Prime Lens vs. Zoom Lens

By Mark Spowart, eHow Contributor updated: May 30, 2010

Zoom vs. prime lenses.

For as long as they have been around, debate has swirled among both amateur and professional photographers over whether to use prime or zoom lenses. Prime lenses, also known as fixed focal length, are–as the name suggest–lenses that cover one focal length. They range from the very wide 14 mm up to super-telephoto 600 mm. Zoom lenses cover a range of focal lengths. Some are wide zooms, such as 10-22 mm, others are telephoto zooms, like 100-400 mm. Then there are general purpose lenses that cover a wide range, such as the 24-300 mm lens.

Benefits of Prime Lenses

Prime lenses are faster than their zoom counterparts. A prime lens has a larger aperture, which allows more light to pass through, so the  photographer can shoot at a faster shutter speed. While this isn’t important on a bright sunny day, it becomes a critical point when shooting sports indoors, for example. With their large apertures, prime lenses also allow the photographer to shoot with a very narrow depth of field. This causes the background to blur, putting more emphasis on the subject. Additionally, prime lenses have fewer glass elements than zooms and don’t require the mechanical structure of zoom lenses. Both of these features make prime lenses lighter than zooms.

Benefits of Zoom Lenses

A zoom lens can easily replace one to three prime lenses in your camera bag, thus giving you more time to compose or capture a picture rather than  changing lenses. Fewer lens changes also lessens the likelihood of dust and dirt getting to the camera’s digital sensor.

Disadvantages of Prime Lenses

Although one prime lens may cost less than a zoom lens, you may need to buy one to three prime lenses to cover the same focal length of a single zoom lens. If you need to change the lens on your camera you may run the risk of missing the perfect action shot.

Disadvantage of Zoom Lenses

Because they house more glass elements, plus the zoom mechanism, zoom lenses are considerably larger than prime lenses, particularly wide-angle zooms. While zoom lenses have improved in image quality over the years. Nevertheless, every time light has to pass through another element of  glass–as it does more frequently with zoom lenses–it becomes a little distorted. More expensive professional zoom lenses are not as prone to this distortion as the cheaper consumer grade lenses.

Prime vs. Zoom Lenses

Zoom lenses give photographers great flexibility in capturing the image without having to change lenses as frequently. However, in the less  xpensive consumer grade lenses image quality suffers. Prime lenses are faster, lighter and smaller, but ultimately you will spend more money to cover the same focal range that you could cover with one zoom lens. There is no right or wrong answer to the questions regarding prime vs. zoom lenses. Rather, the answer depends on an individual photographer’s needs, and the budget he can invest in equipment and lenses.
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