If there's one piece of advice for budding photographs you'll keep coming across over and over again, it has to be the one about how lenses matter more than camera bodies. The logic is simple — no matter how good the camera's sensor is, it's the lens that gets the light to that sensor.
You can also look at it in a different way. Lenses hold their value significantly longer than camera bodies. They're usually not surpassed technologically for long stretches of time, while new camera models pop up every year. New camera models that will make you want to upgrade will pop up every couple of years.
Lenses are an important investment and you have to choose well because you'll want to keep them. But right off the bat, you'll be faced with a tough dilemma: prime vs. zoom lenses? If you'd ask professional photographers what their go-to lens is, the answers would contain a mix of prime and zoom lenses. To help you understand why let's dig a bit into what they are and their pros and cons. I personally prefer a prime lens. Check out my photography services portfolio to see the images produced.
Always behind the lens. Lens choice is based on your photography style
What's a prime lens?
Any lens has a couple of features you can use to describe them. When it comes to lens types, however, the defining feature — the one that influences all the other ones — is the focal length of the lens. If you were shopping around for lenses and saw some that had numbers such as 50mm or 85mm describing them, those were the focal lengths of those lenses.
The fact that you saw only one focal length, and not a range, means that you were looking at a prime or fixed lens. With them, the focal length always stays the same. There are no rings you can use to increase or decrease it.
In practical terms, this means that if you want something to appear smaller or bigger on your photos, relative to the frame of the photo, you'd have to physically move the whole camera to increase or decrease the distance between the lens and the subject.
What's a zoom lens?
If the lens you were checking out had two numbers representing a range, such as 18-55mm or 70-200mm, you were looking at zoom lenses. With zoom lenses, you can change the focal length to any that falls within the range described by the minimum and maximum focal length for a particular lens.
In practice, this means that a single zoom lens can "replace" a series of prime lenses. This would allow you, for example, to capture your subject with a wide-angle shot, only to zoom in a moment later to capture the subject with a close-up — without ever having to change your proximity to the subject.
The pros and cons of using a prime lens
There are plenty of reasons why you should consider using a prime lens. The wider apertures you'll find in prime lenses are a major pro. Having a wide aperture gives you better low-light performance and more control over the depth-of-field.
In general, prime lenses are also less expensive than zoom lenses, and they weigh less. Overall, they will provide you with better image quality than their non-fixed focal point counterparts.
The biggest con for using a prime lens is that it will never be as versatile or as flexible as a zoom lens. You can try to offset this by having multiple prime lenses that cover the range of focal lengths you need. But that will drastically increase the cost of your kit, the space it occupies, and its weight.
And let's not forget that, in order to get an image that you want, you'll have to move around quite a bit. But that just might be a "pro" as well.
The pros and cons of using a zoom lens
The main pro for using a zoom lens is, of course, the flexibility you get from being able to work with a range of focal lengths. You can effectively use a single lens to capture a wide variety of photos and have appropriate gear for a variety of situations without having to carry around several lenses.
Zoom lenses let you work without having to move around. In lots of situations, you simply can't get close enough to whatever you're shooting. If it's impractical or even dangerous to change your position, the zoom lens quickly proves itself to be your best friend.
But if you want that newfound friend of yours to capture high-quality photos, you'll need to spend a pretty penny on it. Generally, to get the photo quality comparable to that of prime lenses, you will need to pay extra.
Zoom lenses come with a whole lot of other limitations — they are bigger and heavier. The more you push towards the focal length extremes, the more likely it is you'll see image distortions.
Prime vs. Zoom – Which one to choose?
As you can see, both prime and zoom lenses come with sets of pros and cons. When you're just starting out with photography and you're still finding your style and subject matter, making a choice between a prime lens and a zoom one can be very difficult.
For flexibility, it might be better that you start with a decent zoom lens with a focal length range that will let you shoot everything from landscapes to close sports. From there, you can choose to stick with zoom lenses and start saving up for a better zoom lens. On the other hand, with a prime lens, without the flexibility, it forces you to move around which in turn can help with your composure, making you a better photographer.
Or, you can choose to focus on a subject matter where zoom lenses are completely useless, such as macro photography. In that case, you should probably start buying macro lenses, or the prime lenses that make more sense for you.
Above all, keep in mind that lenses are an important investment for a reason – a good lens can make or break a photo. So make sure the buy good ones, and don't forget that you can always sell used ones, which might lighten some of the financial load of upgrading to better lenses.