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I have a Nikon D7000 and currently use a 50mm prime lens for most of my photography. I love using a prime/fixed lens but I am considering the addition of a wide-angle lens for landscape photography.

What are the dis/advantages to a wide-angle prime vs a zoom lens?

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With an ultrawide zoom vs. a prime, particularly with a lens designed for APS-C (crop), the main advantages are versatility and availability. When you get to the very short focal lengths, a single millimeter on the focal length can change the composition significantly.

There is also the issue that depending on how you define "wide angle", you may not be able to find a prime for crop. Most of the wide and ultrawide primes that exist are for full frame, not crop. On a full frame camera the ultrawide-to-wide range in focal length is 14mm to 28mm. For crop, it's 9mm to 18mm. This is one arena where you can't reasonably expect a single lens to do the same duty on both formats, because of how the crop factor changes the field of view. With a D7000 as your body, your choice of ultrawides are mostly going to be zooms. I think the only choice of prime that truly is ultrawide on a crop body is Samyang's 10mm f/2.8 lens. And that is only cheap because it's an all-manual (non-CPU) lens. It doesn't report to the body of the camera, both focus and aperture are manual and not controlled by the camera body, and you'll have no lens EXIF information. Samyang's 14mm, while certainly ultrawide on a full frame, is only a 21mm equivalent on a crop--wide angle rather than ultrawide.

The main disadvantages of the zooms vs. the primes, are image quality compromises to accommodate the zoom range (although wide angles in general are more difficult to design without CA, vignetting, distortion, or corner softness issues than normal or telephoto lenses), and slower maximum apertures on the lens. Few of the ultrawide zooms are f/2.8, while some of the fastest wide angle primes for full frame are f/1.4.

You could also use a longer lens, like your 50mm, to shoot images you can stitch into panoramas and get higher resolution and possibly higher image quality, but the feel of the stitched panorama will not be the same as using an ultrawide lens.

  • Thanks, this is really useful info, I've got a lot more research to do before choosing a new lens but I think I'm going to try to find a wide prime that fits my body. The advantages of zooms just don't seem to be worth it for my choice. – Cat Burston Mar 12 '15 at 12:39
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    If wide angle is really your thing, then you should seriously consider going to a full frame camera to take advantage of the wide angle prime lenses currently available. – Michael C Mar 13 '15 at 7:12
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Zoom lenses have more versatility since they can, well, zoom. If you want to get a picture of a specific portion of the landscape, or if you spot a wild animal, you may consider a zoom.

The main disadvantage is that zoom lenses usually have a smaller maximum aperture when compared to prime lenses, and are more susceptible to geometric distortion when you use one for wide-angle shots.

Prime lenses aren't so much susceptible to distortion and have a larger aperture. They usually produce better pictures as well, but they lack the versatility of a zoom lens.

The price goes in favor of the zoom lenses in general.

  • Thanks Paul, this really summarised a lot of my feelings on the topic, tbh. It's just a shame my D7000 body seems to limit my lens choices quite a bit. – Cat Burston Mar 12 '15 at 12:35
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I'm actually considering making the opposite move, buying a 50 mm prime lens for landscape photography. While it looks very useful to be able to zoom out to get a good field of view, this comes at the expense of the resolution. It's better to take images with a high focal length and then stitch a high resolution image together (e.g. using Hugin). Usually, landscape photography doesn't involve fast moving objects, so you can usually take your time to take the pictures. For this reason I actually ended up taking most of my landscape pictures at the maximum 50 mm zoom. But, as Paul Picard explains in his answer, I would have been better off taking the pictures with a 50 mm prime lens.

In contrast, you do need a zoom lens to be able to optimally compose a picture of moving objects. You then only have the freedom available to adjust the field of view when taking the picture.

  • The 50mm does take some lovely landscapes, I can't deny it! I personally don't love the whole process of post-process stitching, though. – Cat Burston Mar 12 '15 at 12:37

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