Lenses are said to be more important than the camera behind them. Choosing what to invest in is always a challenge, especially starting out. When trying to decide what lenses are right for you, there are a few very important questions to ask yourself:
- What are you shooting? – Narrative, Documentary, Commercial
- Budget? – Investing in long term, Need a lens for a specific project
- Quality? – Is perfect sharpness necessary, do you need a small depth of field, Image stabilization
Prime Lenses are fixed at a specific focal length.
- Quality – Prime lenses typically have a higher quality image for their price. My Rokinon 85mm is sharper than my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II. You also gain extra light (lower aperture value) and the ability to shoot lower depth of field because the lens isn’t physically stuffed with moving parts.
- Price – You get a much higher quality per dollar in most cases. In the above comparison, the quality for the price of the Rokinon is astounding, but you must keep in mind that the Rokinon doesn’t have auto-focus or Image stabilization.
- Versatility – The versatility of a prime lens is certainly it’s fault. Without the ability to change focal lengths, you might have to change lenses to get a specific shot. This might be time you don’t have if you were shooting a documentary, but it’s certainly time you might have if you are shooting a Narrative film. They do typically weigh less because of less moving parts, which might be important if you are trying to use a Gimbal or Glidecam.
Zoom lenses have a variable focal distance. In some cases they also have a variable Aperture value, however we are going to omit any consideration of those lenses because they are typically not recommended for film.
- Quality – While prime lenses are known to have sharper image rendition, Zooms have closed the gap on the separation, in some cases zoom lenses have better image quality than primes. You gain the ability to have “artistic” zooms, which might be necessary for what you are shooting.
- Price – You might not get the quality per dollar you would from a prime lens, but you also might not need to buy as many lenses. You can replace the focal distance of 2 primes with a single Zoom lens, or even 3 primes.
- Versatility – This is where Zooms shine. A staple in any documentary maker’s bag is at least one zoom lens. The ability to change focal lengths without physically changing a lens is extremely important in some cases.
So, Primes vs Zooms?
It really comes down to what you are shooting. Many people swear by using only prime lenses for their narrative work. However, you could easily watch a short film shot entirely on zoom lenses and never question it’s quality. What’s most important is asking yourself the same three questions we started off with – What are you shooting, What is your budget, and How important is Quality? I wouldn’t be caught dead shooting a documentary without at least one Zoom lens, and I would definitely recommend having a nice lower aperture prime lens at hand for shots you just can’t get with a Zoom lens. My recommendation and what I personally use is both, but if you are just starting out – Ask yourself these questions and take some time to figure out what is best for you.
I also want to mention that the quality Gap between Primes and Zooms is closing, even on a budget.
The Sigma 18-35mm is almost half the price of the Canon 35mm, has very similar image quality, and includes the versatility of being a zoom lens. Keep in mind that the Sigma is for APS-C sensors, so it’s focal distance equivalent is roughly 27-52mm. That aside, the differences are becoming less and less within the budget (sub 3k$) lens catagory.