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 77

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I feel this comparison is borderline pointless considering it neutralises what many generally consider one of the main strengths of prime lenses, their larger apertures. At the end of the day both prime and zoom lenses each have their own strengths and weakenses. Which to use, or which is 'better', is dictated by the shooting situation.  

First one is much better since it has more light, you can see it very clearly when watching the full size (open on a new tab) so I guess (and hope) this is the prime lens!

Yeah sure let's take the ugliest photo possible to compare.....

I would have to go for Photo 2 as the prime as everything seems to be just that little bit clearer and more well defined. You can see more detail on the rod in the foreground and, if you look through the front railings, the ones that are running into the picture are clearer and better defined.

Regardless of which one is prime and which one is zoom, it is clearly noticeable that the 'horizontal' sidewalk line directly in front of the camera looks 'curvy' in the bottom (lower) picture.

the zoom is the first one. download the jpeg..

My guess is the top is from the prime lens because it has a deeper color range while the bottome seems lighter and slightly washier if there is such a word

In fact, zoom is the first one.

Coincidentially, I purchased the Sigma 30mm F2.8 and the Sigma 19mm F2.8 for my Sony a6000 and after intense testing and comparing between the primes and my kit lens results, I am finding it difficult to justify the expense. The only lenses with which I see a noticeable difference is between my kit and the Sony SEL 50mm F1.8 when shooting in low linght of portraits.

What's really funny about this is that maybe half of the people chiming in here feel #1 is prime while the other think it is zoom.  Point is, get out and shoot with whatever you have and have fun.

By the way, can you tell if i typed this response with a desk top or my phone?


Love your comment..."desktop or iPhone:...

I say desktop because your phone's autocorrect would change the "i" in your last sentence ("By the way, can you tell if i typed this response with a desk top or my phone?") to "I."

Another point is what you shoot... Are you casual, photo journalist, wildlife, event photographer? If so, just get a zoom and be done with it. Are you an art or portrait photographer doing thought out shots, or a street photographer, or need low light?... Get the primes. I fall into the latter camp for 99% of my shots, I like 28/50/85 1.8g combo... covers every shot I'd ever need, and carrying all 2-3 lenses is more discreet and weighs less than a 2.8 zoom. If I need something different like when I went on a safari or going to a sports game, I can rent or borrow a telephoto zoom. Otherwise I see no need for it. 

I'm surprised no one mentioned lens distortion.

Number one appeared to be the prime lens, and checking it in Photoshop, I see it is so.

It is too difficult to tell in the small images on this web page. What you need to do is drag them to your desktop, then either open then in an image editor (Photoshop) or put one above the other on the desktop and preview them. (With a Mac, you can press the space bar to show the preview, then use the up and down arrow keys to switch between the two images.) Using this method, it becomes clear that the second image is more distorted then the first. Compare the vertical lines. Compare the squatiness of the second image to the first.

All that said, I'm not shooting prime because it is just too much trouble switching lenses…lets in too much dust, too.

Most people buy primes to shoot at large apertures and fast shutter speeds to stop this is kind of pointless. an 18-55 prime stopped down to f8 iso 100 and good lighting conditions will look spectacular in the right hands... 

You are shooting at 5.6 and that is not the f-stop to compare those lenses at. Try them at 2.8 and I'll tell you the difference with my eyes closed.

Another thing that you are not mentioning is low light capabilities of 35mm 1.4. Why dont you try them in a dimly lit room? The difference is like a night and day!

I am yet to find a top of the line zoom that will come close to a regular prime (not even L)!

It isn't all about sharpness folks! Please notice that the rectangular sign is is wider and less sharp in the second image, an indication of distortion. Also the first image has more saturated color.  You can download the images (using specialized web tools ;) haha) and have proof that the first one was taken with a 35mm prime the second with a zoom set to 32.5.




you can see the flag (stripes) in photo 2 ... it's very light and hard to see in photo 1

No, in fact the first image is a Prime.

Relevant EXIF data for first image:

Lens Info                       : 35mm f/?
Lens Model                      : EF35mm f/1.4L USM
Keywords                        : 24-105mm F/4 L IS, 35mm F/1.4 L, Canon, f/5.6, image quality, lens, sharpness, test
Lens                            : EF35mm f/1.4L USM
Subject                         : 24-105mm F/4 L IS, 35mm F/1.4 L, Canon, f/5.6, image quality, lens, sharpness, test
Lens ID                         : Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L

Relevant EXIF data for second image:

Lens Info                       : 24-105mm f/?
Lens Model                      : EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
Keywords                        : 24-105mm F/4 L IS, 35mm F/1.4 L, Canon, f/5.6, image quality, lens, sharpness, test
Lens                            : EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
Subject                         : 24-105mm F/4 L IS, 35mm F/1.4 L, Canon, f/5.6, image quality, lens, sharpness, test
Lens ID                         : Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS

1st one prime

i don't see the diff, and if i shot at 5.6, i probably wouldn't care. i usually use primes because they usually have those big, wide holes letting in tons of creamy smooth thin DoF. i can't imaging shooting on a f/4 lens, it would feel so limiting for my style  :)

I'm going with 2 as the prime. Seems to me the distant building has a bit more detail. And 1 has a bit of artifactual patterning on the chain link fence to the left.

Photo 2 - prime ( The "explorer" word is sharper )

I'd want to know where the conversion to jpeg was done before making any comparison....

He told you, they were extracted in Lightroom using identical settings.

photo 1 is zoom photo 2 is prime. In photo 1 the Master card and the letter 21 under the card are not as clear as photo 2. 

The window of the distance building of photo 1 is not as clearer as photo 2.

First photo I believe to be the prime because the 2nd appears to have a more artiicial optics look like through more glass.  But I'm barely an amateur.

#1 is the prime #2 is the zoom.  If you download the pics and then look at the EXIF data for each, it tells you which lens was used 

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

The majority of prime lenses have a wide aperture of f2.8 or wider, in many instances they come in f1.4 or f1.8 variations depending on the focal.  Zoom lenses never have a wider aperture than f2.8 (save maybe a few specialty lenses in the industry).  The wider aperture allows for faster shutter speeds and shallower depth of field (i.e. better background/foreground blur - an effect sought by many fine artists and portraiture photographers). 

Prime lenses also lack what is called a “floating element” which is used in zoom lenses to help maintain focus when zooming out from one focal to another.  This type of design commonly can cause degradation of image quality and sharpness and colors, and in general comparisons a prime lens can commonly appear sharper with better contrast.  Today’s better quality made zoom lenses will add extra optics to help combat this effect, but it’s still an example of where primes tend to be sharper than zooms. 

Zoom lenses’ obvious advantage is the flexibility in your composition.  They allow you to get closer or further away than your normal perspective would have allowed for, and as a result can be more versatile tools for photographers to work with, depending on their application at least. 

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


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.

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 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..??

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.

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

As the author pointed out, the EXIF data is intact. You're a photographer, right? You know what EXIF data is? It's not a cliffhanger, you've been given the answer.

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.

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

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

Except this isn't low light, as evidenced by the fact that it's shot at ISO200, f5.6, 1/250sec...

#1 is zoom

#2 is prime

Only rationale; because less light "captured" in zoom

photo 1 taken by prime lens

and photo 2 taken by zoom lens 

1st: Prim

2nd: Zoom

The 1st one is sharper

#1 is sharper, it's the prime

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

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