Zoom Lens vs Prime Lens

Let me start by apologizing for I will be beating a dead horse that by the time I’m finished with this post it will be FUBAR…until someone else beat it to a pulp.

The reason I’m blogging about this is because another beginner has been victimized again by “experts” persuading n00bs to get a 50mm prime because it is a MUST HAVE lens. This beginner posted in a forum complaining about how tight his 50mm is on an APS-C sensor. Two mistakes have been committed: 1) forcing to buy a 50mm lens, and, 2) using it in a crop sensor camera.

I will say it again: Beginners will learn so much more by using a kit zoom lens than by using a fast prime lens. You can continue reading or find out how awesome your kit lens is right here.

I don’t want to start an argument about the technical advantages of prime lenses over zoom lenses but let me tell you that most of those advantages can be easily accomplished with a kit lens attached to a modern camera. That means any camera you can buy brand new now. What I would like to discuss instead is about taking real photos and not just test charts.

One of the biggest hurdles in photography is that most of the time we do not have control of subjects. You can’t tell a mountain or a tree to move for the perfect composition. All we can do is change position and/or perspective. With a prime lens, forget about changing your perspective. You just can’t. Why then would you limit your learning with a handicapped lens?

Let me expound on perspective and why a 50mm or equivalent lens is a big hindrance. The 50mm has almost the same field of view as human eyes. In other words, boring. No, I’m not saying Henri Cartier-Bresson’s shots are boring. I meant, unless you are as good as HCB, your shots will be boring. For a beginner, that means years and years of learning.

Photographers aim to let others see things that “normal” individuals would usually ignore. That’s why we shoot rusty metal for texture, silhouettes for forms and shapes, light and star trails, and so on. Stuff that ordinary humans do not normally perceive. Changing perspective is a very good technique to achieve this goal. Exaggerated views from ultrawide lenses and the effect of telephoto lens compression will immensely add to your artistic creativity. This is simply impossible with a 50mm prime.

The challenge is for the beginner to recognize the effect of varying focal lengths. It is very easy to just zoom in and out instead of stepping forward and back, a behaviour that pro prime lens users label as being lazy. I prefer to call it lens ignorance which is exacerbated if one restricts himself to a 50mm prime. In my next blog post, I promise to show you how you can maximize the use of your cheap kit lens.

I would like to end this post by addressing a nonsense argument against zoom lenses. Many prime users are quick to point out why those who prefer walkabout zoom lenses are not maximizing their SLR cameras. The argument is that SLRs were made so you could change lenses otherwise buy a point-and-shoot instead. ROFL!!!! We change lenses because the laws of physics won’t allow a sharp, distortion-free 10-500mm f1.4 full frame lens that fits in your pocket. There will always be limitations. A lens can be fast, long or light as long as you choose only two.

Use the most appropriate lens for the job. For beginners, stick to your kit zoom lenses. Stay away from prime lenses until you have decided which focal length suits you the most (hint: check the EXIF data of your shots). A zoom lens, with enough self discipline on your part, will get you there faster and let you take more interesting shots along the way.

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2 thoughts on “Zoom Lens vs Prime Lens”

  1. 5 years on an I’m still using my kit zoom lenses. They look battered but still do the job. There’s far too much snobbery in photography. I use a Samsung GX-10. It was about £100 cheaper than the equivalent Pentax K10D to buy and I’ve no intention of changing it in the near future. Well maybe for the Pentax K7D…

  2. I was linked to this from whirlpool. I agree with you that the nifty 50 is not a “leave it on the camera all the time” lens, but the one thing it does do is help with composition. Most people new to DSLR don’t quite understand perspective etc and having a prime (whether it be 50mm, 30mm, or even 200mm) to shoot with can force their brain to start thinking like a photographer.

    That said I would never use it as my primary lens for a party unless there was a specific reason. I’d shoot most of it with the kit and then put on the 50 for a few nice shots at the beginning and end (when you can set people).

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