Prime Vs Zoom

Nice camera! How much is the zoom?

It's a prime lens.

What?

Fixed focus lens. No zoom.

why?

 

I prefer prime lenses. I have enjoyed my (now retired) Canon DSLR with a canon 50mm prime (inexpensive and very good) followed by a Ricoh GR (28mm equivalent prime) which is one of the best compact digital cameras I have used to my current Panasonic Lumix GF1 with a 20mm prime (40mm equivalent).  

So what's a prime lens?

A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length compared to a zoom lens which has a variable focal length. Prime lenses have fewer optical elements and are mechanically simpler than a zoom lens. Common focal lengths that are available in prime lenses are 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm, 135mm, 200mm, 300mm, 400mm & 600mm. 50mm lens on a 35mm film or full frame DSLR is considered 'normal' or very close to the human eye perspective. anything less than 50mm is wide angle. The main technical advantages of using a prime lens are:

Faster: Prime lenses usually have a bigger maximum aperture compared to zoom lenses. Good for portraits and low light photography without flash (because flash sucks!)

Optical quality: Since the prime lenses have fewer lens elements and are optimized for a single focal length, you can get very good sharp images from a prime lens compared to a zoom lens. This is not to say that zoom lenses are no good. Canon L series zoom lens are awesome if you can afford one. But the zoom lenses that come bundled with SLRs these days cannot match the $100 Canon 50mm lens.

Weight and Size: My 20mm micro four thirds prime is tiny and makes the whole camera easy to carry around like a rangefinder. Most prime lenses in the wide and normal range are lighter and smaller than comparative zoom lenses. 

Apart from technical advantages, cost could be a major consideration for most of us but it's difficult to vote one way or the other based on the cost. Some prime lenses can be cost effective like the Canon 50mm I mentioned earlier. But if you need to carry multiple focal lengths, the combined cost of all lenses will negate the cost advantage. Similarly good zoom lenses like the Canon EF 24-70mm F2.8L can be pretty expensive but offer a wide aperture and performance at par to some prime lenses. 

Considerations for using Zoom lenses include Flexibility and Bulk and cost of carrying multiple prime lenses vs one or two good zoom lenses. Compact digital camera users don't have much choice in terms of availability of digital cameras with prime lenses but it's worth considering that 'super zooms' usually come at a price- which more often than not is the loss of quality.

For me the choice of using prime lenses comes down to visual consistency. All my street shots and all my vacation shots from a prime lens have a common element- a fixed focal length- or consistency of perspective. The coice of a 'normal' prime lens adds a familiar perspective (something that we are used to seeing from our eyes) to the visual consistency factor. 

It's easy to miss a good zoom lens in some cases but then limitations are a part of the creative process...especially if those limitations produce such fantastic results!

 

Vishal Charles

July 5, 2011

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