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 94

Add new comment

Add comment Cancel

yeah, no one can tell. Other than wider aperture, prime and zoom focal lengths are the same. 

After review of the photos followed by review of the "reviews" I've come to the conclusion 

  1. The naked eye really can't tell
  2. most of the folks commenting can't tell either but love sharing their "opinion"

Pic # 2 is from the zoom lens. It appears a tad sharper since it has a bit more contrast than pic # 1.  In pic # 1, you can see more shadow detail; the light transmission in the zoom lens ( because of the complex design) is less even though the apertures are the same with both the lenses.

number 2 is the prime,, the farthest building appears more clear to me and detailed.. tough to tell.

the flag looks sharper...


Picture 1: 35mm (Prime)

Picture 2: 32mm (Zoom lens)

First one is clearly taken using Prime, it's more creamy and colours are lush - I love Primes. Exif data confirms that. 

P1 - 35L

P2 - 24-105 

Red from 1 is better 

Both photos are total junk.  It does not matter what lens they were taken with.  It also misses the point.  A fast Prime can make images that a Zoom cannot, and vice versa.  Of course there is an area of overlap in capabilities where either lens would do the job and it is hard (especially wiht tiny on-screen images) to see any difference.

I believe the first is taken with the prime.  I am noticing the red neon light around "SEAFOOD" sign the in the top left corner is much more vibrant in the first picture.  As well as the colour and contrast looks more vibrant and saturated in the first.

So can we get an answer?

I would suggest the second image is taken with the zoom as I feel the badge on the back of the car is sharper suggesting a greater depth of field. my question is can a zoom create as short as depth of field as a prime and achieve the same maximum apertures at tealistiv prices. Zooms are handy for good alround sharp images but I prefer primes used wide open for getting the subject to stand out.

​Off course the second is a prime. Look at the Jewel badge of the model of the vehicle, one can barely read it in picture 1.

Photo 2 is taken from Prime - it’s pretty sharp. It might be under exposed on the edges but its crisp. Checking at the car and the grill near the case is the proof that Prime is giving sharper quality than a zoom lens. Photo 1 is softer, but still both pics appear to be almost similar.

As per my understanding, when we go with portraits or model shoot in a studio environment, prime got the deal. And in case you love to shoot landscape zoom will the convenient option.

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!

It's the zoom (24-105). Download the file.

Wrong. The second photo is the zoom. It clearly says in the EXIF data - "EF24-104mm f/4L IS USM"

You are correct :)

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

Hahaha. Thank you!

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

Show older comments