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Zoom Lenses vs. Prime Lenses


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#1 Chris Pritzlaff

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Posted 11 December 2007 - 03:48 PM

Just wanted to open up a discussion/debate here - do you prefer prime lenses or zoom lenses? What do you see as advantages or disadvantages to each.

Personally, I prefer to shoot with a good prime lens, but I am seeing more and more DP's sticking to a zoom lens for the duration of a shoot. Just curious to see what you all think.
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#2 Chris Pritzlaff

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Posted 11 December 2007 - 03:51 PM

And Im really surprised that this hasn't been discussed earlier.......
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#3 Michael Nash

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Posted 11 December 2007 - 04:07 PM

There's nothing to debate -- it's just a matter of picking the right tool for the job, and each job is different. There are lots of different factors that affect lens choice, and ultimately you have to decide which factors have priority; lens speed, optical quality, size/weight, ease of reframing, cost, time to reconfigure the camera/lens support, etc. etc...

For example, the two music videos I gaffed this weekend were shot on Super16, which usually benefits from good primes for maximum sharpness and minimum depth of field when shooting drama. But for music videos the two Canon zooms allowed us to quickly reframe (and sometimes zoom) to grab the coolest looking shots as the performances played out in front of us. Primes wouldn't have allowed us to work the way we needed to to make the most interesting looking images. Lighting to a slightly higher stop actually helped us hold focus as the performers and camera moved around unpredictably.

Multi-camera shooting often benefits from zooms because the B camera may not be in the optimum position to get the best composition with a prime (especially when following action). A zoom allows the operator to slightly adjust focal length to get the best coverage from that position.
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#4 Chris Pritzlaff

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Posted 11 December 2007 - 04:34 PM

That all makes sense to me. I see the immediate advantage to zooms as you described. However am I correct in my assumption that prime lenses are typically better in terms of optical quality, and are thus usually preferable for most narrative features?
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#5 Michael Nash

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Posted 11 December 2007 - 05:39 PM

However am I correct in my assumption that prime lenses are typically better in terms of optical quality, and are thus usually preferable for most narrative features?


In the broadest, general sense, yes. Zoom lenses have more glass elements and are more optically complex, so sometimes the optical quality and performance suffers in the attempt to do many things at the same time. Zooms are prone to breathing, ramping (loss of t-stop at the long end), and long MOD as well as being slower and overall less sharp and contrasty. The zooms that do perform well (and there are many) end up being large, heavy and expensive compared to primes.

As for shooting, for a single-camera drama it's usually easiest (and cheapest) to rent a single set of primes. For one thing, a feature may have a lot of different angles which are better accommodated by a smaller, lighter camera profile with quick lens changes. But for multi-camera shows with a lot of "standardized" coverage like TV episodics, zooms can be the easy way to go. A and B cameras can stay in studio mode with short and long zooms respectively, and a third camera body is on hand for steadicam/handheld with primes. Sometimes efficiency and practicality on set have high priority.
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#6 Dan Goulder

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Posted 11 December 2007 - 05:52 PM

That all makes sense to me. I see the immediate advantage to zooms as you described. However am I correct in my assumption that prime lenses are typically better in terms of optical quality, and are thus usually preferable for most narrative features?

Some 35mm zooms are so sharp that I would challenge you to discern which shot was made by the zoom, and which shot was made by the prime.
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#7 Max Jacoby

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Posted 11 December 2007 - 06:50 PM

Primes still have the advantage of a wider aperture, so especially for night scenes their faster speed will be useful.
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#8 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 11 December 2007 - 07:02 PM

The only zoom I have ever used that did not seem like an optical compromise in some way was the new Zeiss Master Zoom, and it is so large and heavy that it becomes a major thing to deal with. Even the Optimo zoom is not as good as a Zeiss Ultra Prime or a Panavision Primo prime.

Primes are smaller, lighter, faster, flare less, breathe less...

On the other hand, I don't mind using zooms so much on an HD cameras because HD zooms tend to be lighter, smaller, and faster than most 35mm zooms, and I don't have to check back-focus as often compared to swapping between HD primes.
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#9 John Sprung

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Posted 11 December 2007 - 07:22 PM

As for shooting, for a single-camera drama it's usually easiest (and cheapest) to rent a single set of primes.

Primes may cost less to rent, but potentially more to use.

If you have a really big budget and want the very best, the answer is primes. You'll take the time to change lenses and move the dolly in or out a foot and a half to get the composition you want. If you have a really small budget, and need the very cheapest, the answer is also primes. You'll live with being a little loose or tight if you're in a hurry, but since nobody's getting paid much, you can afford the time to tweak most of the time. But there's an in-between range of low budgets where time on the set costs enough money that popping for one good zoom is the cost-effective way to work. That's the reason for the small-range zooms, "variable primes" they're called sometimes.




-- J.S.
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#10 James Callanan

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Posted 17 March 2008 - 09:59 AM

Besides the indisputable issue of the improved optical performance of primes vs zooms, I prefer to use primes in narrative work because the minimum focus on prime lens is significantly closer than zooms. With some primes the minimum focus is only inches from the lens, while zooms tend to be two and one half feet or greater. The closer proximity of the camera to the subject has a greater sense of intimacy on the screen, although it can tend to be intimidating to less experienced actors.
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#11 Nicolas Eveilleau

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Posted 17 March 2008 - 10:21 AM

And for beginners, Primes make you really think about your focal, your depth of field, your camera position etc. It's really to easy to get lazy and just move your zoom stick.

But then again, this is for beginners (or maybe old DOP :lol:)
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#12 Marc Roessler

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Posted 21 October 2012 - 10:54 AM

Picking this up again...

How do you all feel about this subject a few years later? Are the zooms vs. prime arguments still valid, even with new zooms (Angenieux, Alura etc) and digital cameras with high base ISO values?
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