Zoom vs. Prime Lenses: What’s the Difference?

Marianne Stenger
17th June 2019

If you’ve been thinking of investing in a new interchangeable lens for your DSLR or mirrorless camera, you’ve probably already noticed that there seem to be two main categories of lenses; zoom lenses and prime lenses.

So what’s the difference between a zoom lens and a prime lens, and which one is better? Understanding the capabilities and limitations of both types of lenses will help you choose the right one for your photography needs, so here’s what you need to know.

Prime lenses

Prime lenses come in all focal lengths ranging from wide angle to telephoto, but one thing they all have in common is that their focal length is fixed. What this means is that the only way to make your subject larger or fit more of a scene into the frame is to physically move in closer or take a few steps back.

Examples of popular prime lenses that can be used for most types of photography including portraits, wedding, and travel photography include the 35mm and 50mm lens.

Some of the advantages of prime lenses include:

Quality

Generally speaking, the quality of prime lenses is better than that of zoom lenses, because they have fewer moving parts and the glass is very precise, which can result in sharper images. Of course, technology is constantly improving and there are some zoom lenses that are just as good as some prime lenses. However, these also come at a significant cost.

Aperture

Another big advantage of prime lenses over zoom lenses is that they generally offer wider maximum apertures (smaller f numbers). Lenses with maximum apertures of f/1.8 or f/1.4 let more light through to the camera’s sensor which is ideal for shooting indoors or in lower light.

Lenses with wider maximum apertures also give you more control over the depth of field and allow you to achieve that beautiful background blur in your images. Of course, there are some zoom lenses that offer wider maximum apertures, but again, these will be significantly more expensive.

Lightweight

Compared to zoom lenses, most prime lenses are more lightweight and portable, making them easier to transport. Their smaller size also enables you to shoot more unobtrusively, which can be a good thing for certain types of photography.

Zoom lenses

As the name suggests, zoom lenses have variable focal lengths and allow you to make your subjects appear larger or smaller by simply turning the zoom ring.

Some of the advantages of zoom lenses include:

Convenience

Zoom lenses can be a lot more convenient because you don’t need to get physically closer to your subject. For example, a zoom lens with a focal length range of 24-70mm would allow you to shoot at either 24mm or 70mm, and everywhere in between. Since a 24mm lens would be great for landscapes or group shots and a 70mm lens would be ideal for portraits and close-ups, having one lens that works well for both types of images can be very convenient.

Portability

Although zoom lenses are generally bulkier than prime lenses, having one lens that covers the same range of focal lengths as multiple prime lenses means you can travel lighter. You’ll also never have to change lenses in the middle of a photo shoot or while out in the field and risk getting dust on your image sensor.

Which one is better?

Both zoom and prime lenses have pros and cons. Although neither type of lens is necessarily ‘better’ than the other, there may be times when a prime lens can deliver better results, and times when a zoom lens would be more convenient.

In general, prime lenses are excellent for portraiture and low light photography. Zoom lenses are more versatile and can be great for sports and wildlife photography or any situation where you want to be able to photograph things that are further away, without physically moving in closer.

Which one is best for you will depend on a number of factors including the type of photography you’re interested in, the conditions you’ll be shooting in, and how much money you’re willing to spend.