Do you prefer prime lenses to zoom lenses? Have you been told by influencers and photo enthusiasts that prime/fixed lenses are the better way to go? Well I’m writing this article to help dispel the notion that prime lenses are better than zooms.
When I first started photography some 25 years ago, I was told that prime lenses were far superior to zooms lenses. The reasons for this were primarily based on performance and application, which came down to the limits of technology at the time, as well as prime lenses having significant advantages in low light due to their fast maximum apertures, allowing for faster shutter speeds when using film at ISO 800 and below.
Note: All images shot on the Leica SL with Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens
Technology and lens design have advanced
Fast forward to 2017, and much has changed, Firstly, prime lenses still have the advantage of being faster, as most zoom lenses only open up to a maximum aperture of f/2.8, so prime lenses still have up to 3 stops of advantage going all the way to f/1 with lenses such as the Leica Noctilux-M. Also, generally, when you stop a fast lens down, they get much sharper, and often sharper than a zoom lens as there is much more compromise that needs to be considered when designing a zoom lens which has more glass elements and groups involved in the final design.
Maintaining consistent quality of sharpness across the frame, great contrast, accurate colour fidelity, flare resistance and distortion control are almost impossible to master in a zoom lens at all focal lengths and apertures; and while there was a huge difference between primes and zooms many years ago, today’s high-quality zoom lenses bridge the gap significantly and take advantage of today’s technology to truly put prime lens quality into the hands of zoom users.
The pictures in this article were taken over a 3 hour period last night in Klang, Malaysia, where I documented behind the scenes of a Chinese Opera at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The lighting was moderately low so my ISO was set at 3200, shooting in manual exposure mode. I chose this ISO as it allowed me to keep my aperture at f/4 and shutter between 1/160-400sec, which guaranteed me sharp handheld results in that situation. I chose the aperture of f/4 as it gave me enough depth of field to slightly isolate my subjects but maintain enough focus to see what was happening in the background.
Shooting for Bokeh VS Content
All of these pictures were candid with no setups or manipulation of the scene. Most photographers around me chose to shoot with 50/85mm lenses, probably wide open, which would have made for distinctly different pictures. I spent a good part of my early years shooting in this way, only to find I ended up with a bunch of pictures that lacked substance and story-telling qualities. Don’t get me wrong, they were sticking pictures with blurred backgrounds, and while this may be appealing to amateurs used to shooting on smartphones with enormous depth of field, it becomes old and boring.
With prime lenses, the temptation to shoot wide open is very hard to ignore, and if you consistently use shallow depth of field, you end up shooting for 'bokeh' instead of 'content' and most pictures end up looking like isolated portraits that don’t tell much of a story. Not to mention the amount of pictures that end up being out-of-focus due to the very minute amount of tolerance shallow depth of field provides. In a way, you could describe shooting wide open as a gamble. The results could be amazing, but you do risk missing the shot entirely if its out of focus and/or has a background that would be important to the image, yet is non-existent due to the shallow depth of field. While its nice to use shallow depth of field to effect, to me its more of a novelty, so I focus more on composition, lighting and story-telling to make may pictures pop.
Picture Quality VS Image Quality
The other reason many photographers opt for primes is because they offer the ability to use faster shutter speeds at lower ISO’s, which means there will be less noise in the image, and somewhat better image quality. While this is true, there is a distinct difference between picture quality and image quality that needs to be understood and respected. ‘Image Quality’ refers to the quality of the digital file (colour, noise, sharpness, etc), and ‘Picture Quality’ refers to the quality of the photograph, created by the photographer (composition, timing, framing, etc). Too many photographers start photography with this mindset, which is really stepping into it on the wrong foot.
While this was important when shooting film (ISO 50-800), digital cameras in 2017 now offer us amazing capabilities to extend our shooting range up to ISO 12,500. This opens up new opportunities which include:
- Shooting in very low light, where previously, we would have to either use flash or put the camera away.
- Use faster shutter speeds to stop action in low light.
- Stop down, allowing mid to small apertures in low light.
Zoom lenses combine many focal lengths in one lens but are often known to deliver below par quality, and inconsistent at various apertures and focal lengths – not to mention they’re significantly larger than most prime lenses (except newer pro-primes like the Leica Summilux-SL 50/1.4 ASPH). Well companies including Leica are now focused on creating zoom lenses that rival or beat their equivalent prime lens counterparts, dispelling the notion that zooms are inferior to prime lenses. I use the Leica Vario-Elmarir-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 zoom lens for 95% of everything I shoot, and the quality is as good as or superior to most Leica M lenses.
So how is this achieved, and where did the idea come from?
The need for better performing zoom lenses comes from the ever-rising market demand for 35mm cameras with increased megapixel output. Many cameras manufacturers are increasing their sensors’ output to 24MP and above, and while this sounds good in principal, the sensor requires better performance from the lens because more megapixels are being extracted from the same size, full frame 35mm sensors. The result is that manufacturers like Leica have the task of increasing the resolution of their zoom lenses, and the ONLY WAY to achieve this is to design their lenses with as little compromise as possible. The biggest and most know compromise in lens design is size and weight, and this where things get interesting.
Zeiss were the first to release a 35mm format lens with medium format design and quality, and the Leica 24-90mm lens followed as the first zoom lens to take on the same design philosophy. The compromise is that it is quite large and heavy, but for good reason. The performance is unrivalled by any equivalent 24-70mm professional lens in the market, and truly excels in every area – AF speed, sharpness across the frame, flare and distortion control and colour fidelity. At every focal length and aperture, the lens performs consistently across all focal lengths and apertures, so it can be trusted to perform in every aspect, where other zoom lenses may require avoidance of certain focal lengths and apertures.
So performance aside, why do 'I' shoot with a zoom, especially considering its large size and heavy weight? The answer is ‘flexibility and efficiency’. When I’m shooting a story with limited time, I don’t want to be wasting time changing lenses, and potentially missing great opportunities and important moments. I’ve preferred using zoom lenses over prime lenses ever since I started shooting professionally for Getty Images, some 15 years ago. Very quickly I learned that getting the ‘picture’ was far more important than worrying about blurring backgrounds or gains in image quality a prime lens can achieve. When shooting documentary, the last thing a photographer should be thinking about is their gear. You need to be 100% focused on the moments in front of you and a zoom lens is a tool imperative to achieving that.
The flexibility of a zoom lens allows me to shoot efficiently, selecting different focal lengths in seconds, minimising the chances of missing a moment, and allowing me to shoot with my preferred focal length in order to make the best possible picture. I can even shoot two distinctly different versions of the same scene with different focal lengths for editing choices in post production. Being able to switch from a 24mm wide angle showing the entire scene, and then moving in for a headshot at 90mm within seconds becomes an invaluable asset in situations that cannot be repeated, and its in these movements where I truly value carrying the larger and heavier zoom lens.
There is also a photographic drawback that can come from shooting with zooms too, and that’s ignoring the focal lengths available, and zooming without considering the perspective changes associated with different focal lengths. Ie. Instead of moving back two steps and zooming to 50mm, you stay in the same spot and shoot at 28mm. At 28mm and being physically closer the shot is more dynamic with the background further away than the eye's perspective, compared to stepping back at 50mm where the background becomes more compressed and closer to the what your eyes are seeing.
There are no rules to choosing focal lengths, but one does need to keep lens-perspective in mind when doing so. This is why you hear many photographers advising 'newbies' to start shooting with primes instead of zooms. Understandinng focal lengths and their perspectives is very important, but at some point a zoom lens can become very important, if not imperative to a photographers success, as it has with me. In the field I’m always careful to select focal lengths on both my desired angle of view as well as the perspective I’m looking to create, and select my zoom position before moving my feet. This is a strict practise I exercise to ensure Im telling the story in the way I intend, and not by accident.
So are zooms better than using primes?
Yes and no. It all depends on your shooting style, subject matter and preferred way of working with your equipment. The point of this article is not to say that zooms are better for everyone, but more so to highlight that they can perform at the same levels of prime lenses and should be considered more now than ever before. Technology allows us to have access to much higher quality zoom lenses now, and ISO technology means we can use these zooms in low light. As much as I just love me some Leica M rangefinder and a small prime lens, I just love having the convenience of six focal lengths (24/28/35/50/75/90) at my fingertips, allowing me to be efficient and effective in the field, without compromising on image quality.
The goal of any photographer should be able to shoot very high picture and image quality at the same time, and today’s top zoom lenses make that achievable. Just don’t forget to not get caught up too much with image quality, or your photography will improve at a much slower rate. 'Picture quality' is what its all about, so focus less on your gear and more on the science and art of photography. While many of you may prefer primes to zooms, I hope I've made a compelling argument that at least motivates you to consider the possibility of how zoom lenses could fit into your arsenal of tools, and most importantly, help you reach the next level of your craft.