Blog – Upgrade Time : Primes or Zooms?

PRIMES OR ZOOMS? This is a question that many photographers are still debating. Unless you are genuinely enthusiastic about photography, it would be very difficult to understand what the fuzz is all about. Well, normal ‘snappers’ would not care more than just saying “I need an expensive camera with the highest pixel counts possible”. Normal people associate price and pixels as ‘QUALITY’.

Traditionally, many photographers always believed that prime lenses are much greater than zoom lenses. Less complicated primes are more reliable, lighter, sharper and generally much faster. With advancing technologies, today’s zoom lenses are definitely much better. The professional range are even matching some of the prime lenses’ quality, namely sharpness, image quality and reliability. Most new SLR or changeable lens system camera users have bought their cameras as a kit and most kits come with a zoom lens to aid versatility.


But if you are serious about photography, you will soon grow out of the kit lens that comes with your camera and you will want to upgrade it to something better. But then your next question: Primes or Zooms? Better lenses are not cheap and in the wonderful world of photography, the more you pay, the better lens you will normally get. But some people would wonder “why on earth would I spend so much on a lens?” In most cases, your next lens would probably cost more than the entire camera kits that you first bought. You may also think that you are probably better off getting a better camera kit or a nicer camera body.

“Will you get better picture quality with a better camera?” This is often the wrong perception of image quality. A better camera doesn’t always give you better results. Kit lenses are normally cheap and produce dull and soft images, regardless of the quality of the sensor. To put it into perspective, a higher pixel count sensor may sound nice but without a good quality lens, you may not see the sharp fine lines and subtle shadow details that you are expected to see in the end and this is something that cannot be enhanced during post processing. Not only a better lens will serve you better in long run, it will also retain its value much better than those cheap kit lenses which it comes to trade-in for upgrades. A good lens, when use right and service regularly, will last a life time too! It doesn’t sound too bad now does it?

Before you draw the conclusion on what lens to buy, first to consider is what you do you want from your camera? Are you are dedicated portrait photographer? Or you love to be a street photographer? Or a generalist and traveller photographer? These questions dictate the type of lenses you need. In full frame (135 format) photography terms, there are mainly three types of lenses, wide angle, standard and telephoto. Standard lens normally refers to 50mm (someone believes it has a normal field of view and the angle similar to human eyes) I didn’t test it but I believe in it and I use it a lot. Anything less is wide angle and anything over is telephoto. From my previous blog (Travel Photography), I mentioned wide angles for street because you can capture actions and cram the story in a frame of exposure. I tend to use 24 or 35mm lenses. For portrait, I use 70 or 85mm. Ok… you may be a little confuse with all these numbers and those who do would ask, I can have all these numbers (focal lengths) covered with a zoom lens.

Even with today’s technology, a zoom lens is a very complicated design. Optically consists of numerous glass elements. The zooming action will need to move certain elements back and forth for the focal length and focus. It’s not easy to produce a lens that will have consistent results across the entire zoom range. Even a professional grade zoom cannot escape from the weakness of a zoom design. It is getting close but not quite.


Some latest professional grade zooms have the sharpness that can rival traditional prime lenses but there is still trade offs from the inevitable zoom weaknesses. There’s always an optimal focal range in a zoom design where it will produce the best image sharpness, least distortion and highest contrast. In opposite, there’re only good or bad prime lenses. You get a good one, you will have a good lens that produces punchy colours, sharp and perfect straight lines. Sharpness has become a norm since the digital age came. You can pixel peep on a screen to see the sharpness of each lens but when we were using film, we wouldn’t do that. Ok, you can still tell if the picture is captured with a good lens or not but certainly not just from the sharpness point of view because it isn’t too obvious in most cases, not unless you enlarge it to a poster size. But remember, sharpness isn’t everything if you are shooting a story, street or journalling but if you shoot landscape or portrait, you will want to have a sharp one.

Because prime lenses are easier to design and manufacture, the likely hood of getting a good one is much higher. There aren’t many ‘bad’ primes and even a bad prime lens is miles better and faster than the kit zoom lens, trust me. The most common standard prime is 50mm f/1.8. There standard primes are nice, cheap and cheerful. With f/1.8 aperture, they are excellent for low light and great for isolating subjects. In contrast, a kit zoom is in a much slower category and normally starts at f/3.5 or slower.


The lens design also affect the way picture is formed or rendered. This gives the lens character. The aperture blades, for instance, affects the out of focus area. People often refer to ‘Bokeh’. The rounder the circle, the better the out of focus area generally becomes or people would say it’s ‘creamy’. To make a perfect circle, you need a few more blades as you may understand. These days, modern lenses use 5 to 7 blades and rounded to make the bokeh looks better. Some larger and older lenses will have 10 to 12 blades and their are simply awesome. This is the reason why some older lenses have certain ‘feel’ to it. This is also why medium format lenses tend to have better character and performance because they have more space to play with the glass and aperture blade designs. Apart from bokeh, the glass or optical element designs will affect the contrast and sharpness. All Leica lenses are hand made to a very high standards and they don’t work on tolerances and they ‘create’ each lens specifically. Hence they are all good. But factory-made lenses employ a tolerance policy and each lens can vary slightly to others in the batch. So Nikon and Canon’s professional lenses will use a tighter tolerances while the cheaper end lenses will not be as good as you may gather. In gerneral, a prime is simpler than a zoom and it has more space for a better and more accurate optical and aperture blade design.


Well, I don’t need to say too much here and zoom is always bigger and heavier than a prime (well with a few exception from the ultra fast prime lenses, like the 50mm f/1.2 or 85mm f/1.2). Most professional tele-zoom lenses weight around 1500g and a prime would normally weight around 300~500g. So people may argue that if a photographer will have to carry 3 to 5 prime lenses to cover a couple of zooms. Yes but look, for argument sake, even if I carry 5 lenses and equate to the weight of two professional zooms, each of my primes will have at least one stop advantage. But I don’t carry 5 primes at once, mostly two or three at most. So I will end up with a much lighter set up than lugging heavier zooms.


However, I do use my heavy Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM a lot because of its image stabilization (refer to as ‘IS’ or in Nikon’s ‘VR’ – vibration reduction). At the long end of the zoom, even with fast aperture setting, you will need a fairly fast shutter speed to counter hand shakes. This is where IS is really useful. For standard or wider focal length, hand shake is not as critical and you can use a slower shutter speed.

Zoom lenses were invented to enhance versatility of photography. I do believe they are great because what you can achieve in some confined situations where movement is restricted and when changing lenses were not convenient or fast enough.

Prime lenses are great for its size and out right image quality. They are usually faster and also great for low light and hand held photography. Narrower depth of field from large aperture means you can isolate subjects easily.


There may be a lot to digest and I am only scratching the surface here. I am simply writing this article with an aim to make you understand the pros and cons about prime and zoom lenses. Together with some information about what to consider for your next purchase or upgrade, in case you decide to keep on photographing. I emphases the importance of a good lens instead of a better body. Do yourself a favour and get a good lens, whether it is a prime or zoom, than a better camera body.

Your photographic interests will determine which type of lenses you will be getting next. Enjoy photography. Enjoy life!


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