Primes vs Zooms – it’s a question every filmmaker faces in pre-production. Cost effective zooms often seem like an easy way to go, however, little surpasses in quality as a dedicated prime. However, the convenience of a quality zoom needs to be considered, less changing between shots and when mounted the weight shouldn’t be problematic; also did we mention the cost?
Story by Nicole Boyd
Primes are usually the traditional choice when it comes to cinematic productions, but their prices can soar into the hundreds of thousands if you’re thinking of adding a range to your kit, like the Summicron-C Prime range we examined here which costs a mere $100,800 USD for the initial set (that kind of money is a dream for most micro-budget films). We examine the difference between the two so you can have a better idea of what you’ll need for your next shoot.
Noam Kroll recently wrote a blog post discussing this question, laying out the difference between the two:
Fixed focal length lenses offer a very traditional way of shooting. Before zoom lenses existed, this was of course the only way to shoot and as such a lot of the cinematic look that we are used to seeing on film today was established by early DPs using primes. Today, primes are used as much as ever on professional film sets, and I highly recommend them as part of your kit, especially if you’re going after the film look.The main advantages of a prime lens are:
- Faster Aperture
- Lower Cost
- More Portable
The most important item on this list to me personally is the faster aperture. It’s rare to find a good zoom lens that has an aperture lower than 2.8 which means if you need a low light lens, you are almost definitely going to need to look for a prime. There are loads of affordable prime lenses (like the Rokinon Cine Lenses) that offer apertures of 1.4 or lower and will also deliver a sharp image – sharpness being one of the other big benefits on this list. Since prime lenses are only designed to be sharp at one focal length, it’s much easier for the manufacturers to make their prime lenses really sharp, as opposed to zooms which need to be set up to shoot crisp images at variable focal lengths.
If cost is a factor for you, then primes become even more attractive as they always cost less than comparable zooms. It’s worth emphasizing ‘comparable zooms’ because there are still primes that cost tens of thousands of dollars and zooms that you can get for next to nothing, but when comparing the same brand name/optics, zooms are always more expensive. The size of primes also make them ideal for shooting and travelling as they require less glass and are typically much smaller than zooms. Anyone who has experience shooting with the famous Canon 70-200 lens can relate to this!
Although zooms are less traditional on a film set than prime lenses, they are certainly still widely used on productions of all sizes. Many of my favorite directors and DPs use (or have used) zooms, and for good reason. They offer a number of advantages over primes including:
- Ease of Use
- Speciality Shots
- Cost (sort of!)
There is no question that a zoom lens is more versatile than a prime lens in that you are effectively getting many different focal lengths in the same lens. This makes it ideal for run n gun shooting situations, documentary shooting, or any other scenario where you can’t stop to change the lens. It will ultimately make your life easier on set by saving you time and allowing for an easier set up between shots. That said, I wouldn’t use zooms only for this reason as they may not be the best option for you scene for other reasons and you don’t want to choose your glass only out of convenience.
Certain types of specialty shots, like slam zooms for instance, are only achievable with a zoom lens. If you have a specific type of shot in mind, or are going after a certain look (for example 70′s cinema which used zooms heavily), then zoom lenses can be a really good option and really the only way to achieve that look. And although prime lenses are cheaper than zooms, you also need to factor in the cost of buying multiple primes, vs one zoom. If your needs are limited and you just need one single lens that will cover every situation, it may be more efficient and cost effective to get a nice zoom lens.
So, which do you choose?
And that is the question. Ultimately it comes down to what your DOP has already in his kit or his preference for shooting. Each individual shot’s needs should be considered as to quality vs cost and usability for other scenes; this is usually done in pre-production whilst compiling your shot-list. These days a lot of zooms produce cinema-quality footage, for instance the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II USM (pictured below) which is the favoured lens of the news photographer (also the paparazzi seem to love it) produces beautiful bokeh, has shallow depth of field and costs around $2400 USD. When you consider the cost of your top-end cinema primes (which can be anywhere upwards of $15K per lens) a quality zoom may be a preferable option. However, there are a lot of cheaper primes that may do the job well and be within your budget; so it pays to do your research.
When discussing the price of zooms vs primes, Roman Naryškinhad this to say:
“Many modern [lower-end] prime lenses are significantly cheaper than their zoom counterparts. A 24mm f/2.8 lens will set you back around $400, while a 24-70mm f/2.8 will cost $1900-2300. Even if you cover focal lengths between 24mm and 70mm with fast primes like 35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8, you will still end up paying less”.
That being said, you will lose image quality using cheaper glass no matter whether it’s a zoom or a prime. Unfortunately, when it comes to glass you really do get what you pay for. For this reason kit lenses (that come with your camera) should never be considered when shooting video; they’re usually the cheapest glass in their range. If you’re considering buying a lens for your kit you can’t go past a good mid-range zoom like the Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8L USM (pictured below) which costs around $1500 USD, along with a dedicated 50mm prime you really can’t go wrong.
In summing up, we’ll let Phillip Bloom have the last word:
“Zooms are easier to shoot with as you can vary your focal length, are not as good in low light and the good ones cost money…prime lenses are generally of higher optical quality and are generally faster (as in can let in more light so better in low light and better for shallow depth of field) but are of course a fixed focal length so it’s harder to shoot with them”.