Zoom or Prime Lenses?

This week I’ve been following a lengthy thread on a photo forum about the merits of zoom vs. prime lenses. Quite heated at times, the arguments debate the convenience of zoom lenses (less weight overall, speedy change of focal length) with the quality of zoom lenses (wider apertures and sharper images generally). The zoom camp accuse prime supporters of being ‘pixel peepers’ – those only interested in the absolute technical performance of a lens rather than the ability to take good photos, while prime supporters maybe imply that zoomers are too lazy to walk backwards or forwards to best frame their photo.

Of course, these arguments are more or less valid depending on the situation; in a fast moving reportage situation the ability to quickly zoom in on action may be the difference between getting and missing a vital shot, while a landscape photo may benefit from a little extra sharpness that a prime lens can give if used carefully. One new argument (to me anyway) is that zoom lenses stifle creativity – its all too easy to just blast away without thinking about how best to frame a shot, and indeed if a subtle change of perspective will enhance a photo.

This got me thinking – since switching from a film camera to digital a few years ago, I’ve mostly used zoom lenses, and I have to say I haven’t always been happy with the photos I’ve taken.  Certainly the proportion of ‘keepers’ – those photos good enough for me to want to retain them even if they are not my absolute favourites, has dropped. Now of course one big factor is the negligible on-cost of each photo taken with digital, compared to the £1.00+ cost of each 6x7cm transparency – with film, you had to make every shot count, whereas with digital the temptation is to just blast away, and select the best later. But there’s more to it than that – even when I’ve taken a number of digital photos of a given subject, I’ve not always been satisfied that I’ve got ‘that’ perfect picture, even though I may have tried any number of exposure or focus combinations. It’s not necessarily that the images aren’t sharp or whatever, they just don’t quite work…

So maybe there’s something about using prime lenses that helps you take better pictures – perhaps its because you need to take time to frame the shot, moving backwards and forwards until the elements are just right, or maybe it causes you to look at a subject differently? So this week, to try and get a feel for this, I went out for an afternoon with JUST prime lenses to see how I got on. Subject was ‘The Roaches’ – a wind-carved outcrop of gritstone rocks in the Peak District National Park about 4 miles north of Leek, Staffordshire and 8 miles south of Buxton, Derbyshire. The weather wasn’t perfect – fairly cloudy for most of the afternoon, and also hazy following a few warm days.

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Anyway, I walked/climbed up to the summit, along the ridge to Docksey Pool and back – a couple of hours in total.  Armed with 14mm, 23mm (borrowed), 35mm and 60mm lenses, and a lightweight tripod which I didn’t actually use, I really enjoyed the more leisurely pace that shooting with primes enforces, in particular adjusting my position to best frame each shot, and taking the time to use a graduated filter to balance/darken the sky when needed.  I mainly used the 14mm wide-angle, but also took a few shots with the 23mm and 35mm, and have to say I was amazed at the sharpness and clarity of them.  I can’t claim they are masterpieces, but I’m sufficiently happy to want to continue the experiment. A few of my favourites from the day are here.

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