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Prime lenses vs Zoom lenses

Prime lenses vs zoom lenses


Choosing whether to use a zoom lens or a prime lens depends on many factors and affects the aesthetics, ease of use, speed of working, picture quality and cost. 


A zoom lens can be “zoomed” in or out which means that the photographer can easily change from a wide shot or angle of view to a close up. A zoom lens is good for situations where the camera operator is working quickly and in unpredictable situations such as observational documentary. The operator can easily achieve a range of shot sizes without needing to stop and physically change a lens and possibly miss a vital piece of action.


Zoom lenses are also great for filming Natural History so that the camera operator can get a closeup of a distant animal without needing to get close to it. Sports too are a good reason to use a zoom.

The photo below is taken on a telephoto zoom lens and gives a good close up with the camera far away from the subject.

Photo by Syed Ahmad on Unsplash


Prime lenses are a fixed focal length which means that the angle of view or magnification is fixed. So if you want to change shot size from say a wide shot to a close up, you have to either change to a prime lens with a longer focal length (more magnification) or physically move the camera and lens closer to the subject.


So why bother with prime lenses at all? They have a number of advantages over a zoom and can give the photography an overall different ‘look’. There’s fewer glass elements in a prime than a zoom, so they’re more compact and weigh less, and because there’s less glass, they allow more light to pass through to the image sensor which means they’re better in low light conditions. Their ability to transmit more light means they can also have a large “aperture” or “f stop” and this can be used creatively to control the “depth of field” and produce those popular “soft focus” foregrounds & backgrounds often seen in commercials and high end cinematography.

This photo has a very shallow depth of field. The flowers in the near foreground are out of focus as is the distant background. The flower picker is in sharp focus so the viewers attention is drawn to her.

Photo by Arka Roy on Unsplash

Another big advantage of a prime is that it can focus much closer to the subject when compared to a zoom lens. Again this is used creatively to add impact to your photography. For example, a wide shot lens placed close to the subject gives a close up view but with much more width of the background in shot. A zoom lens or a prime with longer focal length (more magnification) will achieve the same close up shot size from further away but you’ll see a much narrower view of the background. 

This photo of a Mongol horseman is taken on a wide angle lens. The picture is in focus from the foreground right to the distant mountains and shows a wide view of the landscape.

Photo by Eric Huyton



In some cases, it’s fine to use just a zoom, or just a set of primes depending on the exact nature of the production. But if your budget can afford it, then using both a set of prime lenses and a couple of zoom lenses is the ideal package. This will allow for maximum creativity, help to communicate your message and will give your production a much better overall picture quality. 

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