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After several years of shooting with my point-and-shoot, I upgraded to an NEX-5R, with two prime lenses — a 35mm f/1.8 and a 19mm f/2.8. I don't have a zoom lens, not even the kit lens.

I've been told that I should first learn to zoom with my feet before I buy a zoom lens. Is that advice correct? Would I be slowing down the rate at which I improve my skills if I buy a zoom lens now?

Or might buying one actually help because I'll be able to capture shots I can't with a prime lens (one can't always zoom with one's feet) and thereby learn compositional and other skills?

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Just a tip from personal experience: Once you get used to prime lenses and you can work comfortably with them in any situation, zoom lenses will feel incredibly awkward, weird and uncomfortable. If you start using only one of them you will eventually get used to it and you'll find hard to use any other thing, so if for some reason you need to use both I would use both as much as possible. –  Achifaifa Dec 14 '13 at 19:16
Thanks, Achifaifa, I'll keep that in mind. Since I do low-light photography, I don't think I'll stop using my primes, which are faster than the f/4 zoom I'm thinking of buying. –  Kartick Vaddadi Dec 15 '13 at 3:20
@MichaelClark I think you're essentially right, but it's funny that the wording of this one brought out proponents of prime lenses and the previous one defenders of zoom. Between the two it's a good set of perspective. –  mattdm Dec 19 '13 at 19:19
A word about terminology: There is no "zooming by feet". When you walk around you alter the perspective which is quite different from zooming where you alter the frame but leave the perspective the same. Changing prime lenses is the direct equivalent of using a zoom lens; but in the answers it is pointed out why this direct substitution doesn't work very well. If someone tells you (and I have been told numerous times) that you can make every photo with a 50mm just by walking around, well, then it is more ideology than advice. –  his Dec 22 '13 at 1:12

7 Answers 7

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Just because you buy a zoom lens doesn't mean it is the only lens you are now allowed to use! And just because you are using a zoom lens doesn't mean you can't still alter the composition of your photographs by using your feet! The advice you have been given is primarily a warning not to stand in one place and stop exploring shooting angles and perspectives just because you have a zoom lens mounted on your camera.

You can still choose to go out shooting some days using only a particular lens such as one of your primes. There are lessons about perspective, field of view, narrow depth of field, framing, and composition that can best be learned by working with a prime lens and having to actively consider the best shooting position to get the shot you envision. The fixed focal length forces you to move to alter the framing of the subject, but that doesn't mean you have to or even should stop moving to alter your composition once you add a zoom lens into the mix.

There are other lessons about perspective, field of view, framing, and composition that can best be learned with a zoom lens. A zoom gives you the opportunity, for example, to explore how the same subject looks in relation to the foreground/background when shot from different distances at different focal lengths using the same framing of the subject. In such an exercise you are zooming with both your feet and your lens in opposite directions and comparing the results!

Can you be a great photographer using only primes or only zooms? Absolutely. But you won't be as well rounded a photographer. Ultimately, I think to be a well rounded photographer you need to have the skill sets to use both prime lenses and zoom lenses in appropriate situations as well as the ability to assess when each is the better choice. Whether shooting with prime or zoom lenses the key is to avoid becoming stuck in a rut (or in one spot) but rather to keep exploring new ways of seeing the world through your viewfinder.

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Any actual (photo)technical advice aside, my recommendation would be: Pursue whichever plan keeps you most interested in photography.

The underlying question is: What do you try to achieve? If you have specific goals, one method or another might be better. If you are in this for pure fun (like I currently am), follow the path that is more fun to you and keeps you interested. If you want a zoom lens, get one and enjoy it. :) If you feel you are rather happy with your primes and want to practice this style of photography more, follow that as well.

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You've really simplified the decision for me. I do think buying a zoom lens will let me explore more interesting stuff, so I will get one. Thanks, Cornelius. –  Kartick Vaddadi Dec 12 '13 at 18:42
Happy I could help. :) I find it very often good to remember why we are doing this. But also keep Michael's (accepted) answer in mind; he said it very well as well. –  Cornelius Dec 13 '13 at 10:48
@KartickVaddadi: Just to add to this, arbitrarily constraining yourself is something you can still do, regardless of what lenses you own. E.g. just leave home with one or two lenses and try to make the most of the restriction. –  Joey Jul 25 at 17:23
Yes, thanks, in fact, I plan to carry only one lens with me every time I travel. –  Kartick Vaddadi Jul 29 at 5:11

Am I correct in understanding that switching primes all the time is highly inconvenient, and you risk getting your optics dirty or dropping your lens...

If you have a large collection of primes and use them exactly as you would a zoom, then yes you will be changing lenses almost constantly at considerable inconvenience. Prime shooting requires a different approach, you learn to visualize the optimal subject/distance/angle to shoot in order to maximize the potential of a given focal length. You can get away with fewer (but better) lenses, and change them infrequently.

...and that the majority of interchangeable lens users (whether mirrorless or SLR) own and regularly use a zoom? I've read things like "I use this zoom lens 80% of the time" but I've never read that about a prime.

It's rare that anyone would use a certain prime 80% of the time, but a 30% split between 3 primes with the remaining 10% other lenses would be unremarkable.

am I correct in understanding that the MAJORITY use zooms more than primes? In which case, I should go with the zoom lens.

The majority of people use low end compacts and camera phones, so by that logic you should get one of those instead of your mirrorless system.

I would completely ignore what the majority do and figure out what's right for you. Choosing a prime will

  • Develop an ability to think of scenes in terms of what you can do with different focal lengths.

  • Give you a higher performance (sharpness, aperture or weight) option at a specific focal length.

Getting a zoom could be better if:

  • You work in an environment where lens changing is difficult or risky.

  • Precise framing is one of the highest priorities, and missing a shot can be costly.

Nowadays I would only ever use a zoom for an event such as a wedding when you might need to go from 70mm to 24mm in a matter of seconds (and even then I would prefer two bodies). I could happily go for a week abroad with three prime lenses, and not feel like I'm missing anything.

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I do take photos in environments where lens changing is difficult or risky, so I will buy a zoom for now. Thanks for helping me understand that. But, if I do decide to buy a prime as well, what focal length would you recommend? I have a 19mm and a 35mm prime now, as I wrote in the question. Please note the crop factor of 1.5. –  Kartick Vaddadi Dec 20 '13 at 4:06
@KartickVaddadi You're missing a fast portrait lens, something around 100mm on full frame, which is 66mm on crop, but there isn't much available for the Nex - you got the Sigma 60 f/2.8 which is really good value but not particularly fast, and the Sony 50 f/1.8 which could be a little longer... out of the 2 I'd get the Sony 50mm –  Matt Grum Dec 20 '13 at 9:32
Hmm... I thought of that, but I don't take portraits. Or, for that matter, studio shots, people, pets, kids, wildlife, sports, events like weddings... I shoot outdoors, like landscapes, typical vacation photos, city scenes (not anything in particular happening on the street, but just the atmosphere of the street), etc. And a lot of low-light photos. Do I still need a "portrait" lens? –  Kartick Vaddadi Dec 20 '13 at 10:09
@KartickVaddadi I've shot plenty of landscapes and city shots with a 100mm lens on full frame. If you also want to do low light then having an f/1.8 lens can be useful. –  Matt Grum Dec 20 '13 at 12:30
To make sure I understood you correctly, you recommend ~60mm (APS-C) focal length as a third prime, after the 19 and the 35mm? –  Kartick Vaddadi Dec 21 '13 at 3:25

As mattdm says, convenience is a matter of perspective. I've worked with zooms for a good many years, but now I mostly work with primes. I find them more convenient to use because I know how to move to get the shot I see; previously I'd fiddle with the zoom ring more to figure out how to get the shot. The prime is also more convenient for shooting indoors/low light -- I can spin the aperture to f2 or 1.4, for example, and manage to get a shot that I couldn't get with a zoom at f5.6 or even f2.8.

The primes I use are 24, 35, and 85. It's a good set. The 24 and 35 are always no-brainer choices for me to take along, the 85 is a little more tough. Sometimes having the 70-200 2.8 is a more useful choice; sometimes the 70-300 f4-5.6 is a better choice.

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Is the body with which you use that collection of lenses an APS-C or FF? –  Michael Clark Dec 19 '13 at 17:35
@MichaelClark: Full frame: a Nikon D800. –  Dan Wolfgang Dec 19 '13 at 19:43
Thanks, Dan. I will go with a zoom for now. But, if I do decide to buy a third prime, what focal length would you recommend? Please note that I use an APS-C camera, and, as I said in my question, I have a 19mm and 35mm primes. –  Kartick Vaddadi Dec 20 '13 at 4:02
Something a bit longer, perhaps in the 50-85mm range. –  Dan Wolfgang Dec 20 '13 at 11:53

Convenience is a matter of your own preferences. Some people find eating out more convenient than cooking at home, while other people find it more of a hassle. Some people think biking is inconvenient, while others can't stand sitting in traffic. This is really one of those same things. If there were a universal answer, one of the options wouldn't exist on the market. Lucky for us, there's enough people who have all sorts of different preferences, so the camera gear market covers us all. You just have to figure out where you fit.

I use only prime lenses, and I don't find it inconvenient. I generally know which lens I want for a given situation, and then stick with it for a while, planning out in my head when I'll swap.

Having done the lens swaps quite often, I can do it in matter of seconds, and am not worried about dropping my lenses or getting them dirty. With my first DSLR, sensor dust was a problem, but since then then built-in dust-removal has gotten so much better that it's a non-issue.

It's undeniable that this is the minority and that the majority of photographers use zooms today, but I don't think it necessarily follows that you should. You should do what you like and what feels best to you.

There are plenty of advantages in prime lenses. Small size for great optics makes them more convenient in many ways. I carry around three our four different lenses every day in a very small camera backpack, and I don't think twice about the weight. (In fact, all of my regular-use lenses together are half the weight of a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom.) And since you mention the importance of low light, prime lenses are often a stop or two faster.

For some of your specific concerns:

  • As noted, dust isn't a big problem in most cases.
  • I actually do use my 40mm prime lens most 80%, although I second what Matt Grum suggests about "30%-each for a set of three primes" as a common situation.
  • You're right that extreme crop isn't a replacement for higher focal lengths, but a) you can use primes with higher focal lengths just fine and b) don't discount the image quality you can get that way. Take a look at the butterfly crop from my review of the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm / F1.4 ASPH. I'll put crops from that lens and camera combo up against a point and shoot zoom any day.

And, there are other advantages in primes too. Take a look at the related question Would a fixed or zoom telephoto lens be better for learning?, and at the Mike Johnston article The Case Against Zooms linked from my answer there.

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Regarding your point of built-in dust removal being better nowadays, that's for the sensor. What about dust on the lenses? I live in a country where there's lots of dust, and I have to blow it off my lenses every couple of weeks. Or does the camera compensate for dust on the lenses, as well? –  Kartick Vaddadi Dec 20 '13 at 4:05
Do you mind weighing in on the question I asked Matt Grum above? –  Kartick Vaddadi Dec 20 '13 at 4:30
@KartickVaddadi "Above" doesn't mean much because answers can be sorted in different ways. Which question was that? –  mattdm Dec 20 '13 at 19:12
As for dust on lenses: if you change quickly, getting dust on the rear element is not such a big deal. If a lot accumulates, you can blow it off. More on this at… –  mattdm Dec 20 '13 at 19:15

I personally think as long you're interested in photography and you're aware of the some disadvantages of using zoom lens, you will always be improving. I don't think you should be too worried about the speed of your improvement. If you're already aware of the basic concepts like composition, perspectives, how to gauge a scene, etc I think any type of lens; zoom or prime, will let you elaborate your vision of an image.

Since you've been shooting with two primes already for a while, I think a zoom lens can widen your views by quite a bit. You can shoot on the long end of the zoom exclusively for a while just to get a feel of how it is like shooting a "long prime", and how the distances are different to what you've been shooting with. The ability to zoom also give you the chance to perhaps do less lens changing and actually shoot more and capture scenes that might not be possible before.

I really think there isn't just one dedicated pathway to learning specific skills in photography. Everyone has their own way of learning and discovering their own style and implementing the basics. Personally, I think starting with a zoom is better because you get to test out many focal lengths and perhaps find out what your favourite length is and then get a prime lens in your favourite focal length and start learning about DOF for example, since primes usually have a larger aperture. But that's only just one of the countless way of starting your photography journey! Good luck.

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Nothing is stopping you from zooming with your feet with a zoom lens, so all other factors aside, you would be missing out on some focal lengths by not having a zoom lens. Here's a good example of a portrait at different focal lengths:

You wouldn't be able to do an experiment like that with just primes. As you can see, there's definitely some compositional value in having those different focal lengths to work with.

That said, the other factors are of course important. At the risk of this becoming general lens purchasing advice, how much do you want to spend and for how high quality a lens? How much glass do you want to lug around with you, and which focal lengths would be most useful for you?

"Zoom with your feet" is a good lesson to learn, but if you were planning to eventually get a zoom anyway (and already know which one you'd want), then I would say you could go ahead and get it now.

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Thanks, Norman. I'm eyeing the new Sony 18-105 constant aperture f/4 power zoom lens for $600. That's pushing my budget a bit. I definitely don't want to spend close to $1000. Since I take low-light photos, I wanted the constant-aperture zoom over the 18-200 or the 16-50, which can give me only f/6.3 when zoomed in. paragraph break Besides, I've been cautioned about the inherent tradeoffs necessary in producing in a 11x zoom like the 18-200, and that the photos will be soft and fuzzy because of this and because of the atmospheric effects of dust, smoke, haze, pollution, heat waves. –  Kartick Vaddadi Dec 15 '13 at 4:04
Is there anything I'm missing in the above reasoning in favor of the f/4 constant aperture zoom? paragraph break Regarding the "how much glass do you you want to lug around?" question, I definitely wouldn't want to spend hundreds of dollars just to reduce the glass I lug around. But I'm happy to buy an additional lens if it gives me noticeably better photos. So, I guess for me: quality > price > carrying too many lenses. paragraph break After I buy the aforementioned 18-105 lens, if I find I need additional zoom, I would consider the 55-210, but maybe we can worry about that later. –  Kartick Vaddadi Dec 15 '13 at 4:11
I don't know much about Sony's lineup, but yes, "superzooms" like the 18-200 are generally of inferior optical quality than other lenses of comparable price. Another relevant piece of advice is that you don't need to cover every millimeter (i.e., the huge overlap between the 18-105 and 55-210), but questions about lens choices like that would be better answered in a dedicated question on the topic. –  Norman Lee Dec 18 '13 at 23:49
The "... atmospheric effects of dust, smoke, haze, pollution, heat waves..." are a result of more atmosphere between your lens and subject. The longer focal length used magnifies these as the angle of view decreases. But it has nothing to do with whether the lens is a zoom or prime telephoto lens. –  Michael Clark Dec 20 '13 at 5:21

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