Choosing between prime lenses and zoom lenses has always been difficult for professional DPs and amateurs. While prime numbers are traditionally more cinema-oriented than zooms, there are also some great cinema zooms that can make selecting lenses for a professional shoot on PL glass as difficult as for a beginner looking for a first lens purchase. Kit. Let us brush up on the benefits of each lens type before we look at the purpose that best suits them.
Fixed focal length lenses offer a very traditional way of shooting. Of course, before zoom lenses were available, this was the only way to take pictures, and so much of the cinematic look we see in the film today was determined by early DPs with prime numbers. These days, prime numbers are still used on professional film sets, and I recommend them as part of your kit, especially if you are interested in the film. The main advantages of a prime lens are:
- Faster aperture
- Lower costs
The most important point for me personally on this list is the faster aperture. It is rare to find a good zoom lens with an aperture of less than 2.8. So if you need a low-light lens, you almost certainly need to look for a lens hood. There are many affordable prime lenses (like the Rokinon Cine lenses) that offer apertures of 1.4 or less and that also deliver a sharp image – sharpness is one of the other big advantages on this list. Since prime lenses are only designed for one focal length, it is much easier for manufacturers to make their prime lenses really sharp than for zooms, which have to be set up to take razor-sharp images with variable focal lengths.
If the cost is a factor for you, prime numbers become even more attractive because they always cost less than comparable zooms. “Comparable zooms” should be emphasized, as there are still prime numbers that cost tens of thousands of dollars, and zooms that you can get for next to nothing. However, if you compare the same brand name / optics, zooms are always more expensive. The size of the prime numbers also makes them ideal for photography and travel as they require less glass and are usually much smaller than zooms. Anyone who has experience with the famous Canon 70-200 lens can refer to it!
Although zooms on a film set are less traditional than prime lenses, they are certainly still widely used in productions of all sizes. Many of my favorite directors and DPs use (or have) zooms, and for good reason. They offer a number of advantages over prime numbers, including:
- user friendliness
- Special recordings
- Costs (somehow!)
There is no question that a zoom lens is more versatile than a premium lens because you effectively get many different focal lengths in the same lens. This makes it ideal for firearms, documentary, or other scenarios where you can't stop changing lenses. Ultimately, this will make your life on the set easier by saving you time and making it easier to set up between shots. Still, I wouldn't use zooms for that reason only, because for other reasons they may not be the best option for your scene and you don't want to choose your lens for practical reasons only.
Certain types of special shots, such as slam zooms, are only possible with a zoom lens. If you have a particular type of recording in mind or are looking for a particular look (e.g. a 70s movie theater that has been zoomed heavily), zoom lenses can be a really good option and really the only way to get that look achieve. And although prime lenses are cheaper than zooms, you also need to consider the cost of buying multiple primes versus one zoom. If your requirements are limited and you only need a single lens to cover every situation, it may be more efficient and cost effective to get a nice zoom lens.
Prime Vs. Zoom
As stated above, both lens types obviously have their advantages and disadvantages. As with most other devices, it depends on what you use it for and what your goals are creative. If you're more of a traditional shooter and want to mimic the cinematic look as much as possible, prime numbers are hard to beat. An additional advantage of shooting at prime numbers is that it can really make you a better shooter. If your choices are creatively limited, you'll need to learn how to think of your camera, move around the room, and find the best location and angle for shooting. With a zoom, it is too tempting to just redesign with the lens and get a result that is useful but not perfect. If you shoot a lot of scenes in low light conditions, you are probably best served with prime numbers as they always perform better in low light conditions. While this may not be a rule, I would generally say that prime numbers are better suited for scripted, narrative filmmaking. And finally, if you choose prime numbers, it doesn't hurt to have a zoom in your kit even when you need one.
Zooms, on the other hand, are ideal for those of you who shoot events, documentaries and other content in Run-n-Gun style. They're faster, easier to use, and greatly improve your chances of being ready to take the perfect shot on the fly, as you don't have to change lenses every few shots. However, if you plan to use your zooms in a narrative environment, try to find lenses with internal zoom (in other words, they won't move when zooming in and out), as these lenses work better on a rig with a follow Focus and a matte box. And just like I suggested having a zoom in your kit if you're mainly shooting on prime numbers, the opposite is also true. If you don't spend more on your lenses than on your car, you won't get a really fast zoom lens. The currently fastest and most affordable zoom is the Sigma 18-35 F1.8. This is a huge technical achievement considering that most zooms are at least 2.8 if not 3.5 – 4. The point is that you need at least one really fast lens in your kit (preferably a 35mm or 50mm 1.4 or 1.2). This way you can take photos with your zooms all day long. However, if the sun goes down and you still need to take a few pictures, don't get stuck.
I hope this helps those of you who want to buy lenses in the near future or want to expand your kit in some way to sort things out. Investing in the right glass is very important because your lenses will survive your camera for many years and should therefore be chosen carefully. Try to have a versatile kit with primes and zooms, but tend more towards narrative primes and more document zooms.
If you are looking for more than just lenses, read my article on Build a movie camera for under $ 1,000.
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!