Have you ever found yourself wondering while amongst a large group of wildlife photographers whether you need one of those gigantic lenses some of those “other guys” are using?
If so, you would not be alone. Shooting wildlife with a 600mm prime lens looks the part, doesn’t it? You look like you belong, and as if you know what you’re doing (whether you do, or not).
But, is that really true? One can certainly get good wildlife images with a zoom lens. That has been proven time and time again.
In today’s article, we’ll take a look at prime and zoom lenses, breaking down their differences, list a few advantages for each, and lay it all out there. As with most things in photography, there isn’t one single answer. That is for you to decide. This article is to help you understand more about both types of lenses.
What is a Prime Lens?
A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length, meaning it does not zoom. Prime lenses have a single specified focal length, and come in a variety of sizes and focal lengths, such as 50mm, or say, 600mm for wildlife shooters. The angle of view cannot be changed with a prime lens unless the photographer literally moves their body in order to change up a scene or make an object larger within.
What is a Zoom Lens?
Zoom lenses are quite the opposite as they are designed with a variable focal length. In other words, they let you zoom in and out of a scene by turning the zoom ring. When looking at a zoom lens you’ll see two specifications that represent the lens’s zoom range. A wide-angle zoom lens nearly everyone will be familiar with would be a 16-35mm lens. This indicates the lens can capture images at its widest 16 millimeters, to full zoom at 35 millimeters, and every focal length in between.
The knee-jerk reaction might be to think “why would you choose a prime over a zoom when I can get all those focal lengths in one lens?”
Well, as with seemingly everything there is more to it than just what is at the surface. There are advantages and disadvantages to both lens types. Let’s look at a few of those here:
Advantages of a Prime
The quality of the glass will likely be the first thing a prime lens user will argue when discussing why he or she chooses to use primes. And while the glass quality gap between zoom and prime lenses is closing, primes are known for being of higher quality that gives them the ability to produce clean, crisp, and precise shots. Primes have fewer optical elements inside, which means there are fewer chances for abnormalities. As a result, they are better at producing sharper images. Fast, professional prime lenses are equipped with wide apertures, meaning they are fast light gatherers capable of shallow depths of field resulting in photographs with beautifully rendered bokeh.
Price is interesting as it fits under “advantages” for both prime and zoom. Allow me to explain: Prime lenses, which are constructed with fewer moving parts, can be cheaper to buy. Before I’m hunted down by mobs of 600mm prime owners, this is obviously not the case across the board. Quality of the lens and focal length are proverbial game-changers with regard to this conversation. Those big wildlife primes, at around $13,000, are of course, NOT cheap. But, you can pick up a good 50mm prime lens for a few hundred dollars.
Weight is another category where it really depends on which lens you’re talking about. A lot of prime lenses are going to be smaller and lighter. Yet, when you buy a handful of lenses to cover the focal spectrum, you are adding a number of lenses to your overall carry, as opposed to having one or two zooms. When discussing big wildlife primes, weight certainly finds itself better suited under the “disadvantages” category.
Prime lenses are generally faster than zoom. This, too, is changing as manufacturers continue to improve zoom lenses. Having a faster (wider apertures, like f/1.4) lens allows you to shoot more effectively in low light conditions without having to push your ISO higher than you’d like. The wider aperture allows more light into the camera. Think of the following example: You are photographing geese at golden hour. You need a shutter speed that will freeze the movement of the geese as they take-off or land, yet with low light you are forced to bump the ISO higher than you’d like, as higher and higher ISOs introduce “noise.” With a faster lens, like an f/1.4, you can achieve more light through the aperture, thus being able to get to the shutter speed you need. Is there really that big of a difference? Take into consideration that an aperture of f/1.4 is four times larger than f/2.8 and that 2.8 is quite good for a zoom.
Disadvantages of Prime
It is funny to have something fit as an “advantage” as well as a“disadvantage,” yet here we are. Cost is an advantage for smaller prime lenses as it is possible to get some high-quality glass without spending a fortune. Not all, but many, can be purchased at a reasonable expense. However, as we move into the more pro-caliber and telephoto lens options, cost becomes an enormous disadvantage with large primes priced more than many used cars. A 150-600mm zoom lens from Tamron, for example, can be purchased for a little more than a thousand dollars.
Size & Weight
Same here. Fits both categories, in a way. The smaller prime lenses are advantageous for both size and weight, while the telephoto primes are HUGE and HEAVY!! They are challenging to transport, especially when you need to get them to places where you might be utilizing small aircraft that have weight restrictions. These primes are likely not going to cut it as “carry-on,” either. Hiking around with a big prime is also not a ton of fun, giving a huge edge to the zoom lens in situations where you’d need to hike a bunch in order to get to your subject(s).
Advantages of a Zoom
The most obvious advantage of a zoom lens is its versatility. Depending on which zoom you have, you’d be able to go from wide-angle to telephoto in a quick turn of the zoom ring. Being able to throw one lens on your camera body, and to then be able to use just that one lens for a handful of different compositions and situations is easier.
Size, Weight, and Portability
Having one zoom lens take the place of potentially several primes can be advantageous as a single lens obviously takes up less space in your pack than several. The size difference between a 600mm prime and a 150-600mm zoom is significant, as is the weight between them.
Disadvantages of Zoom
Again, the overall image quality of zoom lenses is definitely getting better all the time. But, its not there, yet. The zoom lenses are simply not going to be as sharp as a like-prime lens.
Zooms are less sharp because of optical errors coming from their complex nature. Expensive unique glass elements and coatings correct some of these errors. As a result, you’ll see a drastic increase in quality.
Choosing a zoom over a prime telephoto using reasons provided within this, or other, articles, is a compromise. If the number one problem you’re faced with is weight and packability, you may decide that the zoom lens is “good enough,” and go with it. If you know that prime is going to be your best option to get your best images possible and that in your mind is clearly number one, there you have it.
And, don’t forget, an expensive zoom will easily surpass a cheap prime, so make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.
For some of the more pro-level zoom lenses, speed is not a huge issue. My 24-70mm f/2.8 is quite fast. Fast enough for most of the situations in which I use it for. However, the f/1.8 of the 600mm prime used for wildlife is nice, to say the least. When compared to, say, the 150-600mm zoom from Tamron, where the aperture will vary between f/5-f/6.3, this is a large advantage for the prime.
This article was certainly not designed to make an argument one way or the other regarding prime vs. zoom lens choices. Perhaps you use both zoom and prime lenses, as I do. A lot of serious photographers will have a lens setup that includes a “nifty 50” prime, a collection of zoom lenses covering the focal spectrum, and then, perhaps, that one big telephoto prime.
It can’t be overlooked, however, that owning a telephoto prime is certainly dependent a great deal on how much money you can spend on camera gear, and how often you’ll use it. Taking time to consider which gear suits your shooting style best is certainly worthwhile and as long as you are having fun making images you are proud of, what really is the difference?
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.