Fixed focal length versus variable: which is better?

There are different approaches to the creation of a shooting kit. Some photographers prefer to buy and shoot only with prime lenses, others shoot only with zoom lenses, while some people, guided by one reason or another, include both lenses in their kit in a certain proportion. In order to understand which approach is reasonable, we must first assess the advantages and disadvantages of prime and zoom lenses.

Prime lenses are compact and lightweight. Although there are now also models that are heavier and bulkier, these are generally models designed for professional photographers to provide image quality that is not available with conventional optical technology. In other words, they are designed to optimally address the photographic challenges that professionals face most often, and are not intended to be used by hobbyists for casual photography (although this of course is not prohibited).

Prime lenses generally provide higher image quality than zoom lenses. This is because zoom lenses are more difficult to optimize for consistently high image quality across the entire focal length range.

Prime lenses are available with faster speeds than zoom lenses. Of course, there are zoom lenses with a constant aperture of 2.8 (and even 1.8 in the case of the unique Sigma 18-35), however, zoom lenses do not have a constant aperture faster than 2.8, while for prime lenses, the speed of 2.8 is considered mediocre, and it was difficult to surprise hobbyists by the speed of 1.4 already in the 1970s. The higher the speed, the more shallow depth of field can be obtained. In addition, the higher speed allows you to shoot in low light conditions at lower ISO settings, which means better image quality.

Many prime lenses (especially telephoto lenses) are optimized for beautiful bokeh: pleasing to the eye, smooth background blur and rounded out-of-focus highlights. In the development of zoom lenses, beautiful bokeh is never a priority, and even 24-70/2.8 models offer neutral bokeh at best, and there is no point at all in talking about the bokeh of slow zoom lenses.

Zoom lenses allow you to quickly frame your subject - a feature that prime lenses lack. For example, if you use a lens of 24-70/2.8 class, then having taken a picture of a landscape at a focal length of 24mm, you can then zoom to a focal length of 70mm in a split second and shoot a close up portrait. This is not possible with a prime lens. If you have a standard 50mm lens at your disposal, then you will have to move closer to the subject to capture a close up portrait, or, conversely, further to fit the landscape into the frame. But if you use a 24mm wide-angle lens, then you are doomed only to shoot landscapes, because when shooting close up portraits, the face of the subject will inevitably be distorted and you definitely will not get an impressive portrait. In order to be able to shoot the same wide range of scenes available with a 24-70/2.8 lens, you will have to purchase several prime lenses, such as 24 and 85mm (and maybe 50mm additionally), and change them during shooting with the risk of missing a good shot.

But you can look at this situation from the other side. The 24-70/2.8 class lens is valuable for its versatility, as it allows you to capture a wide range of subjects from landscapes, interiors and architecture to portraits. However, it copes with its task rather mediocre:

  • the angle of view at 24mm focal length will often be insufficient when shooting expansive landscapes, tight interiors or tall/wide buildings, especially when the focusing distance cannot be increased for some reason,
  • portraits at 70mm f/2.8 will never be as impressive as with a dedicated 85mm telephoto lens with speed of 1.8, 1.4 or even 1.2.

From all of the above, a rather simple conclusion follows: if it is important for you just to be able to capture a particular subject, then you may well be content with a zoom lens, but if you are into creative photography, and not just about documenting the surrounding reality, it is imperative that you opt for specialized lenses, which are prime lenses.

Another consideration. You need to decide for yourself which angles you prefer the most, after which it will be quite easy to decide which lenses should be in your shooting kit. If you already have a large archive of your own images, then look at what focal lengths they were mostly taken. If you are a beginner photographer, then look at other people's photos, choose the ones that you like the most, and analyze what is captured on them.

For example:

  • if you are fond of shooting landscapes and/or interiors, architecture, then it may be enough that your shooting kit consists of just one wide-angle prime or zoom lens;
  • if you are into portrait photography, then perhaps you only need one short or medium telephoto prime lens;
  • if you shoot while traveling or during a walk, then you will definitely need a standard zoom or even superzoom, since in most cases you simply will not have enough time to change lenses.

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