Prime versus Zoom: Can You Tell the Difference? - Trust Me Shops

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Prime versus Zoom: Can You Tell the Difference?

Prime versus Zoom: Can You Tell the Difference?

B&H explora - All posts
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The first zoom lenses were not very good. Manufacturers of early zooms made optical concessions in the name of convenience and flexibility. The ability to change your lens’s field of view—eliminating the need to carry numerous prime lenses and swap them on the go—was, and still is, enticing to many photographers. Ever since the birth of the zoom, photographers have debated which option is better: fixed focal length prime lenses or variable focal length zoom lenses?

Note: This article was originally published 10 years ago. The text and images in this article have been updated.

Why did early zooms underperform and create an indelible reputation for not being as good as their fixed focal length prime siblings? Well, to get the light traveling through a zoom lens to behave properly when the focal length changed, optical engineers had to add more lens elements along with mechanical systems to move the glass physically. The greater number of elements and glass-air interfaces you have in a lens, the greater the chance for some undesired optical degradations, such as chromatic aberrations, distortions, softness, and more.

Today’s zoom lenses are better than ever, and many pros use zoom lenses exclusively—often never employing fixed focal length prime lenses. One can argue, however, that the same technology and manufacturing processes that have made the zoom lens better are likely making new prime lenses better, as well.

It was hard (impossible?) to “pixel peep” in the days of film, but now pixel peeping is a mainstream digital sport. If we compare a photo taken with a zoom lens to one taken with a prime, do we need to pixel peep to see the difference? Or is this a moot comparison in the modern photographic era? Is a zoom lens just as good as a prime?

Let’s take a look!

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