5 Reasons Why Prime Lenses Are Better Than Zoom Lenses

The debate always rages between photographers – which is better: zoom lenses, or primes? In this video from, photographer Kai W, with the help of his buddy Lok, makes his argument for the benefits of prime lenses:

Of course, every lens has its advantages and its drawbacks, and the appropriate lens depends on the situation, and on your style of shooting. But, while Kai might force his points a little, his arguments in favour of prime lenses hold up:

1. Better optical performance.
Prime lenses give sharper images. This is because zoom lenses have much more glass for the light to travel through in order to reach the sensor; extra elements are required to zoom in and out, and even more are needed to correct the aberrations created by all the extra elements. With the light altered so many times, it is bound to degrade. A prime lens, on the other hand, preserves the integrity of the image by its simple design. Having only one focal length and fewer moving parts, it can be much more precisely calibrated for maximum sharpness.

zoom lenses vs prime lenses

2. Weight and size.
Prime lenses are smaller and lighter. This is for the same reason as above: less elements, less glass. They are therefore cheaper to design and build, making them cheaper to buy, too. As Kai mentions several times, you can often buy two or three prime lenses for the price of one good zoom. However, while the weight and size of a 24mm prime may be less than a 24-70mm, the combined heft of a 24mm, a 50mm, and a 70mm will be much more; your camera may lose weight, but your camera bag probably won’t.

3. Sexy effects.
Kai is pretty much just talking about bokeh with this one (remotes have nothing to do with the lens you choose). Prime lenses are capable of wider apertures than zooms could ever dream of, allowing a razor-thin depth of field and making it easy to blur the background into a smooth, creamy haze.

prime lens bokeh

4. Low light.
For the same reason (a wider maximum aperture), primes perform particularly well in dim conditions. They can get gorgeous pictures in low light without having to lower the shutter speed and risk motion blur or camera shake.

5. Sports.
Zooms are usually the favourite for sports photography, and probably still are for distance sports such as football or soccer. However, in smaller, more intimate games such as the tennis match featured in the video, the ability to use a regular telephoto lens allows Kai a wider maximum aperture, which gets him sharper, clearer pictures, even in a fast-paced indoor setting.

zoom lenses vs prime lenses

Both the guys use a Canon EOS 5D Mk III, but Kai uses prime lenses while Lok uses zooms. Here’s a quick cast of characters, in order of appearance:

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12 Comments

  1. Haven’t watched all the video as I am out on the move. But, will be interested to see if Kai talks about what I think are the two biggest be edits of the prime lens, which are more concerned with benefit to your photographic eye…. and often missed by people who review/are more obsessed with gear than in helping people grow their sense as a photographer and take better photos.

    1. Primes make you move around to find the photo. They force you to physically move to find the best viewpoint. Zooms don’t do this when you are learning. They make you lazy, as you can stand in one place and use the zoom to alter the view.

    2. Primes teach you to see at specific focal lengths, which is very handy in facilitating a core part of being a better photographer: the act of pre-visualization.

    I learned with primes and I still shoot mainly primes now. Zooms are handy – and primes are good for all the things that you have mentioned above. But, primarily they are best at making you better at seeing and composing because they are not easy. You have to work, often, to find the photo in a place with a prime. Seeing better, composing better…. these are the bedrock of being a better photographer.

  2. My name is Alfie. Autocorrect made it Algiers. :-)

  3. Jacques says:

    I would love to own an 85mm f/1.2 but when it came to the price, I rather opted for the 70-200mm f/2.8, slightly more expensive, but a better advantage on focal length. Sure it has a little less width in aperture and is heavy, but I can get awesome bokeh from it as well.

  4. Great post! I also think that using a prime lens makes you concentrate much more on composition. A zoom can make you lazy whereas with a prime you have to move about and walk to get the best composition.

  5. Jacques says:

    Yeah I totally agree on the focal length and having to move for composition. But having a zoom does not always mean you can just stand in one place and zoom away, granted you can get a lot more from one spot usually.

    But still just for the price of the 85mm the 70-200 is also a big tool for my weddings. I still want an 85mm for the indoor reception shoots. But that will come with time.

    Funny enough when I started learning about cameras and all that, the photographer I was speaking with spoke of the primes and having to move, but he recommended the zoom rather. Which was kind of weird. But he said it is too make it easier for beginners, this is where the laziness comes in I think. Because now you know that the zoom is more lenient and the cost of going with all the different lenses means you are stuck till you start making some money, especially because I spent my money on getting decent equipment (not to make better shots, because I know it is not your equipment that makes the shot, but so that I know it will last longer)

  6. Debbie says:

    Kai, Leaving for Costa Rica tomorrow. Zip lining, hiking, you know adventure stuff. I am limited with carry on, weight and size. I only feel comfortable taking one lens because of restrictions.
    I have both 50mm and 35mm prime, a 55-200mm zoom and my kit lens 18 – 55mm.
    Cant decide, please help. Which one? Right now the 18 – 55 is on my camera. I want some landscapes of course and pictures of my daughter.

  7. Debbie says:

    Love your videos. Watch them all the time. Well after watching your video 55-200 is out. Now down to 50, 35 ( swaying towards this) and 18-55 (although not sure about aperature).
    So confused. :\

  8. Mike says:

    @Debbie: I would take the 35. It’s wide enough to get some decent landscapes and other wider scenes and is also great for portraits + low light shooting. On my Canon I usually stick with a 35 or 40 pancake lens + my 85mm. For the Leica I often travel with just the 50. Sure sometimes I miss using the zooms but not too often. Have a great trip!

  9. talia says:

    I’d also go for the 35mm. Much more versatile, and will get you much sharper images than the 18-55. 50mm is good, but is a little long on a crop-sensor body for shooting in small areas.

  10. Jpizz says:

    Primes miss shots though. I only use a 50 for low light…otherwise the 16-35mm 24-70 and 70-200mm are all more versatile and often bettrr optically than many primes. If u are shooting an event or work media u are often in restricted space like a media pit…same at concerts. Same at almost anything except street photography or artistic shots. If I’m doing an event I carry 2 bodies with the the wide and the telephoto. of course primes are better than those cheapo dx kit lenses… but when u get pro fx glass. Not so much…they just give u better light gathering and are lighter to carry around. I once thought same thing…but that’s bc I was shooting shitty 500 dollar zooms like the 18-200.. mount a 24-70 or. 70-200 and u will kiss your primes goodbye.

    • Primes miss shots. Yes they do, sometimes. Obviously as a pro, I use what I need to best get the job done. I have ‘the two zooms’ 28-70 ED Nikkor and an 80-200mm of course and they get used a lot when I don’t want to or have time to swap lenses. But they are not the only thing I shoot at events. At gigs or events when I need reach and where there is a low-light issue, I will often use the 135mm f/2 DC lens: good large aperture and using the ‘image size’ mode in my D800E [which I have set up to be accessed through one push of the Fn button], I have 135 at FX and 36MP, about 160mm at the 1.2 crop and a 200mm f/2 at the 1,5 or DX crop, which is still giving me about 24MP. So I basically get an f/2 zoom from my prime.

      Depending on the requirements of the shoot, I’ll have one body with either the 28-70 or 80-200mm on it and one body with a big aperture 50, 85 or 135 on it.

      For shoots where I am not interested in high ISO, I’ll also have the 80mm 2.8 on the Hasselblad H4D-40.

      When you are competent or a pro, you use exactly what you need for the job at hand. I’m not a snob about anything to do with photography, I just use what I need.

      When you are learning, primes are the way to go. In fact, as many limitations as you can give yourself, that’s the way to go: one prime, monochrome only, limit yourself to 36 shots with no deletes.

      Shooting from 5 years old to 20 years old only with primes taught me to see at 28, 50, 85, 135 and 200mm. This helps me put myself into the exactly spot for the best angle very quickly, because I can pre-visualise the view at various focal lengths.

  11. Susan B says:

    May be a dumb question to most of you but I am getting tired of being a bit flummoxed. So why a prime lens and what’s the difference between prime and a small zoom or telephoto? Thx

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