Prime Lenses vs. Zoom Lenses

Travel Photography Tips
7 min read

Now that we’ve learned the basics of how to use your camera, we can get into which lenses make the most sense for you. If you have a camera that has interchangeable lenses, this will help you understand the differences between a prime lens and a zoom lens! By the end of this post, you’ll know the difference between a prime lens and a zoom lens, as well as what situations work best for each choice. Let’s learn!

To view previous Travel Photography Tips, click the following links to read those posts: The Exposure Trio | White Balance & Focal Points. Also, I’ll be showing example photos of my Canon 5D Mark II and Fuji X-T20. These are universal settings we’ll be dealing with, but the placement of each will depend on which camera brand and model you’re using.

Prime Lenses

If the word prime lens makes you think of an Autobot, that’s understandable. A prime lens stays at one focal length; what you see through the lens is what you get. If you want to take a photo of something further away, guess what? You have to use your legs and walk to it. Why would you want to use a lens that’s less versatile (and requires more walking)? I’m glad you asked. Prime lenses have several pros that give them advantages over zoom lenses, but some noticeable cons as well.

The Sigma 35mm Art is a prime lens. Even though it’s on the larger side for a prime lens, it weighs only 23 oz.

Pro: Lower Aperture

The first advantage is aperture. If you remember from our first lesson, the aperture is the size of the opening in your camera’s lens. This dictates how much light hits your sensor as well as the shallowness of your depth-of-field. Prime lenses have apertures that go all the way down to ƒ1.2 (even ƒ0.98 in one, odd lens), while the typical high-end zoom lens bottoms out at ƒ2.8. Most portrait photographers utilize the prime lens’ open aperture to separate the subject from the background. The wide aperture makes prime lenses very useful in astrophotography as well.

See how the road behind me and the snow in front of me is out of focus? That’s the wide aperture of the Sigma 35mm Art ƒ1.4 lens, which is a prime lens.

Pro: Better Optical Quality

Prime lenses aren’t as complicated as zoom lenses. Why does this matter? Well, zoom lenses have more glass in them. That means, since there are more optical components, less light is able to reach the sensor. Also, since the parts of the lens are movable, their placement and fine-tuning have to be on point. Because of the increased amount of parts and glass, and the movability of the lens’ body, it’s tougher to get tack-sharp images with a zoom lens.

Pro: Typically Aren’t As Heavy

Since prime lenses don’t have as many components or as much glass in them, the lenses tend to be lighter than zoom lenses. This might not seem like a big deal, but the ounces really add up. Carrying around a heavy zoom lens and a bulky DSLR body can really put a strain on your neck, pack, or shoulders over the course of a day.

This hike in Zion National Park was much easier with a prime lens hanging off my neck

Con: Limited versatility

This one’s pretty obvious. If you can’t zoom, that means you have to physically move in order to frame a shot. While I tend to like this way of taking photos, it can make it difficult to snap the shot you want if the terrain doesn’t agree with you.

Con: More packing

If you want the optical quality of a prime lens but want to be prepared for every situation, you’re going to have to pack more lenses. A typical portrait photographer who uses primes will have 50mm and 85mm at a minimum, and most likely a 35mm as well as a ~100mm lens to cover the whole spectrum. Meanwhile, if you were to use zoom lenses, you could pack a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm lens and have every focal length covered.

Imagine lugging this amount of lenses around

In short, use a prime lens if you’re shooting portrait photography, want the boost in picture quality, and are confident in your ability to capture your image without needing to zoom.

Pros: Lower Aperture // Better Optics // Lighter
Cons: Limited versatility // More packing

Zoom Lenses

While a prime lens is a less descriptive name, I’ll bet you know what a zoom lens does, right? You guessed it…explode! Kidding. It’s zoom. I’m just making sure you’re still paying attention. Anyways, a zoom lens has several key advantages over a prime lens, but a few drawbacks as well.

This is the Canon 70-200mm 2.8 L lens. See how much larger it is than the Sigma Art from earlier? It’s more than twice as big and weighs 46 oz.

Pro: More versatile

A zoom lens is super handy, especially when traveling, because you can change the focal length and reframe your shot without having to physically move. Are you trying to snap a photo of Glacier Lagoon, but can’t walk forward to crop out a traveling couple? It’s easy. Just zoom. I think I’m starting to sound like that Mazda commercial.

Pro: Less packing

Since you have more focal lengths covered, you can pack less! That means saving valuable pack space for you onebaggers reading this. You might only want to shoot landscapes along with the occasional portrait or selfie. In that case, a zoom lens in the lower end of the spectrum, like a 24-70mm or a 15-50mm would be the perfect lens to stow away. Your shoulders will thank you for lightening their load.

This one lens covers the 24mm-70mm focal lengths

Con: Higher aperture

Because there are more mechanical components and more glass in the body of the lens, the aperture doesn’t get as wide-open as prime lenses. The widest zoom lenses tend to go is ƒ2.8, compared to some prime lens’ ƒ1.2 aperture. While high-end zoom lenses keep the same aperture as you zoom, the cheaper ones do not. For instance, my Canon 70-200mmL lens (a $1,000 lens) keeps its ƒ2.8 aperture whether it’s at 70mm or 200mm. My Fuji 18-55mm lens has an aperture of ƒ2.8 at 18mm, but it shoots up to ƒ4 once you zoom to 55mm. That means there will be a wider depth-of-field, less bokeh, and less separation of subject and background. This might not be a dealbreaker for you, but it’s something to consider.

Con: Heavier

Have you carried a zoom lens before? They can be HEAVY. My Canon 70-200L lens could be used as a police baton and, when paired with my Canon 5D Mark ii, weighs almost 5 pounds. That’s a lot of weight around your neck, especially if you’re hiking through Bryce Canyon. while a zoom lens will save you space by keeping the amount of lenses you pack to a minimum, they’ll definitely weigh down your neck or wrist over an extended period of time.

This is my cranky face from holding that zoom lens for hours

Con: Relatively Lesser optical quality

Zoom lenses have more glass in them. That means, since there are more optical components, less light is able to reach the sensor. Also, since the parts of the lens are movable, their placement and fine-tuning have to be on point. Because of the increased amount of parts and glass, and the movability of the lens’ body, it’s a bit tougher to get tack-sharp images with a zoom lens.

Use a zoom lens if you want to pack less and have a jack-of-all-trades lens that will provide you with good, but not amazing, picture quality.

Pros: More versatile // Less lenses to pack
Cons: Higher aperture // Heavier // Lesser optical quality

Now you know the differences between Prime and Zoom Lenses!

Those are the differences between prime lenses and zoom lenses! Did you have any questions? Do you prefer zoom lenses or prime? If you missed out on the last travel photography tip on the White Balance and Focal Points, then click here to read more. I’ll see you next time!

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