Primes vs Zooms which is better, or best?


I took this shot about a year ago, of a little bird drinking and washing, at my feet in the city. Not a spectacular shot, but one I like. It shows what was happening at that moment. It also brings me to think about the age old debate between primes/fixed VS zoom lenses.

Primes are without a doubt, dollar for dollar, higher quality lenses. You can get “better” quality shots with them, given you are in the right place in comparison to your subject. I love using them. Some of my favorite shots are taken with primes. And in studio work, or controlled situations, they can offer you a superior end product.  More so if you are on a tight budget.

However, zooms allow you to get shots you simply would never get had you been using a prime. A good example of that is the shot of the little bird. If I had to move closer to get this shot, the bird would have flown away. So the quality of my lens would have been nullified by NOT getting the shot at all. With a zoom, you simply … zoom in. There was no major movements on my part and the subject didn’t evade the shot.

With that said, using zooms in the studio and in controlled settings can be an advantage as well. You can quickly take a full body, torso, and head-shot without moving your feet or camera angle. And yes, simply moving forward to a subject will change your camera angle if you don’t also move the height of the camera (think line of sight and how the height to ground changes as you move closer or away from target).

This is why even though primes are used a lot in studio, you still see huge numbers of photographers using zooms even in the studio. Time is money, and the quality is often more than enough that no one could tell the difference when looking at shots… more so when you are talking high end lenses. The difference is seen more dramatically when dealing with “entry level” lenses though.

Ok, back to my original thoughts…. street shooting. There are many people who swear by primes for street shooting, and feel that zooms are just too “impersonal” and “lazy”. Well, if you shoot in tighter places, were there are a lot more people and less “space” I would agree… for the most part. But if you shoot in places where there are less people, less going on, and space is VAST, a prime will probably not be the best choice (unless you choose a prime you KNOW works in your subject distance requirements). And the places I shoot tend to be the second. I need to be able to get the shots, which may be down the street, or even at my feet. So depending on where I am shooting, I will normally use a mild-zoom or one that gives me a tad more reach.

Sure, carrying two cameras would be ideal.  One with a really nice prime, and one with a zoom suited for the distance shots your environment may call for (or even just another prime for longer distances).  But in reality, most of us either don’t have two cameras, or we simply don’t want to lug both around when out shooting; unless it is a planned shoot or pay shoot.  Street shooting and even mild nature photography tends to be a “light gear” thing for most folks.

I admit I normally bring a small gear bag with me at all times out shooting though, containing at least one speedlight, modifier, two extra lenses (one will be on the camera, so 3 total), extra batteries, business cards, notepad, and other goodies.  But I bring only ONE camera.  And in most cases I do not change out lenses unless I really need/want to.  I try to do what the “lens of the day” will do for me.  And normally that lens is a mild zoom.  But that is not always the case, and lately I have been favoring my 85mm prime.  Though the shots I get with it are vastly restricted vs when I use a zoom.

_dsc4441-2Yes, I do go out with a prime as my “lens of the day” as well (as I stated).  And I get some pretty good shots.  A 35mm or 50mm makes a good prime street shooting lens, and even the 85mm will work wonders if you keep in mind its limitations as well as strengths.  But one thing it will not be able to do is take both close up and far away shots (keeping the subject full frame) from the same location.

The shot here (woman running) was taken with the same lens as the bird was, while I was standing in the same location.  One is at my feet, and the other is across the street (wide sidewalks on both sides and a 4 lane major city street).  Had I been using a 35mm or 50mm prime I would not have been able to get either shot.  Life happens and waits for no one, less so a photographer wanting to capture that moment.  And that is what is important, getting the shot.

The “best” lens in the world will not help you if it is not suited for the subject matter or environment you are shooting in. PERIOD. So choose the lens that works best for you, not what someone online says “is best”. They may or may not be the same at all.

Now if it is a fully planned shoot, and you have time, control all aspects, etc., sure we can more easily identify “the best” lens, “the best” lighting, “the best” focal length, etc.  But for most photographers, that is simply not realistic or where they find themselves shooting.  So don’t worry so much about “the best”.  Make sure you have what you need and know how to use it to its fullest abilities….. and HAVE FUN!


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