on their 200-400mm f4 zoom)

image quality on par with the Canon 100-500mm f7.1

minimum focus distance close enough to yield 1.5x magnification at all focal lengths
(using the built-in 1.4 converter would increase the magnification even further)

image stabilization on par with the latest generation IS, which is between 4 and 5 stops

estimated weight 7 pounds

estimated MSRP $10,500 if from Canon, $6,500 if made by a 3rd party such as Sigma

C H's picture

The RF 28-70/2.

This is Saurons Lens. One to rule them all.

Lorin Duckman's picture

on my way for a culture date in NYC. should I carry light? just a 35mm stm 1.8 or the 24-105. perfect travel companions. not the sharpest, but quite utile. and there is always a powershot G5X. Too many choices.

Charles Mercier's picture

Unless you're making huge prints, the G5X is an excellent camera. It's also better not to be too obvious in the jungle.