Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?

Started Jan 30, 2013 | Discussions
MMACory Senior Member • Posts: 1,752
Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?

Are primes typically sharper/better image quality (can be subjective) than "comparable quality" zooms at the same focal length and aperture or not really?

Thanks.

 MMACory's gear list:MMACory's gear list
Canon EOS 6D Canon EF 135mm F2L USM Canon EF 16-35mm F4L IS USM Sigma 50mm F1.4 DG HSM | A +3 more
Forrest Forum Pro • Posts: 14,666
Yes ... but ...

MMACory wrote:

Are primes typically sharper/better image quality (can be subjective) than "comparable quality" zooms at the same focal length and aperture or not really?

Thanks.

Primes tend to be sharper, and have better contrast (and take in more light) than zooms.  If they weren't, nobody would use them in place of zooms...  It's much easier to optimize a lens to be great at a single focal length than at many of them.

They're lighter at the same aperture, too.  But if you have 24, 50, and 85 mm lenses in a kit, the weight advantage tends to disappear.

At the end of the day, though, people don't look at your prints and say "my god what a sharp picture this must look great at 100 %."  People are interested in composition, exposure, timing, and subject matter.  Switching from zooms to primes (or vice versa) won't make anyone automatically a better photographer.  So it really comes down to your 'camera personality.'  Primes just work better for some people, while others prefer zooms.

Myself, I like prime lenses.  The 'limitation' that other people see in them forces me to slow down a bit, really take in a scene, grok the situation, and then be creative and find the best composition and perspective available.  Instead of just lifting the camera to my eye and snapping a shot.  I like a tripod (for landscapes) for the same reason.

Schwany
Schwany Forum Pro • Posts: 10,129
Re: Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?

MMACory wrote:

Are primes typically sharper/better image quality (can be subjective) than "comparable quality" zooms at the same focal length and aperture or not really?

Thanks.

Primes are hands down better for brick walls.

Is this about your 135f/2L again? No zooms to compare it to, so it is a winner right off the bat. Not a lot of zooms with larger apertures than f/2.8. So there is a slough of primes that can't be compared to zooms.

The warm and fuzzy answer is yes primes are better, but as mentioned at the end of the day, it depends a lot on the photographer.

 Schwany's gear list:Schwany's gear list
Canon EOS 5D Mark II Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II Canon EOS-1D Mark IV Canon EOS-1D X Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8L USM +14 more
OP MMACory Senior Member • Posts: 1,752
Re: Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?

There's a slight chance that you're going to beat the **** out of me.  I really liked my 135 as a one-lens solution for volleyball (and got great shots with it), but replaced it with a 100 2.0 and 200 2.8 and glad I did.  These two focal lengths serve me better than the "inbetween" 135 on a crop and maybe I'm answering my own question by saying that I prefer them to the venerable 2.8 II zoom that I tried.

This is about my current everything-but-sports lens being a Sigma 30 1.4.  I like everything about it a lot, but could use a bit wider once in awhile.  The new 30 1.4 caught my attention as does the new 17-70 and Tokina 12-28.

I'm currently leaning towards getting the Sigma 17-70 in a week or two, but I also really like the looks of the 30 1.4 (to which a Tokina 11-16 or 12-28 might be a good match to).  Or another option might be the Tokina 12-28 for most everything not sports and a 50 of some sort for portraits.

My camera's a T1i that I get some REALLY good pictures from so I'll keep that for awhile out of fear of learning a new camera and the acknowledgement that most of the magic is from the lens.  That's why I obsess so much over lenses.

 MMACory's gear list:MMACory's gear list
Canon EOS 6D Canon EF 135mm F2L USM Canon EF 16-35mm F4L IS USM Sigma 50mm F1.4 DG HSM | A +3 more
qianp2k Forum Pro • Posts: 10,350
Re: Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?
1

In general prime is sharper than zoom. But not always. The latest two Canon F2.8 zoom for example 24-70L/2.8 II and 70-200L/2.8 IS II are as sharp as if not slightly shaper and probably AF faster than many L prime in these ranges. L primes are still better in bokeh and smoothness of background blur.

-- hide signature --
rsn48 Veteran Member • Posts: 7,680
There is more to a lens than sharpness

When you first start out in photography, you can understand the concept of "sharpness" pretty quickly; and , there is a North American obsession with sharpness.  However experienced photogs know that some lenses seem to "pop" the image and others don't.  Contrast and colour saturation come into play big time with a lens and it is easier to get a quality image with contrast and colour with a prime as some one else explained here than with zooms, though there are some very good zooms out there.

So be aware that contrary to about 99% of all writing in these forums, there is more to a lens than sharpness.  And with the new primes being made by Sigma and Samyang, and even the newer offerings by Canon, bokeh is also important.

-- hide signature --

Hind sight is always better than foresight, except for lost opportunity costs.

Schwany
Schwany Forum Pro • Posts: 10,129
Not me

MMACory wrote:

There's a slight chance that you're going to beat the **** out of me. I really liked my 135 as a one-lens solution for volleyball (and got great shots with it), but replaced it with a 100 2.0 and 200 2.8 and glad I did. These two focal lengths serve me better than the "inbetween" 135 on a crop and maybe I'm answering my own question by saying that I prefer them to the venerable 2.8 II zoom that I tried.

You'd be surprised at how little I care about anything. Certainly not enough to beat the asterisks out of anyone. I'm just ribbing you. 100mm and 200mm sound like a good way to go for volleyball. Light weight, inexpensive, good image quality.

This is about my current everything-but-sports lens being a Sigma 30 1.4. I like everything about it a lot, but could use a bit wider once in awhile. The new 30 1.4 caught my attention as does the new 17-70 and Tokina 12-28.

Want wide, get a FF body some day. That is your ticket to wide.

I'm currently leaning towards getting the Sigma 17-70 in a week or two, but I also really like the looks of the 30 1.4 (to which a Tokina 11-16 or 12-28 might be a good match to). Or another option might be the Tokina 12-28 for most everything not sports and a 50 of some sort for portraits.

My camera's a T1i that I get some REALLY good pictures from so I'll keep that for awhile out of fear of learning a new camera and the acknowledgement that most of the magic is from the lens. That's why I obsess so much over lenses.

You're in the right place for obsession. I don't have a clue what I'm doing here.

 Schwany's gear list:Schwany's gear list
Canon EOS 5D Mark II Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II Canon EOS-1D Mark IV Canon EOS-1D X Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8L USM +14 more
Sovern Contributing Member • Posts: 907
Re: There is more to a lens than sharpness

rsn48 wrote:

When you first start out in photography, you can understand the concept of "sharpness" pretty quickly; and , there is a North American obsession with sharpness. However experienced photogs know that some lenses seem to "pop" the image and others don't. Contrast and colour saturation come into play big time with a lens and it is easier to get a quality image with contrast and colour with a prime as some one else explained here than with zooms, though there are some very good zooms out there.

So be aware that contrary to about 99% of all writing in these forums, there is more to a lens than sharpness. And with the new primes being made by Sigma and Samyang, and even the newer offerings by Canon, bokeh is also important.

-- hide signature --

Hind sight is always better than foresight, except for lost opportunity costs.

I agree theres a lot more to a lens than sharpness.

The 50 1.8 prime for example is only $110 yet it has much more clarity and "pop" than even most high end zooms.

I like the word clarity more as anyone can make an image sharp but clarity is a whole different aspect of an image and primes in general have more clarity & "pop" thanks to their simple design and having way less glass than zooms.

Great Bustard Forum Pro • Posts: 40,847
Not really.

MMACory wrote:

Are primes typically sharper/better image quality (can be subjective) than "comparable quality" zooms at the same focal length and aperture or not really?

Thanks.

First of all, both the Canon 70-200 / 4L IS and Canon 70-200 / 2.8L IS II appear to do as well as the Canon 200 / 2.8L at the same aperture, for one example.  Then again, a newer version of the 200 / 2.8L may lay waste to the zooms.  That is, it's the fact that the zooms are newer designs, not the fact that zooms are the equal of primes (stop for stop), that makes it seem like zooms are as good as primes, in some instances.

That said, if you crop a photo by 20%, you reduce the resolution by 20%.  So, if you're using primes and cropping to the desired faming, you may be better served with a zoom.

Myself, I shoot all primes, but not for IQ reasons (although that might be an added bonus).  I shoot primes for the wider apertures, and that the particular camera-lens combo I'm using at any given time is usually smaller and lighter than if I were using a zoom, and I can usually have little difficulty finding a perspective-framing photo that works well with the prime I am using (that is, I rarely crop).

However, there are definitely situations where the ability to zoom is sorely missed, so, ideally, I would own both primes and zooms.  However, the way things work out, everytime I have some money to spend, I'd rather spend it on another prime (or, as will come to pass, replacing a current lens with a newer version that is better).

Forrest Forum Pro • Posts: 14,666
Some thoughts

MMACory wrote:

There's a slight chance that you're going to beat the **** out of me. I really liked my 135 as a one-lens solution for volleyball (and got great shots with it), but replaced it with a 100 2.0 and 200 2.8 and glad I did. These two focal lengths serve me better than the "inbetween" 135 on a crop and maybe I'm answering my own question by saying that I prefer them to the venerable 2.8 II zoom that I tried.

This is about my current everything-but-sports lens being a Sigma 30 1.4. I like everything about it a lot, but could use a bit wider once in awhile. The new 30 1.4 caught my attention as does the new 17-70 and Tokina 12-28.

I'm currently leaning towards getting the Sigma 17-70 in a week or two, but I also really like the looks of the 30 1.4 (to which a Tokina 11-16 or 12-28 might be a good match to). Or another option might be the Tokina 12-28 for most everything not sports and a 50 of some sort for portraits.

My camera's a T1i that I get some REALLY good pictures from so I'll keep that for awhile out of fear of learning a new camera and the acknowledgement that most of the magic is from the lens. That's why I obsess so much over lenses.

Rent some of the lenses you're interested in, if at all possible.  Experience is much more helpful than speculation.

What is it you like about that 30 mm f/1.4 Sigma?  Seems to be a well-respected lens, maybe we can narrow down your choices a bit.

Can you have more than one lens?  Is it not possible to stop for a moment to change them occasionally?

If you really want to go wide, full frame chips open a lot of doors.  It's an expensive way to get there, however.  But learning a new camera shouldn't be so very daunting.  It still exposes a chip to light.

OP MMACory Senior Member • Posts: 1,752
Re: Some thoughts

Forrest wrote:

What is it you like about that 30 mm f/1.4 Sigma? Seems to be a well-respected lens, maybe we can narrow down your choices a bit.

The 30 1.4 is great because:

1. it's small

2. no focusing issues whatsoever

3. sharp, but even more importantly - GREAT clarity (or that "L" look) - no softness anywhere as some versions occasionally report

4. covers most of my non-sports needs

5. if the updated version is improved upon then it'll be staggering

6. it and my other great lenses have me not feeling the need to upgrade my body

I generally don't go below 2.8 for non sports (portraits, family, travel, flowers, etc.) which is why I'm considering the 17-70 that's about to hit the shelves (as long as it has similar clarity to the prime).  I usually use my flash (with enormous success) when needing more light (since there's usually DOF issues that have me even at 4.0 or 5.6).

I've never had an UWA.  Is that more for when wanting to get "into" the subject vs getting more into the frame?  Could be a good thing to have in the arsenal.

So the things on my radar are the Sigma 30 1.4, Sigma 17-70, Tokina 11-16 and Tokina 12-28.

Thanks again.

 MMACory's gear list:MMACory's gear list
Canon EOS 6D Canon EF 135mm F2L USM Canon EF 16-35mm F4L IS USM Sigma 50mm F1.4 DG HSM | A +3 more
Nigel Wilkins
Nigel Wilkins Senior Member • Posts: 1,006
Re: Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?

MMACory wrote:

Are primes typically sharper/better image quality (can be subjective) than "comparable quality" zooms at the same focal length and aperture or not really?

Thanks.

I find zooms have more distortion, especially at the wide end.  If you're shooting "hard" subjects it counts for a lot.  It can be edited out mostly, but it's sometimes difficult to know if you've made the subject look different to what it should look like in the process, without a reference image of the subject.

Also, most lenses are at their best stopped-down a couple of stops from maximum, so your f/5.6 zoom won't be at it's best until perhaps f/11, after which diffraction starts to degrade sharpness, whereas an f/2.8 lens is good at f/5.6, so you may have the same sharpness over more aperture settings.

All else being equal, primes tend to appear sharper, partly due to having less glass for the light to travel through, with it's potential for spreading light & reducing contrast.  Although this is somewhat reduced by modern lens coatings, these same coatings can equally be applied to primes.  It's also more difficult to correct a zoom for aberrations due to the added complication of infinitely adjustable focal lengths (between wide & long) & therefore variable aberrations .  Simple is generally easier to design well.

 Nigel Wilkins's gear list:Nigel Wilkins's gear list
Fujifilm X-T1 Fujifilm X-E2 Fujifilm XF 14mm F2.8 R Fujifilm XF 35mm F1.4 R Fujifilm XF 56mm F1.2 R +1 more
BAK Forum Pro • Posts: 23,658
Lenses get better as you stop them down...

So a prime that's faster than a zoom is, fiorst of all, "better" becuae you have a wider aperture for when you need it.

As you stop down the prime, it gets better, So, for instance, when an f2 prime gets to f2.8, it's improvedover wide open, whereas a zoom at f2.8 is wide open.

By the time you get both to f4, more often than not, and depending on the subject and the light and the size of the image and the kind of paper it is printed on, and the quality of the monitor, and the resolution of the TV and the lens quality on the video projector, there's probably no difference that matters.

Except if you crop the prime picture and zoom the zoom picture, so you use the full frame of the zoom lens shot and only part of the frame from the cropped prime.

Unless you've zoomed wide, and then cropped, to get rid of soft edges that are still in the prime shot because the field of view is fixed.

And what's better mean?

BAK

probert500 Senior Member • Posts: 1,370
Re: Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?

MMACory wrote:

Are primes typically sharper/better image quality (can be subjective) than "comparable quality" zooms at the same focal length and aperture or not really?

Thanks.

It also depends on the range of the zoom.  If you use it at it's limits  ie: a 17-40 at 17 or 40) it's usually not at it's best.  moving away from those extremes things can be very good.

Some posters  are saying that sharpness isn't that important.I do think that sharpness is a prime consideration for a lens (I'm not a bokeh man so I really don't care about that stuff).  If you're printing it's critical.  If you're only  doing web stuff why bother with this expensive equipment.

Everything else like color, saturation, contrast. micro contrast - this is post processing fodder.  If you have a sharp lens with reasonable distortion - Bob's your uncle.

 probert500's gear list:probert500's gear list
Sony Alpha a7R Sony Alpha a7R II Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Sony FE 35mm F2.8 +3 more
Keith Z Leonard Veteran Member • Posts: 6,061
Re: Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?

I'm going with no on this one, in general modern zooms are REALLY good, very sharp, good color, and good distortion characteristics.  As zoom range increases this gets worse, so there seems to be a happy zoom range (3-4x1).  With IS/OS in modern zooms they have a lot of advantages over primes.

Primes have a few things going for them too, typically even better distortion, good sharpness, etc...the biggie though is that they tend to be faster.  f1.2, f1.4, f1.8 primes can give interesting results that you just cannot get with the typical f2.8-f4 zooms.  The newer primes coming out with IS are typically a stop slower to accomidate it, they are interesting trade offs.  There is also the thinking that making you walk around instead of zoom a lens makes you a better photographer, generally I think that's not very convincing, either you think about framing, DOF, or you don't.

btw, I use both, I use primes wide open and zooms when I need flexibility.  I would suggest trying them both and seeing which you personally like more, they both will produce great images.

 Keith Z Leonard's gear list:Keith Z Leonard's gear list
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0L USM Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Canon EOS 400D +16 more
probert500 Senior Member • Posts: 1,370
Re: Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?

Keith Z Leonard wrote:

I'm going with no on this one, in general modern zooms are REALLY good, very sharp, good color, and good distortion characteristics. As zoom range increases this gets worse, so there seems to be a happy zoom range (3-4x1). With IS/OS in modern zooms they have a lot of advantages over primes.

For a very large price you are correct - ie an expensive zoom can match an inexpensive prime.  But most zooms are not so good on the extremes.

You also fail to mention size - L glass users can hit forward since all their lenses are behemoths - but most of the ef series is quite light and compact - it makes a real difference.

Primes have a few things going for them too, typically even better distortion, good sharpness, etc...the biggie though is that they tend to be faster. f1.2, f1.4, f1.8 primes can give interesting results that you just cannot get with the typical f2.8-f4 zooms. The newer primes coming out with IS are typically a stop slower to accomidate it, they are interesting trade offs. There is also the thinking that making you walk around instead of zoom a lens makes you a better photographer, generally I think that's not very convincing, either you think about framing, DOF, or you don't.

In an ideal world where we're all handsome men of honor perhaps - but not in reality.  If you have a zoom you start standing in on place  and trying to frame from there.  But it's also a matter of getting used to a specific focal length , rather than just framing a pic - each focal length treats forground/background differently etc.

btw, I use both, I use primes wide open and zooms when I need flexibility. I would suggest trying them both and seeing which you personally like more, they both will produce great images.

yup

 probert500's gear list:probert500's gear list
Sony Alpha a7R Sony Alpha a7R II Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Sony FE 35mm F2.8 +3 more
Forrest Forum Pro • Posts: 14,666
Re: Lenses get better as you stop them down...

BAK wrote:

By the time you get both to f4, more often than not, and depending on the subject and the light and the size of the image and the kind of paper it is printed on, and the quality of the monitor, and the resolution of the TV and the lens quality on the video projector, there's probably no difference that matters.

This may be true of expensive and heavy f/2.8 zooms.  A lot of zooms save money and ballast by having slower apertures, and variable ones throughout their range as well.  So, by the time you stop that prime to f/4 and approach its peak resolving power, the zoom may still be wide open, or it may not even be able to open so wide!

My Sigma 15-30 EX, for example, is f/3.5 at the wide end and I believe it's f/4.5 at the long end.  It's collecting dust, too.

Keith Z Leonard Veteran Member • Posts: 6,061
Re: Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?

probert500 wrote:

Keith Z Leonard wrote:

I'm going with no on this one, in general modern zooms are REALLY good, very sharp, good color, and good distortion characteristics. As zoom range increases this gets worse, so there seems to be a happy zoom range (3-4x1). With IS/OS in modern zooms they have a lot of advantages over primes.

For a very large price you are correct - ie an expensive zoom can match an inexpensive prime. But most zooms are not so good on the extremes.

You also fail to mention size - L glass users can hit forward since all their lenses are behemoths - but most of the ef series is quite light and compact - it makes a real difference.

My 600$ zoom is better than my 500$ prime in almost every respect.  In fact I think it stands up nicely to my L lenses.  I wouldn't call my 70-200 f4 L a "behemoth", I will grant you my 100-400 is though.  

In an ideal world where we're all handsome men of honor perhaps - but not in reality. If you have a zoom you start standing in on place and trying to frame from there. But it's also a matter of getting used to a specific focal length , rather than just framing a pic - each focal length treats forground/background differently etc.

No, I don't, thanks for that though...many people are quite capable of using zooms and taking note of the framing, the focal length, compression, depth of field considerations, etc... like say, most wedding photographers, many portrait photographers (70-200 f2.8 L is an often used portrait lens), etc...  I will admit that I have gotten shots due to having a zoom on the camera that I would have missed with a prime by zooming quickly to grab a moment I would otherwise have missed, but I certainly don't let the zoom dictate where I stand.

btw, I use both, I use primes wide open and zooms when I need flexibility. I would suggest trying them both and seeing which you personally like more, they both will produce great images.

yup

 Keith Z Leonard's gear list:Keith Z Leonard's gear list
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0L USM Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Canon EOS 400D +16 more
probert500 Senior Member • Posts: 1,370
Re: Primes > Zooms All Other Things Being Equal?

Keith Z Leonard wrote:

probert500 wrote:

Keith Z Leonard wrote:

I'm going with no on this one, in general modern zooms are REALLY good, very sharp, good color, and good distortion characteristics. As zoom range increases this gets worse, so there seems to be a happy zoom range (3-4x1). With IS/OS in modern zooms they have a lot of advantages over primes.

For a very large price you are correct - ie an expensive zoom can match an inexpensive prime. But most zooms are not so good on the extremes.

You also fail to mention size - L glass users can hit forward since all their lenses are behemoths - but most of the ef series is quite light and compact - it makes a real difference.

My 600$ zoom is better than my 500$ prime in almost every respect. In fact I think it stands up nicely to my L lenses. I wouldn't call my 70-200 f4 L a "behemoth", I will grant you my 100-400 is though.

In an ideal world where we're all handsome men of honor perhaps - but not in reality. If you have a zoom you start standing in on place and trying to frame from there. But it's also a matter of getting used to a specific focal length , rather than just framing a pic - each focal length treats forground/background differently etc.

No, I don't, thanks for that though...many people are quite capable of using zooms and taking note of the framing, the focal length, compression, depth of field considerations, etc... like say, most wedding photographers, many portrait photographers (70-200 f2.8 L is an often used portrait lens), etc... I will admit that I have gotten shots due to having a zoom on the camera that I would have missed with a prime by zooming quickly to grab a moment I would otherwise have missed, but I certainly don't let the zoom dictate where I stand.

btw, I use both, I use primes wide open and zooms when I need flexibility. I would suggest trying them both and seeing which you personally like more, they both will produce great images.

yup

I hear you.  Just weighing the pros and cons and bringing up considerations.  You know what you're doing, others may fall into habits before developing their eye.  Cheers.

 probert500's gear list:probert500's gear list
Sony Alpha a7R Sony Alpha a7R II Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Sony FE 35mm F2.8 +3 more
hedwards Regular Member • Posts: 268
Re: There is more to a lens than sharpness

I definitely agree, while I don't like it, or use it, as much as my L, I'm a staunch defender of the lens as it's got a really good price to performance ratio. Not as good as when I bought it for about 2/3 it's current list price, but it's still a very good value.

The whole topic really is going to depend upon what one does with ones camera. For some types of photography, having a prime lens would be unthinkable. When I'm outside, I often times don't have the luxury of utilizing sneaker zoom and without real zoom, I'd have to resort to the massively size reduction that comes from scissors-zooming to make the subject take up a larger portion of the composition.

And for other things, historically haveing a prime lens was the only way to be. But, I think that's becoming less and less the case as zoom lenses get better and better. I'm not sure that there's much focus on them anymore except for niche uses like macro and tilt-shift lenses.

Keyboard shortcuts:
FForum MMy threads