Photographers are an opinionated lot, and those who are relatively new to the game may not see the reason one might want a fixed focal length lens (a “prime” lens) over a zoom lens. After all, shouldn’t a zoom lens always be better in that it can cover more focal lengths? As with many things, tradeoffs exists between flexibility, contrast, and sharpness, although the current zooms that are of the highest quality can often rival the contrast and sharpness of the best prime lenses. What one photographer might need in sharpness, another may forgo instead to have a very wide range of focal lengths in one lens, say 28-300 mm. So you’ll see a photographer who fights furiously for the multiple prime lens in his or her kit, only to see another one very content with a few high-quality zoom lenses. We asked some of today’s professionals around the world to weigh in with their thoughts on the prime vs zoom lens issue.
“Why a prime lens? I love prime lenses, when I started my career over 30 years ago most lens were prime lens, I loved them then and still do today. Why? they make me think and really work the framing and composition of my subject. Unencumbered the all encompassing fancy zoom lens, a prime lens focuses my concentration on the subject in my viewfinder. I can physically move closer or further from my subject and look from a low angle to a high angle and work it to find the perfect angle. Once I have found my perfect angle, I look to the aperture settings to reduce or include what I want in focus. Prime lenses normally have a f/2.8 or faster aperture and my favourite prime lens have a f/1.4 minimum aperture allowing me to reduce my depth of field to less than an inch depending on my subject to camera distance. My favourite prime lenses? a Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and a Nikkor 24mm f/1.4.” Website
“It’s not for nostalgia’s sake that I use prime lenses. I find my primes expand on what I can do with my zoom lenses. My primes include standards like the 16mm fisheye, the 60 mm macro as well as light gobbling beauties like the 24 mm f/1.4 and the 50 mm f/1.8. I use only the 16 mm or 20mm f/2.8 in my underwater housing. The 50 mm f/1.8 shot wide open is my choice for a portrait lens. All my primes are more portable than my pro zooms. For this reason, I’ll consider a wide or standard prime lens to supplement my telephoto zoom on adventure outings where the camera kit has to be minimal.” Website
“I use all fixed lenses. The reason for that is because I love the DOF [depth of field] it gives me. It’s hard to beat the f/1.2! Website
“I prefer prime lenses for landscape photography. They are typically sharper and more sturdy. For travel, sports and wildlife I prefer zooms. I own several primes, Canon 17mm TSE, Canon 24mm f/1.4 and Canon 50mm f/1.4. I also own a Nikor 16mm. I have owned several long tele lenses which have all been Canon, these I found wonderfully sharp but a bit limiting for wildlife which is why I prefer the Nikon 200-400 now!” Website
[From July 2012 PDN interview] “For the Olympics, I’ll have a 14 mm f/2.8, a 16-35 mm zoom, a 24-70 mm, a 70-200 mm, then a 400 mm. I’m also going to get a 200 mm f/2 to replace another one that died. For the underwater [remote], I’ll use a 24 mm f/1.4 just because the quality of the prime lens is better than the zooms, and you can’t change the zooms anyway in the underwater housing.” Website