What's the meaning of life? Who am I? Could we be living in Matrix? These are really important questions, but they all pale compared to a more important and crucial one. What's better: prime or zoom lenses for landscape photography?
After years of shooting with both primes and zooms, I'm still not sure whether there is a right answer to this question or not. I love primes, but they also drive me crazy. Zooms usually get the job done, but they frustrate me.
In this post, I'll be focusing on the good stuff from both options. I won't be talking about image quality here since nowadays every decent prime and zoom lenses are more than "good enough" (I believe that aesthetics are more important to a photo than the sharpness or the number of pixels).
Zoom lenses: the good stuff
- A good zoom lens can enormously simplify your camera bag. In my case, the 16-70mm f/4 Sony Carl Zeiss (24-105mm 35mm equivalent) is all I need for 99% of my work. This lens is a tiny wonder of technology, and coupled with my Sony a6500 it makes up for the lightest and smallest (while still providing awesome quality) landscape photography kit I've ever owned.
- You don't have to constantly switch lenses. Probably my favorite advantage of using zooms, since the conditions on the field might not be the best to be exposing the guts of your camera to the weather.
- You can frame exactly what you want. With a zoom lens, you are able to frame what you saw more precisely, and there will be no need for cropping afterwards.
- "Zooming with your feet" is very often not possible in landscape photography. Unless you know how to fly over cliffs and other obstacles.
Prime lenses: the good stuff
- You don't have to zoom with your feet: just switch to a longer prime lens. Duh.
- They are usually faster lenses, which makes them so much better for low light situations and night photography.
- They give you just one option, forcing you to focus on that focal length. When I first got my Bronica, I only had the 50mm f/3.5 and the 150mm f/4 lenses. That limited me to exactly those two focal lengths, and after a few weeks, I started to see only the compositions I would be able to make with them. I believe that actually made my images better, and I had a higher rate of success. Sometimes limiting your options can give you much better results.
- They just feel better. I believe that when it comes to camera gear we should consider how it feels in the hand and operating it, more than the technical specs. And manual primes just feel better than zooms, period.
So, what's better?
As it usually happens with the most important questions in life, the answer here is "it depends".
Personally, I shoot mainly with two cameras:
- Bronica SQ-Ai, with a 80mm f/2.8 and a 150mm f/4, my two favorite lenses for this medium format camera.
- Sony a6500, with a 16-70mm f/4 Sony Carl Zeiss and, for those 1% of my images, a 70-200mm f/4 Sony lens.
I don't bring both cameras on a trip, so I'll either be shooting with primes only, or with zooms only.
Both options allow me to create the images I want, but most importantly, switching from one to the other challenge the way I think about photography and the way I see.
The Bronica forces me to notice the smaller details in the landscape, rather than the big vistas and wide compositions that the Sony can make with the zoom lens.
While the 70-200, with its 300mm reach when mounted on the Sony a6500, allows me to "extract" distant elements from the surrounding landscape - creating compositions that wouldn't be possible otherwise.
At the end of the day, I believe that variety is good.
What do you think?
I'd love to hear from you. What do you use? Primes, zooms or both? Why? Drop me a line and let me know!