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Difference between a prime or zoom lens?

Daniel Horande , Dec 17, 2009; 02:13 p.m.

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!


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Shun Cheung , Dec 17, 2009; 02:16 p.m.

Don't sell yourself short. If the pictures are good, it is mainly because of the photographer (hopefully you), not the lens.

JDM von Weinberg , Dec 17, 2009; 02:44 p.m.

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.

Asim Raza Khan , Dec 17, 2009; 02:57 p.m.

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

Ben Goren , Dec 17, 2009; 03:18 p.m.


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.



Scott Murphy , Dec 17, 2009; 04:07 p.m.

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".

David W. Griffin , Dec 17, 2009; 05:17 p.m.

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.

Jeremy Jackson , Dec 17, 2009; 11:02 p.m.

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

John O'Keefe-Odom , Dec 17, 2009; 11:28 p.m.

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.

John O'Keefe-Odom , Dec 17, 2009; 11:44 p.m.

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.

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