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4. Prime vs. Zoom

Speaking of things purists and non-purists alike are passionate about, discussing the difference and overall value of prime lenses versus zoom lenses can cause some photographers to have a conniption. Many times, this argument is focused on which is sharper, lighter, or more true to the roots of photography. Nevertheless, photographers prefer to shoot with one or the other, or a combination of the two.

Prime Lenses

Prime lenses are those that are limited to only one focal length (Figure 1.8). The first camera lenses ever were prime lenses, and they are still very popular, especially among those wanting lighter loads and incredibly shallow depth of field. Prime lenses have fewer moving parts than zoom lenses, making them easy to carry around (aside from the super telephoto lenses), smaller (again, aside from the big glass), and less intrusive to subject matter (super telephotos might as well have red flags flying atop). Since they have fewer moving parts, and fewer pieces of glass or lens elements that might be moving otherwise, prime lens are arguably sharper than zoom lenses.

Figure 1.8

Figure 1.8 Prime lenses, like this EF 85mm f/1.8 L, are appealing to many photographers for their size and quality.

There are plenty of focus charts online and research on the subject. When you nail focus with prime lenses, especially at very large apertures, they are sharp. Perhaps the sharpness is heightened by the extreme bokeh. And when it comes to bokeh, prime lenses cannot be beat. At only one focal length, manufacturing is capable of building lenses that have very wide maximum apertures. Whereas the maximum aperture opening of any zoom lens Canon makes is f/2.8, some prime lenses open up all the way to f/1.2, a whole two-and-a-third stops more open. Talk about great lenses for low-light conditions and isolating subject matter from an environment!

Prime lenses are not without their issues. Some prime lenses do not allow stopping their aperture down more than f/8 (such as the EF 50mm f/1.2L and the EF 85mm f/1.2L). This might pose problems for the photographer looking to achieve hyperfocal distance depth of field, albeit the lenses that stop at f/8 are not ideal for landscapes and other types of photography that maximize depth of field. Prime lenses, as their name indicates, are also limited to just the one focal length. This isn’t necessarily a negative, unless you are the type of shooter who requires a range of focal lengths but doesn’t have room in the camera bag—nor the budget—for every prime lens available. Prime-lens advocates encourage those wanting the flexibility and convenience of zoom lenses to “zoom with their feet” and move around in the landscape. However, there are times when the prime lens comes up too short or too long, without the ability to change on the fly. This usually happens to me when I’m using telephotos such as the EF 300mm f/4L or EF 400mm f/2.8L. While shooting football games, these focal lengths are great, until the action comes real close, real fast!

Zoom Lenses

Zoom lenses, on the other hand, offer a range of focal lengths and are many folks’ go-to lenses. Consider Canon’s EF-S 18–200mm f/3.5–5.6. For crop-sensor camera users, this lens offers enough range for 90 percent of their work. On top of that, it’s fairly light and much smaller than the EF 70–200mm f/2.8L and the popular EF 24–105mm f/4L.

Zoom lenses come in all shapes and sizes, and if you just bought a Canon Rebel or another crop-sensor camera, you more than likely combined it with Canon’s standard EF-S zoom, the 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6. Many folks also purchase an EF-S 55–250mm f/4–5.6 IS or the affordable telephoto zoom, the EF 75–300mm f/4–5.6. With just two of these lenses, a shooter has an entire bag full of prime focal lengths—and more—at her disposal. Personally, I carry an EF 24–70mm f/2.8L the majority of the time, and when I’m on assignment where I expect a variety of shots and perspectives, I carry an EF 70–200mm f/2.8L attached to an additional camera body.

However, zoom lenses are anything but invisible. If your goal is to be inconspicuous in a crowd, a long telephoto zoom is probably not the best choice. Higher-end L-series lenses are also much heavier than their prime counterparts, as well as non-L-series zooms. Canon has done a great job in previous years of manufacturing lighter lenses, but big zooms are still heavy (part of which helps stabilize some to be handheld). Lastly, zoom lenses cannot reach the maximum aperture openings of many prime lenses. More expensive, higher-end zooms, such as those mentioned in the previous paragraph, can open up to f/2.8, the largest opening of any zoom lens Canon makes. But this doesn’t compare to lower-end, less-expensive primes that open up to f/1.8 or f/1.4.

Which One?

Like shooting in manual focus or autofocus, shooting with prime or zoom lenses is a choice based on preference and shooting style. Ultimately, you might have the best luck working with a combination of the two types, if you have room in your camera bag. If I need a lens that offers as much flexibility as I can possibly squeeze out of it, I’ll go with a zoom, particularly if I foresee shots made at multiple focal lengths. If I’m needing a lens that does not get in the way, is easy to carry—and more important, doesn’t seem aggressive to my subjects—then a prime lens or two is what I will throw in a small bag. The majority of the time, though, I have a bag with a few zoom lenses and a couple of prime lenses.

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