Difference between a prime or zoom lens?

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by daniel_horande, Dec 17, 2009.

  1. Hi guys,

    I ve been hearing about prime lens are better than zoom lens. Is that true? why are they better? I have a sigma 30 1.4 and it takes rerally good pictures, but i dont know the techincal information about why would be better...

    Thanks for the answers guys!
  2. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Moderator

    Don't sell yourself short. If the pictures are good, it is mainly because of the photographer (hopefully you), not the lens.
  3. In theory a prime lens can be better because the lens shape can be engineered especially for that one focal length, etc.
    In the past, it was nearly impossible to make a variable focus lens that could be as good at all settings, but today enhanced design techniques coupled with new production methods have meant that zoom lenses are surprisingly close, but always at a price.
  4. back when I started photography before digital was around, the first lens I bought was a Tamron 24-135 f/4-5.6. I shot hundreds of photos with slide film which I projected using only this lens. I was very happy with the sharpness and colors of the photos using this zoom lens.
    After learning from people on photo.net that prime lenses were superior in quality, I went out and bought a Pentax Limited Edition 43mm f/1.9 which I initially shot alongside the Tamron zoom lens.
    When I projected the images... and many were of the same scene, the prime lens blew away the zoom lens shot after shot. Not only was it much sharper (and this specific tamron lens was often noted for its sharpness) but the color quality was far superior. The tamron had dull colors while the prime had saturated colors on the same roll of film. Also, the sharpness of the zoom was good at f/8... but with the prime lens I would get better/similar results even at f/2.8.
    Now the digital age has come and I am still shooting slide film (it's a unique wonder of its own). I now own Pentax's top of the line prime lenses (43mm f/1.9, 31mm f/1.8, and 77mm f/1.8) and one zoom lens (pentax 20-35mm f/4). Recently I upgraded my projector to a Leica P300 with 90mm f/2 Colorplan lens and the difference in image quality between the zoom and the primes is even more obvious on my old and recent slides.
    People will always tell you that zoom lenses have come a long way since digital. But I actually feel that the subtle sharpness and color quality differences are most apparent on projected slides. With digital, a zoom will suffice if you are only going to be viewing images on your computer or printing up to 4x6 inches.
    With 35mm slide projection, a slide is projected up to 40x60 inches (10 times larger than a 4x6 print). In these circumstances the prime lens outshines the zoom everytime.
    The advantage of a prime is that it is sharper at a wider range of f/stops and I've found prime lenses to produce better colors. Oh, and of course a prime lens has less distortion. If you take a group shot at 24mm with a 24-135mm, the people on the left will be leaning to the left and looking fat while the people on the right will be leaning to the right and looking fat. With a prime 24mm you may have a slight amount of distortion.
    Less glass is used to
  5. Daniel,
    In general, it’s true, in the same sense that any generality is true. But there certainly are exceptions.
    For example, the Canon 16-35 f/2.8 II is a much better 20 f/2.8 than Canon’s 20 f/2.8 — and it simply blows the Canon 28 f/2.8 out of the water.
    On the other hand, by all accounts, the new 24 TS-E is significantly better than the zoom. And I don’t think there’s a zoom made that is as good as the 300 f/4, and pretty much any decent actual macro lens will wipe the floor with a zoom that covers the same range.
  6. For several reasons, one of which is a constant maximum aperture. Back in the day, all zooms were fixed max aperture, but then the manufacturers started making lenses with variable max apertures because they were cheaper. But I found it a major league pain in the ass, so much so that I would never consider buying one. I used to have two fixed max aperture zooms in my life, an 80-200mm f/4.5 Nikkor and 36-72 f/3.5 Nikon series E. They were both good zooms, but did not match up with the primes in terms of sharpness or contrast. I stopped using them 10 years ago and eventually sold them both. I have looked at a lot of very large images produced by the lastest zooms, and I have to be honest, I am still not exactly impressed.

    For convenience, definitely a plus, and you need only carry a couple of lenses. For top quality, two thumbs down. For me at least, I would rather lug around 8 or 9 primes in my camera bag (and I do), that I know are top performers, then two lenses that are a "best compromise".
  7. The best zooms today are very good indeed, but they're probably still a bit behind the best primes. Not that it really matters today since those zooms are more than good enough. On the other hand if you are using a very high resolution sensor maybe it does matter.
    And to add fuel to the confusion, there is also a lens like the Leica Tri-Elmar which is a multifocal lens, but not a zoom.
  8. Hi Daniel, you can't generalize on this. Some primes are not as good as some zooms. These days you can easily do your own tests and decide for yourself. I just finished a long period of testing to decide what system I would move in to the future with and I found that variability from one copy of a lens to another can be as big as from one manufacturer to another, or even one type of lens to another.
    Cheers, JJ
  9. I think if the lens assemblies are over 20 years old; it would be easier to see the difference; particularly if they were poorly made.
    Get a look through a cheap zoom from about the mid 1980s. Then have a look through a common 1980s 50mm lens for a 35mm camera. Big difference; no charts or refined testing necessary. Even when that zoom might be set to the same focal length. One look, and you will see it happening.
    Well made equipment is well made equipment; but, if you want to see the slip-ups, get a look at some of those cheap assemblies where manufacturers were cutting some corners. I mean, "Cheap." El Cheapo. May very well say, "EL CHEAPO" on the lens face. ["Who ever heard of this company? Oh, El Cheapo, INC. Of course!"] Cheap zoom vs. common, standard lens.
    A clue that it's an El Cheapo is that the place lasted about a day and a half. Nobody wanted that thing. Cheap zoom.
    Especially a one-touch cheap zoom. The "Paperweight-Master" leaps to mind. Not to trash anybody's favorites, but I never have liked cheap one touches.
    Contemporary equipment, I think, is probably better supported through the design process. We are probably benefitting from a higher percentage of, more sophisticated, CNC machining, computer modeling and so on. I think that the zoom/prime gap has probably narrowed significantly; to the point that it's not having nearly as much bearing as it used to.
  10. Keep in mind, when I say cheap, I don't mean low-priced. I mean cheap and poorly made. I eschew expensive equipment; and won't go back on that. Yet, there's a certain minimum performance that people should get. During an explosion of people wanting to sell 35mm equipment say, mid-80s, I would take care with those. It seemed like everybody and his brother was selling a pyramid of zoom lenses in every ad. Major manufacturers did okay. Some of the secondaries, okay, too. Yet, there was a flood of stuff that was not worth the money.
    A dud on today's market will evaporate from the web stores in about six months.
  11. With contemporary equipment, mid-market, from a major manufacturer (are there any others left): no problem. I dare say zoom or prime is inconsequential. I cannot tell the difference in photos posted here between who made what with a zoom or a prime. I can, however, feel the seething hatred rise as I get a look through this one poorly made lens, a zoom from the 80s. I can see the difference through the viewfinder.
    I keep it to remind me of how bad "bad" really is.
    Have a look at what people have to say about lenses around here. 96 photos of dolls at different exposures or camera settings. Super-enlarged crops of some test pattern photo. What kind of radioactive stuff was painted on which element: those kinds of discussions. When people take a refined and sophisticated look at what the lens qualities are, sure they can bicker over properties.
    Yet, there was a time when lens assembly might have been so poor that you could tell at a glance that the lens was a dud. In that patch of manufacturing, the zoom or prime advice definitely holds true.
    Observably so. Very much like looking through extremely dirty eyeglasses. I'm not kidding.
    Today? No real bearing on general purpose photography. Flip through the gallery. Can you tell which images were made with a zoom or a prime by the photos? Probably not. With a really poor lens on there, you can. Anyone who tried to make one of those now would drive himself out of business before the production run was completed. Consumers are demanding.
    Prime vs. zoom? Unimportant today. Influential yesterday. Very influential among yesterday's cheapest lenses.
  12. Flip through the gallery. Can you tell which images were made with a zoom or a prime by the photos? Probably not.

    You're joking, right? Do you understand why this is not a basis for comparison?
  13. It's strictly a matter of taste and print size. For many applications, that don't require large prints. There is little difference between the two now days IMHO. But the answer often is a matter of simple physics. A lens with 10-15 elements simply won't be as sharp nor as "contrasty", as a lens with 5-8 elements. Each glass surface causes minute amounts of light to reflect and scatter. This scattering will always reduce contrast and sharpness and that intangible "snap".
    In a 1970-80's era zoom, this could be seen through the viewfinder with most zooms (there were a few exceptions). The view through the VF would be darkened, and flat looking. And quite often "you got what you saw" in the VF when you projected the slides. Dull, snap-less images were the norm for these zooms.
    I shot weddings for years with 35-70 constant aperture zooms, as well as 35 & 50 primes. In normal requested print size (8x10) or smaller. The difference is not noticeable. Move up to an 11x14 or 16x20, and the lens' true character either shines, or poops the bed.
    In recent years, all of the world's top lens makers have created excellent zooms. They are bright,sharp and produce nice contrasty images. However, (with film), the best prime will still be noticeably better once you enlarge to the lens' "breaking point".
    FWIW, non constant aperture "zooms", should actually be labeled "varying focal length" lenses. A true zoom the F stop has to vary as the focal length changes.
  14. No, Dave, I was not joking. And, it is the dominant reason for quite a bit that involves the camera: the final image.
    What, ah, important factor is going to have more influence or purpose besides the image? Lens barrel color?
  15. Keep in mind, what I'm trying to get at here is not a refined and sophisticated comparison. I don't doubt for a moment that if we ran some tough tests with stringent standards, we'd discover a difference. What difference can you see, with your eye, from the beginning? If there is a difference, it's not nearly as great as it was. When the difference was was obvious, to the naked eye, as it looked into the viewfinder; then, it was important. Not nearly so much now.
  16. I recently had the opportunity to talk with a former lens designer about this subject and he said that the big advancement in zooms in the past 30 years has been mostly due to the newer glass types introduced to the designers. He also mentioned better machining accuracy of the lens barrels. The use of aspherical surfaces has also helped because they allow fewer lens elements to be used, therefore improving contrast. The use of 5,6 or7 layer anti-reflection coating have also helped in the area of contrast. The two Pentax zooms for their 67 camera have proven to be as sharp as their primes. Can any of their primes beat these? yes, but not many.
  17. > if we ran some tough tests with stringent standards, we'd discover a difference.
    Ah, congratulations. You've figured out that a jpeg on photo.net is 700 pixels wide, and compressed.
    >When the difference was was obvious, to the naked eye, as it looked into the viewfinder; then, it was important. Not nearly so much now.
    Yep. Sounds good to me. Ya got that right.
  18. One thing to add to all of the above comments is that the market for zooms today is larger than the market for primes. Most people prefer the flexability a zoom lens offers. So manufactures tend to spend design and development money on zooms first. They are spending less and less time on Primes. If you do some research it wouldn't be hard to a prime that hasn't recieved a design update in 20 years. One way to look at is to count the number of Canon IS lenses. Of all the primes there are only 10 out of 38 with IS. Most are 200mm or longer. The shortest prime with IS is the new 100mm macro. For Zooms there are 15 out of 26 with IS.
    The latest in design and technology is going into zooms at a much faster rate then in Primes.
  19. Dave, I think you sound a touch defensive. What's up? Do you think that primes are better? How about you tell us why? I'm not going to argue with you. Tell us about what you think.
  20. Maybe some of y'all are grossly underestimating your image quality. By and large, many of you are doing real well. Occasionally, yes, there is that one dud piece of equipment. But, really, the equipment itself seems to be doing just fine.
    It was only a hundred years ago that George Eastman had to pay for private lessons to learn how to use his first camera because there was no way he could figure out how to get the system to work, at all. I'd bet blind that many people who criticize their equipment are taking a narrow and stringent view of how the stuff works.
    Hey, this contemporary equipment is amazing! It's not like it's flat out broken. Some of that stuff that was marketed to us not too long ago was, really, barely working, in some respects. Cp., one-touch El Cheapo zoom, as above.
  21. What are the chances that a beginner is going to bayonet on a kit zoom and come up with nothing but one big string of errors? I mean, errors! It happened to a lot of us. Sometimes, the equipment was not too good. There was a narrow range of potential success in there. There really might have been a limited tolerance for getting a subject in focus with some of the equipment people had.
    You could almost arbitrarily point a contemporary off the shelf kit system at most anything and do better. At least you'd have a chance of autofocus, auto-aperture, zowie! Properly exposed and focused image, carried out with a zoom! That's some pretty good stuff there; take it in adjusted dollars, for example. In many cases, people with no experience at all might have access to better performing equipment for less money than they might have spent 20 or 30 years ago. Sincere improvements in equipment, with the advent of computers; this type of comparison leads me to believe heavily that the prime or zoom question really might be a matter more for the past.
    I suspect that some folks might not be appreciating just how well they are actually doing. Hey, is Aunt Edna's finger blocking the lens on the Instamatic? It happened. You know you did it with the older equipment.
    I love my old film cameras. But, these newer zoom lenses are pretty good.
  22. I once ran a test between my Sony A350 (APS-C, kit lens) against my Canon 5D (FF, 24-105L) shooting a bright target on the side of my house. The A350 was 14MP and the Canon was 12.8, but the 5D has a better sensor really and that test had the 5D showing a better resolution. When I switched the Sony to the Minolta 50/2.8 Macro prime lens (admittedly a VERY sharp lens), suddenly the A350 zoomed past my 5D. I mounted the Canon 50/1.4 on the Canon and the Canon won again. The differences were pretty easy to see with the image stabilization turned off of both cameras and both mounted on a good sturdy tripod.
    Modern zooms are very good indeed, but the sharpest primes are probably still a little better and that might be more important on a very high MP sensor. I suspect on the Canon 5D mk II or the Sony A850/900 any flaw in the glass is likely to be more visible. But most people don't need the last tiny bit of resolution out of their cameras so unless it's really holding you back (as the old Minolta kit lens was holding back the A350) I'd say good glass becomes more important as your sensor goes up in resolution. And primes tend to be very high quality for their price unless they're also very fast (in which case they're expensive too).

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