Should I use a prime lens or a zoom lens?

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Q. You always seem to use your trusty 70-200mm f2.8 lens, and I love mine too, but people on forums keep saying that I should use primes because “that is what the pro’s use” – J.M. Jersey, Channel Islands

A. Yes I LOVE that lens! I worked for years with prime (fixed) lenses on medium and large format cameras, but always preferred working with the 35mm camera and a zoom lens because it’s just so much more flexible.

I photograph people, so basically I need to use the easiest equipment, in order to get the best reaction from them. A prime lens is fixed at say 50mm for example, which means that if you use this kind of lens, then you have to walk up to the child to get close enough – with a zoom lens, you just stay where you are, and zoom in and out. This means:

  1. You don’t terrify the child by being too close.
  2. They don’t often notice you are taking their photo if you are a long way back.
  3. You have loads of easy ways to get a choice of shots – by easily changing your composition at the touch of your hand – rather than moving back and forward yourself, which can distract the person you are photographing.

It’s the same for adults too – they sometimes feel embarrassed if they think you are too close because they worry you will be taking a very close shot – but when you use a zoom lens they have no idea how close you are zooming in, so they don’t worry about it.

The so-called “experts” will always hail prime lenses because there is so much camera snobbery out there! Yes, they may have a slightly better optical quality than a zoom lens (i.e. can be sharper), but unless you are shooting butterflies, or want to see every feather on an eagle, that really doesn’t matter to me. My clients don’t want to look razor sharp!! As you can see from my close up shots they are perfectly sharp enough, because they are of people (not eagles!).

IMPORTANT: You do need a good quality zoom lens – not all zoom lenses are created equal! If you have a Canon camera – get a canon lens, or Nikon for a Nikon camera, etc. The cheaper (non camera brand) lenses are nothing like as good quality as using the proper lens designed for the camera.

If you are a professional landscape photographer taking pin sharp images to create a perfect scene, then you might want to use a prime lens. However, I also use a zoom for my landscapes because I make them look arty – I use 5.6 or 4 to get parts of them out of focus deliberately – but that’s just my style.

I know people who use prime lenses for baby shots too, because the effect can look really good on that type of shot – but a baby is more like a landscape or a detail shot really! Because it is not really aware of what you are doing. Anyone older than a baby needs a more flexible approach I find!

So, no, I don’t agree you have to use a prime lens for everything. I haven’t used one ever since I dumped my film equipment over 10 years ago, and it hasn’t done me any harm! The shot below (which I have cropped for the header of this blog) was shot on the 70-200 zoom lens; look at those eyes – how much sharper do you need to be?!

Annabel x


A zoom lens gives you much more flexibility when photographing children and adults, as they don't always react well with a lens up close to them, and you can zoom in and out quickly to change your composition without moving the subject. The eyes are pin sharp in this shot, taken on a 70-200mm zoom lens, and the soft areas of the picture are created deliberately by shooting at F2.8.

A zoom lens gives you much more flexibility when photographing children and adults, as they don’t always react well with a lens up close to them, and you can zoom in and out quickly to change your composition without moving the subject. The eyes are pin sharp in this shot, taken on a 70-200mm zoom lens, and the soft areas of the picture are created deliberately by shooting at F2.8.