Photography

Ignore the naysayers, use a zoom lens if you want to

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.

On the Chicago River
Minolta Maxxum 5, 35-70mm f/4 Maxxum AF Zoom, Kodak Ultramax 400, 2022

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.

St. Meinrad Archabbey
Nikon Df, 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF Nikkor

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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30 thoughts on “Ignore the naysayers, use a zoom lens if you want to

  1. Tom H says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Jim. I used to shoot mainly with an AF 35-70/2.8D Zoom-Nikkor on an F90 and it covered almost everything for day to day life, scenics, travel. And it gave great quality too without being bulky and intimidating-looking like the modern ‘pro’ zooms.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    The day of the substandard zoom for professionals is long gone, BUT, dependent on quality, which of course, extrapolates to price. Check any lens testing site, and the $2000. zoom, set to individual focal lengths, is most likely indistinguishable from a similar focal length prime. Beyond that, it’s all about preference.I prefer tiny lenses not weighing down the front of my camera, so I’m a prime guy, but I’m usually working on multiple photos of the same thing too, and not trying to get photos ‘on the fly’, and trying to react to changing subjects.

    The value of zooms Have been long understood, even back when photographers used the known ‘dog’ Nikkor 43-86, and really didn’t care how crappy it was…

    • For $2000, that lens had better perform like a set of primes! Holy wow. But then, I’m the guy who dropped 3 large on a DSLR body, so I guess I shouldn’t talk.

  3. “I think that whatever works for a photographer is fully okay. If they’re happy, we should all be happy.” Hear hear!

    Totally agree Jim. Every photographer should use the gear that is right for them and the work they want to produce. There is no right and wrong, it’s down to opinion and preference.

    It’s like the ever ongoing digital vs film arguement (and the fact that many believe shooting film instantly makes you a better photographer). Neither are better than the other, it’s just preference

    Great post as usual.

    Best regards,

    Mike

    • What you quoted is actually the whole point of this article – I guess I buried the lede. I find myself increasingly alienated from the film photography FB groups by the guys (it’s always men) who make pronouncements from their high horses such as “you should use a prime, not a zoom.”

  4. Nota bene: if you don’t tell people it was shot with a zoom and there’s no EXIF data to give it away, no one will know. ‘Prime snobbery’ is a thing.

  5. I wish I could go back in time and scrub the received wisdom against zooms from my head. I’m old enough that a lot of talk about zooms that I first heard dated to their earliest days and I’ve been carrying that inside my brain ever since. There’s also an extent to which the anti-zoom thing isn’t even rooted in the substandard quality of some of the early zooms, it’s just pretentious gobbledygook carried over—I suspect—from rangefinder-based purism.

    The equivalent of 35mm in ‘full frame’ is my sweet spot, which works very well with primes. So more often than not I leave the house with just one prime lens. But zooms are absolutely a convenience and capable of excellent images. I use two quite a bit, the Fujinon 55-200mm for my digital system and a Kiron 70-150mm with my Nikons (and occasionally adapted to digital). I like them both.

    • I gather that the early zooms were so bad that it poisoned the well for an awful lot of photographers, who never trusted any zoom after that.

      My cheap and cheerful 28-80mm AF Nikkor zoom is on my N90s and my Df a lot. It’s flat out terrific. It’s the D version, so I could conceivably mount it to my MF cameras.

  6. Andy Umbo says:

    BTW, I still am trying to get someone to make a full frame, razor sharp, 35mm-85mm f/2.8, non-floating f/stop pro zoom. The 24-70 most photographers consider theiR “money” lens, for most pros, is rarely used for portraits as being “too short”, and ditto for 24mm being “too wide”…you could travel the world with a 35-85 zoom, and just a primer 24mm and 200mm for “specialty shots”…you’d probably rarely take the short zoom off at all!

    • 35-85 would be terrific!

      My 28-80 AF Nikkor comes close. It would be better if it went to 85, but at least it goes to 80 for portraits.

      I’ve owned the D and G versions of that lens, which I believe are optically identical. I ought to review it here soon.

  7. Agreed about the utility of a mid-range zoom. I’m just back from a walk with friends. I took my wife’s Nikon F6 with an AF VR 24-85/3.5-4.5 zoom. The lens is gigantic compared with your little 35-70 but on a heavily overcast day I am limited to using VR lenses if I am not shooting with a tripod.

  8. Hear hear. I definitely steered towards primes when I got my SLRs. But Jerome of Earth Sun Film’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Minolta MD 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5 convinced me to get one. I like it a lot. I still stick with a 50mm prime as my “regular” lens as the zoom is a bit unwieldy, but the zoom has become my second lens that I take. Between the two lenses I can do a lot.

    • Some zooms are absolutely unwieldy. I have 35-70s for both my Pentax and Olympus systems and neither are as light or compact as this Nikon zoom.

      • That 28-85 zoom isn’t particularly heavy on its own, but paired with my Minolta XD5, it definitely makes the camera “lens-heavy”. Not a big deal if I’m pulling the camera out of a bag to use, but when I have it strapped to my shoulders it’s awkward.

  9. ‘Wieldyness’ is another parameter, but for those who wish for prime quality from a zoom their wishes have been granted.My Sony 24-70 and 70-200 f2.8s outperform most primes, at the cost of size, 1 fstop, and the cost of COST (these are 2 I use for work). I use primes for fun mostly for their theoretical advantages and some for ultra fast apertures.For general photography- I use the phone. For serious but non-commercial I use the Df with primes and accept the weight and bulk as part of the game. And I DO Imagine the 85 f1.4 is sharper

  10. Rant continued-you can tell old film guys sometimes by their fear of high ISOs. Modern Digitals can give superb results at unthinkable (for film) ratings and diminish the need for fast apertures or even VR (though I like both)

    • Guilty. I only just started setting my Df to ISO 800, on the advice of another Df owner. 800 just seems crazy to me for general work, but the Df returns gorgeous images there.

  11. This is your friendly, neighborhood,lifelong professional photographer weighing in to say that I’ve used zooms extensively since at least the early 1980s and don’t think my photography is in any way inferior because of that. (It may be inferior in other ways, but not because of zooms!)
    Probably half the photos in my book Rock City Barns: A Passing Era were made with the Canon EF 28-105mm f3.5-4.5 zoom on a Canon A2. On one occasion a fellow professional looked at the photos in the book and then asked me if I had used a 5×7 view camera!
    (The book is still available at Amazon, by the way!)
    You can buy fine equipment and super-sharp lenses, but you can’t buy what it takes to make worthwhile pictures with them.

    • Your last sentence is perfect.

      There are a lot of curmudgeonly film guys in the forums who criticize others’ choices all the time. Zoom vs. prime is one of their favorite axes to grind. It’s tiresome.

  12. I have the Contax Zeiss F3.3 – F4 28-85 zoom lens. It is a little heavy and large, but produces stunning images right through the range of focal lengths, and is far and away my most used lens. If I can only take one lens, this is the one that gives me the most bang for my buck!

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