Prime lenses vs. Zoom lenses… which are best for you?

canon 50mm 1.8At Reid’s birthday party and in Vegas, I left zoom lenses at home and ventured out with but one lens… my Canon EF 50mm f1.8.  This lens is amazingly cheap (~$75) but capable of taking very good images.  In addition to its price and quality, it’s also light, small, and fast.  Of course, you do give up some flexibility when carrying around a prime lens vs. a zoom lens.  But that’s pretty much all you give up.

So that brings us to the question at hand… is a little flexibility worth sacrificing all the benefits of using prime lenses? Until recently, I would have answered a resounding, “Hell yes!” But advances in camera technology as well as my own maturation as a photographer have started me thinking otherwise.  Let me address both of those items separately.

Advances in DSLR Technology

Three years ago, I bought a Canon 10D.  It was lacking in a number of areas.  First, the camera was not ready to shoot until a couple seconds after you turned it on.  Second, the memory buffer would fill quickly which meant downtime until the buffer had somewhat cleared.  Finally, the battery didn’t last very long which meant downtime to replace it with a fresh one when I could potentially miss a shot.  I’ve also had similar experiences with other equipment.  Certain lenses don’t focus quickly.  Certain flashes take a long time to refresh.  Certain memory cards take a long time to write to.

As such, many of the advances in photography over the last few years have been to improve the responsiveness of the equipment.  Digital SLR’s are now ready to shoot as soon as you flip the switch.  Battery life has improved with materials science and more efficient electronics.  Memory card throughput and size/price get better with every passing month.  I, myself, have upgraded to lenses that focus faster and flashes the fire more quickly.

In addition to being more responsive, cameras (and imaging software) have also improved in terms of image quality.  Advances in noise reduction, resolution, and digital workflow mean that you can now crop images a bit and still come away with an 11×14 print with no problem.  Doing that with the 10D would be difficult to impossible.

So that leads me to the latest advance in DSLR technology, the Canon Digital Rebel XTi.  With this camera, I could probably get away with carrying three bodies with three different prime lenses (combination of 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 135mm, and 200mm.)  With the image quality improvements, I wouldn’t mind using say, the 35mm lens, when I would have zoomed to 42mm since I could just crop it down and not worry about losing too many pixels.  Furthermore, with the advances in technology previously mentioned, I wouldn’t have to worry about managing three different cameras’ on/off time, battery life, and memory cards.

Maturation as a photographer

With the advances in technology, I like to think there’s also been advances in my own technique and skill.  Over the last three years, I’ve studied a lot of pictures.  My pictures, friends’ pictures, other professional’s pictures, random pictures on Flickr, etc.  As a result, I’ve grown to appreciate that semi-tangible quality some people call “bokeh” that is more readily apparent with prime lenses than zooms.  It was something I read about but never really valued since I put such a high premium on the flexibility that zooms offer.  However, now that I’ve shot so many weddings and have found the limits of my equipment, I feel like I’m leaving something on the table by not taking advantage of the image quality benefits (bokeh) of prime lenses.  (There’s also the fact that primes generally are capable of capturing a lot more light which has obvious advantages in low-light situations.)

Conclusion

So what would I recommend you do?  Well, it’s really up to you and the situation.  Personally, I’ll be spending more time with prime lenses.  I’ll enjoy the challenge of “seeing’ and capturing images with just one focal length.  But there will be situations where I’ll want to have just one lens and not have to worry about carrying around a number of different primes.  However, those will likely be casual picture taking excursions.  If I’m going to be doing any serious photography, rest assured I’ll be using primes.

Other resources:

50mm 1.8 vs. 1.4

prime vs. zoom – Garry Black

prime vs. zoom – Fotolia

prime vs. zoom – Timothy Edberg

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