Prime vs Zoom, Can You Tell the Difference?


Think you're hot stuff? Most photographers tend to sing songs about how much their prime lens is better than a zoom lens. But how many people can really tell the difference?

Photo by Mike Pouliot

The Conditions

Both photos were shot with the Canon 5D Mark II at the same ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. The focusing areas were also the same. One photo was taken with the Canon 35mm F/1.4 L at F/5.6 and the other was taken with the 25-105mm F/4 L Is at 35mm with the aperture set to F/5.6.

The images were shot in RAW, imported into Lightroom 3 and converted into JPEGs. No editing was done to the images, and they were exported under the same settings.

We've left the EXIF data of each photo in tact for those who want to carefully analyze them. Before you do that though, we encourage you to leave a comment and let us know which photo came from the prime lens and which one came from the zoom, and why you think so.

The Photos

Photo 1 

Photo 2 

Let the comparing begin in the comments below!

Discussion 57

Add new comment

Add comment Cancel


Without any heavy technical rationale for my choices, my guess is that Photo 1 was the zoom and Photo 2 was the prime.


Photo1: Prime

Photo2: Zoom 

Photo 1 - Prime

Photo 2 - Zoom

Looks like photo 1 was shot with the prime lens and photo 2 with the zoom.  

Prime lenses tend to deliver better quality photos due to not having as many moving elements.  Both photos show good quality, however, photo 1 looks sharper but not by much. 

Photo 1: Prime.

It is sharper and has better colour reproduction (eg. Brighter, more contrast)

Photo 2: Zoom lens.

A duller photo, typical of the longer distance of the optics.

Photo 1 appears a bit sharper; so, I would assume it was taken with the prime lens.

There's a chic on the left of photo 2. 

1 Looks like the zoom to me....It looks just a bit off.

Photo 2 - Zoom. It's not as sharp in the hi-res version.  Other than that, they must have been show at the same aperture and mm setting.

Comparing the 2 at f5.6 is kinda pointless as in these pictures show you have to really pixel peep to see any differences.  I use primes for their ability to go wider than f2.8.  If I'm going to be shooting at f8, the zoom is handier and the performance is comparable. 

Photo 1: prime, better color and sharpness IMO

Photo 2: zoom

Photo #1 has more sharpness in the red arrow park sign. I'm not an expert on prime vs.zoom, but I think photo #1 is the prime.

my humble opinion is:

#2 is prime - more detail in the background

#1 is zoom

Number 1 is the prime. #2 the zoom..

Of course, I have been wrong before.

Photo 1 is a prime and Photo 2 is a zoom

I think one is the prime and 2 is the zoom

where do we find the answer?

The 1st one appears to be taken with the prime to me because of the better contrast of the Park sign and other dark areas in the photo.

The fact that you have to work so hard to figure out which is the zoom - and that there's disagreement between photogrphers - reveals the most important point of all.

The differences in sharpness between zooms and primes are so small that in the overwhelming majority of cases, it just doesn't matter at all.

Rather than get engaged in pixel-peeping debates, let's spend our time on making our images the best they can be.

 I think photo 2 is the prime lens

Photo 1 looks sharper to me, therefore it should be the prime lens photo. It was a difficult choice for me. 

I'm not sure which is which but #2 is clearer and sharper to me, A little darker in color but sharper.

Agree with previous poster.  I'd guess #2 would be the prime, darker, but better and clearer image quality.

#1 Prime

#2 Zoom

You can compare the sharpness of the letters.

Prime always wins.

Image 1: zoom

image 2: prime

image two has more lens distortion and if you zoom a lens and step back you get less lens distortion.

image1: prime

image2: zoom

The pebble and the line in the bottom of the picture show a much better image in #1 plus the arrows also in #1 show as a better image but that is not to say #1 is the prime.

I only think it is the prime because every one tells me the primes are better than zoom

can't really tell, one seem to have more light due to having less shadows. the flag on top of the building in #1 is covered in more light than #2 but then again that could be caused by cloud in the sky. 

If I have to guess then #1 is prime and #2 is zoom.

If I check then #1 should be prime and #2 is zoom.

#1 prime, sharper than #2

1 zoom

2 prime

photo 1 seems to be from zoom.

Reason : Mostly by instinct but absence of lady in front prompts me toguess so.

I would say the first one is the prime, sharper and brighter colors..

I'd like to check the Exif but the high res pix are gone.. some one got the right answer plz?

I think Photo # 2 just has more fine detail in it, a littler sharper

#1 is sharper, it's the prime

1st: Prim

2nd: Zoom

The 1st one is sharper

photo 1 taken by prime lens

and photo 2 taken by zoom lens 

#1 is zoom

#2 is prime

Only rationale; because less light "captured" in zoom

Photo 1 is the prime.  There is more detail inthe highlights and shadows.  Primes have better low light abilities.

Photo 1 is prime, it looks clearer and the colors look better.

I have absolutely no idea, because both links are as dead as can be. I use primes in low light or when I prefer a shallower depth of field, a small and lightweight setup or when I need the best image quality at f/2.8. A prime is often stopped down a couple of stops and at its peak, while a (fast) zoom is wide open en not at its peak sharpness and contrast. There are exceptions of course. Sigma has an excellent f/1.8 zoom and Olympus has the 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom that delivers amazing image quality. Comparing lenses at smaller apertures than f/2.8 is useless. Most lenses look fine from f/5.6.

So there is no follow up to this? No answer? I HATE cliffhangers ;-)

You are missing the point. You don't use a F1.4 prime to shoot in F5.6. The zoom can not go down below F4 and the image quality of the zoom at F4 will be immediately apparent when you compare it to the prime lens. When I use prime lens, I almost always shoot at below F4 to get DOF and you can't do that with a Zoom. If I want to shoot at F5.6 or above, I will always use a zoom as it will be more versatile, and as demonstrated, the differences is miniscule.

i think the first foto is zoom and the second is prime based on the clarity of the nuts that fix the light stand at the front of the photo..??

Photo 1 appear to be taken by the prime because;

The black background on the PARK sign on top image is a darker shade

Also compare the small branches on the tree between the two with Windows Magnifier 

I think photo 1 was taken with the 35mm. There is very little difference between the two, however I think there is slightly more detail in photo 1 especially around the restaurant signage, the middle distance area and slightly more detail beneath the explorer vehicle.


1 prime, 2 zoom

The edges in photo 2 are sharper along with the nuts on the light pole base. Sooooo photo no 2 is the prime lens

1. Prime

2. Zoom

What are the notable differences between prime and zoom lenses?  Namely, apertures, depth of field, width etc. that make one better than the other.