There are some very impressive zoom lenses on the market today, capable of producing sharpness, clarity and bokeh that would give many prime lenses a run for their money. Indeed, I used to own both of Canon’s legendary f2.8 zooms (the 24-70 and 70-200) and I was very impressed by the images they made, as well as their performance, reliability, and solid, rugged construction. They’re sturdy professional tools, no doubt about that. They’re ideal for carrying to a paid job and they almost guarantee that you’ll ‘get the shot’ in unpredictable spaces and conditions. They’re the pinnacle of zoom technology at the moment. But they’re huge, heavy, very expensive, hamstrung by their f2.8 maximum aperture, and definitely NOT the right choice for an amateur’s carry-around bag. After a couple of weeks, you’d never want to carry that bag ever again.
The best prime lenses in the 24-200mm range can easily outstrip the best zoom lenses’ performance. They’re sharper, faster, smaller, simpler, lighter, more discreet and cheaper than zooms that cover the same focal lengths. Their wider maximum apertures provide better control over depth of field and subject isolation, and they produce better bokeh. There’s no zoom in the world that can do f1.2! Are all of these advantages worth sacrificing for a ‘Swiss Army Knife’ lens which is slightly compromised in every way? Not in my book. And not just for the technical reasons described above…
When you use a prime lens, you have to move around to find the position that’s going to provide the point of view you want, and think about how you want to view all the elements in your image – you have to think about composition. It’s an essential, thoughtful and creative process. When most people use a zoom on the other hand, they don’t bother with composition. They don’t choose a focal length before shooting. They don’t move around. Wherever they stand and without moving, with the convenience of a quick flick of the wrist, they can zoom to get closer, or zoom to go wider, and ‘frame’ their subject in the centre of their shot. It’s lazy and unimaginative, and the results usually reflect the effort. There are exceptions to this rule of course: many talented photographers produce amazing images with zoom lenses. But I’ll bet most of those who do, learned their craft with prime lenses.
It saddens me to hear new and enthusiastic photographers being told to buy this zoom or that zoom as their first lens, or, if they can afford it, to buy the Canon lenses described above just because “they’re the best”. They’re not the best. The argument, I suppose, is that the new photographer will get the most bang for his buck by buying a zoom, because it’s the equivalent of three primes. With all of the above in mind, my opinion is that no zoom on the market today is equivalent to a good and well-chosen set of primes, and a new photographer will learn a lot more about photography, and take better photographs, if he/she chooses a single prime instead. if you’re in that position and wondering what to buy, I’d recommend the very best ‘standard’ prime you can afford. That’ll be something in the 35-50mm range, depending on your sensor size and preference, or the way you see the world.
WHAT IF I NEED A WIDE ANGLE? OR A TELEPHOTO? WHAT IF SOMETHING PREVENTS ME FROM MOVING TO COMPOSE MY SHOT??
Regardless of whatever zooms you might be tempted to buy, you will *always* miss shots. It might be something that’s happening just a bit too far away; or it might be something that’s happening just behind you, or something that happened yesterday. You’ll never be prepared for everything, and I don’t think it’s worth trying. As an amateur, whether you’re going out to photograph something specific, or just carrying your camera with you for the day, does it really matter if you miss something along the way? My preference on a carry-around day, is to take a single prime with me (normally my 50mm), and try to ‘see’ images in that focal length, ignoring anything that I know won’t work. I do miss a lot, but I’d rather come home with ten shots that I’m really pleased with, than a hundred mediocre shots of everything I could see.