To Zoom Or Not To Zoom

To zoom or not to zoom?  That is the question.  When I first started in photography, around 1953 or 1954, the answer was simple:  You could either hold your fixed lens box camera to capture a vertical shot, or turn the camera on its side for a horizontal shot (portrait or scenic).  If you wanted a telephoto or macro FOV (Field of View) you moved closer to the subject (with your own two feet); if you wanted a wide-angle FOV you stepped back from the subject.  You shot 120 black & white print film, or primitive color print film.  There was no focusing knob, aperture setting or shutter speed adjustment.  Results were predicated on the preset fixed parameters of the camera.  A Fred Flintstone camera for sure.

box camera

Vintage 1950’s Box Camera

If you had more money you could buy a camera with a few more of the aforementioned adjustments on it:  A focusing knob, aperture and shutter speed adjustments.  You either had a handheld light meter to help with exposure, or you most likely used the Sunny-16 rule (1/film speed @ f/16 = Exposure for bright sun), adjusted accordingly for less than bright sun.  Most print film had generous exposure latitude so you could usually get an acceptable print.  However, the lens was still a fixed lens.  A very high-end professional camera, like a Leica or Zeiss, might offer a few interchangeable lenses, but they were still of the fixed lens variety (no zooms).


Leica IIIf 35mm Rangefinder Camera

As cameras became more and more sophisticated, professional photographers began demanding more flexibility from their lenses.  A typical photographer could carry around three to five lenses to capture the shot (28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 105mm, 135mm, etc), this was both expensive and cumbersome.  The standard lens on most 35mm cameras, at the time, was the venerable 50mm f/1.4.  This was a great lens, with great flexibility and low light capability, but still required the photographer to move closer to his subject (or step further back from his subject) to change his FOV.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever found a lens that has surpassed the performance of my Nikon 50mm f/1.4 mounted on my Nikon F SLR 35mm camera.


Nikon F SLR 35mm with Nikon 50mm f/1.4 Lens

Today, almost all digital kit cameras come with one or two zoom lenses.  Now two zoom lenses, typically a 18-55mm and a 55-250mm, can cover the entire FL (Focal Length) range of 18mm (wide-angle) to 250mm (telephoto).  In the old days you would need a fixed lens in each of the following FL’s:  18mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 55mm, 70mm, 100mm, 105mm, 115mm, 135mm, 200mm and 250mm.  Two zoom lenses can now take the place of up to fourteen fixed lenses—I think you can readily see the advantage.

Initially, the IQ (Image Quality) found on zoom lenses was quite inferior to the IQ found on fixed lenses.  Some argue that this is still the case.  I might have agreed even up to a few years ago, but no longer.  Of course we have to remember that all lenses are not created equally.  I am talking about top of the line, premium, professional lenses.  With a Canon L-lens I can find no discernible difference between a zoom and a fixed lens.  There is still a place for excellent quality fixed lenses, I have more than one and I love them.  But if flexibility is your main criteria, then the zoom lenses win every time.

If I were counseling a beginning photographer today, I would tell that photographer to buy the best zoom lens(es) he or she could afford.  Put the money in the lens before the camera. The camera is merely a computer (for the most part), the lens is the eye.  You want to have the sharpest eye possible.  Some things to consider when thinking about zoom lenses versus fixed lenses:

* Flexibility – Advantage Zoom Lens

* IQ (Image Quality)Par (possibly slight advantage to fixed lens)

Weight – Advantage Fixed Lens

Size – Advantage Fixed Lens

Cost – Depends (advantage to fixed lens for a single lens, but zooms cover more FL’s)

* Biggest Bang for the Buck – Advantage Zoom Lens

These are subjective opinions on my part.  I love my fixed lenses, and I will always have an assortment of them in my photographic arsenal.  But for everyday shooting I have a zoom lens on my camera 90% of the time.  As a Travel Photographer my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens is absolutely indispensable.  Right behind that I keep my Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM zoom lens close at hand (often in conjunction with my 1.4x teleconverter).  For wildlife I go back to my fixed lens Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM super telephoto (unbeatable).

Canon 24-105

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Zoom Lens

Canon EF 70-200mm 1 4L USM

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM Zoom Telephoto Lens


Super Telephoto Fixed Lens

It’s always prudent to do your own research, ask your own questions—make your own decisions.  Much of photography is automated today, the new cameras and lenses make our old equipment look absolutely primitive by comparison.  However, the basics remain the same and the “newbie” would be well-advised to learn those basics.  It still amazes me how many photos I see that are not focused properly, are poorly exposed and lack even the rudiments of artistic composition.  The camera does it all, but it’s still your eye that makes or breaks an image.  Modern cameras with their modern zoom lenses are great, but they can (and often do) make you lazy.  You have two eyes, two legs and two feet (or at least most of you do)—so use them.


My Newest Photography Student

Note:  For you youngsters out there, this young lady is Brigitte Bardot, French sex kitten of the 1950’s.  She knocked my preadolescent socks off.   

2 responses to “To Zoom Or Not To Zoom

  1. You could be right Tim. Certainly the zoom lenses today are outstanding for the most part. Nikon and Canon still top the list of premium lenses, but as we both know you can get some mighty fine lenses from Tamron and Sigma these days (at affordable prices). There has never been a better time for photographers, at least in my memory. Keep shooting buddy.

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