There seems to be few things that some photographers like to do more than argue the relative merits of their opinions on equipment; whether it be the age-old Nikon vs Canon battle (see here for my parody), or whether DSLRs are better than mirrorless cameras, what is the best crop-sensor size or, one of my favorites: the time-honored argument of prime lenses vs. zoom lenses.
Thus, when starry-eyed, enthusiastic newcomers graduate to cameras with interchangeable lenses (ILCs) from their point-and-shoot kits (P&S), as we pompous photogs like to call them, they are barraged by a “wealth” of conflicting gibberish about the latest must have lens in order to take their photography “to the next level.” In fact, a quick look at my twitter and pinterest feeds show that around 10% of the traffic crossing my path concerns this crap at the moment.
Well, not to be outdone I’m going to add my opinion to what I view as a sea of consumerism, shrouded in pointless perfectionism, specifically focusing (!) on the prime vs zoom lens argument. So, here goes:
For the uninitiated the logic goes like this – camera lenses are a complex set of individual glass elements which fit together to allow image focus at a certain distance. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length whereas zoom lenses, by very definition, do not. Zoom lenses give you much more flexibility on composing your shot but this comes at some cost to image quality. In order to achieve this flexibility the zoom lenses must have more elements and therefore be more complicated. It also is not designed to be “perfect” at one focal length and therefore has to compromise throughout the focal range. This compromise is what drives many photographers nuts, mainly because they are obsessed with the concept of obtaining the ever-elusive “tack sharp” image.
To be brutally honest the there is one huge advantage that prime lenses do have over zoom – the availability of much wider apertures for the same focal length, but please read on…
My view is that unless you are planning on producing a print that it larger than, say 40” (100cm) on one side, or have a penchant for specialist photography such as macro, or starlight, or you want a compact 50mm (that’s a 25mm for us m4/3 users!) for street work, then generally speaking, swapping a zoom lens for a much more expensive prime lens isn’t really worth it, at least not until you discover your niche area of photography (if you ever do). In fact, given that the vast majority (>99%) of images are never, ever printed at any size, I’ll put it another way – don’t rush out and spend your cash on expensive prime lenses, until you have worked out if you have a real need for one.
As a budding photographer, surrounded by a maelstrom of magazines and blogs that are often nothing more than pages of advertisements, what does matter is honing your skill as a photographer in understanding the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and (that so-antiquated term) ISO. That, and the ability to actually focus and knowing how to compose a shot to tell the story you want to convey! It is for this reason the good old zoom lens is a great lens to have as it allows you to experiment, and experimentation is the best way of learning any new skill.
In my experience the kit lenses (usually zoom) that are provided with an ILC have been perfectly adequate for 95% of the photographs I take.
And if you think this is all bull, then here’s a sobering thought – I have sold several large prints to buyers, some up to 27” x 36” (68 cm x 91 cm) taken with an iPhone 5, so where does that leave the “you must invest in an expensive prime lens to take a good photograph” argument?