Prime Lens vs Telephoto Zoom Lens

April 18, 2017

When I was starting out in photography, I always had a lot of questions. My first DSLR camera was a Best Buy Black Friday special. I eagerly purchased the camera off the shelf. I was a naive and thought my brand spanking new camera and kit lens would be the trick to quickly building a photography portfolio with professional quality images. Art Wolfe, watch out.

Ha, boy was I wrong! As time unfolded so did my frustration with less-than stellar images. They weren't HORRIBLE but they were a far cry from Mr. Wolfe's work.

There were a number of things I was doing wrong but the most obvious was my understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of prime lens versus telephoto zoom lenses. Let's break it down so you don't have to waste time and money like I did as I learned through trial and error.

A prime lens is "fixed" meaning you cannot zoom in or out. In essence, what you see is what you get. If you want to change the distance of your subject, you have to physically move closer or further away. Contrary, a telephoto zoom lens "zooms" towards and away from your subject without having to physically move to change the distance. A prime lens (also known as a fixed lens) and a telephoto zoom lens each have their pros and cons.

Prime Lens

Pros: They produce crisp, sharp images. The images produced using prime fixed lens have extraordinary details. Their larger maximum aperture makes for a faster shutter speed. The larger maximum aperture also allows for better photography in lower light situations. Using a prime camera lens also makes for a tighter depth of field, making for easy to get the subject in focused and a blurred background. Since they're are fewer moving parts and it doesn't rely on magnification like a telephoto zoom lens, prime lens give you more predictable results and have less distortion.

Cons: Fixed lens have some disadvantages. The first most noticeable difference is the price. Prime lens tends to be quite a bit more expensive than telephoto zoom lens. My Canon 400mm 2.8 II prime lensruns $10,000 in comparison to the $2,000 Canon 100-400mm telephoto zoom lens. Another disadvantage to larger prime lens (think 300mm and higher) is that they're bulkier and heavier than a telephoto zoom lens. If you frequently travel, carrying several prime lens quickly adds weight to your luggage. Another drawback mentioned earlier is that they don't zoom. (Shocking, I know! lol) If you need to change the distance between you and your subject shooting with a prime lens, you have to physically move your camera closer or further away since the lens doesn't adjust.

Below is an example of how a prime lens influences your shot. In 2016 I was in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, Africa when we can come across multiple lions on top a large rock. (Think Lion King!) When the lion was lying down, the Canon 400mm 2.8 prime lens was absolutely perfect. When he stood up and took a few steps, part of him was chopped off. We were parked in the safari vehicle so I couldn't physically move back, nor could I zoom out with my lens. Do you see how the lion rear paws are out frame? Not horrible but I feel it would have been more powerful had the lion's entire body, paws and all, been in the shot.


Telephoto Zoom Lens

Pros: The most obvious advantage of using a telephoto zoom lens is that it zooms in and out. If you're photographing wildlife you can make adjustments as the animal moves without fear of chopping off part of the animal. Another benefit of being able to zoom in and out with a telephoto zoom lens is that it allows for better composition. Need more foreground? Simply zoom out. Is your subject too far away? Zoom in! The telephoto zoom lens is less expensive and can be substituted for multiple fixed lenses when travel is involved.

Cons: The telephoto zoom lens has some disadvantages. The clarity of the telephoto zoom lens cannot compete with a prime lens. A zoom lens also requires more light since the maximum aperture isn't as wide. It's slightly slower shutter also makes it more prone to noise.

In the end it's a matter of preference. If you aren't worried about your images being crystal clear, tact sharp when enlarged, you could easily get by with a telephoto zoom lens. If speed, clarity, and sharpness are highest priority and you know your subject won't be moving too much, a fixed prime lens is the way to go. I typically have both a telephoto zoom and prime lens mounted on different camera bodies so I'm prepared for everything. Tell me what lens you prefer in the comments.

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