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Author Topic: Zoom versus prime lenses  (Read 6599 times)

PeterAit

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Zoom versus prime lenses
« on: January 09, 2009, 03:23:17 pm »

What's the current thinking - are prime lenses still going to give you superior image quality than zooms? Or, has the science of lens design and manufacture advanced to where zooms can equal the quality of primes? Even if zooms are not quite as good as primes, does the ability to precisely frame the shot, and therefore not have to crop any precious pixels, balance things out in the final print?

I am interested specifically in Nikkors, if that makes any difference.

Peter
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Geoff Wittig

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Zoom versus prime lenses
« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2009, 06:50:12 pm »

Quote from: PeterAit
What's the current thinking - are prime lenses still going to give you superior image quality than zooms? Or, has the science of lens design and manufacture advanced to where zooms can equal the quality of primes? Even if zooms are not quite as good as primes, does the ability to precisely frame the shot, and therefore not have to crop any precious pixels, balance things out in the final print?

I am interested specifically in Nikkors, if that makes any difference.

Peter

As usual, "it depends".
Modern high end zooms are very good indeed, but they still can't quite match the resolution/contrast of an equally good prime lens. This quality difference will only be evident if you're using excellent technique and printing to large sizesólow ISO, tripod mounted, mirror lockup, meticulous care in focusing and exposure etc; otherwise deficiencies in technique will obscure the distinction. Backlit subjects will be easier to shoot with a prime lens since flare is a lot less problematic.

I think you've hit the nail on the head when it comes to the real world trade-off. With zooms you can frame precisely and avoid wasting pixels, particularly important for landscape images where composition often dictates a very specific camera location and perspective. A prime lens may give you better absolute resolution, but if you have to crop by 15% to get the framing you want, it may be a net wash.

For what it's worth, for landscapes I use zooms almost exclusively on a Canon Eos-1Ds III. I'm aware that the mediocre optical quality of Canon's wider zooms is the weakest link in the image quality chain, but down to about 24 mm or so they're pretty good, and the 70 - 200 f:2.8 IS is a gem. If I need a wider perspective with good resolution I start stitching frames. Nikon's 14 - 24 mm appears to be optically much better than any of Canon's wide zooms, so that might make the decision easier. You will be able to eke out a bit more resolution with prime lenses, but the trade off in lens swapping and the need for cropping isn't worth it to me, and I'm very happy with image quality of prints up to 24x76" panos. Others may of course see it differently.

I do routinely use prime lenses for people picturesónot for the resolution, but for the beautiful soft bokeh and the wide aperture for indoor natural light shots.
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JeffKohn

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Zoom versus prime lenses
« Reply #2 on: January 10, 2009, 01:05:21 pm »

Quote from: PeterAit
What's the current thinking - are prime lenses still going to give you superior image quality than zooms? Or, has the science of lens design and manufacture advanced to where zooms can equal the quality of primes? Even if zooms are not quite as good as primes, does the ability to precisely frame the shot, and therefore not have to crop any precious pixels, balance things out in the final print?

I am interested specifically in Nikkors, if that makes any difference.

Peter
The conventional wisdom still holds true in the general case, but there are exceptions. Some of the newest pro-level zoom designs are very good, and if you compare them to older prime lenses it's not so clear-cut. For instance the Nikkon 24-70 is as good or better than many of the primes in it's range for the F-mount. The 14-24 is already legendary; the only thing in its range that gives it a run for its money is the Zeiss 21mm (assuming the new ZF version lives up to its pedigree).

Of course there are other advantages to primes that may matter to you. They usually have faster apertures. They also tend to be smaller and less expensive than the zooms (super-teles excluded of course). Although if you have to carry 2 or 3 primes to replace one zoom the latter two advantages kind of disappear. Then there are the specialy lenses such as Tilt/Shift which can't be replaced by zooms.
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aaykay

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Zoom versus prime lenses
« Reply #3 on: January 10, 2009, 02:39:15 pm »

Quote from: JeffKohn
The conventional wisdom still holds true in the general case, but there are exceptions. Some of the newest pro-level zoom designs are very good, and if you compare them to older prime lenses it's not so clear-cut. For instance the Nikkon 24-70 is as good or better than many of the primes in it's range for the F-mount. The 14-24 is already legendary; the only thing in its range that gives it a run for its money is the Zeiss 21mm (assuming the new ZF version lives up to its pedigree).

I think when you are talking about the Nikon 24-70 or the 14-24 zooms, these are all brand-new 2008 designs.  There are no equivalent 2008 Nikon Prime designs in the 24mm or 14mm range available, for comparing these against, like-for-like.  You cannot compare these 2008 designs, with all the advantages of ultra-modern design techniques, against primes designed/developed years or decades back.  

I think primes do hold an edge over zooms but high-end zooms have bridged the gap for the most part, even if they have not equalled prime quality (of the same design period).  

I have no hesitation in employing my Carl Zeiss 24-70 f/2.8 on my A900, when I need top-notch quality, since within its range, it is as good as any of the primes I have shot with in the past....obviously this is a 2008 design too.  The upcoming Carl Zeiss 16-35 f/2.8 should also further this trend of ultra-high-end quality.
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ErikKaffehr

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Zoom versus prime lenses
« Reply #4 on: January 10, 2009, 05:25:47 pm »

Hi!

I'd suggest that top of the line zooms are better today than normal primes. The exception is probably telephoto lenses and macro lenses. Large aperture fixed focals may be very good for portraits but need to be stopped down for optimal quality across the field. My suggestion may be that:
If you are needing a lens of a special focal length, like an 85 mm lens for portraits, it is very well possible that you can find a single focal which is optimal for that purpose. In all other situations you are probably better served with zooms.

My personal experience is that my fixed focals get very little use, except for my 400/4.5 lens which I use a lot, often with an 1.4X extender.

Best regards
Erik

Quote from: aaykay
I think when you are talking about the Nikon 24-70 or the 14-24 zooms, these are all brand-new 2008 designs.  There are no equivalent 2008 Nikon Prime designs in the 24mm or 14mm range available, for comparing these against, like-for-like.  You cannot compare these 2008 designs, with all the advantages of ultra-modern design techniques, against primes designed/developed years or decades back.  

I think primes do hold an edge over zooms but high-end zooms have bridged the gap for the most part, even if they have not equalled prime quality (of the same design period).  

I have no hesitation in employing my Carl Zeiss 24-70 f/2.8 on my A900, when I need top-notch quality, since within its range, it is as good as any of the primes I have shot with in the past....obviously this is a 2008 design too.  The upcoming Carl Zeiss 16-35 f/2.8 should also further this trend of ultra-high-end quality.
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JeffKohn

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Zoom versus prime lenses
« Reply #5 on: January 10, 2009, 09:41:41 pm »

Quote
I think when you are talking about the Nikon 24-70 or the 14-24 zooms, these are all brand-new 2008 designs. There are no equivalent 2008 Nikon Prime designs in the 24mm or 14mm range available, for comparing these against, like-for-like. You cannot compare these 2008 designs, with all the advantages of ultra-modern design techniques, against primes designed/developed years or decades back.
That was precisely my point. If somebody is trying to decide whether to buy primes or zooms based on optical quality, it only makes sense to consider products that are actually available. The fact that Nikon _could_ make a spectacular 20mm prime if they wanted to is of little consquence since they've given no indication that they're interested in making such lenses (aside from macro lenses and tilt/shift). So the choice is for the most part between newer zooms and older primes, where the "prime is always better" mantra just doesn't hold true with any consistency.
« Last Edit: January 10, 2009, 09:42:43 pm by JeffKohn »
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Jeff Kohn
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slspeedster

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Zoom versus prime lenses
« Reply #6 on: January 15, 2009, 04:57:22 pm »

Quote from: PeterAit
What's the current thinking - are prime lenses still going to give you superior image quality than zooms? Or, has the science of lens design and manufacture advanced to where zooms can equal the quality of primes? Even if zooms are not quite as good as primes, does the ability to precisely frame the shot, and therefore not have to crop any precious pixels, balance things out in the final print?

I am interested specifically in Nikkors, if that makes any difference.

Peter

As others have pointed out, Nikon has aggressively updated their main zooms, but many of the primes are of an old design, and other than the new 50mm lens and the exotic telephotos, the rest of the primes are still the slower AF lenses that were designed for film. Some work well on digitial sensors, some don't (digital is more sensitive to the angle of light hitting the sensor than film is).

As of right now, my money would go with the 14-24 and 24-70 as your main working lenses. If Nikon comes out with a faster set of wide angle/mid range primes, that answer may change, but right now the zooms have it imho.
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