I don’t like zooms. There. I said it. But I don’t hate them either.
I am much more of a prime lens shooter. Its just the way I am wired.
Yes. I use zooms. In fact, when I swapped across from Fuji to Nikon, the first thing I did was to buy the Holy Trinity/ Three Amigos of 2.8 zooms. 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200. Why buy zooms when I don’t like them? Because it was a logical financial decision. I am a working wedding and portrait photographer, who also does a certain amount of commercial work. To satisfy all my clients needs, and have greatest flexibility, I needed to make sure I had the full range of focal lengths covered. So, before I started buying primes, I bought the zooms I would need to cover everything I might need to shoot. But it was a compromise. In an ideal world, I would probably just have bought a 35, 50 and 85/105 or 135 fast prime. That would suit my own tastes and preferences much more than 2.8 zooms. But I really needed to cover all my bases first. The maths is simple. The 3 zooms come in at just under $9k, vs the full range in primes… 14, 24, 50, 85, 105 &200 are around $20k… So hence, I bought the zooms. Then once my zoom bases were covered, I started to flesh out my prime selection, starting with my 2 favourite Nikon primes, the 58 and 105. My intention is to slowly add a 35, 50, then a 24 and maybe a 200 to my kit, and relegate my zooms to roles as backups, and for those “Run & Gun” days that I just need to have 2 lenses mounted at all times.
So what is my issue with zooms?
The first reason is this. Laziness. I find that when I enter a situation with a zoom, I tend to put myself in a spot, sit/stand there, and just use the zoom to change my composition. When I am using primes, I usually will choose one length for use, and then I have to “work the scene”, physically moving to change my composition. I have to “zoom with my feet”, which forces me to look at the scene from different angles as I move round the room. There is also a very different sense of connection/immediacy when you are physically close with a standard lens like a 35 or 50, vs being across the room zooming to 100+mm… Robert Capa famously said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. You could get close with a zoom, but a prime forces you to get closer.
So primes make me work harder, and think more carefully about things like composition, layering, frame edges etc, and my work is better for it.
The obvious thing is the aperture. The three amigos are all constant aperture 2.8 lens, meaning that unlike lower spec lenses, the maximum aperture of 2.8 is available across their entire focal range, and doesn’t change as you zoom. This is great, but I really am not a fan of 2.8 at anything other than 200mm. Its kind of a “meh” aperture as far as effect is concerned. Yes, its pretty good in low light, especially compared to an F4, or a f3.5-5.6 zoom, but if you are wide open for effect rather than light gathering, its just not quite shallow enough… I either shoot at 5.6+ for increased DoF, or want wide open for that focus fall off and smooshy backgrounds. 24mm at f2.8 is not something that I really like. I’m either wanting wide open f1.4, or stopped down f5.6+. Now I said that apart from at 200mm… I will confess, I love the 70-200 at 200mm wide open. Its beautiful. Its shallow enough for effect, and the background rendering and compression is stunning. Well, until you try a 200 f2.0… then that beast just ruins you for life.
Size is (generally) another factor. If I know that I am only going to be shooting 50 or 35mm focal length, the prime wins hands down when it comes to compactness. This doesn’t hold true however when you sit a 70-200 2.8 next to a 200 2.0.. or try hand holding them both for any period of time.. that’s the one situation that the zoom wins.
So, what do I like about zooms?
Simple. Versatility. They are the “jack-of-all-trades” of the lens world. You can do almost any job with the standard trio of zooms. Add to that a 200-500 and you are pretty well covered for any situation. But there is the compromise. Size, weight, and the fast aperture combo of light gathering, shallow DoF and out of focus rendering (bokeh). If you have specific job that requires that extra precision, or need compactness, the prime is the winner, and for me, I would prefer to shoot primes almost any day of the week if the situation allows, but it doesn’t always.
The final question is tied into my earlier comments about price. Couldn’t I have saved money by buying non-Nikon lenses and picked up both zooms and primes? Well yes. I could. But, I have tested countless alternatives and I just keep coming back to using Nikons own lenses. I’m not going to name names here, but with the third party lenses I’ve tested, I’ve regularly had issues. With one brand, I had to retune the focus every few weeks or so to keep it accurate, and with one lens from that brand, it just kept back-focussing. With another brand in zooms I tested, I found an inconsistency in sharpness. It meant sending the lens back for a replacement, until I got a sharp copy, so I gave up and went to Nikon. I have always found Nikon lenses to be consistent. Never bought a bad copy. Buy right, buy once. Lenses should last a lifetime. Going cheap is false economy for a working photographer.
And finally, I am in Nikon Professional Services, so that means if anything happens to one of my lenses and I need it fixed fast, I am covered by NPS, and will be able to get a loan unit while I am without mine. When you are relying on gear for your work, that is a big deal.
So, I might not like zooms much, but I don’t hate them either. They are tools and as always, its about having the right tool for the job.