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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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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