Primes vs. Zooms

In this case, zoom (70-300mm at 300mm, 1/800, ISO 400, f/13)

If you decide to move beyond the kit lens that came with your camera, the inevitable question then becomes which lens to get. There’s an insane number of options out there, since your camera’s manufacturer is likely to have a substantial stable of lenses, and there are also aftermarket alternatives (of varying degrees of cost and quality) available to you. From time to time, I’ll be explaining some of these options, starting today with a question that’s as old as the zoom lens itself: are you better off with another zoom, or with a prime?

Let’s address primes first. A prime lens is a lens that has only one focal length. Most manufacturers make primes at several different focal lengths, from the very wide (like an 8mm fisheye) to a traditional wide-angle lens (a 24 or 35mm, for instance), “normal” lenses (40-50mm, so called because they approximate the average human field of vision), and telephoto lenses, which start around 85mm and can go to 500mm or more. On the positive side, the relative simplicity of their optics, coupled with the fact that they have fewer moving parts, makes these lenses cheaper, lighter, and sharper than their zoom counterparts. They’re also faster and brighter (the common maximum aperture is f/1.4 or f/1.8, though lenses with f/1.0 and even f/.95 have been manufactured). On the negative side, you can’t zoom with a prime. You want a shot that’s either tighter, or wider? Take two steps (or more) forward or back. Also, where a single zoom might cover 18-55mm, it can take two or more primes to cover the same range (20mm, 35mm, and 50mm, for instance), meaning more space taken up in your camera bag, and more weight to lug around.

What about zoom lenses? When they were first mass-marketed, in the late 1950’s, the initial enthusiasm for their versatility and convenience was tempered by the realization that there were significant tradeoffs in optical quality. It’s a perception that’s stuck with zooms to this day, even though a modern zoom provides much higher image quality than would have been possible fifty years ago. The biggest advantage of a zoom lens is convenience; one zoom, as mentioned above, can replace two or more primes, and some zooms – like the 18-200 and 28-300 variants that are currently available – can substitute for far more than that.** There’s also a cost factor involved once you start comparing the cost of one zoom versus its equivalent set of primes. And there are times when taking steps forward or back just isn’t practical or safe, so it’s better to have a zoom at your disposal. On the negative side, faster, brighter zooms typically max out at a 2.8 aperture (and the consumer zooms typically start at an f/3.5 or f/4 maximum aperture), won’t have the same lovely bokeh*** as a prime, and can be very large and heavy. Also, because of their optical formulae, they can tend to have a variety of distortion issues; where a prime will typically show some barrel distortion, a zoom can show barrel distortion, pincushion distortion, and complex distortion, all in the same lens, at varying focal lengths and apertures, which can give you conniptions if you’re trying to keep straight what parts of the range are doing what.

So, zoom or prime? The short answer, I think, would be that there’s room in your kit for both. Some photographers will shoot only with one or the other type of lens; a more rational approach is to find which generally works for you, but keep one or two of the other type in your kit as well. If you shoot mostly with primes, this might mean having a long (say, 70-200 or 70-300) lens in your arsenal. If you are shooting with zooms (and especially if you’ve only ever shot with zoom lenses), having even one fast prime in your kit opens up opportunities you didn’t even realize you were missing.

Obviously, regardless of which category you fall into, there are tradeoffs you need to be aware of. These will impact not only your wallet, but also your photography; it’s helpful, therefore, to do your homework, not only by researching the wealth of reviews and information that’s available on nearly every lens, but also by getting to a camera shop and trying the lens(es) on your camera.

*Before someone takes me to task for my terminology: a telephoto, strictly speaking, is a lens whose length is shorter than its focal length. So a 500mm lens wouldn’t necessarily be a telephoto if it were 500mm long, it would be a “long focus” lens. It would also be quite the pain in the neck to carry. At any rate, since “telephoto” is the going parlance for pretty much anything over 85mm, that’s the sense in which I’m using it here.

**Albeit with significantly compromised quality. An 18-200 has become the only lens for some shooters, and a convenient walkabout lens for many others who don’t always want to schlep their whole kit. Problem is, image quality at the ends – the widest and longest parts of the lens – tends to be a bit on the mushy side, especially in the corners (among other issues). You may decide that’s an acceptable tradeoff, but here again, it’s important that you try before you buy.

***Bokeh is a term referring to the little rounded bits of light that are out of focus in your photos. Some photographers, especially if they specialize in portraiture, pay closer attention to the bokeh than they do to the sharpness of a lens. It’s a purely individual decision and creative choice.

Got a Point-and-Shoot? You Should.

Allaire, 2010

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been writing about taking more control over your camera in order to have more control over your photography and the final appearance of your images. Today, we’re going to do a 180-degree turn, and I’m going to tell you to throw all of that out the window from time to time.

It may sound as though I have something against shooting in automatic, or against compact cameras. I don’t. What I do disagree with is not using those controls when you have them, turning an SLR into an oversized Brownie, or having a point-and-shoot mentality toward photography. I also think that, from a control standpoint, having a degree of control over your settings, knowing what they do, and how/when best to use them can be essential building blocks in becoming a better photographer.

My first cameras – an Imperial Savoy and a Kodak V1253 that I still have (and have used for a handful of images that have appeared on this site) – weren’t the best out there by any stretch of the imagination. Neither granted much control, but at the time, I got them because they were what I could afford. Perhaps more importantly, I simply wanted to photograph things.

With all of that being said, the knobs, dials, and buttons are only one (small) part of an equation with lots of variables. Not least of these variables is composition. Let’s face it, the more variables you remove, the more you can concentrate on what’s left. If photography, stripped to its barest essentials, is all about light and geometry, and you’ve already surrendered most of your control over light, about all you’re left with (with the exception of exposure compensation, which nearly every camera allows you to manipulate) is the geometry, and paying attention to how the available light interacts with that. It encourages paying attention to texture, line, and form, and also gets you used to some of the quirks of exposure (sometimes frustratingly so).

Another variable is just taking photos in the first place. You should always have your camera. An SLR, because of its size, weight, and tendency to call attention to itself, isn’t always a camera you’re going to want to have with you. Many compacts will easily slip into a shirt or jacket pocket, out of sight ’til they’re needed. With the exception of pancake lenses and small primes, you won’t be able to “pocket” much of anything on or about an SLR, and trying to put it in your jacket will just make you look like you should be in the nether reaches of some cathedral or other, ringing the bells.

Another issue, as we discussed earlier in the week, is control – not just controlling the camera, but the control issues we can sometimes have as photographers. The average compact is a control freak’s nightmare; many don’t have manual controls, and they have other limitations as well when it comes to high ISO performance, camera shake at longer focal lengths, inadequate flash… the list goes on and on. I grew frustrated sometimes with those limitations; over time, however, you come to realize that limitations can be something you either obsess over, or use as a learning tool. I chose to do the latter, and to try to get the most out of what I had. Instead of worrying about ISO or flash (neither of which the Kodak does very well), I was free to concentrate more on composition. If you can’t zoom to 300mm (to say nothing of the ridiculously long 600-800mm equivalent range on some current superzoom models), you can either whine, or learn new ways of seeing things closer to you, also paying closer attention to how you frame the shot when you can’t rely on the zoom to do all of the work.

If you’re wondering what your first camera should be, or if you’ve already long since made the jump to a system camera of some sort (SLR, micro 4/3, or anything else with interchangeable lenses), don’t neglect an automatic compact. I’m not about to give up my SLR, but neither would I give up my compact. It’s a fantastic learning tool, and its simplicity allows you to forget for a while about the technical stuff, and get back to focusing on what makes a good photo.

Support Your Local Camera Shop!

Support your local diner while you're at it.

If you do a quick Google search, it’s pretty easy to find several thousand articles debating the merits of film versus digital photography (waters into which I’ll probably dip my own toe at some point). One thing that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention – and should – is what the rise of digital photography has done to the local camera shop. If film seems an endangered species, your local camera shop is doubly so.

The advent of digital photography as a viable medium roughly corresponds to the advent of viable, trustworthy online shopping. Just as companies like Fujifilm and Kodak have sometimes struggled to adapt to the changes digital has wrought in the landscape, so too have small independent retailers found themselves on the losing end of a price war sparked by the likes of Amazon and Best Buy. In the past, I’ve purchased from both of these retailers

Let’s look at the pros and cons of buying locally versus buying online:

  • Price: This is one arena in which your local camera shop has difficulty competing. However, ask. Some will be flexible on pricing to the extent that they can, others may be willing to bundle an additional item or two if you’re making a big purchase. Besides, the savings you’ll get at your typical online retailer on newer items often won’t be that much. To pick just two examples at this writing*, the Fuji X100 retails at Amazon for $1,199.95, while the Canon Rebel T3i (body only) goes for $799.00. Over at my closest local camera shop, the Fuji is identically priced, and the Canon sells for a whopping 99 cents more. Some savings, huh?
  • Selection: Sure, Amazon carries a bit of everything. They can afford to, since they buy in massive quantities, and because the sales of items that move help to offset the stuff that doesn’t. Your local shop doesn’t generally have that luxury, so they’re not going to have every item from every brand. However, if it’s a brand with which they usually deal, ask if they’ll special order for you.
  • Knowledge: You tell me which is easier: sorting through a hundred reviews on Amazon (or talking to a salesperson in Wal Mart, who usually works in small appliances, but is filling in for the person in the camera department today, ’cause the girl who normally works cameras is subbing for someone in Automotive), or asking one person at a camera shop who’s either worked with a brand for years, or has at the very least been thoroughly trained on it?
  • Support: No matter how hard we try, how knowledgeable we are, or how much research we put in, nobody thinks to ask every question before they buy. Some questions aren’t covered in the manual. And some of them won’t come up ’til you’ve used the camera for a couple of months. Many local shops also offer classes for all levels of photographers that can help take your photography to the next level.
  • Try Before You Buy: Quality control is generally pretty tight at most camera manufacturers. However, sample variations do exist. In other words, it’s possible to get a lousy copy of a camera, lens, or just about anything else you use on or around your camera. If you want to try out that “nifty fifty” on your camera before you buy it to make sure it doesn’t have any issues, you’ll have a much easier time doing it at your local dealer than, say, walking into Target with your gear and asking them to try out one or more lenses.
  • Used Equipment: Maybe you’ve outgrown the 18-55mm kit lens that came with your camera and want to sell it, or maybe you just don’t feel like paying retail for the macro lens you’ve been waiting to get your sweaty paws on. If inspecting and testing new equipment is a good idea, for used equipment it’s mandatory. It’s easier to do this before purchasing than having to re-pack and return an item that wasn’t quite what the online seller or auctioneer said.
  • Rentals: Every so often, a particular project or assignment may call for a specific type of equipment that you may only need one time. If you can’t see the sense in buying something, and don’t have a friend or colleague from whom you can borrow, rental’s always an option. You can’t rent a body, lens, speedlight, or much of anything else from most online retailers. ‘Nuff said.

Camera equipment doesn’t come cheap, so it can be tempting to buy on price alone. When you stop to consider the rest of the picture, however, buying locally has quite a bit to recommend it. Support your local camera shop!

*July, 2011

Additional reading:

1001 Noisy Cameras’ “Support Your Local Camera Store Initiative”