The big "primes vs. zooms" thread

the Interceptor

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Since this has consumed a lot of my spare time in the last days and is one of the big discussions coming up in photography sooner or later, I thought a thread could be useful - a thread on "primes versus zooms".

What the hell is a "prime"?
A prime is a lens with a fixed focal length."Prime" can also point towards the lens being the main part in a system where other lenses are added, so technically, the term "fixed focal length" of "FFL" is better. Still, the usage of the word "prime" usually points towards the FFL lens. Before the technology was advanced enough for zoom lenses, primes were the only choice in photography. But since the absolute majority of cameras nowadays comes with a zoom lens of some sort which offers a range of focal lengths, the usage of primes has been reduced to a handful of specific purposes, such as macro work.

So why choose a prime over a zoom?
Compared to a zoom lens, primes with their simpler construction often are more compact and offer a faster aperture. Also, they usually cost less and might be optically superior to a zoom as well. As always, there are exceptions to these rules on both sides, but this is the general idea. A zoom has to do much more than a prime, so in order to produce better image quality, the manufacturer will have to make an effort. That on the other hand will make a zoom complicated, large and thus expensive.

And what are my choices?
Since primes came before the zooms, there is a range of primes still in production accompanied by a lot of older primes that went out of production years ago. Surprisingly, even the latest and best zooms can not surpass even the oldest primes in every respect. Of course, there are a lot of bad primes, just like there are a lot of bad zooms. But if you sample your individual possibilities for the respective focal lengths, you will find a handful of optical gems for surprisingly little money.
Note that since crop frames are a modern invention of the world of digital photography, all older primes were made to work with 35mm film and therefore are capable of covering the whole frame on full frame cameras. Thus, they work on crop cameras as well, only with the respective difference in magnification. Since all focal lengths on all lenses are in reference to a full frame though, a classic 35mm lens will give you the same field of view as a 35mm crop lens when used on a crop camera. The only difference is that the crop lens will not cover the whole frame on a full frame camera.

But there have to be drawbacks, right?
Yes, there are. For starters, when buying a used lens you of course get no warranty and a lens that might have gone through many hands. Also, a prime offers you that one focal length: when a zoom might give you the composition you just need in this moment, you have no options with a prime - and a shot you missed might be gone forever. A lot of the excellent older primes will not come with a mount for your current camera and thus will need an adaptor or even a mod to fit your camera body. At the same time, you mostly lose comfort like in-camera aperture selection and autofocus.
Most of the currently-made primes offer all the modern creature comforts like electronic aperture selection, autofocus and sometimes even vibration reduction, but you're still stuck with the one focal length, so you will have to think in advance which focal length might be most useful when you go out shooting.

Ummmm ... why am I considering primes again?
Because there are some really good primes out there only waiting for you to be picked up. Ever heard of those guys who go great lengths to use glass made by Leica, Carl Zeiss, Contax or Olympus on their cameras? Well, there is a reason. To this day, even some of the oldest primes are known to offer the best possible picture quality you can get for your camera. There are some classic primes made by camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon as well, but the really crazy guys tend to go for the German glass.
Also, many primes offer a lot more light than even the best zooms. Taking the classical "normal" focal range of 50mm, you will find loads of primes with an aperture of f/1.4, some even f/1.2 and better, when zooms usually end at f/2.8. Considering that a f/1.4 opening has four times the area as a f/2.8 opening, you can imagine that this is a significant advantage when gathering light.

And you're telling me this because?
... I have started to consider this alternative to zoom lenses and was surprised to learn of the possibilities. In the specific case of my Nikon full frame camera, there is a range of current Nikon zooms which has quickly earned the name "the magic three":

Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 wide angle zoom
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 standard zoom
Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom

Those three zooms cover the focal length considered to be the most important range for normal photography. They offer an absolutely excellent picture quality all the way, which is why everone owning a Nikon FX body is very likely to consider to buy one or more of them at some point. But there's a problem. These are pro lenses, and the price tag reflects that. The fact that they are quite bulky and heavy aside (uncompromised image quality needs good glass, and lots of it), this trio will set you short almost 5,000 Euros (around 6,700 $US), which is almost thrice of what you pay for a D700 body. Sure, if you want the best of the best, you won't get it for free. Yet, this somehow didn't feel right to me. The money aside, this is the Veyron approach: throw loads of technology at it, and it'll sort itself out. But photography is more than that.

Therefore, I went into a huddle with a workmate who knows everything about old lenses and cameras since he collects them. And by browsing lists of camera dealers and eBay, I was able to cobble together a list of primes that should do the job the "magic three" achieve just as good, maybe better. There still are some question marks, but the range in general has been set:

ultrawide: Nikkor 20mm/3.5 Ai-S or Olympus Zuiko 21mm/3.5 or Zeiss Distagon 21mm/2.8
wide: Leica Summicron-R 35mm/2.0
normal: Nikkor 50mm/1.2 or Zeiss Planar 50mm/1.7
portrait: Leica Summicron-R 90mm/2.0 or Elmarit-R 90/2.8 or Zeiss Sonnar 85mm/2.8
tele: Sigma 150mm/2.8 macro, possibly with 1.4 teleconverter for more reach
supertele: Nikkor 300mm/4.5

Some of these decisions were/will be met on availability and price of the respective models. And the Sigma 150mm I already own, and I very much intend to keep it. Also, you will notice that there are a lot of lenses that will not fit Nikon's F-mount by default. But there is a nice solution in form of Leitax, a website offering advice as well as materials to convert a variety of classic lenses to fit current cameras. Of course, that includes some additional cost and some work on the lenses. Yet, if you browse the internet for these lenses, you will discover that a lot of them are considered to be absolutely excellent glass ... and I am surely looking forward to trying this out.

Thanks for reading, and don't forget to add your thoughts and experiences to this thread! :)

TL;DR version:

Forget the convenience of autofocus and zooming for a second and do some research on classic prime lenses. Also, check the prices they go for. You might be in for a surprise here and there...
 
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edkwon

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nice FAQ and writeup thanks, its obvious you're a fellow Nikon owner as I can tell by lens recommendations, but with those recommendations I cannot tell wether they are for full frame (which most of us amateur photographers on a limited budget do not use) or 4/3rds size dSLRs as you listed them.

I'm planning to buy a 35mm prime to do my indoor and outdoor portrait shooting, and currently I use a 18-270 for just about everything else, esp if i'm in a situation where I dont want to change lenses and do a variety of shots or capture images where proper framing by walking back n forth (for example images way above me or way below me) is just not possible (objects in the sky, way off in the distance or far below from bldg rooftops or cliffs). But i'm sure the more I use a prime that I may use it towards more and more applications esp the ones non outdoors or do not require a macro.
 

the Interceptor

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nice FAQ and writeup thanks, its obvious you're a fellow Nikon owner as I can tell by lens recommendations, but with those recommendations I cannot tell wether they are for full frame (which most of us amateur photographers on a limited budget do not use) or 4/3rds size dSLRs as you listed them.
Every lens capable of covering the full frame is automatically fit for smaller sensors by default. A smaller sensor will only use the center area of each lens and thus work flawlessly with it. Only the effective focal length will be different. In the case of Nikons FX vs. DX, all focal lengths of the lenses will have to be multiplied with 1.5. So while a 20mm prime will produce a picture directly equivalent to its focal length on an FX camera, it will produce a picture equivalent to a 30mm prime when used on a DX camera. So what is superwide for me will be only wide for you. What is wide for me will be normal for you. Therefore, you could go for the very same lenses, but you might need an even wider prime at the low end of the scale, because 20mm is not terribly wide for a crop camera.

I'm planning to buy a 35mm prime to do my indoor and outdoor portrait shooting, and currently I use a 18-270 for just about everything else, esp if i'm in a situation where I dont want to change lenses and do a variety of shots or capture images where proper framing by walking back n forth (for example images way above me or way below me) is just not possible (objects in the sky, way off in the distance or far below from bldg rooftops or cliffs). But i'm sure the more I use a prime that I may use it towards more and more applications esp the ones non outdoors or do not require a macro.
I'd say the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX-prime is the obvious and convenient choice for you. My first prime was a 35mm lens, too, and I was surprised at how well I got along with it in terms of shooting.
 

Ladamaha

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I don't really know where is the debate? I think it really depends on what you shoot if that sort of set of primes is sensible or not. It's also very hard to forget autofocus and zooming as a major factors in the debate, because in the end it's all about the end result that matters.

My dream set would include both primes and zooms. The 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX Nikon has been on the buy list for some time now but the funding is lacking. If I get a job for next summer it's the first thing I buy. :D
 

LeVeL

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Good write-up. I agree with that Ladamaha said though - its not really a debate; you cant say that one is better than the other. I love my fast nifty-fifty but at the same time the ability to "zoom in/out" on my other lenses is invaluable in many situations.
 

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Longer focal length primes make a lot of sense to me but ultrawide never did. The most likely scenerio for me to use an ultrawide lens is when shooting landscapes and if you're in the right place at the right time this is fine. In some sceneries you can just "zoom with your legs" which is also fine. The problem comes when this isn't really an option, when on the edge of a cliff for instance, getting that little bit more reach may be be extremely hazardous for your health.

There is also the slight problem of having to carry around a lot more lenses to perform different functions, if you need a different focal length you need to take the lens off, expose your sensor to annoying dust then put the next one on. It just lacks flexibility and could cause problems when travelling abroad for instance.

There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that you're getting the best optical quality for your money here and I really admire you for doing this. I'm sure you will get some great results with these too, maybe even (dare I say it?) prints!
 

the Interceptor

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Well, it's kind of relieving to see that this forum is liberal enough to tolerate both sides of the coin. Usually, someone comes along and says that zooms are nothing more than a compromise weak on principle, and that primes are the only thing to be used for true photography. Then, the opposition builds up, arguing that primes are too inflexible and make you miss valuable shots, and that ancient primes that run on steam can hardly be an answer to anything.

Then again, the problem of the dedicated camera forums is the guys that partake in them. They are so agressive and stubborn that a discussion is moot long before it even started. Good to see that you guys think different. :)

Anyway, once the dealer will confirm that the lens is in good condition, I will order a Contax (Carl Zeiss) 50mm f/1.7 at his shop tomorrow. Should it be worn down, I have another dealer that sells a mint one for a little more. It shall be my first subject for a Nikon bayonet conversion.
 
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Ladamaha

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Did you abandon you plans on that Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 lens then?
 

the Interceptor

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Kind of. I'm facing the choice between the awesomely shallow DOF of the 1.2 Nikkor and the excellent overall picture quality (some call it the Zeiss look) of the 1.7 Contax. Given that f/1.2 may be a highly interesting experience, yet limited in actual use in photography outside of claptrap, I chose the Zeiss. Mind you, you can get the 1.7 for around 100 Euros while I paid 360 for the Nikkor. The Zeiss will need another 75 Euros for the conversion, but I think it's worth it. Since I am after this unique look that makes you look at a picture and just smile, I think the Zeiss will suit my needs better overall.

I'm not sure whether the Nikkor 1.2 has been sent already since carnival took over Germany for a few days. I asked the dealer to keep it and refund the money if possible, but given I shall receive it soon and he doesn't want to have it back, I'll surely give it a shot.
 

Ladamaha

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You better make some comparison shoots to prove that Zeiss look. Does it support everything with your camera?

New Nikkor AF-D 50mm F/1.8 D would be much cheaper. Or do you have one already?

Nikon D40/60 is such a trap with no in-camera motor, I want cheap lenses. :(
 

the Interceptor

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You better make some comparison shoots to prove that Zeiss look.
Well, I sure won't stick with the Zeiss if it won't deliver.

Does it support everything with your camera?
Define "everything". It's a fully manual lens to begin with, so I have to set the aperture and the focus by hand anyway.

New Nikkor AF-D 50mm F/1.8 D would be much cheaper. Or do you have one already?
Nope, but I borrowed one some time ago from a workmate. It was okay-ish stopped down a bit, but very soft wide open. I expect the Zeiss to blow it out of the water in all respects, since the latter is regarded to be one of the best 50mm primes you can get. I'll see whether it actually is.

Nikon D40/60 is such a trap with no in-camera motor, I want cheap lenses. :(
As far as I'm aware, I have no actual advantage over you with my D700 and this lens, at least in terms of comforts.
 

edkwon

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You better make some comparison shoots to prove that Zeiss look. Does it support everything with your camera?

New Nikkor AF-D 50mm F/1.8 D would be much cheaper. Or do you have one already?

Nikon D40/60 is such a trap with no in-camera motor, I want cheap lenses. :(

I just picked up a new 35mm 1.8 Nikkor that I mentioned earlier for just $200, the 1.4 is about $500 i think. Anyways it's pretty cheap for what it does and also is a DX lens so it comes w the built in motor.
 

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Higher-end Nikon bodies like the D700 have an AI-S ring around the lens mount that enables the camera to meter with AI-S lenses. I have to guess 'n chimp with the 50/1.8 Series E (AI-S) on my D40. That said, I have gotten really good with Sunny 16 and guesstimating.
 
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the Interceptor

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Interceptor, why don't you just buy it from B&H already?

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/search?Ntt=Nikon+50+f%2F1.2&N=0&InitialSearch=yes

Or were you not ready to spend 500 Euros on it?
That price isn't even bad. On the long and tax-ridden way from B&H into my hands however, it would likely cost the same as it costs here: 680 Euros. Therefore, I find the price of 360 Euros for a used mint one acceptable. Let's see...

Lens + shipping to Germany: $724.15 = 526.42 Euros + customs + import tax = 689.09 Euros

Metering. Because cheap Nikon bodies are useless.
Good point. I didn't know the smaller Nikon bodies don't have the metering ring.
 
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Ladamaha

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I just picked up a new 35mm 1.8 Nikkor that I mentioned earlier for just $200, the 1.4 is about $500 i think. Anyways it's pretty cheap for what it does and also is a DX lens so it comes w the built in motor.

Yeah, it's on the to-buy list. But there is no 50mm cheap equivalent that would work properly and I don't feel it's sensible to buy something if it can't be used to the fullest.

Would be cheap and and a challenge though. Considering it's easy to view the results with digital, learning by hit&miss isn't that hard.

Hmm... kinda want the Nikkor AF-D 50mm F/1.8 D for a challenge now. All I need is some cigarettes and a funny hat and I can call myself an artist and photographer douche. :lol:
 

the Interceptor

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I'm afraid I have to inform you gentlemen that the dealer where I bought the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 prime had not sent the lens on its way when I cancelled the order. He just refunded the money and kept the lens. Therefore, I will not be able to offer you demo shots or comparison photos of the 1.2 vs. the Zeiss 50mm f/1.7. The latter however is on its way, and so are the parts for the F-mount modification.

EDIT: also, I have just bought a 35mm f/2.0 Leica Summicron-R, so my 35mm Nikkor f/2.0D, which is partly responsible for all this, will have to face a new contender.
 
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the Interceptor

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First picture from the first modded lens: the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.7

Sorry it's only a plastic flower, got nothing better. This is at f/4. I love it. The sharpness. The bokeh. The colors. :wub:

There was no post production involved here: shot as a 14-bit NEF, loaded into Adobe Camera Raw (no changes made), resized to 25% (no extra sharpening).



100% crop:
 
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