Primes or Zooms? A question that has many ponders for decades, especially for consumers and prosumers. With advancing technologies and better optical designs, professional-grade zoom lenses are just as good, optically, as primes in the old days. So why bother with primes at all?
Frankly, cameras and lenses are just tools for the photographers. A good lens or camera will make great photos and that still solely comes from the photographer’s vision and techniques. Of course, each lens and camera has its own limitation and perhaps my very first question will be, what are the limitations for a zoom and a prime lens.
Before I drill into my love towards primes, let me start off with the limitation of zoom lenses. I must admit that all major lens manufacturers have advanced their optical and coating designs for the professional-grade zooms in recent years. The likes of Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM are prime examples for truly outstanding optical performance. Compare to the much loved first generation of these respective ancestors, the new products are light years away in terms of image quality. That doesn’t mean the older lenses are bad in any case and they still beat most of the lenses you can buy these days. They were design for pros at the end of the days. I still use and own the mark one of these zooms and they still serve their purposes and produce some stunning pictures that my clients want. So period. But I am talking about modern designs vs prime here. Despite the optical advances, zoom still possesses two major drawbacks when comparing to prime lenses: Speed and Size.
I am talking about light gathering ability rather than focusing speed. The fastest professional zoom lenses are all f/2.8, which are fast when compare to the stock kit lenses of f/3.5 or so. Even with those sophisticated image stablising technologies, you can never beat a good old fashion bright prime when it comes to low light. Image stablising, IS or VR or whatever the marketing people want to call it, is good for combating lens movement but it doesn’t help freezing the moment, i.e. shutter speed. A lot of people got confused that IS will help them get better low light shots. The answer is YES and NO. YES because you can shoot slightly slower shutter speed and still obtain sharp pictures but only and ONLY if the subject is not moving at all. So NO if the subject moves. Ok, you can flash it to freeze the moment but that’s the limitation of fast zooms.
Size is another problem. Zooms are big and heavy, especially those professional ones with high quality metal barrels or nice dense polycarbonate shell (it means expensive plastic) and lots of glass. My first generation Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM is just under a kilogram and the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM is under 1.4 kg! It doesn’t sound a lot but if you lug these two lenses out for a whole day, your back, shoulder and neck will hurt. Over the years since I started shooting weddings, I slowly down size my ‘luggage’. I still carry my roller case with all my stuff around but I only carry one may be two lenses at a time depending on what I want to shoot at the time. I am getting old these days so any weight saving will ensure that my hands and body can last the whole day!
Back to prime lenses. There aren’t really any negatives and if I have to pick one then it will be convenience, so it happens to be the positive for zoom! When you shoot primes, you are fixed with a focal length at any one time and there’s no choice to be shoot with that angle or move, physically. With a zoom, you can change the perspective just by turning the focal length barrel. Zoom may be heavy and slow but it’s way more convenient than primes.
So is prime really that good then? Yes yes yes! First, it won’t break your bank. You can get a few nice fast primes for a fraction of what a zoom will cost you, even brand new. A Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM, Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 and Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 all have a stop advantage over the 24-70 zoom and cheaper. Even if you add the brilliant Canon EF 135mm f/2 USM, that virtually covers all you need in a wedding and still have change left for second battery or more memory cards. Each has the image quality that will make your kit lens look rubbish and when shooting wide open, you can get some nice shallow depth of field that everybody seems to love these days. I talked about low light performance earlier and here’s an example:
Imagine shooting an identical scene and you need to have a focal length of 85mm with 1/125, f/2.8 and ISO 800 from a 70-200 IS zoom, you can use the 85mm f/1.8 prime, if keeping the same shutter speed, you can use f/1.8 and ISO 400 or 1/250 and keeping the aperture and ISO. That’s the flexibility in low light. I have some extreme fast primes like the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM which is another stop faster. Not only that gives me the ultimate low light tool but it gives me the sort of effect that no zoom will give me.
I love primes and so do many pros but zoom has the edge when it comes to quick coverage because it saves time in changing lenses and with modern DSLR, the high ISO is getting better, unlike the film days, and many pros can shoot ISO 6400 without too much complaint from the clients these days. Now, pros love their fast primes for their effect more than the ability to freeze in low light to be honest. But either way, I love them because I think primes will make you focus more on what you want to photograph. Zoom is a lazy tool for people who want cover everything every second every day.
Don’t get me wrong, zooms are great these days, I mean it!
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