Prime vs. zoom: How to know which to use
I’m a big advocate for shooting minimally. I’ve shared more on shooting with minimal equipment and why you might want to. When it comes to traveling or spending the day with my camera in San Francisco, I choose to bring as little gear possible. But how do you choose?
When you’re heading out for a day of shooting without much of a plan it’s hard to decide what lens or lenses to bring. Should I bring the telephoto lens so I don’t have to worry about focal length and can zoom in close to my subject? Or should I bring I bring the 50mm prime lens cause I know I’ll need the lower f-stops to take my best photos as the sun sets? What about those speciality lenses like Lensbaby or Petzval? So many choices. Each creating entirely different sets of photos.
Lomography Petzval 58mm art lens in brass
We can’t predict the future and know which lens we should bring. We could decide to bring everything but it’s bulky, heavy, and not to mention unsafe on the streets of any city. The more you bring, the less creative you are. If I commit to bringing one or two lenses at most I’ll make them work in every situation.
If you’re just starting out and you only have one lens it’s actually a good thing. It means you’ll push yourself to be creative with how you capture your photos. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t and focus on doing your best with what you have.
What is a prime lens?
A prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length. When I first heard about prime lenses I immediately shrugged them off as I wanted the convenience and flexibility of zoom lenses, you might be thinking the same.
Prime lenses are faster and have a larger maximum aperture. Most typical 18-55mm kit zoom lenses have a maximum aperture of f/4 or f/5.6 depending on the focal length. If you use a prime lens like the 50mm f/1.4 lens, your aperture is four stops faster. That sounds good but what does it really mean?
With larger apertures you can take better photos in low light conditions without a tripod. The other great advantage is the range in depth of field. All those photos with beautifully blurred backgrounds (also known as bokeh)? They’re created with wider aperture settings like those on a prime lens.
Starting with a kit zoom lens
The first lenses I ever bought were two kit lenses for a Nikon D40 back in 2007. I made the same buying decision when I switched a year later to the Canon Rebel xSi.
I bought these lenses for one reason. I thought they were a good deal. They were cheaper together and it seemed like I could capture any shot with them. I was wrong. For those first few lens purchases I only considered focal length. But there’s so many more important factors to consider.
After a couple years of experimenting with these lenses I realized their limitations. I could never shoot good photos at night unless I had a tripod. But that takes forethought and personally I dislike walking around the city with a tripod. Nothing makes you stick out more than setting up a tripod.
The point of a street photographer is not to stand out. You need to blend into your surroundings so you can capture the scene as it is. It’s just like asking a person to “smile” when you take their photo. It’s a guarantee for shooting the most inauthentic portrait ever. The same is true with street photography.
The other drawback of these kit lenses are the focus and mood I wanted to create but couldn’t. At some point your level of skill in photography will surpass your equipment. When you find yourself frustrated and unable to create the photo you have in mind, you know it’s time to invest in better equipment.
However, I don’t recommend you start with the most expensive lenses as a beginner. Instead, grow with your equipment. If you don’t start by experimenting with a standard zoom kit lens, you’ll never learn what features you care most about. Reaching a level of frustration is a good thing, it means you’re learning and progressing.
So what do you do when your kit lens is no longer cutting it? You choose a prime lens.
Which prime lens should you buy first?
Remember when I said I only focused on focal length when choosing my first lens? You probably did too and I know why. You want the one lens, the “unicorn” to do it all for you. You want to be able to shoot wide angle cityscapes or landscapes as well as zoom in to capture the details. But the harsh reality is this unicorn doesn’t exist.
If it does exist (or will in the near future), it’ll be extremely expensive and heavy to carry. You might not think about the size or weight of your equipment right away but after an hour or two of shooting, you’ll feel it in the strain of your neck and shoulders.
This is why you need multiple lenses for multiple shooting purposes. Again, you’ll only learn what you need in a given situation through practice, trial and error. Each lens serves a purpose and creates a different mood or type of photo.
If you find you prefer shooting wide open spaces, you may want to invest in a 24mm lens or 35mm lens. Is your main focus portraits? The 85mm lens is what you’re after. Or if you’re like me and love to shoot in cities, you may find the 50mm prime lens to be an ideal focal length for 95% of your shots.
Want a more affordable option? Check out the Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM prime lens, also known as the “pancake lens” for its compact size. It’s on the lower-end of pricing, still offers a wide focal length and bonus! Its weight and size makes it an ideal option for traveling.
Complete Canon EF prime lens guide
To help you choose which prime lens to start with first, I’ve created this infographic as a quick reference guide to help you choose! This guide includes all Canon prime lenses, which is what I shoot with and recommend.
#1 recommendation: The “nifty fifty” or 50mm
The 50mm is the number one lens recommendation I’d heard about before I even considered prime lenses. So many rave about it in online reviews. Most who buy it say it’s their favorite lens, use it all the time, and can’t imagine shooting without it.
I agree completely. Ever since I purchased the 50mm prime lens, I never leave for a photo adventure without it.
What’s to love about the 50mm prime lens
It’s lightweight and compact. The perfect companion for street photography as it’s not conspicuous and it doesn’t strain my neck while walking around for hours.
50mm is the happy medium of focal lengths. 24mm and 35mm is too wide for most situations unless you shoot landscape and interior spaces only. 85mm is zoomed too far in and I don’t shoot portraits. So 50mm is the closest you’ll get to meeting both worlds.
Most importantly, it allows me to take the photos I’ve dreamt of but simply can’t with a standard zoom or telephoto lens. I crave the smooth, creamy bokeh effects of wider apertures like f/1.4 (and I’m not afraid to admit I mostly shoot at f/1.4 when the situation permits). It creates natural vignettes that draw you into the city scenes I capture.
With this lens I can easily shoot clear and focused photos during the golden hour and long after into the night. I couldn’t shoot the bright lights of San Francisco’s streets without my 50mm. Like this one!
San Francisco cityscape skyline from Fort Point
The Canon prime lens guide
With so many choices for your first prime lens, it’s easy to get them confused. To help out I’ve created a downloadable guide for you. Enter your info below and I’ll send it to you!
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