Why I Prefer Zoom Lenses

This article discusses a number of reasons why I prefer using zoom lenses rather than shooting with prime lenses. I appreciate that the choices we make with our camera gear are intensely personal, so this article is not intended to convince anyone else to adjust their approach. The camera gear that works for one photographer may not be a fit for the needs of another.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photos have been added to serve as visual breaks.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 34 mm, efov 91.8 mm, f/5.6, 1/50, ISO-3200

Opportunity response time.

The single biggest reason that I’ve always preferred using zoom lenses is opportunity response time. Often when I’m out with my camera gear something unplanned will occur, and present me with a photographic opportunity with a very short response window. Having a range of focal lengths at my fingertips allows me to respond instantly to the opportunity in front of me.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 56 mm, efov 151.2 mm, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO-3200

Our visit to the Waterford Crystal factory during our trip to Ireland was a good example. Before starting the tour I had no idea what we were going to experience in terms of image opportunities. Nor did I know what I’d be facing in terms of lighting conditions, or the distance to my potential subjects. I did assume that tour visitors would only have access to a limited amount of the production facility.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 20 mm, efov 54 mm, f/5.6, 1/50, ISO-3200

As part of an organized tour group I understood that I would not have time to wander around the facility and capture photographs at will. I would need to keep pace with the rest of the group and work very quickly as I captured my photographs.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 41 mm, efov 110.7 mm, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-3200

My choice of lens for the guided tour was the 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 zoom. This lens provided a wide focal length range so I could respond quickly to opportunities as they arose. I also knew from experience that I could shoot handheld at reasonably slow shutter speeds should I encounter some low light situations.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 20 mm, efov 54 mm, f/8, 1/25, ISO-400

Flexible portability

I know some photographers feel that the smaller overall size of prime lenses versus zoom lenses makes them more portable for their style of photography. While this may be true in an absolute sense when comparing the size/weight of one lens against another, in my mind there is a huge cost to pay in terms of a loss of focal length flexibility when using a prime lens.

Cahore Point, Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO-160

When travelling with my Nikon 1 kit I typically took three camera bodies with me. Each was mounted with a different 1 Nikkor zoom lens: 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6, 10-100 mm f/4-5.6, and 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6. This gave me a tremendous amount of portability and flexibility given the small size and weight of the system. The three bodies with lenses affixed to them would easily fit into a medium sized shoulder bag.

Powerscourt, Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 9 mm, efov 24.3 mm, f/5.6, 1/50, ISO-400

When an image opportunity presented itself, I could simply grab the appropriate camera from my bag, capture my photograph, and move on. This set-up provided me with an uninterrupted focal length range from 6.7 mm to 300 mm (efov 18 mm to 810 mm).

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 12-100 mm f/4 IS @ 12 mm, efov 24 mm, f/4, 1 second, ISO-800

My choice of M4/3 camera gear is not as small and light as my Nikon 1 kit, but still provides a good deal of portability and flexibility when compared to a full frame kit. As demonstrated in my recent Making a Delivery article, the M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 mm f/4 IS zoom provides excellent flexibility and portability. It is a stellar ‘one lens’ solution for travel and general photography. The Sync-IS of this zoom lens further enhances its capability.

My wife uses an E-M1 Mark III fitted with an M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II. This combination is small, weatherproof and weighs only 863 grams (~1.9 lbs.) which is only 95 grams (~3.35 ounces) more than the Nikon 1 V3 with 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 combination that she used in the past.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/4, 1/80, ISO-1250, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 1.1 metres

My three zoom lens M4/3 travel kit includes the M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8, M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS, and the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS, along with the MC-14 and MC-20 teleconverters. This selection of lenses provides a focal length range of 7 mm to 400 mm (efov 14 mm to 800 mm), and up to 560 mm or 800 mm (efov  1120 mm or 1600 mm) when the MC-14 or MC-20 teleconverters are used. My E-M1X and those three zoom lenses weigh a total of about 3.2 KG (~7 lbs.) making the overall travel kit quite portable and very flexible.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-800, subject distance 1.1 metres

As noted in a previous article, my trio of M.Zuiko PRO f/2.8 zoom lenses which I typically use for client projects and indoor photography are lighter and more cost effective than full frame lenses that cover an equivalent field-of-view range (i.e. an efov of 14 mm to 300 mm at f/2.8). Being able to utilize constant aperture f/2.8 PRO lenses further increases the functionality of these zoom lenses.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/1250, ISO-400, subject distance 860 mm

Depth-of-field control

Some folks seem to forget that the aperture we use for a photograph is only one factor of four that affects depth-of-field. The focal length of the lens, the distance from the camera to the subject, and the distance from the subject to the background also impact depth-of-field. Fixating only on aperture can be counterproductive.

Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-1600

Regardless of the camera format, I’ve found using prime lenses are very limiting when it comes to creating either shallow or deep depth-of-field since the focal length of the lens is fixed. Adjusting focal length is one of the most powerful ways we can control depth of field, and this can often have a much bigger impact than does changing aperture.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO-200, subject distance 780 mm

As we all know, the shorter the focal length of a lens, the deeper the depth of field will be at any given aperture when compared to a longer focal length used at the same aperture setting. So, shallow depth-of-field can easily be created with a zoom lens as long as the composition is correctly constructed in terms of focal length, the distance from the camera to the subject, and the distance to the subject to the background.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO-200, subject distance 850 mm

Depending on technique used we don’t even have to use a bright aperture like f/1.4 or f/1.8 which we would normally associate with a prime lens, to achieve shallow depth-of-field. In addition, we can be a bit creative and use extension tubes with a zoom lens to enhance shallow depth-of-field.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II @ 135 mm, efov 270 mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO-5000, 10 mm and 16 mm Kenko extension tubes used

For example, the photograph above was created with an M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II at f/5.6 using a focal length of 135 mm (efov 270 mm) and two Kenko extension tubes. As photographers it is important to remain flexible and creative in terms of how we go about creating our images in terms of desired depth-of-field.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO-200, subject distance 950 mm

Let’s say that I was using full frame gear with an 85 mm f/1.8 prime lens, photographing a subject 80 centimetres (~31.5 inches) away away using that lens wide open at f/1.8. I would end up with total depth-of-field of 0.9 centimetres (~0.35 inches).

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/640, ISO-200, subject distance 760 mm

If I used my M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 lens wide open at f/2.8 from the same shooting distance using a focal length of 75 mm, I would also achieve 0.9 centimetre depth-of-field. This comparison is for illustrative purposes only. Obviously the distance from camera to subject may need to shift somewhat depending on the desired composition and the minimum focusing distance of the lens that a photographer may be using.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 @ 7 mm, f/2.8, 1/2000, ISO-200

Summary

Every photographer should buy and use whatever format of camera and lenses that best meets their unique needs. My personal preference has always been using zoom lenses over prime lenses as they provide me with faster opportunity response time, a better overall level of flexible portability, and more depth-of-field control.

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced using my standard process.  This is the 1,107  article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

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6 thoughts on “Why I Prefer Zoom Lenses”

  1. I agree with the idea that zooms are more flexible than fixed focal lengths and that the image quality and flexibility of the Nikon 1 10-100mm f4-5.6 lens makes it a go-to lens for most of the general news photography I do with my V2.

    I still use my DSLRs for shooting sports or for critical assignments, but if I know I’m going to have to be on the move, the V2/10-100 combo is hard to beat. I also throw into my bag the 6.7-13 lens for wide shots, and the 18.5 and 32 lenses for low light, and still have a kit that is light to carry and flexible for any situation.

    But it is the 10-100 that is astounding, and can handle just about anything you can throw at it. A recent example was a last-minute call I got to take also pictures on a tour I was doing of the dismantling of a local decommissioned nuclear power plant. This would have been a job for the DSLR, but the V2 and 10-100 was what I had. Even in marginal indoor light, I still managed to get some decent shots to illustrate my story thanks to the 10-100’s excellent VR and the V2’s ISO flexibility.

    And, as Thomas has demonstrated on this web site with his many great photos over the years, the 10-100 shines in good light.

    I’ve been tempted by the Nikon Z cameras, especially the Z50, but until Nikon makes a lens that can equal the 10-100 for compactness, image quality, and zoom range, I’m sticking with the Nikon 1 system for mirrorless, small sensor photography.

    1. Hi Randy,

      Thanks for sharing your Nikon 1 experiences… it still is a very capable, small and lightweight system. Another advantage of the 10-100 is its relatively short minimum focusing distance. You’re Like many Nikon 1 owners, holding on to your kit for as long as possible.

      If you do need to replace your Nikon 1 kit at some point, it may be worth having a look at the E-M5 Mark III with the M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II. The lens is roughly the same size as the Nikon 1 10-100 and offers a slightly broader efov range of 28-300 mm. It weighs about 15 grams less than the Nikon 1 10-100. Plus the lens is weatherproof.

      The IBIS on the E-M5 Mark III is rated for 5.5 stops with a non Sync-IS lens and 6.5 with a Sync-IS lens so it would be at least 2 stops better than what you are currently getting with your Nikon 1 kit. From a capabilities perspective the E-M5 Mark III would perform significantly better than any of the Nikon 1 bodies. You could also look at the PRO 8-25 f/4 as a replacement for the 6.7-13 Nikon 1 lens. This zoom is also weatherproofed. There are a number of fast f/1.8 M.Zuiko primes that could augment your shooting like the Nikon 1 primes… but they’d have the advantage of being used with 5.5 stops of IBIS in the E-M5 Mark III.

      Tom

  2. Hi Thomas,

    I can only haver good words for Olympus Pro lenses and agree with you on zooms versatility, which I always rely on whenever working on a commissioned work, though in the last couple of years I came to appreciate the “limitations” of prime lenses and often travel now with one camera/one lens only.

    Cheers
    Mauro

    1. Hi Mauro,

      I share your positive assessment of Olympus PRO lenses. I’ve owned and used prime lenses with all of the interchangeable lens systems that I’ve used over the years… full frame, APS-C, Nikon 1 and Olympus M4/3. Prime lenses certainly have their purpose… which I view as specialty tools.

      Tom

  3. An excellent choice is the Sony RX10iv with it’s superb Zeiss 8.8-220mm (24-600 FF equivalence) f/2.4-4 lens on its 1″ sensor, same size sensor as that found in the Nikon 1 and perhaps of similar structure since Nikon buys from Sony. I can create sharp detailed images hand holding this camera at the equivalent of 400-600mm while shooting at 1/125″ ISO 640-800, f/4 with available indoor light.

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