Why Prime Lenses Are Sometimes Overrated

A lot of professional photographers espouse the use of prime lenses, whether for their sharpness, wider apertures, portability, or for some other reason. And while there are certainly advantages to prime lenses, you should not just automatically shun zooms without a second thought; in fact, they might actually be better for your needs, and this great video essay discusses why. 

Coming to you from Daniel Norton Photographer, this awesome video essay discusses the virtues of using zoom lenses. As a studio photographer, you might automatically default to using primes simply for the advantages they offer, but things are not like they were in past years. It used to be that there was a substantial difference in image quality (particularly in sharpness) over primes, but modern zooms are often remarkably good; in fact, they often offer equal or imperceptibly different sharpness compared to primes, and you get all the compositional versatility and convenience that comes with a zoom. If you do not need extra-wide apertures and do not mind a slight uptick in weight and possibly in price, a zoom lens can be a much better choice that will serve you in a wider variety of situations. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Norton.  

Log in or register to post comments
10 Comments
J. H.'s picture

Without watching the content: Why ... sometimes ... . The answer is in any case yes, regardless of the question.
Zooms are generally very good nowadays. There are zooms which are better than any prime of that time, e.g. the famous Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. - So, no, as nice as this video can be, that answer is not something one should be waiting for.

Brian Tokuyoshi's picture

I currently use only 3 lenses and they're all primes (35mm, 85mm, 135mm). I find that the main reason I switched to primes had nothing to do with image quality. I found that with a Zoom, there is a huge temptation to change focal length randomly based on wherever you or the subject was standing. I like the consistency across a series with primes, because the intent of using that focal length is baked in the framing. Now could I get the same framing if I just kept the 24-70mm at 35mm and never touched it? Yes, but it's pretty unlikely that I would never touch it. I just don't have that discipline.

Colin Johnson's picture

Oh please. Show me anything close to the rendering of the 85 F1.2 or 50 F1.2 on the Canon R5 using the 70-200 F2.8...

Lyle Mariam's picture

My RF 24-70mm f/2.8 is on my R5 95% of the time. I have an RF 15-35 mm f/2.8 for landscapes and a RF 85mm f/1.2 that I seldom use and consider it an expensive mistake. I believe the day of the prime is gone. I'll put my zoom lenses up against any prime. The ability to change focal lengths without swapping lenses and if you need a 65 mm just twist the barrel a little. I can show examples of a full-length shot of a model and then crop the image into her eye to show its tack sharp. When you don't have to change lenses, you minimize the possibility of getting the sensor dirty. Why carry a bag full of primes when they can be replaced by one zoom lens?

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- "I believe the day of the prime is gone. I'll put my zoom lenses up against any prime."

Depends on the look you're going for. How are you going to compete at f1.2, f1.4? Not everyone likes the f8 look.

Andrew Palmer's picture

To summarize the video in 1 word.

Convenience.

Love how as a teacher he doesn't even mention the 1 downfall of zoom lenses, focal length distortion. At the end of the day you could have a subject with 4 or 5 different looks and the distortion will cause the model to be distorted differently depending on whether the full body shot was shot at 24mm, 35mm, 45mm, etc. The consistency of knowing that every shot is guaranteed to be at a specific focal length can be quite important especially if working over multiple days. You can't be changing the perceived dimensions of a models face between photos simply for convenience.

Andrew Palmer's picture

And to give examples from Daniel Norton's own work, this model's jaw line/chin are completely different between these three photos all because of different focal lengths

https://www.instagram.com/p/B7lbXfnH_iG/
https://www.instagram.com/p/B6JiydWHU__/
https://www.instagram.com/p/B8MMnKrntYX/

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- "Love how as a teacher he doesn't even mention the 1 downfall of zoom lenses, focal length distortion."

That same goes for primes. Yes? The main premise of this video is that nowadays, zooms are pretty much the quality (give or take) as primes, so for him for his work, it's more convenient to just use zooms.

Matt Edwards's picture

I like the simplicity and continuity of primes. I use a zoom for wildlife because they aren't going to sit around while you swap lenses typically. Outside of that I like primes for everything else.

Paulus van Aken's picture

@andrew Palmer:
This has nothing to do with zoom, this is focal lengte distorsion, you het the same distorsion using primes of different focal lengths.
The longer the F the "flatter" the face will become. That's why they call a 85 a "portret-lens", by using that particular F you het the most natural view of a face.