It's the first choice anyone needs to answer when buying a lens - prime or zoom? For beginner photographers on a budget, it's all the more important. The specific qualities of your lens have a massive impact on the characteristics of your photographs, so finding a lens that enables you to create quality shots while also giving you room to learn is vital.
Whether you're looking for an initial kit to get you started in photography or are looking to add some additional capabilities with a second lens, let digiDirect help you make the smarter choice. Read on and let us demystify the difference, so you can buy exactly the piece you need to get the best shots.
Most camera manufacturers make an inexpensive 50mm f/1.8 lens (or it's equivalent) that is a great place for beginners to get acquainted with prime lenses. Learn more in our Portrait Lens Buying Guide
A mechanical difference
Fundamentally, what separates a zoom and a prime lens is the latter's lack of a zoom ring. While a zoom lens allows the operator to choose from a range of different focal lengths that change the field of view, a prime lens offers only one focal length.
What this means in practice is that a photographer can make a subject appear larger or smaller in an image taken using a zoom lens simply by operating the zoom ring. Conversely, were they using a prime lens, they would have to physically move towards the subject, a practice sometimes jokingly but literally referred to as 'zooming with your feet'.
This difference doesn't mean that there isn't a wealth of choice in both prime and zoom lenses - photographers can find everything from wide-angle 12mm to long-range 600mm lenses in both prime and zoom - it simply means that with one type of lens you'll be able to choose from a range of focal lenses and with the other you won't.
Prime lenses - precision and quality
Many beginner photographers gravitate towards a zoom lens without ever properly considering a prime lens. This can be a mistake, as a good prime lens and the right eye can deliver nearly all of the functionality of a zoom lens with a few welcome extras.
In a nutshell, while a prime lens might not have the capabilities to shoot at a range of different focal lengths, they excel at the focal length they're designed for, often delivering far superior image quality and low-light shooting capabilities. A key reason for this is that with most prime lenses, you'll enjoy a much wider aperture than you would on a zoom lens at a comparable price. That wide aperture allows you to shoot with a faster shutter speed in low light, making them perfect for handheld indoor events.
For those looking for a rich, beautiful bokeh effect, there's no better choice than a prime lens. In addition to low light performance, the large aperture also grants you a shallower depth of field, the key ingredient for achieving a stunning bokeh. While zoom lenses can also deliver shallow depth of field, their generally smaller maximum apertures won't deliver quite the same result as a good prime lens. Learn more about bokeh in our Introduction to Shallow Depth of Field article.
The more focused design of a prime lens limits the photographer in some ways but empowers them in others, forcing them into a different mode of thinking that can create some interesting results. Many photographers have suggested that prime lenses are useful for photographers looking to hone their composition skills. The argument is that since a zoom lens allows so many ways to correct distance issues, it can encourage photographers to get lazy and just zoom in or out, rather than looking for creative angles and framing. If you're a photographer looking to really develop their composition skills, a prime lens could force you to think more carefully about what angle you're shooting from, what light you're shooting in, and how you're combining the different elements of your shot.
Finally, a prime lens is often going to be much cheaper than the equivalent zoom lens. Being simpler mechanically means that they require less work to assemble, and less money to purchase. If you're a beginner photographer who's devoted to portraiture or any other single style of photography, you could save big money while also teaching yourself valuable composition skills by choosing a prime lens over a telephoto lens.
Wide maximum apertures make prime lenses particularly appealing for portrait photography, as they make it easier to achieve a shallow depth of field that isolates the subject from the background
Zoom lenses - flexibility and utility
Both zoom lenses and prime lenses have their advantages and disadvantages, and by their very design will each encourage a specific style of shooting.
For beginner photographers, a zoom lens is often considered the most economical choice. Being able to jump between different focal lengths gives photographers the power to - with the right lens - move from intimate close-ups to spacious long shots at the flick of a zoom ring. The fact that the same lens can be used to compose a shot reduces the immediate need for a second lens, potentially saving you some money up front.
Because of this capability, they're a natural choice for new photographers as they increase the ease of use of your camera. While there is definite value to being able to craft different shots without physically moving, in most cases it's going to involve a trade-off for the photographer. While the zoom lens offers a degree of versatility in shot composition, many models fall victim to the old 'jack of all trades, master of none' curse, delivering adequate performance at a range of focal lengths but excelling at none of them. This doesn't mean that there aren't any zoom lenses that aren't all-round successes - it's just that getting one often means paying an eye-popping price-tag well beyond what most beginner photographers can manage.
Zoom lenses are generally favoured in situation where speed and flexibility are required, such as wildlife photography
Additionally, zoom lenses are more complex to make, leading to a higher price tag and a heavier build. If you've got room in your bag and your wallet, a zoom lens could be the one tool you need for now. All the same, beware of trying to turn a lower-cost or less fully-featured model into something it's not - take the time to understand exactly what you require from a lens and choose accordingly. You might find out that it's a decision between an extra few hundred dollars and a feature that could really elevate your photography. As such, if you're more concerned about image quality and features such as stabilisation - and you can live without a zoom ring - a prime lens could deliver the functionality you need at a fraction of the price.
All that being said, the flexibility offered by a zoom lens is very attractive, and there's a reason why almost every kit lens (the common lens that comes with most cameras) is a zoom lens. And having one lens that can acheive multiple shots can save you from lugging around mulitple prime lenses and having to change lenses on the fly.
The more complicated internal elements of zoom lenses means they are typically larger and heavier than prime lenses
What's right for me?
For beginner photographers looking for a first or second lens, there are real strengths and weaknesses to both zoom and prime lenses. Often these will come down to a series of choices about the kind of skills you want to learn early on and the style of photography you want to pursue in these early days. Do you want to put a greater focus on a single style of photography with a prime lens, or expose yourself more shallowly to a greater number of styles with a zoom lens? Do you want to put a greater focus on natural shot composition, or learn how to compose a variety of shots using the camera settings?
Complicating this is that choosing one won't lock you out of the other - a zoom lens can shoot a variety of styles, and a prime lens can be a great way to learn composition. While each offer their own advantages and disadvantages, a beginner photographer would be well served by a decent prime or zoom lens, when paired with the right education and a bit of passion.
If you're looking for a quality lens of any description, look no further than digiDirect. With one of the largest collections in Australia and some of the friendliest and most knowledgeable staff, we can help you find exactly the right piece of equipment for you.
For your first, second or fifteenth lens, there's no better place to shop than digiDirect. Speak to our team today and let us help you make the smarter equipment decision.