I’ve used zoom lenses more and more over the last few years. Before that I favored primes. I even acquired primes at various focal lengths for my main three SLR systems (Pentax, Nikon, and Olympus).
Primes outperform zooms nearly every time. They have bigger maximum apertures, making them more useful in low light. They often deliver delightful bokeh. They also tend to be free from distortion and vignetting.
On the other hand, a zoom lens can be easier to manage than a set of primes when you’re out shooting, as there’s nothing more to carry and no need to dismount and mount lenses to get the right focal length. They also let you get just the right focal length for your subject: 37mm, 96mm, 164mm. Also, zooms frequently have a macro mode that lets you focus a lot closer than a prime.
If I were a pro photographer, I might bias toward the primes for the benefits they offer. But I’m an amateur who shoots primarily for my own satisfaction, and secondarily to share my work with you (and thank you for looking at it). My photographic style is primarily documentary — I shoot mostly old buildings, old roads, and old cars. I like to travel light. When I’m walking around, all I want to carry is my camera and the lens that’s on it. When I’m driving or (especially) flying to a destination, I want to limit how much gear I pack. Therefore, I accept the tradeoffs you get with a zoom lens.
In my work I often can’t “zoom with my feet.” Here, I was on a bridge over the Chicago River. I had mounted a 35-70mm zoom to my camera. That short zoom let me quickly make the Dearborn Street bridge span the frame for a more pleasing composition.
In my documentary work, I’m usually on the ground. Short of renting a helicopter, I’m not going to be able to shoot detail well above my head without a long focal length. This photo captures a detail that was twenty feet above me. There was no way to climb up there; I needed a long focal length to make this image. The EXIF data on this digital image says I zoomed to 150mm. Again, one lens mounted to my camera meant I didn’t also have a bag over my shoulder full of lenses, slowing me down every time I wanted to change focal lengths.
I occasionally get feedback here or on Flickr that I should have used a prime for such and such a shot, usually in response to me writing about learning a particular zoom lens’s limitations and tradeoffs. This feedback misses the point that I’m deliberately trying to make a zoom lens work for me, because of all the reasons I cited above. Often, that feedback suggests that I’m wrong for selecting a zoom lens, as if there’s some universal photographic truth.
I am thrilled when experienced photographers share their wisdom with me. I welcome constructive criticism. But beyond that, I think that whatever works for a photographer is fully okay. If they’re happy, we should all be happy.
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