Photography 101: Primes or Zooms?

Stephen F. Dennstedt

When it comes to camera lenses should they be primes or zooms? The simple answer is: it depends. Back in my film days most zoom lenses got a bad rap (well deserved) as being inferior to prime lenses. Zooms are complex with more elements (glass) between you and the subject. Typically the more glass you have between the camera and the subject the more degraded the image quality becomes. But that was in the old days. Since digital came onboard most equipment discussions have been about camera bodies.

And while the new camera bodies (Canon, Nikon, Sony et al) are AMAZING there has been a quieter revolution going on in the world of lenses—especially zoom lenses. The modern zoom lens is not your mother’s old zoom lens. The new zooms rival the primes when it comes to image quality and at the same time provide more flexibility. I still use both (I love a good prime) but shoot over 90% of the time with zooms. This has been an evolution (or migration) for me and it didn’t happen overnight. Why the switch to zooms over primes? And do I recommend the switch for everyone?

First off—you should shoot with the camera + lens combination that works best for YOU. My shooting style and habits are probably different from yours. Also cost and convenience can be significant factors when buying photography equipment (photography is not an inexpensive addiction). I’m fortunate that I have the financial resources to buy almost any gear I want but I realize that’s not true for everyone. My advice is: to buy the best gear you can afford (that works within your budget) focusing on glass (lenses) first and camera bodies second. Lenses are your eyes and camera bodies your brain—photography is a visual medium so you need to see clearly.

Back to why I migrated to zoom lenses. The biggest reason for me was flexibility. I travel 365-days a year as a wildlife, landscape and travel photographer Along the way I have sometimes shot photo-journalistically or commercially for newspapers, magazines or private clients. I travel with a backpack (for my personal gear) and a Pelican 1510 (for my photography equipment). Space and weight are premiums I have to plan for—I need to do the most with the least. If I were a static photographer staying in one place I might favor primes but I’m a dynamic photographer continually on the move and zooms are more practical (and cost-effective). What is your situation? And today modern zoom lenses provide image quality on par with most primes.

Like my personal gear all of my photography gear goes through a filtering process that includes: functionality, durability and value. Remember I don’t have a house or a photography studio: my house is my backpack and my studio is my Pelican case. Static versus dynamic, staying in one place versus being on the move. I can cover virtually any photography assignment I accept with the gear I have on hand—anywhere in the world. I’m a Canon shooter since going digital (in my film days it was Nikon, Leica and Rolleiflex) and I am heavily invested (financially). It wouldn’t make sense to switch midstream even though Nikon and Sony have come on strong with their new sensor-technology in the last few years (and Canon is close and may even regain the lead someday).

So what’s in my bag (or Pelican case) these days? I’m back in the USA after an absence of five years visiting family & friends and refreshing my personal travel gear and my photography equipment (and then it’s off to Asia). For those of you who are interested this is a list of my basic gear but does not include peripheral gear (like battery grips, strobes, filters, remotes and editing software):

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV (full-frame) DSLR

Canon EOS 7D Mark II (crop-sensor) DSLR

Canon PowerShot G15 Pocket Camera

Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Zoom Lens 

Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM Zoom Lens

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art DG HSM for Canon Prime Lens 

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS USM Zoom Lens

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II IS USM Zoom Lens

This equipment allows me to capture high quality images at focal lengths of 16mm to 400mm (on a full-frame FX camera body). And the Effective Field of View (EFOV) increases even more when used with a DX 1.6x crop-sensor body. Not everyone can afford a kit like this so shoot with what you can afford. It’s more about the photographer than the equipment. And for heaven sake HAVE FUN.




2 responses to “Photography 101: Primes or Zooms?

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