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Primes vs Zooms: A Different Perspective

By Mark Gilligan

“Is it worth me buying any prime lenses for landscapes? I have read that a zoom will do all I need?”

That’s a question that pops up from time to time but before I give my answer we need to look at what they are and what they can offer. Without going into the technical detail too much (you can check out the tech specs on the web), I will keep it simple.

Prime lenses

Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths and do not zoom. If it’s a 50mm lens or a 35mm lens that’s it. You cannot zoom in or out. Because they don’t possess the internal glass or elements that a zoom lens needs to do its job, they are subsequently lighter. For those of us that walk far and wide for the perfect landscape, lightness in kit is a plus, but is that all they offer?

In the main, primes are generally faster with f-stops as low as F1.2. Because of this, shooting in low light is not a problem but that aperture may not be conducive with a vast landscape before you. You tend to see portraiture and wedding photographers utilising primes with wider f-stops more because of this and I have to say they do tend to give a better ‘edge to edge’ image with less diffraction.

Is there a down side? Well, some folk would say that they are restrictive because of their inhibiting focal lengths and you would need a range of lenses to enable you to capture what you will see rather than using one all-encompassing lens. A zoom – I don’t subscribe to that and I will explain later.

Zoom lenses

As for zoom or compression lenses, they are generally heavier because of the elements in the barrel that they need to compress or open up the landscape. They come in a variety of ranges to suit all types of photography but landscape photographers generally go for very wide, such as an XF10-24mmF4 to much bigger, telephoto lenses, i.e. the XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6. In other words, you can shoot from right under your nose to infinity or pull a mountaintop in towards you that is several miles away. You would still need a number of lenses in your kit bag though.

A zoom such as an XF18-135mmF3.5-5.6 would be ideal for compactness or should you decide to keep your bag light when walking the fells. They are a plus when taking away on holiday. It has an f-stop range from F3.5 -5.6 but the available light abroad is usually more forgiving. In other words, zooming at its maximum is well within capabilities.

The downside? Unless you dig deeper into your pocket, they will usually be slower than the primes with a minimum f stop as mentioned of F3-5 to F5-6 at their maximum zoom. Therefore, in theory, we would need more light at the ‘top end’. We can lessen or overcome that though by using a higher ISO which would enable us to capture the image but with a possible compromise in quality, i.e. a bit more grainy. That’s another blog topic!

Me? I regularly use both types of lenses and when asked why I still use primes when zooms are easier, my answer is simple. They make you work harder as a photographer and that’s a big plus in my book. I am always looking to learn and develop.

Fujifilm GFX 50S, GF120mmF4 @ F8 | 1/250 | ISO200

The photo above is the beautiful Loughrigg Tarn in the Lake District and the fells in the background are the iconic Langdale Pikes. Although it is a lovely place, this shot doesn’t do it justice. Why? It is taken with the GF120mm prime lens on the GFX camera and that lack of zoom, using the fixed focal length, is restrictive as the foreground of water is uninteresting. It is deliberately shot that way for this article because I have stood in one place and not explored either the location or the primes at my disposal.

That’s the beauty of primes though. They make you get those feet moving and improve your compositional skills. In showing you a negative side it opens up the reasons why you should not dismiss prime lenses; they make you walk around and improve your eye for photographs, the subject matter that makes a better image.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know many like me will walk around with a zoom on the camera too but that restriction tests you more as a photographer and opens up your approach and thought process.

Fujifilm GFX 50S, GF23mmF4 @ F11 | 1/40 | ISO200

To take this image, I changed to a wider prime with a focal length of 23mm because I wanted to show the beauty of the location and its surroundings. It’s what I would term ‘an establisher’. The swan is a bonus, but I did wait for it to ‘pop’ into that position!

Fujifilm GFX 50S, GF23mmF3 @ F11 | 1/30 | ISO200

I kept the same lens on and went exploring and found this beguiling tree that simply begged to be photographed. It isn’t a classic image but one that places it in the location and gives a different perspective. It is un-cropped and the composition is aided by the restriction of the prime.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, XF10-24mmF4 @ F9 |1/250 | ISO 200

The photo above is a typical English summer’s day. I know its not raining but stay with me… This is not an uncommon view as we drive around the countryside. Whilst we don’t all have the lakes on our doorstep, a wheat field on a lovely afternoon can also offer you, as a photographer, the opportunity to capture a scene you shouldn’t ignore.

I have always loved the bigger picture and if you know my images you will be aware that I enjoy photographing big vistas. A good wide-angle lens allows me to do this. In this instance, I used an XF10-24mmf4 zoom to capture the grandeur of the view. The zoom was at its widest (10mm) and as such the depth of the field (not depth of field!) is exaggerated. The trees look 400-500 yards away but in reality they were no more than half that distance. The big sky is vital to the image and so in order to ‘pull you into the frame’ the wide zoom emphasizes that.

So why didn’t I use a prime? I could have done but I was literally driving around from one place to another, looking for shots and so in order to save ‘leg work’ I chose the zoom.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, XF50-140mmF2.8 @ F2.8 | 1/1000 | ISO 200

In order to isolate the mid frame of the wheat in the above image, I used what I call, the ‘beast’… the XF50-140mmF2.8, and focused on the middle row of husks. It is a very fast lens and I took this at F2.8, 1/1000, ISO 200. I didn’t want to go trampling across the field (never do that anyway without asking permission) and so I let the lens do the walking for me.

Both of those images were taken from the hedgerow outside the field then I jumped back into the car and set off for another location.

For me the argument isn’t about what’s better; zooms or primes. They both have a role to play in shooting landscapes but more importantly these are my reasons for for having primes in my kit bag:

  1. They stop you being lazy. By that I am not just referring to the ‘leg work’ we have to put in, but the fact that you work harder to make the shot
    and;
  2. They are excellent for your development as a photographer and anything you can explore/utilise that helps you change your perspective on how you see things can only be good for that.

I started taking photographs over half a century ago and I am still learning.


More from Mark Gilligan

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9 replies »

  1. It would be worth noting to those wishing to start landscape photography that maximum aperture is not a huge problem on zooms as you should be shooting on a tripod if serious. A tripod will allow low ISO for quality, smaller apertures including selecting the ‘sweet spot’ on the aperture and long shutter speeds are not a problem unless there is significant movement in the scene. I shoot with five Fuji primes plus the 10-24 zoom and the10-24 is an important landscape lens. Additionally for an early photographer a zoom opens up additional opportunities in composition which is so important to learn in the early days.

  2. It’s disappointing to see a Fujifilm-supported blog succumb to the almost universal but incorrect use of “prime” as a synonym for a fixed focal length lens… especially since Fujifilm also makes lenses for use in the field of cinematography, where “prime” is used (correctly) to mean a lens that is modified by an optical attachment such as an anamorphic converter.

  3. I only use primes, after many years only wanting zooms. Even at near 70 I think this article is so correct, use your feet. You will enjoy it more and also get that extra satisfaction from what you have done. I have changed to Fuji, X Pro 2, and am tying to limit myself to 3 lenses, 23, 35 and 50. I don’t yet know if I will succeed, but its worth a try, purely from the enjoyment I get!

  4. Always a topic of discussion and your points are true. I have drifted back to prime lenses and put the zooms to the background. I look at this topic a little differently. As a former large format shooter for a few decades, I always used primes, (only choice). Making the move to digital changed that as zooms were much better than they were in the past, I still treat my digital compositions as I did with 4×5. I am slow and meditative in my work. I look at primes a little more philosophical. I learned to see and compose within each focal length. I knew each lens and what it saw and how it would translate an image. Also, it helps to define style. With a zoom, you constantly shoot at different focal lengths and your look, feel and compression of scale is always in flux.Primes bring back the craft of photography. You have a greater connection to you subject. Its not just getting lazy by zooming, you lose your sense of how the world syncs with your eye.

  5. While I agree with the article, for the beginning photographer without a ton of money in his pocket, a zoom will help you get started if you haven’t defined your compositional area of interest, or as an alternative, pick a single prime for the type of photography you are interested in, and go from there.

  6. Ask yourself this question: What am I going to do with the photo I’m taking? If your answer is…nothing, put it in newsprint, put on webpage then whether you use zoom or prime really doesn’t matter. Just use a lens that’s most convenient and the one you can have most fun with.

    I have zooms and primes. If I had to keep only one lens I’d keep my 24-120 and sell the rest.

  7. The “moving one’s feet” argument means changing one’s position. If I like the look from my current position and I just want to “crop” in a bit. I’ll use a longer focal length. I don’t care much if it’s a fixed focal-length lens or a zoom. I do care about not being able to realise “that” composition from”this” perspective because of the wrong focal length. Yes, I can take wide and crop later, or I can use a zoom. To summarise: You can’t zoom with your feet, you can only change perspective. Is this good to train your compositional mind? Perhaps, but so is seeing the composition you want and being able to adjust your equipment to fit your idea. There is no right or wrong in this but please don’t confuse perspective with magnification. Let’s be honest, as a social photographer, the recent quality of zooms has been a godsend.
    Si.

  8. Thank you for this article Mark, written by a professional, furthermore Fujifilm X-Photographer. I’m a (amateur) X series user for the past 7 years (XE1 + XPro2 now), and this topic is nowadays very useful. Maybe in the past the difference of quality was real, but today with the XF Lenses difficult to see imperfection btw primes and zoom. As you said, the most important is the picture, is what we feel when you shoot, and if the picture is reflecting this moment. Your pictures are beautiful, no matter if prime or zoom. Thank you for the content.
    Regards,

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