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Matt Grandbois Logo
November 9, 2022

Prime Lenses vs Zoom Lenses for Photography

Prime lenses vs zoom lenses for photography: I feel it necessary to start this post by saying that everything stated henceforth is my opinion and should be taken as nothing more. As such, I have been a photographer for almost ten years as of writing this post and have worked with countless lenses along the way.

When I first started out, I was rocking the Canon 70D with an 18-135mm kit lens. While that isn't a setup I would choose today, I feel that it was perfect for getting started and developing my theoretical photography skills. After a year or two of using that lens exclusively, I added a Canon 85mm 1.8 USM lens to my arsenal, which completely changed the game for me.

So, let's get into today's topic: prime lenses vs zoom lenses for photography: which are better?

Zoom Lenses

There's no doubt about it, zoom lenses have garnered a poor reputation over the years due to the vast number of cheaply-made kit lenses. But that said, I think it's unfair to group all zoom lenses into the kit lens category. After all, I've used several zoom lenses that cost more than my average rent payment... for 4 months and have been nothing short of amazing.

On the contrary, I've also used zoom lenses that made me feel like a terrible photographer because of the mediocre image quality they produce. My point is: it's impossible to say zoom lenses are all good or bad because they are all different and vary drastically in price.

Zoom Lenses: Kit Lenses

When starting out, I used the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM because it came with my Canon EOS 70D. It was fine for a beginner, but you couldn't pay me to use it today. It now sells for less than $200, but in this case, you get what you pay for.

Chromatic aberration is a big issue with this lens. The variable aperture was annoying, to say the least, and the image quality was about as crappy as one could imagine. Now, for someone who had never owned a DSLR before, it was the nicest lens I had ever owned at the time.

All that aside, I still captured some of my all-time favorite photos and had some of the best experiences in my life with this lens in hand. Not to be cliché, but sometimes the best camera you can get is the one you already own. If you have never owned a camera before, a kit zoom lens is a perfectly acceptable starting point. But as your skills progress, you will quickly outgrow entry-level gear.

Brand Selection

Good is a relative term, but I think most photographers who know what they're doing can unanimously agree that at a certain point, a brand is irrelevant, and everything is objectively good. But to be honest, even though I can admit that Nikon makes good cameras and lenses, you would never catch me holding one by choice (sorry, Nikon fan folks).

Personally, I loved my Canon setup but a couple of years ago was at a point where I was ready to upgrade everything I owned. This meant I had the freedom to choose my brand, and at the time Sony was head and shoulders above its competitors. As a result, I invested in a Sony Alpha A7RIV and a Sony FE 24-70 f/2.8 GM lens.

My Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 GM

Since this post is about lenses, let's talk about my 24-70 f/2.8 GM. At the time of purchasing this lens, I had used many zoom kit lenses, a few decent prime lenses, and one super nice zoom lens. To say that this new lens was in a league of its own would have been the understatement of the century.

I was absolutely blown away by the sharpness, silky bokeh, and great focus speed this lens offered. And paired with the A7RIV, I felt like I was finally able to create the highest quality images that my imagination would allow. That lens became my workhorse for about 2 years. But after about 4 months of owning that one, I purchased another lens: the Sony FE 70-200 f/2.8 GM OSS.

My Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS

Since I had such a positive impression of the 24-70, I had the same level of expectations for the 70-200 GM when I ordered it. I was so excited about the delivery, and when it finally arrived, I was eager to get out and test it. The first thing I noticed was the superb build quality.

It was a bit heavy, but to me, that meant it was well-made. Or so I thought. After taking it for a test drive in the Poudre Canyon in Northern Colorado, I got home to pixel peep and was thoroughly disappointed by what I saw.

I know how to properly expose photos. I know that my shutter speed denominator should always be at least the same as my focal length to ensure a sharp exposure. But what I saw from that shoot was nothing short of garbage.

Every photo was properly exposed with a shutter speed of at least 1/320s, but every image was fuzzy at the focus point. I was so upset after spending $2,200 that I actually exchanged it for another copy because I thought my first one was just a lemon. But alas, I was wrong (again).

And to add insult to injury, about two months after I bought it, Sony announced they were releasing the FE 70-200 f/2.8 GM OSS II. It was just enough time to be past my return date, so I felt like a total fool. The moral of this story is that a high price tag doesn't necessarily equate to a great lens.

Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II

Fast-forward about eight months: I was able to sell my 70-200 GM version 1 for $1,900 (a huge victory), and after waiting about six months, I was able to get my hands on the 70-200 version 2. Everything I hated about version 1 was fixed in the second version, and the image quality was even better than my 24-70 GM.

To this day I use this lens as a workhorse and have nothing but great things to say. It was about $2,700 which is pricey for a lens, but it was worth every damn penny.

Prime Lenses

As I mentioned before, I used to own a Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM, which completely changed my photography game. Having the ability to shoot at such a wide-open aperture forced me to challenge what I knew about landscape photography and try new perspectives. Although this particular lens suffered immensely from color fringing, the sharpness, when compared to my kit lens, was incredible.

I loved shooting portraits with this lens. On my crop sensor, it was equivalent to a 135mm lens, which is my favorite focal length for humans (I think it is the most flattering). The bokeh was also superb and allowed me to get some really depthy (yes I made that word up) compositions.

Sony Prime Lenses

About two months ago I rented a Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM to shoot the milky way in Wyoming with a couple of friends. I was blown away by the build quality, image quality, and overall aesthetic I could achieve. I'm not too fond of fish-eye focal lengths, but this particular lens delivered minimal distortion when compared to other wide-angle lenses I've used in the past.

I started to miss the creative possibilities my Canon prime lens offered me, and about a week ago (as of writing this), I made the decision to sell my 24-70mm GM lens and replace it with three prime lenses: the Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM, the Sony 35mm f/1.4 GM, and the Sony 50mm f/1.2 GM.

It was a tough decision to make. I love the convenience of having a 24-70mm zoom lens, but I also love the quality that prime lenses offer in addition to the wider maximum apertures. But the biggest reason I switched from zoom to primes was that I honestly started feeling a bit lazy with my zoom lens.

With prime lenses, you have no choice but to physically move around to get your perfect composition. But with zoom lenses, you can sit in the same spot and with the twist of a ring, you can achieve your perfect shot. I'm not saying it's a bad thing to use a zoom lens; some occasions require a zoom lens, like weddings or events, because you don't have the luxury to take an extra few seconds to set up a shot.

But since my photography is an art form where time is not necessarily of the essence, I knew it was time to challenge myself and switch to primes. I am obsessed with my 50mm f/1.2 and can already envision the possibilities it will allow me to achieve.

Prime Lenses vs Zoom Lenses for Photography

Now that we've covered my experience with prime and zoom lenses, let's get into my opinion on which type of lens is better.

The short answer is it completely depends on what you are going for. If you're just starting out and aren't looking to spend upwards of $10,000 on several different lenses, I would recommend you buy yourself a solid zoom lens so that you don't completely box yourself in creatively (although, I think sometimes by limiting yourself to one focal length you are forced to be even more creative, but that's just me).

If you are an avid adventurer who needs to keep your bag light but wants high-quality images, go for a high-end zoom lens, like a G Master, L Series, or something similar. Most top-level lenses are weather sealed so that's a plus for all you outdoorsy folks.

If you have extra money to spend and want to have the best possible image quality, I would recommend purchasing a few different prime lenses. Most brands allow you to get some great pro-level prime lenses for under $1,000 a piece, which offer great image quality with large max apertures. I also think prime lens forces you to be extra creative and truly think about your composition before simply spraying and praying.

In My Case

I am fortunate enough to earn income from my photography business. As such, I can justify spending a little more on high-quality camera gear. Since photography is my livelihood, I refuse to put my name on a photo that isn't up to my standards, and my gear allows me to create stunning photos. Sure, I know that an expensive camera won't make you a great photographer, but I also am at a point in my career where I know what I'm doing and can very easily notice the difference between a G Master lens and a USM lens.

So, in my particular case, I think prime lenses are better because they force me to be more thoughtful with my compositions. But, I would also never in my life give up my 70-200 GM II because it helps me push my creative limits with telephoto focal lengths (not to mention the image quality is ridonculous).

In Summary

If you are new to photography, don't buy a set of six G Master prime lenses because you probably won't appreciate them to their fullest potential just yet. Be patient. Work on your skills and focus on the art of photography. In time, you will get to a point where you can justify spending X amount of money on certain lenses, but until you have a reason to get a particular lens, stick with the holy trinity lenses: a 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and a 70-200mm.

Once you develop your own style and build up a portfolio, you will have a more clear idea of what lens will fit perfectly in your camera bag. If you want to see a full list of my current camera gear, check out my about page.